Copyright (c) 1980, 1987, The Vietnam War Library
It had only been an hour and-a-half since I closed my eyes when the second artillery barrage began hitting the company. Muffled by my deep sleep, the blast of the first explosion sounded more like a jeep backfiring than another rocket slamming into what was left of the Day Room's roof. In my dream I saw myself standing at the window of my hootch watching an old jeep as it chugged along the company road; puffs of black smoke erupted from its exhaust pipe.
It wasn't until a few seconds later, hearing the sound of debris raining down on the corrugated aluminum roof above me, and feeling my wire-frame cot vibrate as if we'd been hit by an earthquake, did I begin to realize the company was under another attack. Quickly coming out of my deep sleep, the jeep on the road disappeared and my eyes shot open.
The only light in the hootch came from a raging fire several hootches away. Pulling myself to my knees, I looked behind me. The entire hootch was filled with smoke. Looking toward the floor, it streamed out from under my cot. Looking up toward the window in front of me, huge balls of thick black smoke rolled through the screen wire. Seeing one heading straight for my face, I squeezed my eyes shut but was a split-second too late. The hot smoke stung like acid. I tried rubbing it out but that didn't help. Rubbing only spread it across the surface of my eyes, burning deep into the entire socket.
Realizing the sting wouldn't go away until I could get outside and into clear air, I slowly opened my eyes. Right now it was important to see what little I could. After a few moments, the burn became tolerable.
Afraid that I might be suffocated, I pulled my right hand up to my face and fanned the air around my head. But that was futile. Through my tears I saw I was only passing smoke from one side of my face to the other.
Suddenly, the shock wave coming from the blast hit me from the left. Losing my balance, I began to fall. Reaching for the cot I grabbed the side with my left hand. Unfortunately I was already half-over, the entire frame rose up with me.
Feeling myself crashing downward, I held out my right hand to break my fall. The combination of smoke and darkness camouflaged the floor from view. Unable to judge my distance I wasn't sure when I'd hit the floor until it hit me. When it did my arm buckled with the weight of my body and the cot.
The back of my head hit hard against the concrete. So hard I could almost taste the grit of cement as my teeth bit down on my tongue. A second later a 4th explosion demolished the hootch next door. I looked up at the window. The screen wire disintegrated from the heat. Huge chunks of shrapnel ripped into the 2-by-4's lining the windows harpooning hundreds of splinters into the air above me. Immediately, I shut my eyes.
The shock wave from this blast was stronger than the previous. Crushing down against me it felt as if someone was sitting on my chest and pushing their thumbs into my eyes. Following the shock wave, what felt like a million particles of white-hot sand thrown into the air by the explosion sprayed through the open window and showered me. Burning through my clothing, my body felt as if every vein had exploded flooding waves of hot blood all over me.
When I was finally able to open my eyes the bright light from the rising fireball blinded me. Squeezing my eyes shut again I turned my head away. Momentarily forgetting I was laying on the floor I turned so quickly I slammed the side of my face into the floor. The impact sent cascading waves of bright red flashes flooding my eyes. Almost as quickly as the flashes appeared they began to grow dark. I felt as if a thick, heavy blanket was being drawn over my face. Suddenly everything went completely black. My brain seemed to detach itself from my body, drifting in a void.
Thinking I must be dead and floating somewhere in Limbo, I remembered stories told by vets who said they'd felt this way just before they thought they were about to die. They said that when you know you're going down for the final count you can hear yourself think but you can't feel your thoughts. If you thought about food you didn't feel hunger. If you thought about snow you couldn't feel cold. If you thought about your girlfriend you couldn't feel your dick get hard. They said time seemed to stand still and you could see your whole life pass before your eyes.
I tried to think about things I could feel but my senses were numb. I looked deep into my thoughts for images of my past but nothing materialized. All I could see was darkness. I wondered if everybody else was wrong about seeing your whole life pass or if I was dying a different kind of death.
Unable to move I thought about my name being added to the long list of guys who never made it out of Vietnam. Or even worse, living for the rest of my life in a coma. Neither of which was what I had in mind when I volunteered to come here.
