The Final Evacuation from Saigon, 29 April 1975

The forty-second anniversary of the evacuation from Saigon is coming up. My eldest daughter posted a reminder on Facebook that 9 April was the anniversary of the day that she, her mother, her sisters, and her brother, escaped from Saigon. I find it hard to believe that people old enough to be grandparents weren’t even born then.

In Last of the Annamese, on the night of 29 April, the fictional protagonist, Chuck Griffin, flies out of Saigon on a CH-53 and goes to the Midway, a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. The historical background is that I went out that night on a little Huey and flew to the Oklahoma City, the fleet’s flagship. I was in such bad shape from lack of food and sleep (and, as it turned out, amoebic dysentery and pneumonia) that I don’t remember much of the flight except that it was dark and it was raining. But I was conscious when we approached the Oklahoma City. The pilot circled and circled before finally descending very slowly to land on the floodlit helipad in the driving rain. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.

What amazes me is that my memories of those days are so sharp. I even remember my hallucinations, due to illness from lack of food and rest. The full impact of what had happened didn’t hit me until several days later. I was in recovery, still on the Oklahoma City that was circling before setting sail for the Philippines. I learned that the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with us were left behind to the mercies of the North Vietnamese. They were all either killed or captured.

One of my clearest memories is of a time four or five days before the end. One of my subordinates, a superb analyst, asked with tears in his eyes, “Did it have to end like this?” I attributed his words to Sparky in my retelling of the incident in Annamese.

That guy was more than a man who worked for me. He was a friend. My children, with me in Saigon, all knew him and loved him.

He later killed himself. One more sorrow that stays ever fresh.

A Letter from a Reader

Two days ago, I received a letter from a man in prison who had read The Trion Syndrome. He told me about his time in combat in Vietnam. He’d seen some of the worst. He’s been diagnosed twice with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—he called it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He made no claims of innocence but believed that had he never suffered from PTSI, he never would have been incarcerated. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect he is right.

He wrote me that he enjoyed Trion and had compassion for the protagonist, Dave Bell, whose misjudgments, resulting from PTSI, destroy his life and lead to a suicide attempt.

The letter moved me deeply. I wrote Trion in part to vent my own PTSI, in part to reach out to others who suffer from the same disease. We damaged souls are brothers and sisters and must help each other. No one who hasn’t survived combat can understand us. But we understand each other. We share with each other the strongest bond I’ve ever observed or felt, the love shared by men and women who have fought side by side. Vets don’t use the word “love,” but that’s what it is.

To know that I helped one of my brothers is enough.

Disaster Fatigue

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself why the reported atrocities he reads about hourly in his intelligence job, as the fall of Vietnam nears, no longer spark emotion in him. The passage reads:

“The North Vietnamese had turned the Xuan Loc battle into a meat grinder. They were willing to sacrifice unit after unit to drive out the South Vietnamese 18th Division and seize the town. Somehow the endless reports of gore and annihilation no longer moved Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Bruce Curley, in his review of Annamese, confirms that there is such a thing. It happens when a human being has to confront too much carnage and his ability to respond with horror is numbed. Sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” it takes over to protect our psyches from going out of sync. But it has its symptoms, all similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, including nightmares and irrational rages. That similarity gave birth to another name for the malady: “secondary traumatic stress.”

I suffered from it during the waning days of Vietnam. As we were flooded day after day by reports of grisly death and destruction, I stopped feeling revulsion and horror. Narratives about bloody deaths and ghastly dismemberment became routine. I was no longer sickened. I felt nothing.

My full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) didn’t kick in until May of 1975, when I was back in the states. I had amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia. But the worst was the spate of flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. I was a walking wound. I don’t how much of my PTSI was aggravated by disaster fatigue—my own unspeakable memories of things I witnessed first-hand during combat and the fall of Saigon were the principal causes. I still can’t speak of some of those experiences. But my recollections of the disasters that befell so many still make me grieve.

Sparky’s Insight

Sparky, Chuck’s housemate and fellow intelligence analyst in Last of the Annamese, got his nickname because he’s something less than nimble-minded. He appears throughout the story as a foil for Chuck.

In his review of Annamese, Bruce Curley cites Sparky’s speech toward the end. The passage he refers to takes place in their work spaces. It reads:

“You’re getting soupy,” Chuck said. “Go home.”

