Boy-Child

The boy-child is a recurring theme in Last of the Annamese. In the prologue, a little boy dies. Later the reader learns that the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, lost a son who was killed as a soldier in Vietnam. Throughout the story, Chuck goes to the orphanage at Cité-Paul-Marie to spend time with Philippe, a crippled Amerasian boy. The sisters at the orphanage gave Philippe his French name. They don’t tell Chuck his history or how he suffered the mutilations to his body.

And Chuck is utterly charmed by Thu, the six-year-old son of Tuyet and Thanh. Chuck plays with Thu in the little pool in Tuyet’s garden. He teaches Thu the word “buddy.”

In my mind, Chuck’s relationship to little boys, starting with his son, is the key to his character. He returns to Vietnam in 1973 as a civilian after he has retired from the Marine Corps because he is determined to do all he can to win the war—he can’t tolerate the thought that his son, Ben, died in vain.

Of all the principal characters in the book, only Chuck and Thu survive. One interpretation of the novel’s title, the one I prefer, is that it refers ultimately to Thu. He is the last of the Annamese.

The Fourth of July in Clarksville

Yesterday, I marched with my American Legion brothers in the Fourth of July parade in Clarksville, Maryland—a town that’s about as middle-America as you can get. I came away with a series of strong impressions.

First, I was struck by how many people in the crowd were not Anglo-Saxon standard Americans. More than half of them bore the racial hallmarks of Asia, Africa, and central-south America. There they were, the blacks, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Mexicans and other Hispanics—all as American as I am. They dressed in red, white, and blue, waved flags, and shouted “Happy Fourth of July!” More than ever before, I saw and celebrated American diversity.

Second, I must have heard bystanders shout a hundred times, “Thank you for your service.” These were ordinary, everyday Americans grateful to veterans for defending the country we all love. I waved back at them with tears in my eyes.

Third, for the most part, the men and women I was marching with were, like me, veterans long past retirement age. The march of several miles was not easy for them. Part of the way was uphill. It was hot and muggy. The sweat poured. I heard jokes about people wringing out their shirts when they got home, but I heard not one complaint. Nobody quit because the march was too hard or long or hot.

So I got a dose of what we Americans are like these days—diverse, aware of the sacrifices of veterans, and tough. What we all, veterans and people on the sidelines alike, shared was our patriotism. Once again I’m reminded of why the United States of America is worthy of our love.

For years after the fall of Saigon, when I came back sick and shattered by defeat, I yearned with all my heart to hear my fellow Americans say “Thank you. And welcome home.” Instead, I was treated like a pariah. But people change, and the younger generation, who wasn’t even alive when Saigon fell, sees our sacrifice for what it was. Now we are honored. And I am more moved than words can express.

Volunteers

Several readers have asked me over the years why I repeatedly went to Vietnam during the war, why I volunteered to go into combat with the soldiers and Marines I was supporting, and why I didn’t escape from Saigon before it fell. After all, I wasn’t required to do any of those things. I did them by choice.

I think the same question could be put to any serviceman who endured combat. Why didn’t you run away instead of facing enemy fire?

The answer lies in the slogan that drove me and shapes the actions of characters in Last of the Annamese: “Do what you have to do—whatever it takes.”

For me, there are three aspects to that answer.

First, had I shied away from danger, I would have lost my self-respect. The easy, safe way out would have left me devoid of any pride in being the man I am. I sense that same feeling in men I’ve been in combat with: not to do the job would have shamed them.

Second, patriotism drove me. I do genuinely love my country and all it stands for. If my country demands sacrifices, then that’s what it takes.

Third and maybe the most important is the bond I shared with the men and women who worked and fought by my side. I couldn’t let them face danger without the help I could give. During the fall of Saigon, I could no more abandon my guys than I could help the enemy. I knew the risks, but I, like men in combat everywhere, would lay down my life to save my buddy. He would do the same for me.

I conclude that honor, love of my country, and love of one’s fellow combatants and workers are forces strong enough to make the facing danger the decent thing to do. Taking risks for the good of others makes like worth living.

The Gia Long Palace

The Gia Long Palace, now a museum in Ho Chi Minh city (the new name of Saigon), was the site of the 1974 U.S. Marine Corps birthday ball, held on Marine Corps birthday, 11 November. I attended the ball with my wife. Last of the Annamese, an autobiographical novel, includes the ball—as it does many of my own experiences—in relating the story of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin. As a senior intelligence official and a retired Marine, Chuck is required to attend in formal attire.

