"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
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Last Plane Out of Saigon Guest Blogger: Allan Van Fleet

This week the Last Plane Out of Saigon team is honored to have a guest blogger! Allan Van Fleet is a respected lawyer from Houston, Texas, who recently went on a trip to Vietnam this past November. While there, he found the "Last Plane Out" picture of Richard Pena boarding one of the final flights out of Saigon. Van Fleet discovered the picture while visiting a museum in Hanoi and reached out to us. Below is Van Fleet's account of his visit to Vietnam, written exclusively for our blog! Included are his own photographs from the trip. We hope you enjoy this powerful piece by Allan Van Fleet.

It was already steamy by mid-morning November 8 2015.  I was in a boat on the Mekong River, on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.

Earlier, when My girlfriend asked, “What do you think about this?” as she handed me a brochure for educational travel to Vietnam with her alumni association, I thought "Let's go." Previously, I could not have imagined a day when I would look forward to going to Vietnam.

But it is 2015 now. I can remember a time when I hoped like hell never to go to Vietnam.  In January 1971, on my 18th birthday, I registered for the draft in Luling, Texas.  That August, as I started Rice University, student deferments ended.  I was 1-A.

February 2, 1972 dawned cool and clear: a bluebird sky over Houston.  KTRU radio carried the draft lottery live.  One by one, birthdays were assigned call-up order numbers, which were broadcast across campus.  High numbers brought howls of relief.  Low numbers sent boys – we were still teenagers – to the ROTC building to postpone their trip to Southeast Asia.

Mine was 161.  Too low to celebrate, too high to sign up – or check road maps to Canada.  Like everyone in my cohort that night, I drank.  A lot.

Almost 50,000 draftees were inducted in 1972.  I was not one of them.  I heard that guys with numbers in the 150s were called for physicals.  I was not. Then, in January 1973, Nixon and Kissinger announced they had achieved “Peace with Honor” in Paris.  We all knew it was a ruse.  I didn’t care.  I wasn’t going.  It was over. Again, we drank.

On March 29, 1973 the last plane bringing home American troops left Saigon.  Decades later I would learn that Richard Pena was on that plane.

In the late 1990s, I knew of Richard as the President of the State Bar of Texas and got to know him when we both served in the American Bar Association House of Delegates.  He served as the State Delegate from Texas and I as the representative of the Section of Antitrust Law, which I would later chair.  I found him thoughtful and quiet, but passionate in his belief that law should first serve people, rather than fill pocketbooks.

It was when I was getting ready for my trip to Vietnam that I vaguely remembered Richard had published a memoir of his time in Vietnam. So I downloaded and read Last Plane Out of Saigon.  I had no idea it would be such a searing indictment of the war and its effect on men, such as Richard, who were forced to go despite their opposition to the senseless conflict.

I thought of Richard that morning as I stood on the deck of the Mekong Princess, crossing into Vietnam, and I thought of him often during the next two weeks.
From Last Plane Out of Saigon I learned the chaos of the operating theater when the wounded were brought in from battle.  From sampans in delta tributaries and canals and from dikes dividing rice paddies, I learned something of what it must have been like to fight a hidden – and effective and inspired – enemy.  Our group included Brian, a Yale alum who had been a second lieutenant in Vietnam, spotting artillery from helicopters. He gave us a feel for the horror that sent soldiers to the hospital where Richard served as a surgical assistant. American soldiers, that is. South Vietnamese soldiers had their own hospitals. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bodies were counted and left for villagers to bury.

Richard recounts honestly the booze and drugs permeating his “downtime” in Saigon. In war – especially against guerrillas in their homeland – there is no downtime. So many not killed by the Viet Cong would die of drugs or drink back home.  

But on this trip mostly we learned about the war from the other side.  The Vietnamese call it The American War, which evolved from The French War.  We met no one – no one – who did not have family killed or wounded in the war. No one believes the official estimate of 1.2 million dead.  It’s more like 3 million, almost a tenth of the population at the time.  Nam, our guide in the Mekong Delta and Saigon (which the locals still call Ho Chi Minh City), was originally from Hanoi and had three uncles who fought for the North.  One came back alive.  He had been an artillery and mortar spotter, like Brian, but was up in trees, not helicopters.  The remains of a second uncle were discovered ten years after the war ended. (North Vietnamese soldiers had no dog tags; he had written his name on paper he put in a glass penicillin vile found in a mass grave.) One uncle is among the 500,000 still missing. A half a million Vietnamese men missing to this day.

The visit to the War Museum in Saigon was hard.  Of course, told from the victors’ point of view, its story vilifies the Americans and their “puppets” in the South.  Yet, a memorial wall comprises photographs of those who died from all sides – including American soldiers.  The room depicting Agent Orange victims – to this generation – was especially difficult.  The amount of toxins poured onto the land and people (including American soldiers) was stunning.

I could not find the photo of Richard among those chronicling the end of the American intervention.  That would come later in Hanoi.

From Saigon, we traveled by bus to Cu Chi. Here we would experience the elaborate tunnel system constructed to shelter guerillas – and Vietnamese civilians – from the carpet bombing one presidential candidate wants to bring to the Middle East.  We walked around craters the size of swimming pools and crawled through the cramped tunnels.

At an outdoor lecture hall we met Nem, who at 17 lost his right arm and eye in a firefight with Americans.  With Nam translating, Nem told us he never liked the term “Viet Cong.”  That was coined by Americans, as shorthand for “Vietnamese Communists.” 

