Q&A with Richard Pena, author of Last Plane Out of Saigon

Richard Pena saw the realities of war while working as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. While he was stationed in that country full of unrest, Pena took it upon himself to learn about the locals—and to try to understand why he had flown halfway around the world to help the South Vietnamese people. The Austin-based attorney, who has served as the president of the American Bar Foundation, the State Bar of Texas, and the Travis County Bar Association, was on one of the last planes to exit Vietnam at the war’s end. He left on day 61 after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which stipulated that America withdraw in 60 days. Last Plane Out of Saigon is a reproduction of Pena’s thought-provoking, real-time journal from that long, final year of the war.

The Texas Bar Journal interviewed Pena in July 2014 about his experiences in Vietnam and the process of writing and publishing the book. An excerpt of Last Plane Out of Saigon will be published in the September 2014 issue of the Texas Bar Journal. For more information, go to lastplaneoutofsaigon.com.

Can you describe how the book came into existence?

I told my story to John Hagan, an award winning writer and scholar with the American Bar Foundation. He asked if he could read the journal notes. I proceeded to take them out of the brown box in my attic and delivered them to him in Chicago. It took him several days to read them. He then called me, and to my surprise, he felt they were very good. He recognized the historical significance of my journal notes and the fact that they were written in real time, while the events were happening. He also commented, “America needs to read these.” Shortly thereafter, we decided to collaborate.

Why did you start writing in a journal and how often did you write in it?

Once I arrived in Vietnam, I was assigned to 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, working as an operating room specialist. It was early May 1972. America had grown weary of the war and I kept wondering why I was there and why we were there. After several months of being “in country,” I was compelled to begin documenting some of what I was seeing. The journal notes were written every now and then, when I had time or when something compelling had happened. In this war, as in others, what one experiences and witnesses would be unbelievable in normal society and often surreal. The war was affecting our young American soldiers and also the Vietnamese people and their country. I felt that I was witnessing a story that needed to be told.

Had it been a long time since you had read your journal entries? What was it like to revisit this material?

I was discharged from the Army when I returned from Vietnam in March 1973. I returned to law school and picked back up with being a law student. Later I was busy practicing law and became active in local, state, and national bar associations. In short, I went about the business of living my life. This whole time, I kept my journal notes from Vietnam and carried them with me from house to house. They were in a brown box. Every now and then I would read a short passage. This usually occurred when I was doing work in the attic or garage. Reading them always brought back the memories and some of the feelings experienced when I was in Vietnam.

These feelings were the same when I began work on taking the book to publication. The anger associated with the war has been replaced with a sense of sadness, especially when reflecting on the more than 58,000 Americans that were killed. But the hope is that the journal entries, and the book, will help the country learn from the mistakes made in Vietnam.

What was it like working with John Hagan on this project?

When I was flying back from a visit to Vietnam in 2003, after having spotted the photo at the War Remnants Museums in Ho Chi Minh City of me getting on the plane on the last day of American combat involvement, I felt that the journal entries I had written during the war were a special part of history and that I should try to get them published. At the time, I was active with the American Bar Foundation and knew John Hagan to be a person who had a social conscious and was a terrific researcher. I knew he had authored numerous books and over 100 articles in nationally renowned publications. He is best known for co-authoring Darfur and the Crime of Genocide (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which won the 2009 Stockholm Prize in Criminology and was a driving force in the United Nations investigation of the Darfur genocide. I approached John Hagan with my story and was pleasantly surprised when he enthusiastically embraced collaborating on this book.

What was the writing and editing process like? How long did it take to complete the project?

It took 41 years to complete the project. The journal entries were written in 1972-1973 while I was serving in Vietnam. Upon returning to the United States, they were put in a box until I retrieved them in 2003. So, from the time I pulled the journal notes out of the box, to publication date it was about 10 years.

There are many, many steps in getting a book published. Some of the time was devoted to the research and writing of the historical aspects of the book by John Hagan. Learning of how the publishing business worked and making the right decisions along the way also took time. The book was edited numerous times, at first by us, the writers, and then by others and finally by several professional editors. Once the editing was done, we had to make many decisions, such as the cover, the back of the cover, etc. The process is interesting and frustrating at the same time. I did this in my spare time and on weekends, but it was a rewarding labor.

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this book?

Trying to find an agent. The numerous agents that were contacted normally said that it was a good book whose story needed to be told, but that publishing companies were looking for cookie-cutter type books and ours did not fit that mold. I was told that publishing companies are very picky as their profit margin is shrinking—and one can see that with the numerous bookstores that are closing. One agent told me that the only way a publishing company would accept a new author was if the author was famous, notorious, or very wealthy.

I kept at it, trying to figure out the best way to get the book published. It was through luck, destiny, or persistence that we found Story Merchant Books in Beverly Hills. Upon reading the manuscript, before it was even edited, my publisher wrote in his Writer’s Lifeline Analysis that the book was, “An informative and important work which should be read by all Americans.” He went on to say, “If there is one major takeaway from Richard’s writings, it is that all veterans who returned from Vietnam were indelibly changed on an emotional level, and that we must avoid needlessly sending future generations into conflicts which have potential to cause similar emotional harm unless it is absolutely necessary.” I was elated to get his comments, as I felt that finally a publisher understood why the book was written. He took a chance on this book, but he is now pleased as the reviews to date have been very good and encouraging. The challenge of getting the book published now transforms into the challenge of getting the book disseminated.

What is the one memory from your time in Vietnam that stands out?

The senselessness of the war.

What has surprised you since the publishing of the book?

I have been surprised by the depth of emotion expressed by many people who read the book. I have felt all along that Americans of the Vietnam era, to this day, carry with them the wounds and scars of the war. I have learned that this is very true and even to a deeper extent than I had thought. One Vietnam veteran who read the book started crying. The wife of another told me that now she understood what her husband had gone through. Another told me of reading the book once and immediately going back and reading it again. Another who attended the book launch in Austin wrote to me, “Your statements at the book signing were right on target. We must continue to be diligent about our conduct as a nation. I join you in your efforts to bring about a better world.”

What has developed since the publishing of the book is that my journal notes and John’s contributions have become a cause for many people. Perhaps it is because it speaks the truth as I saw it. Perhaps it is that Americans are tired of being lied to about the reasons we go to war. Also surprising is that the appeal is not limited to the Vietnam generation. Some in the younger generation have told me they were not taught about Vietnam in school and want to learn about it. The younger generation is buying the book for their fathers. This is not to say that the book is for everyone, but it is to say that many find the book important in our current dialogue on war and peace.

What do you want the readers to take away from the book?

There is a difference between wars of choice and wars of necessity, and we should be very cautious before we enter into wars of choice. There are consequences to war which can be extremely destructive for individuals and for our country. We should learn from the mistakes our country made in Vietnam, and now in Iraq.

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