Crisis Personality

Based on my life experience, I believe some rare human beings are blessed—or maybe cursed—with what I call a “crisis personality.” These people are preternaturally inclined to become calm when faced with an emergency or great danger. They are the opposite of those subject to hysteria in crisis situations. I think I’m one of those maddeningly calm people.

I first noticed that trait about myself as a child of parents who had violent fights. I’d be anxious and pleading until it became clear to me that nothing I could do would avert the conflict. Then I’d feel a coldness spreading through me, and my rational mind took over, blanking out my emotions. My cold-bloodedness saw me through my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s repeated prison terms. As a young adult, I faced both of their deaths—he was killed in a bar brawl, she died of lung cancer—with icy detachment until I was alone and could grieve in private. It became clear to me that the cold rationality only took over when it was urgent that I react with a clear mind to danger or what I perceived as a driving need to keep my wits about me.

That quality saw me through combat with army and Marine units in South Vietnam. It probably saved my life. The downside was that I didn’t react to the gruesomeness of combat when it was happening. I stored up the horrors, pushed them into my unconscious. They came back in force later to haunt me as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury which is the consequence of witnessing or participating in events so grisly that they permanently damage the soul.

Remembering the days during the fall of Saigon when Bob and Gary and I were holed up in our offices during the North Vietnamese attack on the city, I recall the calmness, the lack of emotion, that characterized all three of us. My sense is that Bob and Gary didn’t possess crisis personalities; they were instead reacting to me as their leader. I recall numbers of times when I, as a follower, assumed the emotional stance of the man I was following. I think they did the same.

There’s no question in my mind that our cool workmanlike attitude was one of the factors that led to our survival. I guess the moral to the story is that it’s a blessing to be calm in the face of danger. That same idiosyncrasy is a curse in emotional settings where compassion is required. I’ve learned over the years to loosen the grip of rationality when I’m comforting others in grief.

The Body’s Resilience

I still marvel today remembering the ability of the human body to rebound from deprivation during and after combat in Vietnam. I remember times when members of combat units, both army and Marine, went for days without sleep, food, and even water. As far as I could tell, sheer determination was what kept me and the troops alive and moving.

During the fall of Saigon, Bob, Gary, and I faced going without food or sleep for a number of days. it’s both ironic and telling that I don’t remember how many days. Except for the times when I went out into the compound to reconnoiter, I lost track of whether it was day or night. By the 29th of April, the day we escaped under fire, I was hallucinating. The odd aspect was that I knew I my perceptions were no longer reliable, and I didn’t act on the false stimuli. As I mentioned yesterday, once safe aboard a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery and pneumonia, the latter due to inadequate diet, insufficient rest, and muscle fatigue.

What seems wondrous to me is that it never occurred to Bob, Gary, or me to quit struggling. We never contemplated giving up—just lying down and going to sleep or collapsing. We propped each other up and kept on keeping on. I know that, for me, one of the driving forces was assuring that nothing happened to Bob or Gary. I was determined that after all they’d been through, after volunteering to stay with me through the fall of Saigon, they’d survive to live another day.

I learned from watching men in combat that they fight not for love of country or freedom but for the man fighting by their side. I suspect that the strongest force that kept me going during the fall of Saigon was my concern for—and love of—the two men who shared my fate.

My Deafness

As noted elsewhere in this blog, one of the outcomes of surviving the fall of Saigon, as recounted in Last of the Annamese, was physical damage to my body. Not severe enough to be called “wounds,” the ill effects I suffered were nevertheless serious. I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, insufficient rest, and muscle fatigue. But the most lasting was ear damage.

Starting on 28 April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I—the last three of the forty-four NSA employees manning my office in Saigon—were subjected to rocket barrages and artillery fire. Several incoming shells hit close enough to me that my hearing was permanently impaired. Ever since, I’ve worn hearing aids and struggled to understand people talking on the telephone.

I taught myself to read lips early on, so that most of my face-to-face conversations with a single person go smoothly. I have more trouble hearing women than men because the pitch of their voices is higher, (the major hearing loss is in the higher frequencies), and they tend to speak more softly. I have the most trouble in groups of three or more people and in noisy settings.

People’s reactions to my inability to hear what they’re saying sometimes amuses me and often irritates me. I’m surprised by the very large number of people who are annoyed when I ask them to repeat or speak more slowly or articulate more distinctly or speak louder or face me when they’re talking. It is as though my deafness were an imposition on them. As a result, since the advent of email, I most often opt to use that means of communication to avoid painful telephone calls where I constantly ask my interlocuter to repeat.

The positive side of my deafness is the peacefulness that comes from the escape from noise. I simply can’t hear so many irksome sounds of modern life. I live not far from Interstate 70, a major highway that generates plenty of traffic noise, including engine racket and sirens. Without my hearing aids, I’m blissfully immune to all that. But I also miss some of the lovely sounds of nature—as I discovered long ago, without my hearing aids, I can’t hear cricket stridulation.

Like all curses, deafness has its upsides and downsides.

My Time in Vietnam: Classified Until 2016

Several readers have asked me why Ken Burns and Lynn Novick didn’t include my story in their monumental documentary, The Vietnam War. The answer is that the facts about my time in Vietnam were still classified when they were doing their research.

Over the years following my escape under fire during the fall of Saigon, I wrote fiction about what happened during my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam. The complete declassification of my work in Vietnam—except for the secret techniques of signals intelligence—came at the beginning of 2016. I was at last free to speak openly about my years there as a covert employee of the National Security Agency (NSA). So I wrote a nonfiction article about the fall of Saigon that was immediately published in three different periodicals. You can read it at http://atticusreview.org/bitter-memories-the-fall-of-saigon/ (at the end of the first part of the article, click the digit “2” to bring up the second half).