Nem said he was never a party member, nor were those who fought and lived in the tunnels along with him.  They were nationalists who wanted nothing more than an independent and united country free of the French and free of the Americans.  But he – as everyone else we met – held no personal animosity toward Americans. “We got news reports of the many American people – especially students – who were against the war.  That encouraged us.” 

On the way back to Saigon, we stopped at a war cemetery. Row upon row of identical headstones reminded me of US military cemeteries, such as, the one at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, where my father, grandfather and uncle are buried. The large sculpture of a woman grieving over a fallen soldier reminded us of the families left bereft.

Throughout the trip, Brian had been enthusiastic – exuberant, really – sharing his experiences and his copious knowledge of American and Vietnamese weapons and tactics. Our best “formal” lecture on board the Mekong Princess had featured Brian and Nam telling their different sides of the war.

That afternoon, Brian was the last to return to the bus from the cemetery.  And there he lost it.  The former Army officer who directed artillery fire onto the Vietnamese wept openly.  Nam, who lost much of his family in the war, took Brian in his arms.  All of us on the bus watched and wept with them.

I would learn later that Brian returned from Vietnam to protest the war, including at the massive March on Washington.  Richard protested in Austin, before serving.  I only protested the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi.  It was protest light.  My first courtroom experience was watching the arraignment of Rice students who had chained themselves the same federal courthouse in serious protest.

Back in Saigon at night, we sat in the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel.  Specialty drinks included the “B-52” and the “Five-o’clock Follies” – the name journalists gave to the ludicrously optimistic daily briefings the US military provided from the Rex.  We looked over the grand plaza that ran for dozens of blocks along Nguyễn Huệ street.  A statue of Ho saluted the large crowd of Vietnamese people strolling, sitting, laughing, singing.  Over martinis and hot tea we discussed when war is ever justified.  To stop a Hitler.  To stop a Pol Pot (we had walked the Killing Fields days earlier).  But not over differences in religion.  Not over differences in economic philosophy.

Ironically, Vietnam today may be more capitalist and entrepreneurial than America.  Thousands of small shops dot the streets of Saigon and Hanoi.  Local young Yale alumni have already made fortunes in Vietnam. The Hermes store in Saigon is more expensive than the one in Houston.  Our guides and other Vietnamese we met were as openly critical of their government as we are of ours.

In Hanoi we saw more of the other side of the war.  In the magnificently restored Metropole Hotel, built by the French at the turn of the last century, we toured the bomb shelter added during the war. Our guide told us how as a young boy he would often have to scramble to get into one of the one-person shelters built into the streets.

We visited the “Hanoi Hilton,” originally constructed by the French to imprison, torture, and guillotine Vietnamese resisters of colonial rule.  There is something of a shrine to John McCain, including his flight suit, his prison uniform, and his bed.  (McCain’s prison bed looked remarkably similar to Ho’s in his House on Stilts – both far from the opulence of the Presidential Palace in Saigon where President Diem lived and ruled.)

“The official policy was not to torture American prisoners,” our freelance guide told us, “but I’m not saying torture didn’t happen.   We hated them.  They were dropping bombs on us. They were killing us.”  I did not know that McCain’s plane had been shot down over Hanoi, into West Lake – today a popular shopping and dining district.

I skipped over much of the Military Museum.  I had seen enough, felt enough.  There was only one thing still to see.  In the room dedicated to the end of the war, I found the photo.  American soldiers lined up to board the Last Plane Out of Saigon.  Richard is recognizable from the back by his specialist patch and briefcase (mostly covered by a caption in the Hanoi museum) – a briefcase that survived law school and a war he never wanted any part of."
On the Sunday we traveled from Hanoi to Halong Bay, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Neil Sheehan, the in-country journalist who wrote the brilliant history of the war, A Bright Shining Lie.  Our bus – coursing through rice paddies on either side – had WIFI, and we read on-line Sheehan’s piece entitled “At the Dawn of the Bloody Vietnam War.”  Sheehan recounted a battle in which green American soldiers held off wave after wave of North Vietnamese regulars.  “It always galls me when I hear or read of the men who fought the Second World War as ‘the greatest generation,’” Sheehan wrote.  Despite inflicting horrific casualties, “the North Vietnamese attackers never managed to break through that line in sufficient numbers to threaten the battalion position, because the men of C Company, First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, fought and died like the young lions they were.”

Sheehan concluded: “They, and so many others who fought in Vietnam, were as great as any generation that preceded them. Their misfortune was to draw a bad war, an unnecessary war, a mistake by American politicians and statesmen, for which they paid.”

Richard and Brian were among those who paid for that mistake; too many paid the ultimate price.

As I left Vietnam on a flight out of Hanoi’s modern international airport, I thought of my father, a career Army officer and ROTC instructor.  My forefathers were soldiers in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (both sides), the “Indian Conflicts,” the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War.  I often wondered if I disappointed my father by not volunteering to fight in Vietnam.  After my Dad died in 1993, I learned from my brother that Dad, still a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves in the early 1960s, declined the offer of a star to activate and go to Vietnam as an “advisor.”  He also told my brother that had my draft number come up, he hoped I would have found my way to Canada.

Like Richard, I left Vietnam on a plane.  But the lottery – the airline upgrade lottery, not the draft lottery – put a glass of Merlot in my hand, not an M-16.

Allan Van Fleet
Houston, Texas
December 25, 2015
Allan Van Fleet is currently a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Houston, TX. Check out the links below for more information on Van Fleet and other topics mentioned in his post.

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