The palace was originally built by the French in the late nineteenth century and was used during Vietnam’s bloody history as a residence or headquarters for a variety of French, Japanese, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese leaders. Its architectural style is sometimes called “baroque,” but in Annamese, I labelled it as neoclassic. It is named for Nguyễn Ánh, who unified Vietnam in 1802 and founded the Nguyễn Dynasty. The name he used as emperor was Gia Long.

In the novel, I described the interior of the palace as I remember it—beige marble with columns and carvings and a grand staircase leading to the ballroom on the lower level. It is here, in an alcove off the main hall, that Chuck meets the woman whom he will love, Tuyet. Not explored until later in the story, Tuyet is a Nguyễn princess, a member of the royal family and a descendant of the man for whom the palace is named, Gia Long.

Tuxedo in Saigon

Chapter one of Last of the Annamese begins: “The Chinese maid had dry-cleaned and pressed Chuck’s tuxedo, starched his formal dress shirt, and buffed his patent leather shoes.” Readers have asked me, did Chuck own his own formal wear?

After the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. military forces, when I returned to Vietnam to head the National Security Agency covert operation there, I was the chief of the “Department of Defense Special Representative (DODSPECREP)” office—that was our cover. Few Americans in Saigon had any idea what that was; all they knew was that I headed a large defense operation with more than forty employees and their families. That meant, among other things, that I was obligated to attend the formal gatherings sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and, occasionally, those of other embassies. Consequently, I had to have a tuxedo with all its accoutrements as well as an evening jacket. No formal clothes were available for sale or rent in Saigon, so I did what all the diplomats did: I flew to Hong Kong to have formal clothes tailored.

Chuck, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, as a ranking member of the Defense Attaché Office Intelligence Branch, faces the same requirements, so he, like me, acquired formal clothes from Hong Kong.

As my predecessor in the job (his name is still classified) explained to me, the war was over. The assignment in Vietnam was now a “gentlemen’s tour,” leisurely but formal. Hence, accompanied tours—bringing one’s family along—were welcomed, even encouraged. The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, a southern gentleman with all the attitudes that implies, emphasized the social aspects of the U.S. community in Vietnam. Our job, as he saw it, was to project an image of the U.S. that displayed our sophistication and wealth.

I knew better. But it was not until we’d been there a few months that I saw how dangerous the situation in Vietnam really was. The ambassador continued to believe that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon. From intercepted North Vietnamese communications, I knew that attack was imminent. So I violated the ambassador’s orders and evacuated my subordinates and their families (and my own family) using any ruse I could think of to get them safely out of the country.

I escaped under fire the day Saigon fell. All I had with me were the clothes on my back. The tuxedo was lost forever.

Living as an Historical Figure

I alerted readers earlier to the article in the June 12 Cecil Whig about the Maryland Public Television travelling exhibit on the sixteen Vietnam veterans it featured in its documentary last year. The article, titled “Wound of the Soul,” also told my story, which led in the writing of Last of the Annamese, because I was scheduled to do the fall of Saigon presentation on June 22 at the Perryville Library, where the exhibit is being shown. You can read the text of the article at  http://www.cecildaily.com/spotlight/article_9c5c8c66-2344-5112-98e8-248e703d90fc.html  The printed version included two additional photos—one of my daughter, Susan, and me in 1964 in Saigon, and one of me ten years later in Saigon.

This article, by Joe Antoshak, was the third on me to appear in local newspapers. The Columbia Flier and the Howard County Beacon had both done cover stories on me earlier, and the text of the story in the Flier also appeared in the Baltimore Sun. I was especially honoured by the Cecil Whig story because the paper is one of the oldest in the U.S. It was founded in 1841. I feel like I’m a part of history.

That sense of history made me feel a little less resentful about recurring references to Last of the Annamese as an “historical novel.” The story, after all, did occur in my lifetime. But maybe it’s all right to be alive and be considered an historical figure at the same time. Maybe I’ll get used to that.

The Vietnamese Siesta

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962, common practice was to take a break during the hottest part of the day, usually from about 1:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. or so—simply because it was too hot to work. The Vietnamese often slept during those hours, so we Americans referred to the practice as a siesta. The Vietnamese called it giac ngu trua, that is, noon nap.

The Americans, almost all military assigned to the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), followed the practice, partly because air conditioning was rare and hard to come by. In the field of combat, of course, no one napped.

When I returned to Vietnam after the 1973 pullout of U.S. troops, the Vietnamese civilian population still followed the siesta practice, but we Americans no longer did. On the one hand, we had air conditioning everywhere—in our offices and our quarters; on the other, and the tense circumstances no longer allowed that kind of leisure. As the situation deteriorated and the North Vietnamese drew close to Saigon, we did well just to get enough time to sleep at night. During the last weeks of April 1975, when we were surrounded and awaiting the final attack on the city, we stopped sleeping altogether.