I then went back to the manuscript of my novel Last of the Annamese and added in previously classified data. The Naval Institute Press published the novel in March 2017.

In short, the facts about my involvement in the Vietnam war were not available to Burns and Novick. But I was impressed by the depth of the content of their documentary. They brought to light so many happenings previously unknown to the American public. So much of my writing and public speaking is to tell people what really happened in Vietnam, particularly during the fall of Saigon. Burns and Novick’s work made a solid contribution to setting history straight.

The Days of the French in Saigon

When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962, it was still in many ways a French city. Thousands of native Frenchmen still lived there, and French was spoken at least as commonly as Vietnamese. I even met native Vietnamese who were more comfortable in French than in their native tongue. These were principally members of the aristocracy and the royal family who grew up speaking French rather than Vietnamese, which they considered uncivilized. The main street downtown was called Rue Catinat, named after a French warship. It was lined with elegant and expensive shops and eateries where only French was spoken.

Over the years, I watched Saigon shed its French trappings. Rue Catinat became đường Tự Do, that is Freedom Street. The trendy shops and bistros were replaced by honkytonk bars and greasy spoon restaurants catering to the thousands of American GIs thronging through the city. Saigon became livelier, more crowded, down-to-earth.

I haven’t been back to Saigon since the North Vietnamese conquered the south in 1975. They changed the name of the city from Saigon to Hồ Chí Minh. Tự Do Street became đường Đồng Khởi, which I’m told means “total rebellion” or “total uprising,” but none of my dictionaries and source books verify that definition.

I watched Saigon go into decay as the North Vietnamese closed in. I watched it go into chaos as the siege began. Guidebooks now describe it as a teeming metropolis. Maybe so. It’s hard for me to imagine.

Interview at the Veteran Oral History Collection Day

Yesterday, veteran Larry Burbank interviewed me as part of the Veteran Oral History Collection Day at the Community Media Center, Carroll County, Maryland. Larry was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam while I was on the ground collecting intelligence against the North Vietnamese regulars as well as local forces and guerrillas—what we Americans called the Viet Cong or VC.

Larry asked me questions that led to the telling of the story of the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and my escape under fire. As so often happens, my emotions got the better of me at several points in the story, but Larry was patient and understanding. He asked me about the most exciting time during my nearly thirteen years in Vietnam, and I told of the battle of Dak To in 1967 and how I warned the commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division that the North Vietnamese had a multi-division force hiding in the hills, ready to ambush and attack the division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade which was operating with it. The commander didn’t believe me and did nothing to prepare. When a B-52 strike brought large secondary explosions near the Dak To Special Forces camp, he sent a single battalion to investigate. That battalion was all but destroyed. That led to the battle of Dak To, one of the largest and bloodiest in the war.

I was up to my hocks in the battle. When it was over, I moved south to the Bien Hoa area. Once there, I detected the same signal patterns I’d seen in the highlands near Dak To. U.S. signals intelligence units operating in the far north of the country, just south of the DMZ, reported that the North Vietnamese in that region were exhibiting identical behaviour. At my behest, the National Security Agency (NSA), my parent organization, reported North Vietnamese preparations for a country-wide offensive. U.S. military forces on the ground ignored the warning. The Tet Offensive of January 1968 took them by surprise despite our warnings.

The interview with Larry was videotaped and will be shown on channel 19, the public access channel for Carroll County, operated by the county’s Community Media Center. When I find out the date and time the interview will be telecast, I’ll alert readers here. If the interview will be available online, I’ll let you know.

Presentations in November 2017

I’ll be giving my presentation, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” more times in November than I ever have done in a single month in the past. All presentations are open to the public. At each, I’ll be available to autograph copies of my books and answer questions.

Rather than put out a separate announcement on each, I decided to give you the whole list in one blog. Here they are:

Wednesday, 1 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Arbutus Branch, Baltimore County Library

855 Sulphur Spring Road

Arbutus, Maryland 21227

 

Saturday, 4 November, 2:00 p.m.:

North Point Branch, Baltimore County Library

1716 Merritt Boulevard

Dundalk, Maryland 21222

 

*Monday, 6 November, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.:

Essex Branch, Baltimore County Library

1110 Eastern Boulevard

Essex, Maryland 21221

 

Tuesday, 7 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Perry Hall Branch, Baltimore County Library

9685 Honeygo Boulevard

Perry Hall, Maryland 21128

 

Thursday, 9 November 9, 7:00 p.m.:

Catonsville Branch, Baltimore County Library

1100 Frederick Road

Catonsville, Maryland 21228

 

*Friday, 10 November, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.:

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

11100 Johns Hopkins Road

Laurel, MD 20723

 

Wednesday, 15 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Hereford Branch, Baltimore County Library

16940 York Road

Hereford, Maryland 21111

 

Saturday, 18 November, 2:00 p.m.:

Reisterstown Branch, Baltimore County Library

21 Cockeys Mill Road

Reisterstown, Maryland 21136

 

Tuesday, 21 November, 6:30 p.m.:

Sollers Point Branch, Baltimore County Library

323 Sollers Point Road

Dundalk, Maryland 21222

 

Tuesday, 28 November, 6:00 p.m.:

Randallstown Branch, Baltimore County Library

8604 Liberty Road

Randallstown, Maryland 21133

 

Thursday, 30 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Cockeysville Branch, Baltimore County Library

9833 Greenside Drive

Cockeysville, Maryland 21030

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*Slightly abbreviated presentation