Vietnamese Orphans with French Names

In Last of the Annamese, I described the use of French instead of Vietnamese in Saigon orphanages. During my years in Vietnam, I volunteered to work in orphanages and was surprised to find that the nuns who managed them, all of whom were Vietnamese, spoke French among themselves and to the children. Moreover, they gave the children French names. Two children who appear prominently in the novel are Philippe and Angélique, both killed on 4 April 1975 in the crash of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft. That flight was the first of the Operation Babylift airlifts organized by President Ford to get orphans out of Vietnam before the south fell to the North Vietnamese.

Another feature of the orphanages was the nuns’ severity and what seemed to me like coldness in the way they dealt with the children. I saw little warmth and sympathy. The nuns spoke sharply to the children and demanded instant compliance with commands. As a result, I was all the more outgoing and friendly with the children, doing all I could to make them smile and laugh.

I concluded that the nuns’ use of French and their attitude toward the children derived from what they believed to be French common practice. The nuns shared with upper-class Vietnamese the belief that their native language was crude. The way they treated the children presumably came from their perception of French child-rearing practices. It was a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child attitude. I spent too little time with French families in both France and Vietnam to know if the nuns’ understanding was accurate. All I knew was that the orphans led bleak lives.

In the C-5A crash on 4 April 1975, 78 orphans died. I still grieve over the loss.


My house is decorated with odds and ends from Vietnam. I have half a dozen paintings, oils and water color, done by South Vietnamese artists that I bought over the years in Vietnam. On my desk is a coffee tile, now cracked, mounted in wood, showing the character for dao (道) in Chinese or Ðao with a low glottal stop in Vietnamese, meaning “way” or “path”—the source of Taoism. A fish basket table stands beside my piano, and rounded wooden stools are by the fireplace. Two white ceramic plant holders, two to three feet high, stand on my deck. One is perforated as if the holes in leaf pattern allowed empty random spaces. The other is three elephant heads formed into a single column—it’s reportedly from Laos, the land that once worshiped an elephant with one head surrounded by three faces, each with a trunk.

But the items that get the attention are my bufes, that is, “big ugly f**king elephants,” as the soldiers and Marines used to call them. These are three-feet tall ceramic figures of elephants with ornamental head dresses and decorated saddles. I have them in a variety of sizes and colors.

I bought the bufes in Vietnam and displayed them in the various villas I had with my family over the years in Saigon. I couldn’t resist talking about them in Last of the Annamese. Early in the story, Ike and Chuck, housemates, are entertaining a visiting U.S. Marine colonel. Also present is Molly, the nurse known for her irreverence and rangy language. The scene reads as follows:

After dinner, the guests adjourned to the living room for brandy. Molly sat next to the colonel, munched chocolates served by Oanh, and asked for an ice cube in her snifter. Chuck gave her one without comment, but [Colonel] Macintosh laughed.

“Sorry,” she said to the colonel, “but if it’s worth snorting, it’s worth snorting on the rocks.”

Macintosh eyed the ceramic elephants—one green, one purple—supporting the glass top of the cocktail table. “I see a lot of these. Are they a Saigon special?”

“We call them bufes—big ugly fucking elephants.” Molly ignored Ike’s wince. “Yeah, you can pick them up on Tu Do for a few thousand pee [GI slang for piaster].” She held her glass to Chuck. “Would you?”

End of quote.

Dak To Article

The New York Times just published my article about the battle of Dak To, which started fifty years ago today, in its “’67 Vietnam” series. You can read it at
Feel free to comment at the site.

New Review of Last of the Annamese

Another review of my novel, Last of the Annamese, was just published, this one in the October edition of Baltimore Style. You can read it at

So many reviewers and readers have remarked on my anguished memories of the fall of Saigon. I’m sure readers of this blog have seen plenty of evidence of my feelings. As I do my presentation on the fall of Saigon, I invariably choke up when I talk about the bravery of Bob and Gary who stayed with me to the end. My eyes get moist when I describe the South Vietnamese officer who killed his family and himself rather than surrender to the North Vietnamese. And I have to wipe away tears when I describe the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization and were all killed or captured when the North Vietnamese conquered South Vietnam.

