Saigon Comings and Goings — Part 2

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On September 10 of this year, I mentioned that there was “a story for another day.” This is that other day. This blog post is prompted in part by a suspicion articulated to me some time ago that because I “taught English in South Vietnam from 1972 to 1974 and returned briefly before the fall of Saigon in April 1975” (according to the bio on the back of my book, LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM), I must have been a spy. What particularly snagged the person who suspected me of CIA connections was the fact that I returned briefly to Saigon on April 22, 1975 and was able to leave the next day without an exit visa, taking with me three young Vietnamese friends (one of those friends is the young lady pictured on the right in both of the photos which accompany this blog). Well, it would be nice to romanticize my background, but the truth compels me to quash such silly notions.

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Yet how was an unaffiliated American civilian able to breeze in and out of a country that was about to fall apart? The story is simple, really. Although it may fall into the “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” category. So here goes:

 

In 1967 my brother married his first wife, Claudia Van der Heuvel (starts out simply, remember). Her mother, Gerry, a reporter for the Newhouse chain of newspapers in Washington, D.C., was in 1969 appointed to be press secretary for First Lady Patricia Nixon, and then, after serving in that capacity for some time, she was assigned to be a press attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Our ambassador to Italy at that time was Graham Martin, who subsequently became our last ambassador to South Viet Nam in June, 1973. Martin’s secretary was a woman named Jane (Janie) Jazynka, who became good friends with my future ex-sister-in-law’s mother while they were in Rome together. When Graham Martin was sent to Saigon, Jane Jazynka accompanied him and became secretary to the Deputy Chief of Mission there, Wolfgang Lehmann. Armed with an introduction from Gerry Van der Heuvel, I became acquainted with Janie sometime after I arrived in Saigon, which was in the fall of 1972.

 

On April 22, 1975, after a twenty-one hour “shuttle” flight on Japan Air Lines and a connecting China Airlines flight into Saigon (a story for another other day), the first person I contacted upon my return was Jane Jazynka. I had decided to go back to Saigon after receiving a letter from one of the Vietnamese friends (not the young lady pictured) on April 19, while I was staying with friends in London, telling me that she was well aware that the North Vietnamese were about to take over the South and that she could not live under the Communists. She left it at that, although I didn’t (a story for another other other day).  Back in Saigon (it was late on the 22nd at that point), Janie told me to collect my friends and go to Tan Son Nhut airport with them the next morning and look up Kenny Moorefield, Graham Martin’s personal aide, who was in charge of granting clearance to the Americans and their Vietnamese charges who were trying to flee the country as the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon and the evacuation picked up steam. When I did so on the 23rd, I found that Moorefield had already filled out a form in my name, which he had also signed and stamped with the Embassy seal, allowing me to take out my friends sight unseen by him. Late on the afternoon of the 23rd, the four of us took off on a C-141 bound for Guam, thence to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, and points elsewhere. And that’s it.

 

You see, it’s all really quite simple, isn’t it?

Saigon Comings and Goings

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Forty-one years ago today, September 9, 1972, I stepped off a Pan Am 747 Clipper from San Francisco onto the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon and into a new world. And what a new world! The long taxi ride from the airport to Ben Ham Tu Street in Cho Quan, where I was to stay with a Vietnamese family, the parents and siblings of my Vietnamese tutor back in Washington, D.C., was a mix of new sights, sounds , colors, and smells that I can only describe as sensory overload. Most of these sense impressions have ended up, in one form or another, in my short story collection, LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM, but to a twenty-three year old with very little experience outside the borders of the U.S., they were, to use a shopworn cliché, exotic indeed. And they had all the freshness of everything that is new and hopeful. Even when I plunked down my bags in the foyer of my “host” family’s (the Nghias’) house along the Chinese canal and found to my horror that the letter from their daughter announcing my arrival from the States had not yet arrived, my spirits remained undaunted. The Nghias very graciously, if in a somewhat bewildered fashion, took me in and absorbed me into their family for about a week or so, until I found a small apartment to rent near some of their in-laws.

