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.
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.
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.
I could not find the photo of Richard among those chronicling the end of the American intervention. That would come later in Hanoi.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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."
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
December 25, 2015