I tried to think back to when Vietnam began for me, 5 years ago. It was then the first images began to appear. They looked like hazy blotches of light flickering far away in the darkness. At first I thought I was regaining consciousness but the images didn't appear to be coming from outside, they appeared to be in the void with me.
Straining my eyes, the lights gradually became clearer as they grew larger. Taking shape, they began to form a perfect circle. Above the circle a group of blurred faces slowly began to materialize. The faces seemed more like ghostly reflections than real people.
As the faces became clearer, their features became discernible. I was soon able to make out eyes, noses, and mouths. The first face to become recognizable was the one I knew best. It was my brother Terry.
Gradually, the other faces became recognizable. Standing on Terry's left were our best friends Fred Oliver and his brother Michael. Standing on Terry's right were my 2 sisters, Jan and Pat. Everyone appeared happy.
Sitting on a table below them was a large birthday cake brightly lit with 6'teen flickering candles. The instant I noticed them I realized they were the hazy lights that first pierced the dark void.
Looking back up, everyone's mouth seemed to be moving. Watching their lips, I read their words. They were singing "Happy Birthday". The more I strained my consciousness to see and hear what was going on, the more I became a part of it. Then, in the flash of an instant, the images and voices became real. It was if a gust of wind had suddenly lifted a dense fog and I was no longer imagining what I saw. I was now a part of it.
Feeling an elbow nudge my side, I looked over my left shoulder to see Michael smiling up at me.
"Hey Phill", he asked, "what's wrong with you? How come you're not singing with everybody else?"
Opening my mouth, I began to join in. The instant the words left me I knew I was actually there. I could smell the cake. I could feel the heat of the candles. I could remember the date. It was March 25, 1965 and today was Terry's 16th birthday. I recalled the date being significant to me because it was today Vietnam became a part of my life.
It took Terry only 2 seconds to make his silent wish and only one try to blow out the candles spread around his cake. The instant he made his birthday wish the candles were yanked out. 2 minutes later everyone had cake frost and ice cream smeared across their faces.
There were 2 standing rules for birthday wishes in our family. The 1st, my mother was allowed to make an honorary wish, and 2d, revealed wishes wouldn't come true. But it didn't take much prodding to get Terry to tell. Except for me everyone laughed when he informed us all he wanted was to graduate from high school by the time his 17th birthday came around next year. Although I didn't think it was funny, I did think it was weird. Having been an honor student for the past 3 years it seemed a terrible waste to devote a once-a-year wish on something that was a guaranteed certainty.
But it was my mothers silent wish that had us all concerned. She was strangely solemn when she made it, and no matter how much we pleaded with her to tell, she wouldn't. She would only say that she was afraid to let Terry know because if he hadn't already considered the thought, telling him might plant the idea.
It would be Terry's next birthday, before she finally let anyone know what it was. And when she did, it was only to me. Her wish was that he would not quit school before graduation, sneak off, and enlist in the Army. A lot of guys were doing that those days. Most were guys who couldn't graduate because of their low grades. For them, running off and joining the Army was more honorable than being held over for a 5th year of high school.
It was almost 6 o'clock and the birthday festivities were winding down when the phone rang in the living room down the hall. Expecting a call from a friend, I ran to answer it. Peter was a buddy who shared both my Commercial Arts major and my strong interest in a new music group called the Beatles. We had been assigned to choose a current news story for our 5th period Social Studies class and write a paper on it. Earlier today we had narrowed our selections down to 3 choices. He was calling to decide which story we would select. One choice was the recent assassination of black activist Malcolm X. Another was the recent decision by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser to side with the Russians for his country's military aid. The 3d was the launching of another Gemini space flight. This one carrying Gus Grissom and John Young. Although any one of those topics would be accepted for credit because of their news worthiness, none had any great appeal because they weren't the kinds of stories 15 year-old's followed with great diligence. 1
We agreed what we really needed was a story that would be fun to work on while at the same time be acceptable to our Social Studies teacher. Just as we were about to give up and look for another in the newspaper a news flash coming over the radio in Peter's house gave us the answer.
"BEATLE JOHN LENNON GIVES HIS IDEAS ON VIETNAM!
"MORE ABOUT THIS TONIGHT ON NBC!"
