Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Anne Mariano Remembers Vietnam

"There Was This Great Sadness"
ANN MARIANO as told to Larry Engelmann

(Ann passed away in February 25, 2009 at the age of 76. )

I worked for a paper called the Overseas Weekly and it was a small privately-owned weekly newspaper. It was published in Europe for many years, I think based in Germany, and it was for the American soldiers in Germany. It was a GI paper as opposed to Stars and Stripes and Army Times which were more establishment papers. It was really one of the first underground papers.
It was a paper that told the story of the Army in Europe from the GIs point of view, and we covered GI complaints and gripes and court martials.
I grew up in Texas, graduated from college there and worked for my hometown paper for four years. Then I went to New York and went to Europe as an airline stewardess for Capitol Airlines, a non-scheduled airline under military contract. Which was really how I got connected with the military because I flew a lot of troop flights and military families.
So I went into Frankfurt a lot and that's where the Overseas Weekly was published. I heard about it and applied for a job and they hired me. That was 1960. I worked for them in Europe for the next six years. And when the troop buildup in Vietnam began in '65, then my paper started saying that we should start to cover the Vietnam War, because that's where a lot of the troops went who were taken out of bases in Europe. We thought we should at least follow them and do stories about Vietnam. And that grew into the idea of actually starting a Pacific edition of the paper. They sent me to Vietnam to do this.
I'd never been to Asia before. I don't think I had even been in California. I always went east. But in January of 1966 I went to Vietnam. That was when the troop buildup was well under way. One of the first places I went was Cu Chi where the 25th infantry division was building their base camp -- on top of a network of VC tunnels.
It helped that I had had so much experience with the military and I was supposed to be covering the U.S. military, rather than the politics of the war. And I had been around American military for six years and I sort of knew how they thought and I understood their language which was sometimes a different language. And I think that for some reporters who hadn't covered military before, it was hard. That was an advantage for me. On the other hand, I knew absolutely nothing about Asia, or about Vietnam.
The people that I knew, the officers that I knew, early in 66, they were excited in a sense about having a war to fight. I know that sounds terrible, but for the professional military people, they hadn't been in anything. I guess that's what they were trained to do, and what their whole lives are pointed toward, and there was a real excitement about it and a lot of optimism that we will get this over with very quickly. With American superiority, militarily and in equipment, and that sort of thing, they thought they would have a very easy job of it. There was a great deal of optimism and a feeling that we can take care of this very quickly.
I have to confess that before I went there I sensed a lot of feeling of Americans in Europe and people that I knew, that this was a bad move to send a lot of American soldiers into Southeast Asia, into a war that had been as David Halberstam said, a quagmire for the French, and what appeared to be basically a civil war. From that standpoint I didn't share that optimism.
In those early years things were going pretty well, the first two or three years. But they did things like build the 25th Division's headquarters on top of a tunnel complex and had snipers popping up in the middle of the base camp shooting at them.
You had the feeling that they were dumped into a situation they didn't understand.
I associated with the Vietnamese, myself, and I understood what was going on. I lived in an apartment, and we all had commissary privileges so I shopped in the commissary, but I did shop in the local economy and the office that I set up for the weekly had a couple Vietnamese working for us. Part of my job was to try to get the paper distributed in Vietnam. We had printed it in Hong Kong and shipped it in for Vietnam. And the paper was so controversial that the Army which ran the PX system never agreed to let us put it on the newsstands back in Vietnam.
They didn't like us because we also covered stories that were expose kinds of stories, soldiers who felt that they were being mistreated -- we called them GI Gripe stories and they were gripes with good reason. In Vietnam we did some of the same kind of stories that we did in Europe. We covered court martials, I did stories about GIs who were having conflicts with their officers.
And my major fight with the military was trying to get the distribution and they had had such miserable experience with us in Europe that they wouldn't let us in.
We distributed through Vietnamese sources that we had, Vietnamese that would try to sell it to soldiers outside of the bases. It wasn't very satisfactory. Our circulation was maybe 15 or 20 thousand, which isn't bad. And we distributed it in Taiwan and South Korea and other places where there were U.S. troops.
I was in Saigon during Tet in 1968. And I went to Hue afterwards, and I was in the countryside, and it seemed like a great defeat and I think to most people in the press saw it that way. I guess militarily it was a victory because the Viet Cong didn't take over the Embassy and they did lose a lot of people. But I think that it was so shocking that they could do what they did with this enormous American presence.
I think Tet was the turning point. I didn't think from the beginning that it was not going to be successful.
The Paris Agreement seemed to me clearly as just a way out. At the end of January, '73, when the ceasefire was to take place on I was in Pleiku working for AP, covering the day to day, what the Vietnamese and Americans were doing and the arrival of the ICCS guys. They were bewildered. The ceasefire was supposed to go into effect at something like 10 a.m., and the North Vietnamese started dropping in rockets at 9 a.m. So there was this last blast of rockets into Pleiku, and then it all stopped.
It was very strange. There weren't very many Americans left there. In fact it was just an advisory compound of Americans, and the one general who was the advisor to II Corps, was a real character, had been a special forces general most of the time. He was really a little bit crazy. And he ordered a table set up in the middle of the quadrangle on a grassy area. A table with a table cloth, and he had his Vietnamese aide serve him breakfast there with bloody marys and a very elaborate breakfast. And these rockets were falling. None of them were close, but they were rockets and everybody else was in their bunkers and he sent his aide over to get me. I was the only woman around.