“Can’t.” 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. Bruce notes that Sparky’s questions haunt every page of Last of the Annamese. He’s right. I wrote the book in part to fumigate my own post-traumatic stress. But I wrote it in part to tell the story of what really happened during the fall of Saigon and the years that led up to it. That’s why I made every effort to assure the story’s historical accuracy and completeness, even including details classified until the beginning of 2016, some published publicly for the first time in Annamese. Sparky stands for me in the scene quoted above. He asks the questions I asked:

Did it have to end like this? What the hell have we done?

Orphans in Last of the Annamese

As one reviewer pointed out and as Jim Bohannon mentioned when he interviewed me, orphans appear and reappear in Last of the Annamese almost as a leitmotif. The story starts in an orphanage, and three of the principal characters in the novel volunteer, during the course of the story, to work with orphans.

Last week I spoke at the Author Fair in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. A member of the audience, who had read Annamese, asked about the orphans. Had I, the questioner wanted to know, been a volunteer like the characters I wrote about?

The answer was yes. I worked in an orphanage very much like the one in Saigon that I described in the novel. Most of the orphans were Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women. They were, for the most part, smaller than normal children their age, due to undernourishment before they arrived at the orphanage. Many were hideously crippled, sometimes from poor care before they were abandoned or after their mothers were killed or disabled, sometimes from having been caught themselves in combat. The greatest gift I could give them was to help them smile or even laugh.

President Ford arranged for a program called Operation Babylift to evacuate as many orphans as possible from Vietnam before the North Vietnamese took what was left of the country. We all knew that the strongest motivation for that effort was that so many of the orphans were Amerasian and the North Vietnamese would treat the half-American children cruelly. As reported in Last of the Annamese, the first Operation Babylift flight was scheduled for 4 April 1975. The aircraft was the C5A Galaxy, the largest plane I had ever seen. It crashed immediately after takeoff. Seventy-eight orphans were killed.

Their loss—and the North Vietnamese capture of those still in Vietnam after it fell—are among the many things I grieve about from my involvement in the fall of Saigon.

Vietnam and Tom Glenn

With the publication of Last of the Annamese, maybe I’ve finally arrived at the culmination of my obsession with Vietnam. It began in 1959. In 1958, immediately after earning a BA from the University of California, I enlisted in the army to go to the Defense Language Institute (DLI). I put in to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. I had already studied French, Italian, German, and Latin, but I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, surrounded by Chinese restaurants and laundries. I knew Chinese was too difficult to learn on my own, as I had done with other languages, so I wanted to go to the best language school in world to learn it. When I got to DLI in January 1959, the army informed me that I was to study something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—we called that part of the world French Indochina back then. So I spent a year in intensive study of Vietnamese with native speakers. That year changed my life.

At the beginning of 1960, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) and worked full time in the Vietnamese language. Meanwhile, I enrolled in Chinese classes at Georgetown University. So by 1961 when I left the army and was immediately hired by NSA, I was comfortable in French, Chinese, and Vietnamese, the three languages commonly spoke in Vietnam. NSA sent me to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.

I spent the next 13 years trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam. I had two complete accompanied tours there, with my wife and children, and so many shorter trips—called TDYs (for temporary duty)—that I lost count. Most of that time, I provided direct signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine units in combat. I was sent there so often because I knew the languages of the country and I was willing to go into combat with the units I was supporting. In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, I was named the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam. By a ruse, I was able to evacuate my wife and four children 20 days before Saigon fell in April 1975. The ruse was necessary because the U.S. Ambassador didn’t believe that Saigon was threatened and refused to allow evacuations. As the North Vietnamese attacked the city, I escaped by helicopter under fire on the night of 29 April. The city fell to the North Vietnamese a few hours later.

I still suffer—and always will—from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a consequence of my time in combat and my experiences during the fall of Saigon. Much of my writing has been driven by my gruesome memories, ending with Last of the Annamese. But the book I wrote after Annamese (I’m now seeking a publisher for it) is not about Vietnam. Nor is the novel I’m working on now. Now that I’ve told the story of the fall of Saigon, I’ve found an imperfect peace. Maybe my preoccupation with Vietnam is finally resolved.