We had discarded the so-called "TV War" earlier because of its inconsistency. One week America appeared to be winning, the next week we seemed to be losing. But now having the Beatles associated with the war made it more appealing.
Reconsidering Vietnam, we decided to do some preliminary research by seeing what John Lennon had to say about it.
Noticing the clock on my living room wall showing 1 minute to 6, I quickly closed our conversation. Snatching up a pen and paper to use for notes, I turned the TV on just in time to catch the announcer introducing Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. 2
The conflict in Vietnam was called the "TV War" because the speed of a recently developed tool called "satellite communication" provided a daily update of what was happening there. The network news services were so proud of their new ability to transmit near-instant pictures from any point on the globe every foreign news report bore the caption "Via Satellite". During previous wars Americans could only see their fighting men in week-old newsreels at movie theaters. But with the Telstar satellite orbited in 1963, Americans were able to receive up-to-the-minute information on what was going on in the world, and for the 1st time ever, in our wars, almost instantaneously.
As the commercial teaser on the radio had promised, the 1st story led off with the Beatles interview. In it, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were asked to give their personal impression on a variety of events currently going on in America. One question asked their opinion on the war in Vietnam.
The tone of the interviewer and the angry expression on John Lennon's face made it obvious the question was an attempt to create a controversy.
Side-stepping the question, John quickly snapped back, "We're show biz people, we're not politicians. What do show biz people care about Vietnam? We're here to make music, not to talk about your war!"
John's hostile reaction was particularly disturbing to me, as I'm sure it was to most Beatle fans, because this was the 1st time we'd seen them upset. Up to now they were 4 happy-go-lucky musicians who saw life as something everyone should enjoy. To see them frowning and expressing anger over what we thought of as an insignificant little war in a remote part of the world opened our minds to a subject we had previously given little thought to.
Little did the press know at the time that asking teen idols to opinionize on concerns like Vietnam would set in motion an anti-establishment reaction that in 4 short years would evolve into a massive anti-war movement. 3
But, at this point in time, anti-war activity was in its infancy. The only people seriously criticizing the war were a small group of intellectuals in government. Others saw it as a media event to take advantage of. Lenny Bruce was making thought provoking jokes about it. Buddhist monks in Saigon were getting all burned up in protest to it. The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" articulated how GI's in Vietnam felt about it. And Richard Nixon was planning on getting elected President because of it.
After the Beatle piece was concluded, Chet Huntley announced new footage from Vietnam would follow the commercial. I yelled to Terry and the rest of the guys in the kitchen to meet me in the living room. Watching the Vietnam newsreels was a nightly event for us.
I had recently turned 15 and it was about this time that I started to take a genuine interest in the rest of the world outside my small neighborhood on the south-side of Chicago. The war being fought in Vietnam, 12 thousand miles away, was my 1st real cognizance there were other places on this planet where things were happening. I didn't realize at the time the war was slowly becoming a very important part of my life, just as it was for about 2 1/2 million other kids my age watching the same newsreels in other cities all across America. The names of many those cities, like the exotic sounding names of Vietnamese cities Huntley and Brinkley were making the entire nation familiar with, I had never even heard of. I would never have believed at the time that a few years later I would be sharing my life with thousands of other guys my age who would be making those cities our new mailing addresses.
Pictured through a nervous war correspondents jittery camera lens several squads of young Marines were fanned-out across the densely foliaged perimeter of a nearby village. Camouflaged from head-to-toe the Marines were seeking out the dreaded Viet Cong [VC]. Every village, Chet Huntley reported, was suspected of harboring VC.
Quickly rotating their heads from side to side, their sweat-filled eyes peered out from under their loosely worn helmets. In deliberate careful steps every Marine diligently searched behind every bush, around every tree, and under every log. Some of them even inspected where another GI had searched just moments before. The VC, they knew, could be anywhere.
While watching the cautious Marines we could sense the anxiety they must have felt fighting a war not only in foreign country, but also in a completely foreign environment. To the VC's advantage much of Vietnam hadn't changed since the dawn of time. To the Marine's disadvantage American skylines had changed with each passing generation. Almost nowhere in America were there areas that resembled the unchecked rain forests of South Vietnam.
