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Farewell to Saigon

book cover San Jose's Larry Engelmann collects stories from all sides of the last days of the Vietnam War

By Andrew X. Pham




I don't want my memories to be lost, like tears in the rain. So I will tell you my story. Then you can tell it to others. Maybe if enough people know what happened to Vietnam, then my memories will never be lost. Maybe then they will be like tears before the rain. So listen. This is very important. This is what I remember. This is what happened to me. These are my tears before the rain.
By Duong Quan Son

TWO DECADES, a new generation and other foreign battles shroud the Vietnam of April 1975, when the Americans left and the war ended. But the lives that passed through that juncture of space and time were forever changed, some for the better, others for the worse, but none insignificantly. Since then, more than a few survivors have tugged on the sleeves of writers and historians to pen their stories, to commit their tragedy to the page so that all would not have been in vain.

Through the years, much of what became the recorded "Vietnam experience" tended to congregate at opposite ends of the spectrum: textbook history or intense personal accounts, an overview or a single view. What Larry Engelmann has created in Tears Before the Rain, his compilation of personal interviews with both Vietnamese and Americans, is a multifaceted lens focused on Saigon during the fateful days straddling April 30, 1975.

Some accounts place the reader in the shoes of those fleeing the streets of Saigon; others provide more ideological reflections. In aggregate, the stories paint a three-dimensional collage more vivid and encompassing than any single work could hope to achieve.

Engelmann's book began as a magazine article, a profile of an American who had been aboard the aircraft carrier Midway in the spring of 1975 when South Vietnam was falling. One interview led to a dozen others. Eventually, over the course of five years, Engelmann, a San Jose, Calif., resident, gathered some 300 personal accounts; of these, he chose 75 and divided them into three sections: "Americans," "Vietnamese" and "Aftermath." The book was first published in 1990 and is now finally available in a paperback edition with a new postscript by the author.

The first part begins with the most vivid account in the book: the last flight out of Danang with World Airways chief Ed Daly and CBS reporter Bruce Dunning and his news crew, narrated by Jan Wollett, the senior flight attendant on the trip. Among the other stories are interviews with Congressman Pete McCloskey and Thomas Polgar of the CIA, as well as several Marines and many American civilians caught up in the Vietnam conflict.

ONE ADVANTAGE of gathering details so far removed from the event is the natural surfacing of subjectivity and the true colors of personality. Take, for instance, former ambassador to Vietnam Graham Martin, who admits quite frankly, "I never really had any great attachment to the Vietnamese, North or South. I don't particularly like any of them. I love the Thai. I think they're the most marvelous people in the world. I like most Chinese, but I don't like the Khmer particularly, and I don't like the Lao or Malay. I like the Indonesians. I think the Americans have a right to be proud of the evacuation [of Vietnam]. I have absolutely nothing for which I apologize at all. I did take the blame for Vietnam. ... Anyway, I had fun. I never worried about getting fired. I always figured if I got fired, I'd go back to the typewriter."

Fortunately, most Americans enmeshed in the Vietnam tragedy did not hold the same views as Martin. Diane Gunsul, formerly of the Defense Attaché Office, reflects, "I knew then that I was leaving a country that I fell in love with. It's a beautiful country. I was sad to know that the people had lost their war and that they would probably regret it."

This affectionate sentiment is returned many fold by those Vietnamese who made it out of the country. Many of Englemann's Vietnamese-American subjects have settled here in Santa Clara County, and hence their tales of Thai pirates, rape, hunger, poverty, prejudice and a bewildering sense of dislocation are brought even closer to home.

Engelmann also includes interviews with Vietnamese soldiers and officers, from both the vanquished South and the victorious North, showing a stark divergence in perspectives about what happened in the war. Tears Before the Rain is an invaluable work, giving life and dignity to stories that might otherwise perish like tears in the rain of an uncaring, forgetful, forever changing world.


Tears Before the Rain by Larry Engelmann; Da Capo Press; $15.95 paper.

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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