Ben Griffin’s Death

The protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, returns to Vietnam in 1973 to do all he can to win the war. He can’t tolerate the idea that his son, Ben, killed in combat near Bien Hoa in 1967, had died in vain.

Yesterday, I blogged about Colonel James Carver who tells Chuck how Ben died—he didn’t die in combat but was killed by another soldier whom Ben had approached for sex. Chuck is shocked. His reason for returning to Vietnam is demolished. His son didn’t die fighting the North Vietnamese. He was murdered. Chuck decides he doesn’t care whether Ben was homosexual or not. The loss of his son, the boy he loved, is all that matters.

In Last of the Annamese, the true story of Ben’s death is not told. What really happened is related in a short story called “Trip Wires (published in the Antietam Review, Spring, 1999, and in my book Friendly Casualties, 2012). That story was the source of Annamese. I couldn’t help thinking about the soldier named Ben Griffin, killed in the story. I had a son. How could I live through losing that son the way Ben’s father had to?

In “Trip Wires,” a soldier named Kerney hates Ben Griffin, referred throughout the story only by his last name as is common in army units. Griffin is everything Kerney wants to be and can’t be—handsome, strong, an exemplary soldier. Kerney hints to their commander, Major Caver, that Griffin is gay. Griffin discovers that the unit is about to be attacked, but Carver doesn’t believe him. Frantic, Griffin decides to confront the enemy hiding at the perimeter and expose them. The following is the end of the story:

Griffin got to the perimeter first. He snatched an M-16 from the guard on duty, dashed to the jeep inside the concertina wire, started it, and smashed through the perimeter fence toward the river. Flares fired as the jeep hit trip wires. Before Kerney reached the bunker, the guard shot flares into the air. They burst, high above, and bathed Griffin and the bounding jeep in orange light.

“Griff, come back here, you bastard!” Kerney screamed.

Griffin kept going. He called toward the river as more flares burst over him. Thirty yards out, he slammed on the brakes, leaped to his feet, and sprayed the shoreline with fire from his M-16. Then he roared forward, stopped again, stood, and fired. Roused by the shouting and gunfire, the detachment came to life.

Kerney stood watching it all happen as if it were a soundless movie in slow motion. The screaming inside him drowned out everything else. He was sobbing, out of control. “Goddam you, Griffin. Goddam you, goddam you, goddam you.” Then no more words, nothing but screaming.

He shoved the guard aside and swung the M-60 [machine gun] toward Griffin. He fixed the jeep’s strapped-on gas cans in the sights through a blur of tears and squeezed the trigger. The weapon shuddered. Tracers flew from the barrel to the jeep vaulting over the grass and sand. The cans exploded in a burst more beautiful than any Kerney had ever seen. Through the smoke, the burning figure standing in the jeep tilted and fell to the ground, limbs askew, like a broken marionette.

Colonel James Carver, US Army

In the second half of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin comes to understand that he must find out how his son, Ben, died. All Chuck knows is that Ben had burned to death as a result of enemy fire in fighting near Bien Hoa in 1967. Chuck had written to Ben’s commanding officer, a Major James Carver, asking for details but was never answered. In March 1975, he learns that Carver, now a colonel, is accompanying General Weyand on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. Chuck arranges to meet the colonel and find out what happened to Ben.

Carver turns out to be one of the least likeable characters in the novel. He is based on a number of colonels I knew over the 13 years that I went back and forth between the states and Vietnam. At the time, service in Vietnam became something of a prerequisite to promotion in the U.S. Army, and officers worked hard to garner an assignment there. That meant that some of the least admirable officers managed to spend time in-country. Many of those men reached the rank of colonel and returned to Vietnam where I ran into them.

They were in the minority. Most of the senior officers I worked with were fine men and excellent commanders, like the characters of Colonel Troiano and Colonel Macintosh in Annamese. But a few Carvers made it through. They were memorable for their incompetence.

Annamese Offered at Half Price

The Naval Institute Press is offering Last of the Annamese at half price. At the web site where it is offered, a review—really an essay—by Bruce Curley is included. And the following intro to the book is quoted:

No one escaped whole from the fall of Saigon. We Americans were all damaged. Last of the Annamese is about the Vietnamese and Americans who escaped from Vietnam in April 1975, those who decided to stay, and those who chose death rather than life under the Communists.

The protagonist, Chuck Griffin, has never come to terms with the death of his son, Ben, killed in action in Vietnam. To do all he can to assure that Ben has not died in vain, Chuck, a retired Marine officer, returns to Vietnam after the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. troops. He works as a civilian intelligence analyst to give his utmost to win the war. He renews his friendship with a South Vietnamese Marine colonel, Thanh, at whose side he fought while on active duty. Chuck falls in love with a Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who knows the country will fall and hopes Chuck will save her and her young son, Thu. But even as the fall of Saigon looms, Chuck is shocked to find himself in a moral dilemma—he has been sleeping with another Marine’s wife: Tuyet is married to Thanh.

The story begins at the Marine Ball in Saigon in November 1974 and ends with the escape of Americans and a few Vietnamese at the end of April 1975. It narrates the final months of the Republic of Vietnam—South Vietnam—and the vain struggle of intelligence professionals to persuade the U.S. Ambassador, the State Department, and the president of the coming disaster. The blindness of American officials as the attack on Saigon drew closer leads one character to observe that we Americans believe our propaganda, not our intelligence.

Although Last of the Annamese and its characters are fiction, the events chronicled in the book are historical fact. Until 2015, many of those facts were classified. At the author’s behest, they were declassified and are published here for the first time. The book presents unique history heretofore untold.