On some nights the action was so tense one of us would occasionally stand up and shout at the TV to warn a Marine to check under a clump of vines or throw a spray of flame inside a hut before approaching it. Sometimes it seemed as if our shouts were heard because one of the Marines would immediately respond to our warning as if we were standing next to him.
Although it didn't take an overactive imagination for one of us to think we were somehow telepathically linked with the GI's in 'Nam, in reality we knew we were just reacting to the experience of watching a VC hunt almost every night of the week. As 15 year-olds the VC were our imaginary nemesis. We were long past the stage of disliking Indians. Too new into puberty to continue hating girls. And not old enough yet to understand the myriad of the grown-up problems we'd have to deal with in the future. For now, the VC were the antagonists we challenged in our minds and in our conversations. And, as the TV newsreels depicted, the VC were as crafty and sinister as any nemesis could be.
Nicknamed "Charlie", a typical VC was said to have many disguises. We were told Charlie might be a government employee working in one of the smog-covered metropolitan cities of central Vietnam. Or he might be a farmer working in the large open spaces of the leech-infested rice paddies of the southern Delta. One of his favorite disguises was to imitate a native predator, the Praying Mantis. Frozen in an unnoticeable, branch-like perch he'd often be waiting in the treetops to toss a grenade or 2 on an American patrol passing underneath. But worst yet, often wearing the rank of Sergeant, Lieutenant, or Scout, he infiltrated the uniformed ranks of the South Vietnamese troops trustingly scattered among our own. More native to the soil of his country than the oldest European families were to America, the chameleon-like VC had over a thousand years of experience in utilizing every natural resource available to hide from and outwit a foreign enemy.
But despite his many disguises it didn't take GI's long to figure him out. Although new to Vietnam's jungle environs, we were no dummies when facing a new challenger. Upon the instant discovery of a well-camouflaged VC tunnel, and without any apparent emotion or hesitation, the Marines would spray the underground dwellings with machine gun fire or flame-throwers. And if those weren't successful, a few hand grenades were tossed in. The explosions would either knock the wind out of Charlie long enough to get a good rifle shot at him, or release a caustic skin burning residue preventing him from using that same hiding place again.
It would later be said that these graphic pictures the American public saw during this early stage of the war provided fuel for an anti-war movement just beginning to grow. But because there were only a handful of Americans against the war in 1965 compared to the millions who favored our involvement, it was important for the government to allow its GI's to be shown to that large supportive public in full combat detail.
Since the 1st use of the periodic newsreel during WWII it was also important to cast our Government Issues as freedom fighters combatting noble causes. Always depicted as victorious and fearless, it was by design that GI's were given the image of liberators having a good-natured GI Joe humility. 4
But despite their combat victories in the neatly edited and highly abridged American TV newsreels of 1965, now and then 1 or 2 of the proud Marines could be seen falling to the ground from unseen VC sniper fire. To the thousands of young kids like myself who watched GI's being shot on TV, the full impact of seeing people dying or wounded didn't fully penetrate our youthful minds as being the serious business it truly was. This may have been because the real-life pictures of GI's dying on the nightly news were seen on the same tube as a countless score of unrealistic celluloid wars staged in Hollywood. We were too young to realize there was a significant credibility gap between the real and a novelized version.
Books about war were even less impressionable. The imaginary pictures formed when reading war stories in our history books were incomparable to viewing war, or a facsimile of it. And because our books didn't always show the faces of many American war heroes, we tended to give them the faces of the actors who portrayed them. Sergeant York, for example, was automatically pictured as Gary Cooper. Cooper had played the title role in York's film biography. 5
But even though we knew the war movies we saw were fictional, it was difficult to discount their content because they gave us more information about intimate, day-to-day war life than the brief, edited scenes shown on the news. And later on, when we arrived in Vietnam, it was difficult for some of us to ignore what we learned from the movies, however unrealistic, because they made up the bulk of our war references. References that were reinforced in Basic Training. A day wouldn't go by when a war movie wasn't mentioned by a Drill Sergeant. We were reminded of Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan in "Bataan", James Whitmore and Van Johnson in "Battleground", Humphrey Bogart, James Arness, and Dan Duryea in "Sahara", and Frank Lovejoy and John Agar in "Breakthrough".
