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.