By the end of this month, I’ll have done that presentation more than fifty times. Some grieving never fades.

The Character of Lan in Last of the Annamese

Early in Last of the Annamese, the reader comes across the character of Lan, whose name means “orchid.” She is the niece of South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Lan first appears at the U.S. Marine Corps Birthday Ball, held at Saigon’s Gia Long Palace on 10 November 1974. She is there because Thanh’s wife, Tuyet (her name means “snow”), insisted that Lan attend the party with the objective of meeting a young man who might, in the long term, become Lan’s husband. Tuyet came along, ostensibly as a chaperone for Lan.

Over time it becomes apparent to the reader that Tuyet’s real objective in attending the ball was to meet Chuck Griffin, a retired American Marine working as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. embassy’s Defense Attaché Office. Tuyet seduces Chuck in hopes that he will help her and her six-year old son, Thu, escape when Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese.

Lan learns of Tuyet’s treachery and becomes her enemy. In a sardonic twist, Lan escapes the fall of Saigon in Tuyet’s place. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining Lan’s life in the U.S. following the North Vietnamese victory.

As with most of the happenings and character portrayed in Last of the Annamese, these events and people are based on fact. I attended the Marine Ball that year at the Gia Long Palace. I knew American men drawn into intimate relationships with Vietnamese women whose objective was to escape the country before it fell.

On the Marine Corps birthday—10 November—this year, I won’t be attending a ball. I’ll be at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory giving my presentation on the fall of Saigon. The next day, Veterans Day, I’ll be reading from my published work on the Vietnam war on the National Mall.

History, as we live it, has a tendency to turn ironic.

Interview on the Jim Bohannon Show: The Orphans

I just discovered that my interview from last March on the Jim Bohannon Show is available online at

The interview came five days after the publication of Last of the Annamese, my fiction-in-name-only (as one review described it) retelling of what happened during the fall of Saigon. Jim had read the novel and remarked on the orphans who appear throughout the story. As I told him, the orphans I described in the novel were real—I volunteered to work at orphanages throughout the thirteen years I trundled back and forth between the U.S. and Vietnam. These kids, mostly Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women, broke my heart with their disabilities and winsome need to smile and laugh. I know that several hundred of the orphans survived the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam and were brought to the U.S. as part of President Ford’s Operation BabyLift. But 78 were killed in the crash of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft on 4 April 1975, and most of the rest were left behind when Vietnam fell. I’ve heard rumors about the cruelty of the North Vietnamese to these half-American children. Their suffering is still a source of grief to me.

This Blog

Come November, I won’t be posting a new blog every day six times a week as I have for the last year. For the whole of November, I’ll be travelling around the area doing the fall of Saigon presentation and several readings from Last of the Annamese. In other words, I won’t have time to post every day.

It’s about time. I started the blog just short of a year ago at the urging of my publisher to promote Last of the Annamese, but as time went on, I wrote of my other books and stories, about my experiences in Vietnam, and about my current life as a writer. In the beginning, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to say something substantial six days a week (I take a day off every week, usually on Saturday). To my surprise, I found plenty flowing from my fecund brain.

Reader response surprised me, too. Aside from one blast damning me for my criticism of Graham Martin, the last U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam, for failing to call for an evacuation when Saigon fell, reader response has been positive and rich in thoughtful reflection. The numbers of people reading the blog has varied but reached its highest number just this month, October 2017. That doesn’t count those reading my postings on social media where the blog texts also appear.

I don’t know how often I’ll be able to blog in the coming months, but it will almost certainly be less frequently than in the past. That’s because I have to rearrange my priorities to allow more time to write. I’m currently shopping around a completed novel called Secretocracy drawn from my experience while I was on the National Intelligence Staff reviewing the budgets of all the intelligence agencies before they were submitted to Congress. And I have two other novels in the sketch stage. For the last year, I’ve spent most of my time giving presentations and readings and keeping up this blog. It’s time to get back to my first and strongest calling, telling human stories.