My Work after 1975

I’ve written three novels (Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese) and a series of short stories drawn from my time in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, and one novel about my experience with AIDS victims (No-Accounts). The latter resulted from my volunteer work in the 1980s, undertaken to help me cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). Readers ask me what happened in my professional life after Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.

I’m not free to say. My work after the fall of Saigon is still classified. The languages I worked in are not. I can publicly state that I used Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Latin in my work. Readers are welcome to guess where I might have been assigned.

I can tell one story without specifying where it took place. Once when I was working under cover, I did some sightseeing in a city away from the post where I was assigned. I was at the time operating under deep cover with a false name and identity as a maintenance man. The fact that I spoke the language of the country I was in was classified.

While I was wandering around in the city I was visiting, I lost my way. I found myself in a seedy part of town with the onset of night. No one in that section of the city spoke English. It was obvious to all that I was a foreigner.

To find my way back to my hotel, I was forced to ask directions in the language of the country. In short, I violated security.

Local citizens were very helpful, obviously impressed that I, a very ordinary-looking American, spoke their language so well. I found my hotel and, the next day, returned to the city where I was working. I reported my security breach to my handlers who forgave me, given the circumstances, but warned me never to do it again.

Winter Roses from Dalat

When the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, visits the love of his life, Tuyet, at Thanksgiving, he brings her winter roses from Dalat.

Chuck’s choice of a gift came from my own experience. From early in my life, I cherished the idea of winter roses as being the rarest of flowers. And we Americans use the words “winter roses” to describe a variety of blooms including the exceedingly uncommon blue roses and others that actually bloom during the winter months.

The town of Dalat in Vietnam is in the southern reaches of the highlands and is remarkable for its cool weather, so unlike the rest of South Vietnam with its tropical heat. It is surrounded by pine forests, unknown in other parts of Vietnam. The name of the town (Đà Lạt in Vietnamese) has no meaning that I can discern, even though I’m told it means “city of thousands of pine trees”—a translation for which I can find no basis. My guess is that the name is not Vietnamese at all but is, rather, drawn from the Montagnard languages commonly spoke in the highlands.

I spent plenty of time in the highlands north of Dalat. The mountainous region in the provinces of Pleiku and Kontum, along the Laotian and Cambodian border, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war. I was involved in the battle of Dak To there in 1967. It’s barren country, remarkable for the sparseness of vegetation, and one of the few places in Vietnam where I was actually uncomfortably cold—due to the elevation.

Winter in Dalat is the coolest season, marked by low-lying mist. I have always doubted that the famous winter roses from Dalat actually bloom in the winter, particularly since one can buy them throughout the year in the open markets in Saigon. But it is true that roses grow in few places in South Vietnam because the weather is too hot for them. They do indeed thrive in Dalat and its environs.

During my years in Vietnam, winter roses were the rarest and most expensive and, to my eyes at least, the most beautiful flowers on sale. In my imagination, they were magical blooms from a magical place. They still are.

Who Fired at the Helicopter I Escaped in?

I reported earlier in this blog that the Huey I escaped in during the fall of Saigon was almost shot down by ground fire. Who was shooting at us?

The obvious answer is the North Vietnamese. But by the time I flew out of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese had sixteen to eighteen divisions in or besieging the city. They could easily have shot down all the choppers brought in for the rescue. But not one helicopter was shot down.

Those facts lead me to believe that it was not the North Vietnamese but the friendlies, the South Vietnamese military, who fired on me. By the time I went out, it was obvious that the U.S. was abandoning the South Vietnamese, leaving them to the mercies of the victorious northerners. I suspect that in their frustration, they opened fire on us.

Within hours, all of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. They knew what awaited them. I cannot condemn them for their last desperate acts against their former friends who deserted them on the battlefield.

Reactions to Yesterday’s Blog

A reader pointed out to me that my statement yesterday that the character of Ben, the son of the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, died in combat is inaccurate. As his father, Chuck, learns late in the novel, another American soldier killed Ben. I allowed that inaccuracy for the sake of brevity. My apologies. Here’s what Chuck is told by the officer who was Ben’s commander:

The smile vanished. Carver bared his teeth. “Big-ass gunjy Marine, right? Balls of brass. Yeah, I checked you out before I left the states. Okay, asshole. You want it gory? I’ll give it to you gory.” Carver paused long enough to slurp his drink. “A kid named Kerney killed your son. Multiple tracer rounds from his M-60 machine gun went into cans of gasoline strapped onto the jeep your son was driving. Jeep blew up. At the inquest, Kerney said he thought the VC had penetrated the perimeter and were attacking, killed your kid by mistake. He told me privately that Ben had come on to him for sex. That changed things. The army’s not big on coddling queers. Kerney wasn’t indicted.”

Chuck closed his eyes.

“’Course, reports of casualties from friendly fire get leaked to the press,” Carver said, “and if the homo angle had come to light, that could have hurt Kerney’s chances for promotion and made the U.S. Army look bad. So I reported it as a KIA. Honorable shit. You know the drill.”

End of quote. The full story of Ben’s death is never told in Last of the Annamese. It was irrelevant to the broader story line. But I did give all the details in a short story named “Trip Wires,” which was one of the inspirations for Annamese. In that story, the reader learns that Kerney was sexually attracted to Ben, not the other way around.

The Escape from Saigon

As I’ve noted before in this blog, I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon on the night of 29 April 1975. I adapted my own memories of that escape to tell of the flight of Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Ben, mentioned in the excerpt, was Chuck’s son, killed in combat in Vietnam:

Hands helped him climb aboard. He settled near a window, and the bird lifted him into the air over the stricken city dotted by fires. Lights burned here and there as if the residents had forgotten they were under siege. Flashes from weapons made the face of the earth sparkle in the dark, but their sound was drowned in the roar of the helicopter. Tracers rose toward him. They were shooting at him, but his tilted consciousness went on marveling at the glittering lights, like those little lights Ben so loved as a child. Ben. Oh, Jesus. The city retreated into nothingness behind him. His heart contracted. Panic rose in his belly, the mindless terror of something urgent overlooked, left behind, forgotten. Nausea flooded him.

He tried to sit forward and discovered that he was strapped in. The deafening roar of rotor engines filled his ears. Where was he? Total darkness. No, a dashboard was gleaming maybe ten feet from him. The dials and gauges were a craziness of meaningless green lights, numbers, lines, spaces. He and a lot of other people were flying. The pressure in his head made him wonder if they were upside down. How could the pilot tell? He couldn’t get his brain to cooperate. He shook his head, forced his eyes open, slapped himself to keep awake. Memory clicked in a piece at a time. He was en route to the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. He hadn’t been airborne long. Had he blacked out?

End of quote. Chuck’s fictional experience and mine differed in several respects. First, Chuck escapes on a CH-53 helicopter, a large bird used for the evacuation. I went out on a little Huey, flown by an employee of Air America, a civilian corporation brought in the to help in the evacuation. Second, the chopper I was on took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going to crash, but we made it. Third, I was flown not to the Midway but to the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the Seventh Fleet. The pilot obviously had trouble landing in the dark and the rain on the floodlit helipad of the ship. He told me later that he had never before landed on a ship.