Tag Archives: veterans

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

Advertisements

How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

VietnamWarGIsInWater

The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

Vietnam-JoinTheArmy

I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.

“Now I don’t have to vote Republican anymore!” by Carol Crouse

19 May

Carol Crouse retired from teaching art several years ago and now has the time to make art of her own, preferably Plein-Air. She volunteers with Planned Parenthood in the San Gabriel Valley, and enjoys doing beauty and special effects makeup for the screen. She lives in Altadena, California, near Pasadena.

 

In 1968-69, Kent State students were having frequent demonstrations on campus against the Vietnam War. Townspeople too were protesting the war. 1969 was my last year of college at Kent State, and I lived in a little duplex. My roomie and I were on one side, and two guys, both named David, were on the other. The Davids were in SDS but I wasn’t aware of that until later. I used to sit in on their political meetings; I paid no attention to what they were talking about. I grooved on their music like the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.”

The Davids and friends planned activities. Demonstrations took place in the bookstore, lounge, etc. Some of us would try to pick out the narcs. The demonstrations were long and snaked around the campus.

I had first realized what was going on in Vietnam when my brother Bill was about to be drafted, in 1967 or ‘68.  I remember my dad insisting, in a patriotic fervor, that my brother join the service. “I’m going to get that critter into the military if I have to Shanghai  him,” was what he said.  Instead of being drafted into the Army, Bill volunteered for the Air Force. When it was time to be shipped to Vietnam, he and I rented a Volkswagen stick shift (I didn’t own a car at that time)—he taught me to drive manual in an afternoon—and I drove him to Norton Air Force Base near San Bernardino, arriving at 2 or 3 a.m.

I still wasn’t fully aware of the war although I did know that I’d never be a Republican because that was what my dad was. Bill wrote to me about some disturbing things about Vietnam.  One thing I recall is his telling me about a fellow soldier who had adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and then had been killed the following week.  He also described the air raids, and the constant sounds of the heavy helicopters flying overhead.  My stepfather Colin admonished him, “Never tell anyone back home what’s really going on.” So Bill stopped writing about it. But I started reading and listening more—these things helped to form my political consciousness.

KentState

In May of 1970, a year after I graduated, the killing by the National Guard of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine others took place. Some of the students had been protesting the invasion of Cambodia; others were bystanders. That summer I returned to campus but it was closed. I had been teaching at Hollenbeck Junior High School in Los Angeles.

My brother Bill completed his active duty and returned home a changed man, obviously suffering what we would now call PTSD. Many guys he’d made friends with had been killed or injured. He told us he’d been bored in Vietnam; he and his fellow soldiers had entertained themselves with bunker-building contests. They had designed and decorated elaborate bunkers with sandbags. Bill had smoked pot but wouldn’t admit it for years because he was afraid of everyone’s disapproval, especially my dad’s.

In the 70s I taught in Los Angeles. Many of my friends and I were enraged at Watergate and Nixon. But we learned that even “good” presidents weren’t always good. For example, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, an unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba funded by the CIA, was supported by Kennedy.

I became disillusioned with politicians. However, I always informed myself about the issues and took part in every election. For a while I dated a communist but I myself was a progressive democrat.

Today I’m a retired art teacher but still avidly interested in mainstream political issues such as the ban on assault weapons.

When I was a little girl my dad used to come home from work and expound on politics over the dining table, pointing to a map on the wall. One place in particular that I do recall was Quemoy.  As long as I can remember, I felt that something wasn’t right about his views.

When Ike was elected, Dad tuned our black and white TV to the convention. The convention was all-male, and most of the men wore pork-pie convention hats. Balloting of the state representatives was conducted, with large lines of conventioneers snaking around the hall in support of this candidate or that.  I’d think, “This is how elections are run?  This is ridiculous!” The balloting continued until one man received enough votes to be that party’s candidate.

When my parents divorced, I remember my mom saying, “Now I don’t have to vote Republican anymore!”