And where war movies contributed to our belief that American wars were winnable, TV shows like "Combat" and "The Rat Patrol" contributed to why many of us who later went to Vietnam never thought we'd be killed. Surviving week after week the regular cast members of those shows seemed to possess an Errol Flynn-like ability to escape the most difficult, behind-the-eight-ball predicaments. It was not uncommon for some of us who later found ourselves on the line in Vietnam to wish we could change our scene by yelling "Cut!". To us, Americans simply weren't supposed to die, especially in someone else's war. It's too bad the guys who died in 'Nam never had the opportunity to learn those shows were intended for kids. When looking at their reruns today the antics of celluloid soldiers are laughable.
On some of the nights Terry and I watched the war news our mother would sit with us. Occasionally, when the battle-scarred faces of freaked-out and weary-eyed 18 year-old Marines were seen close up, she would suggest we change the channel or turn the TV off. In later years I realized that she had noticed, where my brother and I hadn't, the disappearing faces of the older guys who lived in our neighborhood; guys who were coming back physically or mentally changed, or not coming back at all.
For kids, time passes slowly. A year to me and my 15 year-old friends was measured between summer vacations that seemed an eternity in arriving. We simply never noticed if one of the older guys joined the military and went off for a year or so. For all we knew he may just as well have disappeared from the face of the earth and his existence recalled only when the story about his death or hospitalization somberly circulated around the adults in the neighborhood.
But even then, in no real sense, did the seriousness of what was going on in Vietnam, and what it would mean to us a few years later, really affect our lives. The lives of civilians untouched personally by war always seem to go on as usual just as if it never existed.
I remember one night in particular, when Terry noticed our mother's depressed mood, he said to her, "Hey Mom, don't sweat it. By the time I turn 18, the war'll be all over with."
His confidence that Vietnam would be over, long before he turned 18, 2 1/2 years later, came from 2 sources. 1, President Johnson's assurances from Vietnam Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge who stated he could "see the light at the end of the tunnel." And 2, his history teacher who told him America had never engaged in a war lasting longer than 3 or 4 years.
Because of those 2 reasons Terry surmised there was an American tradition that more or less obligated us to bring about a victorious and non-protracted end to our wars during a 3 or 4 year period. And since Vietnam had been going on for more than twice that length, he sincerely believed that because the end was long overdue, it would come very soon.
But even though his logic seemed reasonable at the time, it wouldn't be until after we'd both returned from Vietnam that we realized teenagers, having an "incomplete view of reality", as our mother called it, often drew wrong conclusions.
One of the things that contributed to our incomplete view of reality was the mis-representation our folk-like Hollywood war films made of the GI. Not only was it by design that he was always characterized as the benevolent standard bearer of international justice, he was often made to appear to enjoy war. But, we both realized later, as it may be true American men enjoy a few -----kicking battles every 15 years or so, the one's who actually go to war can testify that wars are only okay so long as they don't last too long. GI's want to reduce their fighting to the time it takes to stimulate our industrial economy or to provide some brief national diversion that brings Americans closer together. In all America's previous wars GI's fought hard and fast to keep the conflict from extendedly interrupting their 2 favorite hobbies: making babies and watching football games.
Although Terry's statement seemed rational, his words made a dubious impression in my mind, as was also apparent on our mothers face. In dismissing the probability of my future involvement in Vietnam I mathematically reasoned that since Terry was almost a year-older than I, and the war was over by the time he reached 18, I could look forward to blowing out 18 candles on my birthday cake a 10 months later.
But as the years turned over and we both rapidly grew older, the words he spoke in 1965 continued to dance around in my head every time I heard mention of the war that was supposed to have ended but just kept going on and on and on. I would remember those words every time a situation occurred that made me realize the war was something that should be avoided.
I would recall his words during my last year of high school in the spring of '67 just before my family decided to permanently leave the stormy winters of Chicago for the year-round summer days of Los Angeles. For a year preceding every graduating class at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High the Draft Board's monthly "1A Drives" were the greatest fear of every male student. In paradigm to the monthly female menstruation cycle, nervous draft-eligibles would jokingly refer to the month-end draft announcements as being the time of the month when they "were on their periods."
