Prospective cover of a new book expected to be published in the winter of 2012
Đức was a spindly leader of a gang of homeless kids roaming the sidewalks of “my” block of Tu Do Street in Saigon. We met in 1965 when Tu Do, the former Rue Catinat, still displayed traces of its former French colonial charm; it was still shaded by bushy and bright green tamarind trees, which would later fall victim to the exhaust fumes of tens of thousands of mopeds with two-stroke engines and prehistoric cars such my grey 1938 Citroen 15 CV Traction Avant, the “gangster car” of French film classics. This car was nearly my age, a metric ton of elegance on wheels -- and very thirsty; eight miles were all she gave me for a gallon of gasoline, provided her fuel tank had not sprung a leak, which my mechanic managed to seal swiftly every time with moist Wrigley gum harvested from inside his cheeks.
As you will presently see, my friendship with Đức and my love for this car were entwined. In truth, it wasn’t really my car. I had leased it from Josyane, a comely French Hertz concessionaire who, as I later found out, was also the agent of assorted Western European intelligence agencies, including the BND, Germany’s equivalent of the CIA. I had often wondered why Josyane rummaged furtively through the manuscripts on my desk when she joined my friends and me for “sundowners” in Suite 214 of the Continental Palace. I fantasized that she was attracted by my youthful and slender Teutonic looks and my stiff dry martinis. She never let on that she read German; why would she want to stare at my texts if they were incomprehensible to her? Well, now I know: She was a spook, according to the Dutch station chief, possibly one of her lovers. But that’s alright! I loved her car and she loved my martinis, which she handed around with amazing grace, and she was welcome to my stories anytime; after all, they were written for the public at large.
But my mind is wandering. Let us return to Đức. He was a droll twelve-year old with a mischievous grin reminding me of myself when I was his age, a rascal in a large wartime city. True, I wasn’t homeless like Đức, although the British Lancaster bombers and the American Flying Fortresses pummeling Leipzig night and day during the final years of World War II tried their best to render me that way. Like Đức, I was an impish big-town boy successfully bossing other kids on my block around. Đức was different. He was an urchin with a high sense of responsibility. He protectively watched over a gang of much younger orphans living on Tu Do between Le Loi Boulevard and Le Than Ton Street, reporting to a middle-aged Mamasan headquartered on the sidewalk outside La Pagode, a café famed for its French pastries, and the renowned rendezvous point of pre-Communist Saigon’s jeunesse dorée. Mamasan was the motherly press tycoon of that part of the capital. She squatted there outside La Pagode surrounded by stacks of newspapers: papers in Vietnamese and English, French and Chinese; the Vietnamese were avid readers. She handed them out to Đức and his wards and several other bands of children assigned to neighboring blocks.
From what I could observe, Đức was Mamasan’s most important lieutenant, the head paperboy at the busiest end of his block. His turf was the sidewalk between Givral, a restaurant renowned for its Chinese noodle soup as well as the most authentic French onion soup in all of Southeast Asia, and the entrance to the shopping passage in the Eden Building, which housed the consular section of the West German embassy at that time and the offices of the Associated Press. I fancy that I was one of Đức’s favorite clients because I bought the Saigon Daily News and the Vietnam Guardian from him every day, and the Saigon Post and the Journal d’Extrème Orient. Sometimes I allowed him to cajole me into paying for a couple of Vietnamese-language papers; not that I could read them, but I was intrigued by their frequent empty spaces, the handiwork of government censors.
One late afternoon at the onset of the monsoon season, Đức and I became business partners. The massive clouds in the tropical sky were about to burst. Sheets of water threatened to descend on me with the force of a guillotine blade transforming Saigon’s principal thoroughfare into a gushing stream. I hastily squeezed my Traction into a tight parking space outside Givral’s, a muscle-building exercise given that this front wheel-driven machine lacked power steering and was propelled by a heavy six-cylinder motor made of cast iron. Exhausted, I switched off the engine by which time I was lusting for a bottle of Bière Larue on the Continental Palace’s open-air terrace when Đức stopped me.
The old Traction’s front doors opened forward, thus in the opposite direction of the doors of all modern cars. As I tried to dash out, Đức stood in my way pointing at the windscreen sticker I had been issued that morning by my embassy. It bore the German national colors, black, red and gold, and identified me as “Báo Chí Đức,” a German journalist. This was meant to protect me in case I ran into a Viet Cong roadblock on my occasional weekend jaunts to Cap Saint-Jacques, now called Vũng Tàu, a seaside resort once known as the St. Tropez of the Far East. It actually did shield me in those days. Whenever I ran into a patrol of black-clad Communist militiamen, they would charge me a toll and let me go, but not before issuing me a stamped receipt.
“You Đức!” he shouted delightedly. “My name Đức. We both Đức. We like brothers!”
We shook hands. Now I had a younger brother in Saigon; later I learned that his remark meant even more: it was wordplay. Đức is also the Vietnamese word for virtuous.
Having established our bond, he wouldn’t let me go, though. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Rain coming, Đức, rain Number Ten.” I knew Saigon street jargon well enough to realize that my new brother wasn’t talking of the tenth rainfall. No, “number ten” meant the worst, the pits, something definitely to avoid.
“Okay, okay,” Đức continued. “You Đức, you Number One (the best). You and I do business, okay?”
