Self-Reliance and Keeping in Shape

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I essentially raised myself from the age of six because my mother was an alcoholic and my father was in prison. I had to do everything from preparing my own meals to doing my own laundry to figuring out where I was going to get money for everything from carfare to school to buying new shoes. I started with a paper route as a young boy and graduated to working in a drug store as delivery boy and clerk, pumping gasoline, washing dishes in a restaurant, and waiting tables. I accepted the general view that I wasn’t very bright and didn’t do well in school. Even though high school advisers recommended that I not go to college (I didn’t have the brains to make it, they said in so many words), I still enrolled in the University of California in Berkeley and worked twenty hours a week at any job I could get that fit with my academic schedule. True to my advisers’ predictions, I didn’t do well and graduated with low B average.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated with languages and greatly attracted to music. I taught myself to play the piano—even though I didn’t own one—and learned on my own to speak Italian and French. In high school I had four years of Latin, and in college, I added German. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, the best language school in the world, later called the Defense Language Institute. The army directed that I study not Chinese, but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—this was 1959, and we still called that part of the world French Indochina. So I had intensive training in Vietnamese, six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once there, I enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese.

I knew I had a flair for languages, but that didn’t mean I was intelligent. In my forties, determined to go on learning despite my lack of intellect, I returned to graduate school and earned a masters and a doctorate. Once again, I loved the study, graduated with honors, and finally realized that I wasn’t dumb at all.

I see now, looking back at a long life, that I succeeded by virtue of being forced to depend on myself. I was strong-willed and stubborn. Since no one was going to take care of me or help me, I had to develop self-reliance.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, my ability and willingness to fend for myself was instrumental in surviving the fall of Saigon and getting all forty-three of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country in the face of opposition from the U.S. Ambassador and lack of help from any quarter. Now in the ranks of seniors (a politically correct term for old people), I’m coming to realize that staying active and healthy is up to me. No one’s going to help me.

More tomorrow.

Tết: The Vietnamese New Year Holiday

Far and away the greatest annual holiday in Vietnam is Tết, the first day of the lunar calendar and, in Vietnam, the first day of spring. It is celebrated for three days at least and by some for seven days. The festivities emphasize eating and drinking, returning to one’s parental home, buying new clothes, getting one’s hair cut, and being sure one’s house is freshly cleaned. The traditional greeting is Chúc Mng Năm Mi or Cung Chúc Tân Niên (Happy New Year) or Cung Chúc Tân Xuân (Happy Spring).

Flowers are the sine qua non of celebrating Tết. Preparations to assure that plants are blooming at their peak on Tết begin months in advance, and in Saigon, the Street of Flowers (the street’s real name was Nguyễn Huệ, the name of a Vietnamese emperor) was so filled with blossoms at Tết that the street itself appeared to be in bloom.

Because the date of Tết is determined by the lunar calendar, its date in the Gregorian calendar varies between the last week or so of January and the first days of February. The name Tết is known to Americans because the North Vietnamese began a country-wide offensive during the celebration in 1968. It came to be known as the Tết Offensive. That year, Tết fell on 28 January (if my memory is accurate), the same date as in 2017, and both the Americans and the South Vietnamese were caught unprepared because for years both the north and the south had all but ceased combat during the Tết period. In Last of the Annamese, the date (in 1975) is 3 February, less than four months before the fall of Saigon.

I have many happy memories of celebrating Tết with the Vietnamese. In 1964, I took my daughter, Susan, then a toddler, to the Street of Flowers to see the display. When I was in the field with combat units, I made it my business to join the locals for the festivities when I could.

But the holiday also brings back sad times. In 1968, I warned the Americans that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a country-wide offensive and wasn’t believed. The saddest was 1975. I alerted the U.S. Ambassador that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon, but he dismissed my prediction. I saw that the end of An Nam (the old name for Vietnam which means “peace in the south”) was at hand.

Memories of a Good Man

One of the men who was with me in Saigon was an intelligence analyst I’d worked with for years. He was a friend of my family, a favorite of my children who were still quite small back then. He enjoyed playing with them and showed an unusual understanding of what charmed them. A good-looking guy, he was in his thirties at that point but had never married and had no apparent connections with women. I wondered privately at the time if maybe he was gay.

This man, along with me, was among the earliest to see that Vietnam was lost to the communists. It was he who lived out for real the scene I later attributed to the character of Sparky in Last of the Annamese:

Sparky’s eyelids stretched and blinked. “Da Nang fell yesterday. I Corps is in rout. And the safe haven on the coast where all those people tried to flee from highlands? Tuy Hoa. It’s under enemy fire. A hundred thousand refugees are stranded along Route 7B between Pleiku and the coast. No food, no water, no medicine, nothing. Jesus, Chuck.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Did it have to end like this? After 58,000 American military dead, at least a million Communist soldiers, and who knows how many million civilians? Chuck, what the hell have we done?”

End of quote. This man, whom I’m leaving unnamed, resigned from NSA not long after we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon. Sometime later, we got word that he was dead. He’d fallen from a window in a Los Angeles hotel. I concluded then and still believe that his death was suicide.

His death hurt. He’s among the men who served with me who have died. I grieve for them still.

SecDef Schlesinger and the End of Vietnam

Chuck and Sparky, characters in Last of the Annamese, keep track of the war and the North Vietnamese encirclement of Saigon by monitoring all intelligence sources available to them. But they also listen to the American Radio Service (ARS), a U.S. government broadcast that transmits news and popular music. About three-quarters of the way through the book is the following scene:

“It is plain that the great offensive,” an authoritative voice was saying, “is a phrase that probably should be in quotation marks. What we have had here is a partial collapse of South Vietnamese forces, so that there has been very little major fighting since the battle of Ban Me Thuot, and that was an exception in itself.”