With President Johnson raising the Vietnam "troop ceiling" every month the draft numbers would raise correspondingly. Classified 1A meant you were of sound body and mind to serve in any capacity without any duty restrictions in any of the 4 services. Everyone was initially rated 1A until, and if, they appealed it. What many 1A's found disturbing was being declared eligible on paper without ever having been examined medically or tested psychologically. To change one's status to a deferred or ineligible level a potential draftee had to pursue a rating correction on his own. For healthy draft dodgers that meant obtaining a report from his family doctor claiming an invisible, but "certified", disability.
Because huge numbers of enlistees were needed to reduce the number of draftees President Johnson anguished over asking America to provide, a permanent staff of recruiters was assigned to every one of Chicago's all-black high schools. Despite opposition by Dunbar's PTA to on-campus soliciting, our principal not only authorized recruiters to visit the school on a daily basis, he made sure they had direct access to every male senior student. Instead of permitting us to go to the library for our study periods we were ordered to the auditorium where our supervision was administered by a recruiter rather than a teacher. In order to "pass" Study Hall students had to have their class cards initialed by at least 5 recruiters over the course of their final semester.
Some of the parents objected to having their kids exposed to high-pressure sales pitches, especially since we could end up dead. Other parents, mindful of the Chicago Police Departments abuse of the black community years before the rest of America discovered its non-apologetic brutality during TV coverage of 1968 Democratic National Convention the following year, distrusted all uniformed authority figures. This, of course, made our Study Hall recruiters jobs extremely difficult. Very few kids approached their portable desks set up on the stage to ask questions about military service.
Wearing a unit patch on their left shoulder, a 5th Army patch on their right, and 1 or 2 ribbons on their chests, the recruiters were snobbishly proud of both their sharply-creased Class A uniforms and the elevation they imagined military service gave them over civilians. Reading one of their PR brochures, laced with luring color photos, left you with the impression that military duty was like working at a very orderly summer camp in the tropics. But a lot of kids weren't impressed with having to wear their hair at skull-cap length or going through 8 harsh weeks of Basic Training. Also, those of us who spent a few years in the Boy Scouts or Junior ROTC knew the brochures were designed to hide the fact that Army bases were intentionally built in areas of uncomfortable climatic diversity.
Frustrated and spiteful as a result of the poor reception they were getting, the recruiters would frequently patrol the auditorium as if on a search and destroy mission for any kid who looked at them the wrong way. When catching one of us drowsing off, they would sneak up behind our chair and yell into our ear with the loudest bark they could muster. "BOY!, When I get you in the Army, BOY!, it's gonna be your ass!"
Although the recruiters were turning a lot of guys off to the military, it was important for young black males to keep our records as clean as possible. Because not having much of a job outlook after graduation, the military was the only employer we could look to for a career. After graduation there were only 4 options for black students whose parents were poor, on welfare, or rarely at home. They were: work if we could find it, unemployment and welfare if we couldn't, Military service if we kept our noses clean, jail if we didn't. The 1st choice meant life with self-respect. The 2d, life with none. The 3d and 4th, the possibility of ending up with no life at all. Surviving Vietnam was believed to be at best a 50-50 long shot and going to jail wasn't living, it was barely existing.
For those who couldn't find a job after graduation, and didn't want to join the Army, excess free time increased the odds they'd end up in prison. And the odds against us were great. Everyone living on the southside of Chicago knew the prison system in the state of Illinois, and especially in Cook County, existed as an industry in itself. Personal courage in Chicago's black communities was measured by whether or not one had the strong will and determination to beat those odds.
To those of us leaning toward military service after graduation, the adversaries we might later face in combat were no different than the one's we faced everyday in our neighborhoods. The police, the court system, Mayor Daley's city government, private business, and the suburban areas that surrounded and confined the black community all seemed to have as much contempt for us as they had for the Soviet Union. This made trying to survive day to day as a legitimate citizen in a society essentially at war with us at home not much different than going to Vietnam and taking on the VC. Having grown up under conditions similar to the colonial rule the VC were contesting, urban blacks serving as grunts in 'Nam were psychologically one-on-one with the VC in terms of tenacious combat style. For poor blacks coming from Chicago it was easy to hate the VC. Charlie's hostility toward the civilians of his country evoked memories of the Chicago Police Departments sanctioned terrorism. Blacks merely transferred their dislike for the local police toward the VC.