One of the pages from an old passport (attached to this blog) tells a sadder tale, that of my last departure from Saigon. Not on a 747, but in the belly of an Air Force C-141A, bound, the evening of April 23, 1975, from Saigon to Guam. The passport page is stamped “Den” (Arrival) on April 22, and I had the customary 7-day visa allowing me to stay until the 29th. It is a story for another day how I was able to slip into Saigon on the 22nd and leave (without an exit visa) on the 23rd. It helps to have connections. What I remember most about that last leaving, aside from the fact that I had three young and somewhat frightened Vietnamese to shepherd to a new home in America, was the fact that the engines of the large contingent of air force jets which had flown into Saigon for the last evacuation were kept revved up for immediate departure (as the North Vietnamese were even then on the outskirts of the capital and had already rocketed the airport several times), and those engines made a horrific noise. And when we took off, shortly before dark, the C-141 rose in a very steep climb to evade any missiles the North Vietnamese might have thought fit to send after us. But, fortunately, “All’s Well that Ends Well,” as somebody rather famous once said, and we made it safely to Guam, Camp Pendleton, San Francisco, San Diego, Kansas, and then, for two of us, Iowa and Paris, all in the course of two weeks or so. I only wish that the last going had been as joyful as the first coming. But the memories are good. All good.

The Girl with the Guitar

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Photo courtesy of Vietnam Art Photograph Archives and Exhibition Center

There have been many books written about the Viet Nam war from the American side, but very few from the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong side. There have been even fewer photo books from that other perspective. One of the best, published by National Geographic, is entitled ANOTHER VIETNAM: PICTURES OF THE WAR FROM THE OTHER SIDE. Among the numerous arresting photographs in that book was one that particularly caught my attention, by the late photographer Le Minh Truong. It is a photo which I call “The Girl with the Guitar” and which became the subject of the first story in my collection, LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM. That story is entitled simply “The Photograph.” The picture itself appeared in a section of the National Geographic book entitled “The Trail.” The caption is as follows:

“Location unknown, 1970. A Youth Volunteer plays her guitar during a rest break along the trail. Assigned to a team of young women who deactivated delayed-fuse bombs dropped by U.S. planes, the teenager was killed the day after this image was made. ‘There was nothing left,’ recalls the photographer, ‘not even flesh. Nothing except pieces of clothing scattered about.’”

LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM is dedicated in part to the memory of the young woman in the photograph.

I suppose I had two reactions to this photograph, which struck me as very beautiful and very sad. The first had to do with the quoted language from the photographer that appeared in the caption. Photographer Truong describes what happened the day after he took the picture in what seems to be almost a casual, matter-of-fact tone, but I believe that his reaction was anything but callous. In trying to put myself in his mind-set, to the extent that it might be possible for me to do so, I realized that tragic events of this nature must have been everyday occurrences in Viet Nam during the many wars which have plagued that country, and that his seemingly cavalier response was in fact a quite necessary one for someone who had seen and experienced great suffering first-hand and who needed, above all, to continue to survive. Indeed, photographer Truong himself had suffered a debilitating shrapnel wound as a young soldier in 1956 which rendered him blind, deaf, and paralyzed. His recovery was long, difficult, but ultimately successful, for by 1959 he was able to take up his new role as a photographer for the Vietnam News Agency.

My second reaction to the photograph was to try to imagine the inner life of the Youth Volunteer who died. What, if anything, was she thinking about as she played her guitar? How long the war would last? What she would do afterward? Was she thinking of her family, her country, a boyfriend, perhaps? Or, knowing full well the hardships and dangers of her life and how quickly it might end, had she decided that it was better not to think at all, that it was best just to play on as long as she was given the opportunity to do so? I have no answers to these questions, neither in reality, of course, nor in the story for which this picture formed the basis. Instead, “The Photograph” is told from the point of view of a young (fictional) man serving in the same corps along the Ho Chi Minh Trail who loved this girl and who refuses to resign her memory after the war is over and he is urged by the leaders of his country to “move on.” In his picture Le Minh Truong immortalized the girl. In the story I hope to show that she was part of a larger world which contained at least one other person who would always hold her image in the forefront of his mind and heart regardless of whether that image appeared on film.