Chuck and Sparky gawked at each other.

“That,” the ARS reporter said, “was Secretary of Defense Schlesinger speaking today on Face the Nation.”

Sparky swung his head from side to side as if to fight off a case of the wobblies. “What’s that guy smoking?” He sighed. “You can bet we’ll be drafting a message for General Smith to send to Washington ticking off the facts.”

Chuck didn’t answer. They’d be correcting Washington rather than the other way around. Sinister topsy-turvy had become a way of life.

End of quote. Once again, the quote from the novel is drawn from fact. As the North Vietnamese surrounded us, I listened to every broadcast I could—BBC, Voice of America, ARS—to glean any fragment of information on what was happening. I heard the ARS report quoted above. It made me feel more isolated and abandoned as I realized that the SecDef didn’t understand that Saigon would soon fall to the North Vietnamese. I redoubled my efforts to get the last of my people safely out of the country—operating under false pretenses because the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, refused to allow me to evacuate my people. The world might well be turning upside down. So what? It was up to me to get my guys and their families out of Vietnam. No one was going to help me. I had to do it myself.

Who Fired on the Helicopter I Escaped In?

Toward the end of my article on the fall of Saigon, I say the following:

On 24 April, the wire services, which we monitored, reported a speech that President Ford had given the previous day at Tulane. He referred to Vietnam as “a war that is finished.” My cynicism overcame my dread. If the war was finished, what was I, a civilian signals intelligence officer and potential prisoner of singular value to the Communists—in short, a spy—doing in a combat zone with nothing better than a .38 revolver to defend myself against eighteen North Vietnamese divisions?

End of quote. I wrote recently about the shelling Bob, Gary, and I were subjected to, and earlier I reported that the Huey I escaped in as Saigon was falling was fired upon—we took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it.

But looking back, I can see now that the North Vietnamese had enough fire power at hand to utterly destroy the DAO building where Bob, Gary, and I were holed up. And they could have shot down every helicopter used in the evacuation. To the best of my knowledge, not one chopper went down under fire.

I’ve concluded that the North Vietnamese didn’t want to attack the fleeing Americans. They just wanted us to leave. I’ve inferred that the fire at our slick probably didn’t come from the North Vietnamese but from the South Vietnamese soldiers we were abandoning. They were desperate and furious with us—and for good reason. I was lucky enough to escape unharmed, but they were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

Losing Vietnam

On 15 June, I gave my presentation on the fall of Saigon to Post 156 of the American Legion of which I am a proud member. As I finished speaking and was taking questions, one member asked why the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, the South Vietnamese army) fought so poorly and lost the war after the U.S. withdrawal. My answer was that I observed some below-par ARVN units, but most fought valiantly. I cited the heroic battle for Xuan Loc which the North Vietnamese turned into a meat grinder, throwing more and more forces again the ARVN 18th Infantry Division until the communists finally prevailed on 21 April 1975, just eight days before the fall of Saigon. I said that Vietnam fell not because of the failure of ARVN but because the U.S. withdrew its military and financial support. My questioner rejected my answer.

I just started reading Losing Vietnam, a 2013 book by U.S. Army Major General Ira A. Hunt, Jr (retired). I’ll note here what I think of the book after I complete it, but it starts citing the U.S. unkept promises after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1973. We had pledged to provide air support for the ARVN and maintain the flow of money to keep the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) afloat. But the unpopularity of the war led the U.S. Congress to terminate all air operations in August 1973. In July 1974, it drastically reduced funding for South Vietnam. In April 1975, it refused to increase the funding. Saigon fell at the end of the month.

In effect, the Congress’s action crippled ARVN. It couldn’t pay its soldiers or buy ammunition or replace lost weapons and equipment.

In sum, Vietnam fell to the communists because the U.S. population turned against the war and demanded that the Congress withdraw funds.

We have handled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a similar fashion. And in all three conflicts, when the war became unpopular, we withdrew our forces and aid and abandoned the people who had fought at our side to the mercies of the enemy. In Vietnam, scores of thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked and fought at our side were killed or imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. Two thousand seven hundred ARVN who worked with my organization were abandoned to their fate. Surely we can do better than that in the future.

Shelling During the Fall of Saigon

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, I describe the shelling that punctuated the final days in Saigon. Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano cower at first when rockets, later when artillery shells explode all around them. The description is accurate. My two communicators, Bob and Gary, and I hunkered in our comms center, the only room in the office suite we were still using, hoping none of the shells would hit us.

I suspect that no one who has never been through an artillery barrage can imagine the terror. The closest parallel I know is earthquakes, like the ones I experienced in the San Francisco Bay Area growing up. But artillery strikes are more terrifying because they come and go quickly, only to be repeated seconds later. In my memory, the whole comms center lurched with each strike. If I was standing, the sudden shift of the floor knocked me off my feet. The walls seemed to slap inwards, then snap back into place. Dust fell from the ceiling. The light fixtures leaped and broke loose and fell to the floor shattering glass and plastic over us.

The crash of the explosions were the loudest sounds I’ve ever heard. They made my ears hurt. And they did damage my ears—I’ve needed hearing aids ever since.

But the scariest element was the helplessness. We could do nothing to protect ourselves. We had no bomb shelter. We had no protective clothes. We had no means to shield ourselves. All we could do was keep our eyes tightly shut, hunch our shoulders, cover our ears, and try to keep the shaking under control.

It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I hope I never again have to be the target of shelling.