The March 1975 Trip to the Highlands

In Last of the Annamese, the protagonist Chuck Griffin accompanies South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh on a trip to the Vietnamese highlands, a mountainous swath of land in the central section of the country along the borders with Laos and Cambodia. After a courtesy call on the commanding general of II Corps, described in an earlier post, they fly to Ban Me Thuot in the southern reaches of the highlands, just as that town comes under attack from the North Vietnamese.

My description of that trip closely parallels the one I took with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general in the second week of March, 1975. The attack on the airstrip where we landed began almost immediately after our arrival. We took off in a hail of bullets and escaped back to Saigon. Ban Me Thuot fells within days, followed all of II Corps, then I Corps.  With the northern half of South Vietnam firmly in their grasp, the North Vietnamese moved toward Saigon. It fell a little over a month later.

The details reported in Last of the Annamese are accurate.

The Character of Ike in Last of the Annamese

I find Ike likable. He’s the housemate of the novel’s protagonist and a Marine officer working with the Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the only Marines left in-country in 1975, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops two years earlier. Ike’s character is drawn from the many Marines I worked with during my years in Vietnam. He’s down to earth—and earthy, too—and unpretentious. He is an honorable man. His honor is unspoken and inherent. It’s the quality that defines him, built in and always operational. I suspect he’s not even aware of it.

In that respect, he’s like all the Marines I knew and worked with. Typical was Al Gray, a captain when I first met him in Vietnam in the early 1960s, a colonel when he saved my life during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and finally, as a general, the commandant of the Marine Corps. I’ve never met a Marine who didn’t know of and honor Al Gray.

Ike’s motto is “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” Those words become a guide for the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, himself a retired Marine officer. At the end of the story, the motto leads Chuck to do the right thing even though it hurts more than he thinks he can stand.

The reader may notice that I always capitalize “Marine.” I do it to show my deep respect for the Marine Corps.

Fall of Saigon Presentation

The Columbia Association has arranged for me to do my presentation called “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon” at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, January 9, 2017. It will be at the Columbia Art Center (address below). I’d be pleased if any of you can attend.

Columbia Art Center, 6100 Foreland Garth, Long Reach Village, Columbia, MD 21045 (in the courtyard next to Stonehouse Community Center – there is a huge circular window and a fish sculpture out front)

Last Two Servicemen Killed in Vietnam

During the last week of April, 1975, as the North Vietnamese conquest of Saigon approached, I was stranded at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, in the DAO building. As mentioned in earlier blog installments, I had succeeded in evacuating 41 of the men who worked for me and their families. Since the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden evacuations, I got my people out by any ruse I could think of. Only three of us remained: the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, and me.

For days, Bob, Gary, and I were short on food—we survived on bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge at a hotel before we could no longer get out into the streets of Saigon—and we were working 24 hours a day, alternating with each other for two-hours rest breaks on the single cot we had in the comms center where we were holed up.

I wanted to know beforehand when the North Vietnamese breached the perimeter fence around our compound, so several times a day and sometimes at night, I went outside and wandered through the parking lots, tennis courts, and trash collections areas to see what was going on. Among my regular stops was the Marine guard post at our western gate. I traded scuttlebutt with the embassy guard Marines posted there. Among them were Corporal Charles McMahon and Lance Corporal Darwin Judge. They looked so young to me (I was 38; they were 21 and 19 respectively) that I wondered at their presence in a war zone and why they weren’t back in the world in high school where they belonged.

When the North Vietnamese began shelling the compound in the pre-dawn hours of 29 April, the gate was hit. McMahon and Judge were killed. They were the last U.S. servicemen to die on the ground in Vietnam.

I grieve for them to this day. And I recorded their deaths in the final pages of Last of the Annamese.

Basis of Characters in Last of the Annamese

Last of the Annamese is historically accurate. The events I describe took place, including some not reported before because the information on them was classified until 2015. The principal characters, while not based on real individuals, are amalgams of people I knew during the fall of Saigon.

The one exception is the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Although I don’t give his name in the novel, he was Graham Martin, and the American ambassador described in the novel is as close as I can get to a portrait of Graham Martin. The briefing sessions between Chuck and the Ambassador in the novel are drawn directly from sessions I had with Graham Martin. Like Chuck in the story, I warned him about the imminent attack on Saigon, and he didn’t believe me.

One other character is close to the real person he was based on: General Tran van Tri, commander of II Corps (whom Chuck and Thanh visit during their trip to the highlands just before the highlands falls to the North Vietnamese in March, 1975) is based on Major General Pham van Phu, the real commander of II Corps when Vietnam fell. I talked to General Phu the last time during a visit to II Corps headquarters with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general whose name, as far as I know, is still classified. That visit was during the second week of March, 1975. Like the character in my novel, General Phu chain-smoked throughout the visit and threw his lit cigarettes on the carpet of his office while lighting the next one. He treated us with contempt and refused to accept the intelligence that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Ban Me Thuot to his south. Ban Me Thuot fell within days, followed in short order by all of II Corps and I Corps.

In the novel, General Tri escapes to his villa in the French Riviera as Saigon falls, as so many real generals and high government officials actually did. The real General Phu was unable to escape and killed himself on 30 April 1975, the day Saigon fell.

Creating Female Characters

As a male novelist, I’m regularly faced with conveying female characters persuasively. At a conscious level, I make no pretense of understanding women. I find their way of looking at life baffling. I don’t mean that they’re in any way wrong or mistaken; I mean that I don’t understand.

Maybe a recent example will illustrate my problem. A female friend was trying to open a new bottle of lemon juice. When the top didn’t respond to her gentle twisting, she rinsed it thoroughly with hot tap water, and it opened easily. I would have tried applying muscle first, then banging the top with a table knife, and finally using pliers.

“You men,” my friend observed. “You always resort to brute force first, even when there’s an easier way.”

Maybe I learned something.

Yet my women readers tell me that my female characters, for example Tuyet and Molly in Last of the Annamese, ring true to them. And when I read my own work, the female characters feel authentic to me. What’s going on here?

My guess is that we all have, at an unconscious level, an understanding of the various facets of humanity that don’t usually permeate the conscious mind. That would explain why my characters so often surprise me when they do things I wasn’t expecting.

My writing technique is to avoid the rational mind and let the words flow. That means that I don’t do an outline until after the third draft. For the first three drafts, it is as though I’m watching a scene in my mind and writing down what happens. It often feels as though someone else, not me, is doing the writing. That sensation could explain why the Greeks, for example, believed that a muse was doing the creating with the human artist acting as a tool or translator.

After the third draft, I review my work analytically and deductively, looking for balance, clarity, and craftsmanship. After that, I shift back and forth from the rational to the meditative until I am satisfied that my work is done. One of my novels, No-Accounts, went through 21 drafts before I was sure it was finished. That’s why it takes me 15 years to write a novel.

My way of writing may explain why my female characters work. Maybe I have a deep, inarticulate sense of women that only shows itself when I let go of my conscious mind and let the words tumble out on the page. And maybe that’s why, when I have a life problem I can’t solve, I sit myself down and write about it until an answer appears.