Then he outlined our deal: I was to allow him and his wards to seek shelter in my Traction. It would become their bedroom, which they promised to keep immaculately clean. If I wanted to leave any valuables in the car, they would be safe. Its lock no longer worked; this much Đức had already ascertained.
“Okay, okay, Đức?” he pleaded impatiently.
I nodded. He whistled, and at once eight toddlers rushed out of several doorways and piled into my Traction. Three curled up on the back seats, two on the jump seats, one each in the legroom separating them, one girl took the right front seat, another squatted on the generous floor space under her feet, and Đức naturally took his place behind the steering wheel.
“Bonne nuit, Đức, you number one!” he said, slamming the door and winding up the window. At this moment a torrent of rain poured down on the Traction and on me. The kids were safe. I was drenched to the bones within seconds. I ran into the Continental, needing more than a Larue. First I had a shower in my room, then a whisky on the terrace. As night fell I kept staring across Tu Do Street at my large Citroen with steamed up windows outside Givral’s. This sight pleased me. These children were warm and dry. In all my years in Vietnam I rarely felt as happy as on that evening, an uncommon sensation in a reporter’s life.
I am dedicating this book to Đức because in my mind he personifies qualities that formed my affection and admiration for the people of South Vietnam, and my compassion for them after their abandonment by their protectors and their betrayal by some, though not all, members of my profession. Like Đức, they are feisty and resilient; they don’t whine, but pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they care for each other. When they are down, they rise again and accomplish astonishing things. I am in awe of the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese living and working close to my home in southern California. I am full of admiration for those former boat people and survivors of Communist reeducation camps, those former warriors suffering in silence from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other severe ailments caused by torture and head injuries received in combat.
I hope that Đức’s adolescence and adulthood turned out to be a success story as well, but I don’t know. We lost contact a couple of years after our first encounter. Was he drafted into the South Vietnamese army and eventually killed in combat? Did he join the Vietcong and perhaps die in their service? Was he among the thousands of civilians butchered by the Vietcong during the Têt Offensive of 1968? Or did this crafty kid manage to flee his homeland after the Communist victory of 1975? Perhaps he is alive at the time of this writing is a successful 58-year old businessman or professional in Westminster, California, just up the road from me; perhaps he is reading this book.
I thought of Đức when two wonderful Vietnamese friends invited me to address a convention of former military medical officers of the South Vietnamese Army. They had been urging me for some time to write my wartime reminiscences. “Do it for us,” they said, “do it for our children’s generation. They want to know what it was like. You have special credibility because as a German you had no dog in this fight.” Then, after listening to my anecdotes such as the one about my encounter with Đức, several of those retired physicians, dentists and pharmacists in my audience said the same thing, and some bounced my speech around the Internet.
I do not presume to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War or even give a comprehensive account of the nearly five years I spent in Indochina as a correspondent first of the Axel Springer group of German newspapers and subsequently as a visiting reporter of Stern, an influential Hamburg-based magazine. I beg my readers not to expect me to take sides in the domestic squabbles between South Vietnamese factions, quarrels that are being perpetuated in the huge communities of Vietnamese exiles today. When I mention former Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, for example, this does not mean that I favor him over former President Nguyen van Thieu, or vice versa; I am just here to tell stories, including some about Ky and some about Thieu, without wishing to pass judgment on either. Theirs was an unenviable lot, and they deserve my respect for having taken up an appalling burden.
But there is something I wish to make clear: I did not welcome the victory of the Communists in 1975. I did not believe they deserved this triumph. I have been a witness to heinous atrocities they committed as a matter of policy, a witness to mass murder and carnage beside which transgressions against the rules of war perpetrated on the American and South Vietnamese side –- clearly not as a matter of policy or strategy – appear pale in comparison. I know that many in the American and international mass media and academe have unjustly, gratuitously and arrogantly maligned the South Vietnamese and are still doing so; I almost exploded in anger when even I heard Bill O’Reilly, by no means a card-carrying liberal, refer to the Saigon leadership on Fox television as, “those corrupt clowns.” I was disgusted by the way returning GIs were treated by their fellow countrymen and am shocked by the fact that the continued suffering of South Vietnamese veterans is not deemed worthy of consideration by U.S. journalists.
This book is a collection of personal sketches of what I saw, observed, lived through and reported in my Vietnam years. It is a series of alternating narratives about experiences ranging from the horrific to the absurd, from glamorous to frivolous pursuits, from despair to hope. But to remind my readers and myself that this is ultimately a book about a tragic war that ended in defeat for the victims of aggression, I will insert a brief reflection underscoring that effect every few chapters, beginning with a description of a mass murder the Communists committed during the 1968 Têt Offensive.
I owe gratitude to many people: the absent Đức, my Vietnamese family in Orange County, Quy and QuynhChau, better known as Jo, and her sister Tran and Tran’s husband Di Ton That, as well as the countless Vietnamese, American, French, British and German friends I made in Vietnam. I also wish to thank the Vietnam veterans whom I served as a chaplain intern at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the psychologists and ministers with whom I worked in order to provide those former soldiers with pastoral care. There is my friend and editor Peggy Strong, and there is, first and foremost, Gillian, my wife of 50 years who has stood by me and endured our long periods of separation caused by my assignment to an enchanting war-torn country I have come to love.
Laguna Woods, Calif., October 2012.