Yesterday, I blogged about the depression and frustration I felt as the fall of Saigon approached, and I wasn’t able to persuade those in power to prepare. What I didn’t mention is the pride I feel over the way I faced the disaster.
I felt no pride at the time. Until I was evacuated, I was working 24 hours a day to get my people out. When the last two, the communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end—Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman—escaped by helicopter during the afternoon of 29 April, I gave into my exhaustion. I went out by chopper under fire that night.
In the months that followed, I was too sick to think about what had happened. I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia and was disabled by Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Besides, I had family problems that ended up breaking up my marriage.
It wasn’t until I got back on my feet, physically and emotionally, that I thought back over everything that had happened. As I did, I found an imperfect peace in reflecting on my own performance under fire. I didn’t panic or become hysterical. I didn’t collapse in exhaustion. I didn’t give into the belief that I wasn’t going to make it out alive. I was relentlessly focussed on getting my people out of the country before they or members of their families were killed.
So in retrospect I feel the same pride that I see in combatants. I risked everything for a cause and survived. I don’t claim to have been brave or courageous. I only claim to have done my job. And I’m proud.
Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, faces the dilemma I faced during the final days in Saigon: knowing what was going to happen and being unable to persuade the U.S. Ambassador, the State Department, and the president. I’ve told that story before in this blog and don’t need to tell it again.
What’s worth dwelling on is the emotions that both Chuck and I suffered through—depression and frustration.
I don’t know how to describe to the reader the emotions approaching despondency that accompany the sure knowledge that disaster was about to strike and being unable to convince those in power of the need to prepare. That the North Vietnamese were ready to attack Saigon was unmistakable from the intercepted communications. That the Ambassador, the State Department, and the president failed to prepare was manifest. I wanted to weep for what I saw was going to happen. But weeping wouldn’t help.
My frustration approached rage. I wanted to smash things and scream obscenities. But to what end?
Instead, I channeled my emotions into getting out of the country everyone I could, even though that meant lying, deception, and violation of the rules that I held sacred. I got my 43 subordinates and their families out safely. I got one family of Vietnamese out by sneaking them into the air base at Tan Son Nhat. But the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who’d worked with the NSA organization over the years were left behind to be executed or imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. As long as I live, I’ll never stop grieving over them.
My depression and frustration are still with me. I guess some tragedies stay with you throughout life. I’m still sad and angry. I always will be.
My friend, the master linguist Bob Headley, sent via Facebook, a photograph of the tomb of Bao Dai in Paris. You can see it at https://www.facebook.com/authorTomGlenn/posts/1873175346253617?comment_id=1873334326237719
I notice that the inscription on the headstone uses a different Vietnamese word for king or emperor than I cited. The term here is Hoang De, a more ancient and formal word than voung.
Tuyet, the principal female character in Last of the Annamese, is a member of the Nguyen family, the dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. Much of that time, after the French annexation of Vietnam, starting in the middle of the 19th century, the family became more and more puppets of the French. The last emperor (Vuong in Vietnamese) of the Nguyen dynasty, Bao Dai, was the thirteenth of that family to nominally rule Vietnam. He abdicated in 1945, but his family continued to control great wealth. The clan, meanwhile, had become decidedly Francophile. Bao Dai himself spent most of his time in France (where he was educated), especially on the Riviera.
Tuyet, a close relative of Bao Dai, is a princess. She considers herself vastly superior to others, especially to her husband, Thanh, to whom she was given in marriage to bolster the faltering fortunes of her family. She grew up speaking French and had to learn first Vietnamese and then English to support her husband in his dealings with the Vietnamese government and the Americans.
The family name Nguyen is far and away the most common in Vietnam. My guess is fully half of the Vietnamese population use that name. Yet it is also the name of the last royal Vietnamese dynasty. The story of their corruption by the French and eventual defeat is in some respects an analogue for the history of Vietnam itself. Tuyet’s transformation during Last of the Annamese symbolizes the radical changes Vietnam itself underwent ending in the defeat of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
A new review of Last of the Annamese has appeared on the Internet Review of Books site. To read it, go to the site (http://internetreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/) and look for the cover of Annamese. Click on the cover and the review will appear.
The review is very favorable, but the author, William Crawford, got both the name and service of the character Colonel Thanh wrong. His name is Pham Ngoc Thanh, not Tranh, and he is a Marine, not an army officer. Granted, a small matter.
What struck me most about the review is how much the author knows about me. My best guess is that he divined most of the information from the book itself or searched for me online. Most important, he got the facts right.
If you feel inclined to do so, let me know your reaction to the review by commenting here.
For an earlier review, go to Bruce Curley’s blog. The URL of the review is http://poetslife.blogspot.com/2016/12/tom-glenns-last-of-annimese.html
As the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and the tenant resident, along with my wife and children, of a fine villa in Saigon, it was incumbent upon me to host parties for my subordinates and associates as often as practical. Many of the 43 guys who worked for me were in Vietnam without their families. And the others, who had their wives and children with them, had few chances to socialize with others like them. So at every opportunity, my wife and I hosted gatherings. We had three servants who could manage the work load, and with hazardous duty pay, I could afford the cost. I saw entertaining my guys and their families and one of my duties.
Holidays were the most important. Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1974 will stay in my memory for life. The gatherings were so large that the Saigon police sent extra men to keep watch on my villa lest a VC activist toss a grenade over the walls surrounding our villa. We even hired extra guards to work inside the villa grounds to assure the safety of the guests.
By March, 1975, the gatherings were becoming rare. As the impending attack on Saigon came closer, we had less and less time away from the office, and the danger of a guerrilla attack on the villa caused me to reduce the size and frequency of the gatherings. That same month, I began sending my subordinates and their families out of Vietnam as the threat to the Saigon grew. By April, we had stopped all celebrations. I got my wife and children out of the country on 9 April. The remaining families were gone about the same time. Then came to struggle to get my remaining subordinates out, discussed elsewhere in this blog. By 27 April, only three of us remained, me and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay until the end with me. The city fell two days later, and we were evacuated.
For all that, I remember the gatherings at our villa fondly. Granted, we all felt the unease of growing danger. But the men who worked for me were the finest crew I’ve ever come across. I had enormous respect for their devotion to duty and the skill they brought to bear. Though I never would have used the word with them, I loved them every one. I’ll always be grateful that, in the midst of the tragedy of the fall of Vietnam, we shared a bond of brotherhood and devotion to each other.
Yesterday a box of books arrived from the Naval Institute Press. Last of the Annamese is now in print. I assume that means that those who ordered a copy of the book will receive it shortly. And I’ll have copies to sell and autograph at the many planned events during the next several months.
There’s something unique about holding in one’s hands a printed copy of a book one has written. It brings with it a sense of completion and fulfillment. All the blood, sweat, and tears—in the case of Annamese I mean those words literally—has born fruit.