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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Gay Vietnam hero tells his tale
by Sarah Toce
2015-05-06

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On April 3, 1975, Vietnam War hero John Riordan single-handedly took on a secret mission to rescue the Vietnamese from Saigon as the war was drawing to a close. Saving a total of 105 people—including bank employees, spouses and children—the Citibank assistant manager risked his own life so that others might continue living theirs.

"I think we all have these points in our life. Some of us get the chance in the limelight or the camera or something, but a lot of heroic things happen every single day in lives, lots of lives," Riordan said when referred to as a hero.

It took more than 40 years for Riordan to make his book-writing dream a reality with They Are All My Family: A Daring Rescue in the Chaos of Saigon's Fall. Not because people wouldn't listen…but because the world simply didn't seem ready for it yet. Truth be told, neither did the publishing houses.

"For the first several years I was run through all kinds of writers—I went to San Francisco and a few other places just trying to meet these people; a lot of them were on the East Coast, so I met them there, or didn't meet them at all, but we had correspondence," Riordan said. "But there was this constant feeling that the story wasn't developed enough. And then the agent said there's no interest in the publishing industry in this book about Vietnam; people are tired of this story. So this is kind of all through the '80s—it just was going nowhere, and I was getting tired of it."

During many incarnations ( including the possibility of the foretold book to become a movie instead ), it seemed that the future best-selling memoir, was a goner. "It finally just petered out; it was just going nowhere," Riordan said.

Still, Riordan's story fascinated anyone who would listen and, because of that, he kept sharing it, anyway.

"I got a call from one fellow by the name of Tom Krause, who is a Vice President in the Asia-Pacific division of CitiBank in New York, telling me, 'John, this is Tom Krause calling, and Peter Howell, another VP, is on the phone with me. We're calling to tell you that the bank has decided that you are going to close that branch today, and you're going to take all of your employees and their immediate families, and you're going to get on a PanAm 747 jumbo jet that we have chartered, and it's going to land at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon tomorrow morning at 12:00. And you're to take the keys to the vault and the major documents that show the position of the bank over to the governor of the central bank,'" Riordan remembered.

Riordan was instructed to burn all important documents and flee immediately.

Two years ago something shifted. Publishers were beginning to discuss the book concept again and this time they felt it would be properly received.

"I said, 'You know, I'm tired of this. It's been 38 years now; I'm an old man now; I'm happy up here on my farm in Belgium, Wisconsin; I love this place, it's been in my family for a long time...' But they pushed me hard."

A man by the name of Marcus Brauchli was interested in Riordan's story and he was willing to tell his friends at CBS' 60 Minutes all about it. Then, three weeks later when Riordan thought all was lost, again, a producer from the popular show called with an offer.

"'What are you doing tomorrow morning?' And I said, 'I'm working here on my farm. I've got 42 acres that keeps me busy. I don't raise crops; I raise prairie grasses and trees and stuff like that.' He said, 'My associate producer, Alex Polis and I would like to be there about 9:00 in the morning at your house and spend the day with you. Have you got a lot of documentation and photographs?' I said, 'Got lots of that stuff, yes.' He said, 'Okay.'"

The show filmed at Riordan's farm and then the crew joined Riordan in Vietnam and Angkor Wat for six days. By the time the show aired on televisions across America, Riordan's story was on the tip of tongues.

But one part of the story perhaps not discussed quite as much is the fact that Riordan is a gay man.

"I had a gay set of friends everywhere I had been since I came out in Vietnam in the U.S. Army; that's where I first met my first love," Riordan shared. "He wasn't in the Army, but I was in the Army. He was in one of the charitable organizations that worked there."

The year was 1968 and Riordan recalled others being in the glass closet as well.

"Most of my friends were not military people—although a few military people were, and even one of my bosses was gay," he said. "There have been gay people in armies since the beginning of time. Some great stories about them, too; I'm trying to think of one about Charlemagne and somebody he was hooking up with I think … goes back awhile."

Riordan remembered coming out to his family in 1977.

"I was at a barbecue that my brother and his wife were having in Chicago. Bill is his name, and he's a year older than I am, and we were out in the backyard and we were just talking while he's cooking whatever he was cooking, and he said something about, you know, I don't know, is there anyone in your life? And I said, 'Well yeah, there's somebody in my life, but not the usual kind of life. You know what, Bill, I'm gay.' And he said, 'You know, I don't care what people do in their bedrooms.' And I said, 'Well I got to tell you, I don't always just do it in a bedroom.'"

Shortly after that, Riordan told his mother and she later told his father. His response was a moving one.

"My father's got the Chicago Tribune up to his face as usual, drinking coffee and eating breakfast and my mother says to him, 'Bill, do you think that John's friend Steven could be gay?' And my father, being a Chicago police officer—said yes, but he didn't put the paper down; he kept reading it. And my mother was shocked and then she said, 'Well, do you think that Steven and John could be in some kind of a relationship?' And my father said, 'Yes,' but still, the paper's up, doesn't bring it down at all. And then she reached over and grabbed the paper right out of his hands, you know, pushed it down the table, 'Do you know John is gay?' He said, 'Yes, Rosemary. I know. I love him like you love him. He's our son,'" his father said.

Learn more about John Riordan and his book They Are All My Family: A Daring Rescue in the Chaos of Saigon's Fall at www.publicaffairsbooks.com/book/they-are-all-my-family/9781610395038 .


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