The recruiters who grew up in similar economically depressed communities were well aware that combat was a matter of everyday existence. They directed their best efforts toward the students who displayed a strong-willed personality to survive. However, because of the war and the Pentagon's need for massive numbers of new recruits recruiters accepted anyone they could get. In the next few months those of us under pressure to enlist would find out why. Just after the new year in 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), led by General Nguyen Vo Giap would launch a massive offensive during their new year TET celebrations. Giap's invasion of South Vietnam would confirm to the world what everyone else had suspected, America was rapidly losing ground in Vietnam. 6
Just prior to TET, military reports to the Administration were indicating fewer offensives being mounted by the North. Enemy killed-in-action and captured counts were listing huge numbers of enemy being taken out of the fight. But Giap's surprise assaults brought us to our knees. And it's still debatable whether or not the abrupt cessation of the North's offensive was caused by our "brilliant defensive" strategy as General Westmoreland termed it, Giap's inability to re-supply his troops, or our indirect threat to use limited nuclear strikes if the NVA didn't pull back within a certain date. 7
Despite Western critics who dismissed Giap's success in launching the surprise attacks one thing was certain, the caliber of troops Giap used during TET were not his prime, hard-core fighters. Duplicating the strategy he orchestrated against the French during his successful attack on Dien Bien Phu 15 years prior, Giap managed to stagger American forces by employing newly-uniformed VC, regional militia, and inexperienced regular army troops. Anti-war critics charged that had Giap decided to complete his plan, which was to throw in his seasoned veterans after beginning his siege using expendable troops to buckle our defenses, he would probably have wiped us out of the war as he did the French in 1953.
In defending their well-intended, but poorly effective war strategy, the 1st thing the American generals did was to complain to the President and Congress that Giap would never have attacked if there had been more American troops to discourage him. To run a successfully effective combat policy, they said, we simply need to have more men!
As a result of the Pentagon's request it seemed apparent to recent graduates that the level of difficulty they were having finding a job always seemed directly related to how the war was either progressing or regressing at the time.
War or no war, the military's recruiting programs always benefit during periods of high unemployment for young male adults. But especially at this point in time, with the war going bad, jobs were almost impossible to find. Quick-thinking Administration propagandists would take advantage of the high (unemployment related) enlistment counts to say that despite the growing anti-war movement on the campuses, there were still a substantial number of young men who supported the war.
Moving to Los Angeles shortly after graduation I discovered the job market there was worse than in Chicago. With nearly 5 times the number of colleges and universities than in the Midwest, Southern California college enrollment offices were employing full-time "job counselors" to pound the pavement in search of part-time jobs for their students. Afraid of losing millions of dollars in student fees brought in by a growing army of guys trying to evade war duty, schools were competing with the military for the same people.
For the thousands of other 18 year-old's like myself who were financially unable to go to college, looking for a job was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Because of the draft we were consistently greeted at virtually every personnel office in the country with the same familiar question whenever we requested a job application. "And what is your Selective Service classification number?"
Most of us hit with that question didn't know it was illegal by way of being discriminatory. At 18, and inexperienced, the information on how and where to seek legal help on a class-action level to terminate it being asked was not as available in 1968 as press attention and public sensitivity to civil rights issues would give it today.
The argument many companies gave whenever we challenged their rejection was that their company would be "wasting thousands of dollars on new-employee training should a 1A be drafted shortly after he was hired."
Although it was difficult to argue this and other valid-sounding reasons for refusing us a job, those of us who knew some of those businesses had high turn-over personnel rates naturally felt there may have been more to it. Especially when some Personnel Managers were openly arrogant and stated outright, "We don't hire 1A's!" Or, "If you're 1A, why don't you join the Army!"
As the months after TET rolled on, my frustration with job hunting began to fade as the promises offered by the military for guaranteed non-combat jobs made the Army look interesting. And to encourage 3-year enlistments, 2-year draftees were assured of being assigned to a rifle company who pulled 18-hour kitchen police (KP) duty when they weren't busy fighting on the front line.
