Last Days

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, as the attack on Saigon begins on 26 April 1975, Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano are caught in their office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, where they were holed up. Here’s the text from the beginning of chapter 19:

It started Saturday morning. Reports swamped the comms center. Long Binh was under attack, and Ba Ria fell. North Vietnamese shelling of Bien Hoa was low thunder that shook the floor. The final assault was under way. To get around the Ambassador’s edict that no one was to be evacuated, Troiano sent most of the remaining personnel out of country by air on trumped-up “temporary duty” missions. The Intelligence Branch, the comms center, and the tank were now manned by five people—two comms techs who’d volunteered to stay to the end, Chuck, Sparky, and Troiano. “We’re just here to turn off the lights when the Ambassador gives us permission to leave,” Troiano told Chuck. They adopted the eight-sixteen rule—eight hours of sleep, sixteen hours of work on rotating shifts, so that two people would man the tank at all times. Sparky made a food run, found out that the snack bar was deserted.

That description matches what really happened to me. Most of my subordinates were already gone, sent out the country on phony temporary duty, home leave, or vacation—all to get around the ambassador’s no-evacuation order. By the next day, Sunday, 27 April, we were down to three of us, me and two communicators who had volunteered to stay through attack. We had already been on the eight-sixteen rule but switched to a 24-hour schedule with two hour breaks for one man while the other two worked.

I’ll never forget or stop honoring the two men who agreed to remain during the attack. Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman showed enormous courage. They stayed calm in the face of disaster, knowing they could be killed in the next barrage. They worked harder than I had any right to expect, doing between them the job 16 men had done when we were at full strength. When they were extracted by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished.

Beacon Article and Bohannon Interview

The April issue of the Howard County Beacon is out. It features a cover story on me and Last of the Annamese. You can view it on the Howard County Beacon web site.



. . .  but I found it hard to read.

Jim Bohannon’s interview of me from last night is now up on his podcast page. Click on the 3-20 podcast. The interview starts at about 39 minutes into the broadcast—you can click to find that spot. The URL is:

I invite comments.

Glossary to Annamese

Because most of the characters in Last of the Annamese are concerned with military matters, much of the language in the book typical of the patois of soldiers and Marines.  I realize in looking over the terms included in the book’s glossary that that was the language I spoke during the final days of Vietnam. Because the three major male characters are Marines, the book uses more Marine slang than any other.

Because I worked with Marine units so often between 1962 and 1975, when Saigon fell, and because it was the Marines that saved my life when I escaped under fire, I still use a number of the Marine terms recorded in the glossary—much to the confusion of everyday American citizens. “World” still means the United States to me, and my natural impulse is to refer to a wall a “bulkhead” and a floor as the “deck.” And “ASAP” springs to my lips faster than “as soon as possible.”

All that makes people think I’m a little odd. That’s okay with me.

Le van Duyet

Around the middle of Last of the Annamese, Colonel Thanh takes his family—his wife Tuyet, his niece Lan, and his six-year-old son Thu—to the tomb of Le van Duyet on a family outing. The trip is not a success. The tomb, which Thanh remembers from his youth, has been neglected and is overrun with beggars. Worse, a VC assassin shoots Thanh on the shoulder as the family searches for a taxi to take them home.

Le van Duyet is one of the most revered of figures of Vietnamese history, but he was not a king. Here’s the recap of his story from Wikipedia:

Lê Văn Duyệt (1763 or 1764 – 3 July 1832) was a Vietnamese general who helped Nguyễn Ánh—the future Emperor Gia Long—put down the Tây Sơn rebellion, unify Vietnam and establish the Nguyễn Dynasty. After the Nguyễn came to power in 1802, Duyệt became a high-ranking mandarin, serving under the first two Nguyễn emperors Gia Long and Minh Mạng.

The Nguyen family mentioned by Wikipedia is Tuyet’s family. She is a princess who married Thanh on the orders of her father.

I first visited the tomb of Le van Duyet in 1962. It was an imposing shrine, stately and moving. I went back to see it again in 1975 and found it in shambles as the chaos of the war led to general disarray. From pictures now on the internet, it appears that the communist government of Vietnam has restored it to something like its former glory.

Tuyet’s Conversion

Toward the beginning of Last of the Annamese, the reader learns that Tuyet is in a marriage of convenience, a marriage in name only. She has not shared a bed with her husband, South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, since the birth of their son, Thu, six years before. Tuyet both scorns and is in awe of Thanh. She married him at the command of her family which needed a connection to a rising star in the South Vietnamese military. Because she is Catholic and a member of the royal family, divorce is out of the question.

But as the fall of Saigon comes closer, Tuyet sees Thanh in a new light. While they are in the street, a VC assassin shoots Thanh, wounding him in the arm.  When a grenade is tossed into a crowd, Thanh throws himself on it to protect others, knowing it will kill him. It turns out to be a dud and Thanh survives. Tuyet is stunned to see that Thanh was willing to sacrifice himself to save others and sees that everyone around Thanh reveres him.

When they get home, Thanh asks Tuyet why she didn’t run away during the attack. Tuyet says she was afraid for him. Thanh tells her he is glad she is with Chuck Griffin now—he will get her and Thu out of the country safely. So Thanh knows that she and Chuck are lovers. The following passage describes Tuyet’s reaction to the conversation:

As the door clicked closed behind Thanh, Tuyet fluttered, out of control. He knew [about Chuck]. He saw in a way that was more than seeing. She was defenseless against him. He could watch her soul.

She crumpled onto the bed. She’d lied to herself—and to him. She hadn’t stayed by his side because she was afraid for him. She’d wanted to be with him, to keep him in her sight. She’d been blind but now was only starting to see. He lived at a level far beyond her understanding. That was why he could see what others could not. That was why the generals feared him and the common people loved him. And that, now that she could see it, was the beacon that drew her: This man was transcendence. If Thanh was to die, she had, in that moment in the street, wanted to die with him.

Radio Interview

For those interested: I’ll be interviewed live on the Jim Bohannon Show at 11:00 ET on 20 March. The show is broadcast on some 500 AM stations across the country. The closest to me, as far as I can tell, is WFMD-AM, freq: 930, in Frederick, MD.

If you hear the interview, let me know what you think.

The Pain of Memories

The reviews and endorsements of Last of the Annamese underline the sorrow I express in the book over the fall of Vietnam. They have it right. My memories hurt. At the beginning and again at the end of the novel, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself, “Do all memories have to hurt?”

For me they do. I’ll never cease grieving over the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization who were then left behind to face the North Vietnamese. I’ll always remember with pain the two U.S. Marines killed when the gate of our compound was hit. I’ll never get over the deaths of two of my staff members, Americans, who later killed themselves.

And that, frankly, is all to the good. Wounds to the soul never heal. Only forgetting would allay my pain. And forgetting would be unforgivable.