In “Escape from Saigon' the names of political and military leaders, such as American Ambassador Martin or South Vietnam President Thieu, remained unchanged, while other characters were created out of whole cloth. They are no more real than Saigon-based journalist Thomas Fowler or CIA operative Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s "The Quiet American”
But the creative process is complicated. Some characters, though bearing no resemblance to actual people, were inspired by snippets of my Air Force service in Saigon and return visits since. To illustrate how fact becomes fiction, I compared a scene in "Escape from Saigon" to one of those experiences .
The incident occurred when I returned to Vietnam years after the war had ended and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels; the subterranean labyrinth of passageways, offices, barracks, hospital, and conference rooms where the Viet Cong were hold up until the 1969 Tet Offensive.
Our group sat down in one of the tunnels’ conference rooms for a briefing by a former Viet Cong officer who had lived there during the War. He explained how they subsisted on a root similar to cassava, adding, “We used everything the Americans brought here. If a parachute fell to the ground, we used it for mosquito netting, if a bomb didn’t explode we turned it into a new weapon, we forged metal into everything from bayonets to cooking pots.” He went on, “When we camouflaged the tunnel entrances with leaves and undergrowth we added bits of fabric from American Army uniforms to throw the MP dogs off their scent.”
Though he spoke perfect English, it was with a distinct New Jersey accent. When I asked him about the accent he told me, "I learned English from Armed Forces Radio and TV. Like I said, we used everything the Americans brought here."
Here is how that real-life dialogue played out as an argument about baseball between “Escape from Saigon” hero, Sam Esposito, correspondent with The Washington Legend, and his North Vietnamese source who called with a news tip for him and his friend Lisette Vo of NBS-TV.
From Escape from Saigon - a Novel
“Sam, we’ve done it. We did our job. It’s over. We can go home. You and me. Today. We put on our clothes, walk out the front door and catch a ride to Tan Son Nhut. We’d be on a flight within the hour. It’s that simple. What do you say Sam? Let’s go home,” Lisette implored.
Sam caught himself smiling broadly over the thought of leaving without a moment’s hesitation, skipping the heartfelt goodbyes and vows to keep in touch. He wanted to be with Lisette. But then a thousand obstacles crowded his mind. He hadn’t been back to the world in ten years. Where would he, they live? Would The Washington Legend want him? But mostly he thought, would covering Washington politics or writing ponderous editorials bore him to death.
All the while he absentmindedly caressed Lisette, and when his eyes met meet hers, it brought him back to the present. He now wondered, am I ready for another go? But just then the phone rang. He fumbled for his glasses and put them on as he clumsily reached for the receiver.
“Ha, ha, Ong Esposito! You and lady friend have good time?” came the voice on the line. “This your friend from the North.”
“Christ! Don’t you guys have anything better to do than follow reporters around? Who the hell is this?”
“You remember me? This is your news source I gave you a big story tip at the Cyclodrome a couple of weeks ago.”
That got Sam’s attention. “Lise, give me something to write with, quick!” She fumbled around until she located a ballpoint pen and hotel stationery pad and handed them to Sam.
“Yes, I remember you now. What—no more secret meetings? Now you call me? Brave
North Vietnamese fellow talking to a decadent American?”
“Your friend Captain Trung, he wants to say good-bye to you. He gives me instructions. Be at Tan Son Nhut before dusk. Hide outside the fence west of the runway. Take your TV friend with you and tell her to bring her camera. Trung promises to have a present for her, a special show for Walter Conkite, your American uncle. You call him Uncle Walter!” Sam covered the mouthpiece and turned toward Lisette.
“Hey, Lise!” he whispered. “He’s got a news tip for you that he says will get you on the NBS Evening News, maybe then Cronkite will know who you are!” Sam then added incredulously, “How is it that they know so much about us and what we watch on TV, and we don’t know squat about them?”
To prove his point, Sam asked the caller, “Hey, numbnuts who’s a better pitcher, Catfish Hunter or Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee?”
“Catfish Hunter or Bill Lee. Who is the better pitcher?”
“Of course, Catfish Hunter, he win Cy Young last year. But I still root for Red Sox!”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I listen to your American baseball on Armed Forces Radio and TV. Learned English, too, from your guy who say ‘Goood Morning Vietnam,’ and that DJ Chris Noel—she is one hot babe!” The caller hung up.
From "Escape from Saigon - a Novel" by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2017.