With the exception of those who escaped military duty because of their parents financial or political influence, every male 18 year-old was sought after whether he was socially stable or unstable, had good vision or bad, was educated or uneducated. As long as he was a walking and talking body with an adequate hand-to-eye coordination and could hold an M-16 without blowing his foot off, (which occasionally happened anyway), he was "okay by government standards" to serve in the military. This included the "bad" kids as well as the "good" kids.
The good kids were the clean-cut, short-haired, well-groomed, conservative types seen on TV enlistment commercials or on recruiting posters lining the walls of Post Offices. The bad kids were juvenile delinquents with a history of anti-authority behavior. One had to commit a serious crime to be disqualified for military duty. For non-serious crimes a bad kid went to court, found guilty, then given the decision whether he wanted to go to jail or spend a few years performing a public service. That, of course, meant the Army.
It didn't take any judicial skill or genius for both the prosecutors or judges to predict how a reasonable-minded kid would decide. Only a fool couldn't see that having limited freedom in the Army was enormously preferable to having zero freedom behind bars. And the 50-50 chance of being wounded or killed in 'Nam was better than the 99-1 chance of having a bigger and stronger inmate ignore the fact that you were another male.
In the process of executing justice by seeking to provide the greatest good for the public's sake the taxpayers were spared the cost of financing expensive work farms or unworkable probationary programs. The courts were spared the post-sentencing process of regulating and keeping tabs on probationers. The public was spared being victimized by un-reformed anti-socials. And the military services obtained a welcome source of additional bodies whom they could assign to low-grade non-security-risk jobs or expendable infantry missions.
During my enlistment examinations in the old 8th and Main Street recruiting offices near downtown Los Angeles in October of '68, I witnessed several of these court-appointed inductions.
Handcuffed to their probation officers, who were usually off-duty police officers moonlighting for the court, "court draftees", or "CD's", were escorted to the 9-story recruiting station and chaperoned throughout the administrative and physical examination process.
Kept apart from the lines of enlistees and regular draftees, who had to wait our turn at the dozen or so poorly-lit and drafty testing stations we had to process through, the CD's were pushed, tugged, and jumped to the head of every line to prevent them being asked why they were wearing handcuffs.
After the oath was administered the CD's were placed aboard a window-barred bus. Final destination, Fort Ord.
It appeared as though being shanghaied in a democratic country in 1968 was now permissible as long as it was condoned by the current legal system.
This, of course, seemed a bit bizarre to those of us who went through the induction process somewhat more honorably. But even though most of us had walked the "straight and narrow" we still weren't treated much differently under the national pressures to enlist. We were just treated more politely.
The most tense moment during the induction process was the unexpected requisition from the Marine's for "recruits" to make up their low number of enlistments. Lined up side-by-side in a secluded room apart from the other processing stations, my group of Army draftees and enlistees were ordered to stand at attention and "count off in 4's." I was lucky, I was 1st in line.
Starting off with "One" the man next to me yelled, "2", the next man "3", and the next "4". The count then started over again and continued on down the line. When the entire room of 30 or so had counted off, a short, stocky, bull-dog faced Marine Master-Sergeant came into the room and barked out, "I want all the jerk-off's who said "4" to take one step forward!"
Looking out the corner of my eye, a 4th of the room moved ahead of the men standing next to them.
The Sergeant barked again, "Congratulations! You limp-dick mother----ers have just volunteered to join the Marines. Now straighten your backs, tuck in your assholes, and follow me!" 8
Frightened and confused, they were led out the door and down the corridor to the Marine recruiting office where they were formally inducted into the United States Marine Corps.
It was witnessing incidents like the forced enlistments and the Marine requisitions that again reminded me of the words my brother had spoken 3-1/2 years ago. I would never have believed things like this went on unless I'd seen it with my own eyes. I would later realize, after seeing similar incidents during Basic Training, that they were all a part of the insanity Vietnam was becoming. The war at that time was still going on. The only thing that had changed since I'd first heard about it 3 years prior was the fighting. It became more intense.
Return to War Library
Goto Cannon Fodder Main Page
Goto next chapter