Triad

Michele May: from U.S. Intelligence to American Beauty

by Ana Tampanna
November 2010

It's not every day that one can enjoy the friendship of a former member of the United States intelligence community. Michele May, a sharpshooter and prolific photojournalist, is now living quietly in the Triad, married to a former Counterintelligence Special Agent, also retired. Her story is one of courage, persistence and service.

The May marriage resembles a modern-day fairy tale with a beautiful, young and adventurous Vietnamese woman as heroine. A trained photographer, Mai accepted a job at the age of 17 in her hometown of Dalat, South Vietnam, as a photographer embedded on the front lines of the Vietnam War. She traveled by helicopter with high-ranking officials such as the president of  the Vietnamese Republic, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam and even  General Westmoreland. Again and again, she risked her life taking pictures for United Press International. She has met the likes of Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, and her combat photographs were published in the Time/Life series, The Vietnam Experience.

Within a year, and after thorough investigation and training, Mai was offered a job with U.S. Military Intelligence. Resourceful and smart, 18-year-old Mai continued to study English, supplementing her grade-school education with additional classes at the American Information Services in Vietnam, and practicing her language skills at weekend Bible schools conducted by American Baptist missionaries. She soon became a valued interpreter/translator. It was in this capacity that she met the man who would change her life forever.

Michele with General Westmoreland

In 1972, Tim May arrived at the Intelligence office in Dalat for his last five months of duty. A 6 ft., 2in. Army sergeant from Arkansas, he was immediately smitten with the tiny interpreter assigned to work with him in the tense, fast-paced environment of a dangerous war. Precise, eager to please and hard working, the young Vietnamese woman became his dependable partner. Tim was aware that Mai was an integral part of tactical and strategic intelligence, and that she literally had his life in her hands. Her courage, intelligence and perseverance were qualities he deeply admired. 

 Mai was impressed by Tim, as well. Easygoing and generous, the American soldier organized resources to help Vietnamese individuals struggling to make ends meet. He found the culture warm and hospitable and developed a fondness for Vietnamese food. When Tim's five months ended, Mai's mother insisted that Mai bring him home for a farewell dinner. Tim returned to the states with Mai in his heart and began to court his new sweetheart with long letters, cassette tapes and occasional phone calls.

When the Military Intelligence office in Dalat closed down, Mai commuted over a long treacherous mountain road to work weekdays with the American Consulate General in Nhatrang. Weekends, the young photographer climbed the bus for the five-hour trip home. When the cassette tape arrived bearing a proposal, Mai couldn't wait to share the news with her mother. The young sergeant had described his life in thorough detail: his parents, ambitions, hobbies and habits. Mai would pay a high price to become his bride, leaving behind the world as she knew it, so he wanted her equipped to make an educated decision.

Upon her return to Nhatrang, Mai unwrapped a special package: a diamond ring, accompanied by a round-trip ticket to the states. Still another letter arrived with travel money.

"I'm sending a round-trip ticket," her sweetheart had written, "in case you don't like America and can't go through with this. I've included travel money as you will most likely have to pay bribes to get your paperwork through in Vietnam." As usual, he had thought of everything.

Mai packed only a couple of suitcases for her trip to America, thinking she would return to collect the rest of her possessions and family treasures. She would never see her possessions, however, or her mother again. As the war ended, the tiny country experienced chaos and suffering that would last for decades. Tim sensed the heartbreak his wife must have felt.

"We'll bring them here," he promised "your whole family. We'll fill out the papers and offer to be their sponsors."

Michele May in a U.S. Army jeep

Mai took the name Michele for her life in America. Tim changed careers, a requirement since he had married a "foreign national." Michele acquired citizenship in 1978 and tackled the challenges of American life. With Tim's new career in VA hospital administration, the couple was forced to relocate across the country every six years, discouraging Michele from earning a college degree. Nonetheless, she thrived on challenge and loved her role as the wife of a government official. Michele glittered in her beautiful ball gowns, tailored to her tiny size, at formal government functions.

Tim kept his promise. Filling out form after form, the couple applied for sponsorship of Michele's parents and four brothers. With each transfer, each job change and each new year, the paperwork had to be completed again. One brother managed to get out, but the others had married. As families grew, the paperwork grew more and more tedious. Hope diminished.

Finally, after filing paperwork for 13 years, Michele and Tim received a telegram notifying them that her entire family had been granted permission to come to America under their sponsorship. One can only imagine both the joy and anxiety Tim and Michele must have experienced at the airport when three brothers, their wives, seven children and Michele's father arrived in San Francisco. Tim and Michele rented a second apartment to provide enough bedroom space. Tim insisted that the men attend school to learn English and a trade before venturing out on their own.

Today, Tim is retired after a long and successful career. Michele's entire family has relocated to the Winston-Salem area where each brother has a successful business. Possessing a strong work ethic, the parents work hard and the children excel in school. Michele entertains on holidays, and Tim enjoys good Vietnamese food.  

The best part of this story for me is that I get to experience firsthand the determined dedication to service that is so characteristic of Michele, who has become an esthetician with a wall full of certificates. As she mastered photography, so has she mastered the technical aspects of beauty treatments. As she worked hard to serve the U.S. Military Intelligence, so does she work hard to serve her women customers. With the enthusiasm formerly used to tackle new jobs in cities across the country, she delights in meeting and serving new people. Women, including me, feel pampered and beautiful under her masterful care.

Michele May and husband Tim are featured in Memoirs of a Counterspy by Donald Bradshaw (Authorhouse).  Ana Tampanna is an author, speaker and artist living in Winston-Salem. You can find her at PortraitsbyAna.com or Tampanna@bellsouth.net.


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