This aide came in and said, "The general invites you to have breakfast with him". And I said, "I don't want to do that." And he said, "The general insists." So I went out and sat with him for about ten minutes and then said, "I can't take this."
He'd been in the army since he was seventeen, and a green beret, and he was devastated that the Americans had lost, that we had given in, that we had made the peace agreement. And that was his way of thumbing his nose at the whole idea. And he said he hoped a rocket dropped on him. And I said I hoped it didn't drop on me.
I left in August of '74 with my husband and we went to Hong Kong. And I didn't go back to Vietnam until March of '75. The main reasons I went back, actually, was to work for AP in part, but I also went back because I had a Vietnamese friend who had worked for my paper who desperately wanted to get out, and I went back to help him get out. He was a real endangered species. He was an army officer and he had been in the states a couple of times, and was a language instructor in the Vietnamese army and he also worked for my paper, the Overseas Weekly in his spare time, for several years. He was pretty frightened. And I was frightened for him.
The press had arranged for some spaces on flights for Vietnamese employees of American news bureaus. Brian Ellis was in charge of that area. I got him and his wife onto the press flight, right at the end, too. Most Vietnamese had already gone.
I went in thinking I would do that and leave, but I stayed a little too long and they stopped the flights. And I must admit I wasn't sorry, I really wanted to see the end. I wanted to stay until it was over and it was clear it was very close to being over. I'd been there so long and was there almost at the beginning of the American buildup, and I had so much of myself invested in that. My life was so wrapped up in it. My feelings may have been more personal than professional. Although professionally I thought it was an important turning point in history.
I left in a Marine helicopter from Tan Son Nhut late in the afternoon on the 29th, when the buses were still picking up people around the city. With a couple other AP people I got onto a bus close to the center of town. It was one of the buses that drove around for a couple of hours before it got to Tan Son Nhut. It was jammed with people. I think it was one of the last buses and one of the last helicopter trips out of Tan Son Nhut, because when the buses got to Tan Son Nhut they were barricaded and there were very angry looking Vietnamese troops on the other side of it who didn't want to let us in. There was a lot of argument and finally the buses went through.
I wasn't worried about my personal safety. There were some mortars falling in here and there, but it was pretty clear that the North Vietnamese were waiting for us to leave. I think the North Vietnamese were right outside of the city, not very far out and they could have done a lot more damage than they did. That was clear and I think that is why I wasn't frightened.
There was not a lot of conversation at the airport. Carl Robinson, an AP reporter, was there and he is married to a Vietnamese woman and his wife and children were out, but he had his wife's younger sister and brother with him. He and I had these kids with us, shepherding them. There was a little nervous conversation, but not a lot.
The bus let us off at the big MACV headquarters building. That was how the evacuation was supposed to work. And there were a lot of people already there, --Americans and Europeans and Vietnamese. They were lined up around through the halls waiting for the helicopters. We stayed there for about three hours.
A helicopter landed right beside a tennis court and they had a force of marines who were defending the perimeter of this tennis court, flat on their stomachs with their rifles and I thought what the hell are they shooting at? And there was an unreal sense there. It was kind of funny because there wasn't a hostile force in sight. But they had to do it by the book.
We left was about 5 in the afternoon. I remember watching as we flew over the city and along the river and the helicopter turned, and wondering if I would ever see it again. I also remember hearing that the North Vietnamese had taken control and were firing at helicopters, so I sort of wondered about that. But I wasn't frightened. I never thought that if I didn't leave that day that something dire would happen to me. I think I was sad that I had to leave because I left a lot of friends. And I was sorry it ended like that. I had spent so much time there.
I was sad. You see I had adopted both my children in Vietnam. One in 1970 and the other in '73 at a small Catholic orphanage in Cholon called Viet Hua run by Vietnamese sisters. I didn't expect that the Americans were going to win, in the sense that they thought they were, but I felt sad that it had been botched so badly and I thought a lot of Vietnamese were going to suffer as a result. And from a personal point of view I was going to be cut off. I had many Vietnamese friends. And I felt very close to the sisters who ran the orphanage where I adopted my children.
There was this great sadness. Before my ship left the station they were picking up refugees in boats -- there was another ship that picked up refugees off of the Navy ships and took them to Manila or to Guam--and they made Carl Robinson put his wife's young brother and sister on the ship and he really got upset. They were in their late teens and frightened. But he had to put them on the ship. To see them float away, that was so sad. After the ship had picked up all the Vietnamese from our ship, then they took us in to the Blue Ridge, where most of the reporters were along with the ambassador and his cook and his dog, and the CIA station chief.
Soon after we returned to the U.S., my husband, Frank passed away. We had named our oldest daughter Jane Katherine. She died of cancer four years ago. She would have been 17 now. My younger one is almost fifteen. Her name is Anna. Her full name is Anna Francesca Hoa, so we did keep the Vietnamese name. And actually we called her Hoa, we intended to always for her name to be Hoa, but after we got back to the states from the time she was about five, people mispronounced her name. You wouldn't believe what Americans can do to H-o-a, and it embarrassed her and she wanted to change her name, so we changed it.
I have seen a lot of tragedy in my life. but I guess I have so many Vietnamese friends whose tragedies are so much more, who have lost so much more than I have that it kind of puts it in perspective.

Ann Mariano in Vietnam with the two orphans she adopted.
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