The author, Tom Glenn, shuttled under cover between Vietnam and Washington for thirteen years during the war and was evacuated under fire from Saigon after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. For his work during the fall of Vietnam, he was awarded the U.S. Civilian Meritorious Medal.

End of quote. To read Curley’s review or order the book at half price, go to:

Distant Thunder Becomes Explosions Close to Home

Sparky and Chuck, housemates and fellow intelligence analysts in Last of the Annamese, learn to identify by sound the explosions they hear as the North Vietnamese lay siege to Saigon. They can tell mortars from artillery and distinguish between friendly and enemy fire. Toward the end, what starts as distant thunder becomes explosions inside the compound where they’re holed up.

Once again, the experience of Sparky and Chuck is based on my own during the fall of Saigon. Unlike my characters, I never became adept at classifying the weapons being fired based on the sounds of their impacting shells. Sparky and Chuck had both worked closely with mortars and artillery. My time providing signals intelligence support to combat units was spent exclusively with infantry. I certainly saw close up the results of shelling, but I never worked in direct support of artillery.

What I became very good at toward the end was gauging how close the rocket, mortar, and artillery explosions were to me. I listened as they came nearer and knew almost to the hour when shells would land in our compound. The first contiguous hits came on the night of 28 April 1975. By the time I was evacuated by helicopter on the night of 29 April, our compound was taking direct hits. The building next door to us was destroyed, and the western gate to our compound was struck, killing two Marines on guard there. I never suffered a direct hit, but several were close enough that my hearing was permanently damaged. To this day I wear hearing aids.

Forecasting the End

April 1975: In Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine officer acting as an intelligence analyst in the Defense Attaché Office’s Intelligence Branch in Saigon, is tasked with writing an estimate of the situation in South Vietnam. The purpose is to prepare for the visit of General Fred C. Weyand, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, who will be in Vietnam from 28 March to 4 April.

Here is the text of Chuck’s estimate as quoted in the novel:

The northern half of South Vietnam is lost. The southern half could survive temporarily under three conditions: (1) the government is able to extract its forces from the north intact, (2) the North Vietnamese do not increase their forces in the south, and (3) the U.S. immediately resumes the air war and delivers essential ammunition, equipment, and supplies.

As this is written, it is clear that none of these conditions will be met. Casualties in the north have been overwhelming, and the remaining troops are in rout. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese are infiltrating the southern provinces at an unprecedented rate. And the U.S. has ceased its matériel and air support. In short, what is left of South Vietnam will fall within weeks.

In the long term, the only option available to avoid capitulation is the reintroduction of U.S. forces—ground, naval, and air. President Nixon promised to bring U.S. military strength to bear if North Vietnam violated the Paris Agreement. Gross violations by North Vietnam are now legion. Failure to rescue Vietnam will be recognized world-wide as evidence of bad faith.

Chuck’s words in the novel are based on my memory of what I, as the senior representative of the National Security Agency in Vietnam, wrote to be used in the briefing of General Weyand. I knew from intercepted North Vietnamese communications that unless the U.S. intervened, South Vietnam would fall to the North Vietnamese. General Weyand apparently took my words to heart. In his report to the President, dated 4 April 1975, he said:

The current military situation is critical, and the probability of the survival of South Vietnam as a truncated nation in the southern provinces is marginal at best. The GVN is on the brink of a total military defeat.

And he ended his estimate as follows:

United States credibility as an ally is at stake in Vietnam. To sustain that credibility we must make a maximum effort to support the South Vietnamese now.

The U.S. did nothing. The North Vietnamese overran Saigon less than a month later.

Thanh’s Compassion

Several readers have recently told me that the most interesting character in Last of the Annamese is the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Once a monk, now a warrior, Thanh is at once fierce and merciful, courageous and spiritual, strong and gentle. Early in the story, he decides that he will stay in South Vietnam when it falls to the North Vietnamese whom he hates. He feels that it is both his duty and his destiny to face the conquerors he had sacrificed everything to defeat. He knows he will face torture and execution, but he refuses to be evacuated.

Those same readers have pointed out one passage that, for them, sums up Thanh’s character. I quote it below:

With the onset of darkness, Thanh dismissed the junior officers but signaled Chuck to follow him. “We go to the infirmary tent.”

A woman stood outside the entrance lamenting, her voice rising to a shriek. Thanh questioned three other women standing nearby, took the woman in his arms. As the woman’s cries subsided, Chuck heard another sound, a steady scream halted from time to time by an intake of breath. The voice was shattered, broken by constant use but forced to operate in spite of itself, like a machine driven to ruin. Chuck followed Thanh into the tent.

Inside was an overflow of human wreckage—battered, dismembered men, alive only because death, taken by surprise, hadn’t gotten to them yet. Chuck stopped breathing to ward off the stench and locked his throat to keep from vomiting. But he couldn’t block out the screaming.

The source was a man at the far end. His skin was charred and bloody, his body a mangled parody of human form. His eyes, with no eyelids to protect them, started from his skull. His mouth was forced open to its limit. His teeth were broken and blackened.

Thanh knelt beside him. He gathered the burned body in his arms and spoke in a sing-song, almost a lullaby. The screaming stopped. The body ceased moving. Thanh straightened. He pulled a stained sheet over the man’s face. Without getting to his feet, he turned to the next mat and spoke to the soldier lying on it.

Chuck watched from the narrow aisle between mats. Thanh moved through the tent and talked to each man. Before Thanh had finished, Chuck, feeling as though he was witnessing death rituals too intimate for a stranger’s eyes, walked from the tent.

More About Pride

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.