“What Were the Sixties Like?” by W. Roger Scott, Part 2

2 May

To the World War II generation, protesting the Vietnam War was equivalent to blasphemy.  They had fought the “Good War!”  They had saved the world!  (And I do believe that.)  World War II waflowerpower_69_iwo_jimas black and white.  Few wars are like that but many of that generation believed that about Vietnam.  Thus, to them, protesting the Vietnam War was like supporting Joseph Stalin.  There was also a sometimes unspoken belief that the United States had won World War II all by itself.  (One wonders how things would have turned out if Hitler hadn’t been arrogant, dumb or both enough to invade Russia.)  If we could defeat Hitler, why can’t we defeat these Orientals in pajamas?  It must be because these protesters give them hope that we will give up.  (Of course, Vietnam was a guerrilla war, very different from World War II, as we were to learn, or should have learned, in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  Finally, the World War II generation was also the Depression generation.  They could not understand why those whom they thought had everything grew long hair and beards and protested against the country that they believed gave it to them.

Although my friend’s father went to Yale after the War, he was no WASP.  He was of Lithuanian descent, a member of a family active in Democratic politics and lived in a little apartment over a small auto dealership his wife’s father had established.  “Yale is 90% bums!” he said.  “The SDS is worse than communists!”

Northeastern Pennsylvania was not a hotbed of anti-war protest.  I wrote a letter to the school newspaper complaining about the abuse given to a small group of anti-war protesters on Public Square.  The school used a small community newspaper company to print the school newspaper.  The community newspaper inserted “(sic)” throughout the letter, although there were no typos.  “I liked your letter, but why did you put all those “(sics”)s in it?” one of my classmates asked.

My friend and I went to hear Hubert Humphrey at the airport during the 1968 presidential campaign.  As he spoke, a small group of protesters chanted against the war.  An old World War I veteran wearing a VFW cap screamed over and over at them, “You fuckin’ sons of bitches!  You fuckin’ sons of bitches!”  His entire body was shaking with rage.

I went to Kenyon College in rural Ohio.  There were only two Vietnam veterans in my class.  Such was the class divide during that war that Vietnam veterans rarely attended exclusive liberal arts colleges.  Most men who attended such institutions had deferments.  One of the veterans had been a medic; he seemed to have survived the experience okay.  The other had not; he looked like he had been through hell over there and he probably had. I can still picture him a solitary figure with a hard, angry look on his face.  To be honest he was frightening; I am sure he was terrified inside.  As I look back, I wish I could have said something to him, but at eighteen and in that era, I didn’t know how to deal with it.  It was not that he had served in a war of which I disapproved; he did not start that war.  It was more that there was a denial from both the government and the media of what war, any war, does to those who fight.  (I think the government thought that denying the cost of Vietnam would make the war more palatable.)  One of my favorite television programs of that era was Gomer Pyle USMC.  Here was a program about a marine during the height of the Vietnam war and I do not recall Vietnam ever being mentioned.  Today, whatever one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least we have an idea what war really does.

There were few protests at Kenyon, perhaps because there was no one to see them.  However, the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970, and the subsequent killing of four students at Kent State, caused outrage at Kenyon, just as it did on college campuses across the country.  Kenyon is about one hundred miles from Kent State.  Whatever one’s opinion about the protesters against the invasion of Cambodia burning an old ROTC building at Kent State, the protesters were not going to destroy the country.  To hear Ohio governor James Rhodes talk at the time, one would think they were.  At the time I blamed him for creating an atmosphere in which poorly-led National Guardsmen fired wildly at students, many who were just going to class, killing four.  I still do.

Governor Rhodes was following a trail blazed by Richard Nixon: Pour gasoline on the flames to fire up your base against a real or imagined enemy.  My Uncle Chuck was an executive with the Mobil Oil Company.  He lived for many years outside of Chicago, but he traveled all over the country on business.  I am sure he was a Republican. He was in California during Richard Nixon’s campaign for governor in 1962.  He emphatically related to us how “disgusting” Nixon’s campaign had been.  When Nixon was running for president, a little girl held up a sign that said: “Bring us together.”  Nixon spotted the sign and vowed that was what he was going to do.  Instead he did the opposite and so have politicians who have followed in his footsteps for the last fifty years.  Maybe the Millennials will do better.

In the 1960s I felt that I was living on the edge of the Apocalypse.  We were on “The Eve of Destruction” or standing at the Gates of Paradise.  Instead, as the Sixties slouched into the hangover of the 1970s, I often thought of the words of the man who has probably done more than anyone else to destroy contemporary interest in poetry, T.S. Eliot.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

   Not with a bang but a whimper.