Letter Campaign For 50th Anniversary Of Vietnam War
Above photo: Thuong Duc, Vietnam….A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. 23 January 1967
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of U.S. ground troops in Da Nang, Vietnam. Many consider this to be the beginning of the American War in Vietnam. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war the Pentagon is undertaking a ten-year, $65-million campaign to rewrite and whitewash the history of the war in Southeast Asia.
In response, Veterans for Peace has announced the Vietnam War Full Disclosure project to offer a more truthful history of the war. As part of the project, Veterans for Peace is asking all who were affected, directly or indirectly, by the war to write letters addressed to “The Wall” (the Vietnam War Memorial) describing their experiences and sharing their grief over its devastating consequences. The project welcomes letters from both soldiers and civilians.
Letters can be emailed, but snail mail letters in hand-addressed envelopes are encouraged. The letters will be gathered and placed at the Vietnam War Memorial on Memorial Day 2015. For more information, go to www.vietnamfulldisclosure.org. To send a letter by email: email@example.com. To send in a hand written envelope: Full Disclosure; Veterans for Peace; 409 Ferguson Rd.; Chapel Hill, NC 27516 by May 1, 2015.
For more information, visit: Vietnam Full Disclosure
HERE ARE SOME LETTERS RECEIVED SO FAR
A Letter To The Wall
Dear Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall:
You’re a wide granite gash in the earth, like the war itself, a man-made construction set within the order of nature. As I look back 49 years, I understand the war was a much more rude and shameful event than the grace of your shape in the earth might suggest. But you’re what you are and where you are to recognize sacrifice divorced of politics. Speaking to you is speaking to the dead, and like a good hospice caregiver must do, one first needs to respect the dying and the dead. Addressing you is different than addressing the flag. Your dead were all part of a massive historic enterprise; but the simple fact at the root of all religion is we die alone and the ultimate providence of those named on your surface remains an eternal mystery.
I was in Vietnam as a 19-year-old kid. I joined the Army and became a radio direction finder in the Army Security Agency. Once trained in DF principles and practiced in Morse code, I volunteered to go to Vietnam, as did my older brother, a lieutenant in the Army infantry. I went with a company by troop ship from Oakland; it took 17 days and the ship anchored off shore of Qui Nhon. In the morning, the entire company was loaded onto a large LCU, which chugged toward the beach. I’d watched John Wayne hit the beach at Iwo Jima, and I had no idea what to expect. They’d given us a clip of 7.62mm ammunition for the wooden stocked M14s we had been issued.
The LCU hit the beach with a long WHOOOOOSH. The high bow plate was slowly lowered, and we saw men in bathing suits sunbathing and several blue air-conditioned buses with steel grates over the windows to take us to the Qui Nhon airbase, where they would load us onto a C-130 for a flight to Pleiku. I recall two things about the trip to the airbase. One, the teeming movement of people and poverty I had never seen before. The heat was no issue, since I’d been raised in south Florida above the Keys. The other thing I recall was looking out the window and when the bus stopped for traffic noticing a young kid, maybe ten, out the window. He seemed older than his age. When he saw me, he flipped me a bird.
Our company ended up attached to the 25th Infantry Division based in Pleiku. In an odd coincident, the second day I was in Vietnam, the 25th Division flew my brother back from an operation out by the Cambodian border; I hadn’t seen him in two years. I was soon sent with seven other direction finders to firebases in the same area as my brother, all part of Operation Paul Revere. We were three teams of two given jeeps equipped with PRD1 DF radios that we had used to learn DF principles at Fort Devon, Massachusetts. We had been told the PRD1 was an obsolete WWII piece of equipment. When not using the jeeps, our teams were dispersed in the woods in armored personnel carriers or by helicopters. We envisioned ourselves romantically as foul balls sent to the boonies from the main company — a squad of rogues. We were kids and part of a huge army, and we felt we were special.
Our job was to spread out and locate tactical enemy radios, which amounted to a Vietnamese radio operator sending five letter coded groups of Morse code with a leg key along with a comrade working a bicycle generator. If we were lucky enough in the incredible mountainous terrain to get a tight fix from three bearings, we’d pass it on to division intelligence, who would process the coordinates and send out Air Force F4s, an artillery barrage or a unit of infantry. The Vietnamese knew we were looking for them, so the radio operators did their transmitting away from their dug-in headquarters. Over time, locating the same operator every day for a month, a pattern would become evident. We located them; others did their best to kill them.
We were REMFs — rear echelon mother-fuckers. On one operation, when my team partner and I were dropped by chopper onto a huge rock atop a mountain overlooking the border, I felt I was really out there. The half-squad of “grunts” also dropped onto the rock looked at the job of protecting these two REMFs as vacation duty from the normal task of humping the boonies.
After a year of this, I made it home without a scratch and without a bit of trauma. As I look back, considering all the names on your shiny black granite surface and what my brother and other combat veterans went through, in the spirit of confession, I have to say sometimes I feel unworthy to be called a “Vietnam veteran.” Of course, I know that’s not true, and I am a Vietnam veteran. I led a charmed existence with violence and horror going on all around me that never touched me. I know friends who suffered terribly. I’ve met vets who did horrible things and suffer for it. A friend earned a silver star for an act of incredible bravery. I’m friends with an African American veteran of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 1975 act of violence clearly rooted in PTSD. A federal judge ruled his conviction for First Degree Murder was a “miscarriage of justice” when what he was guilty of was manslaughter. The district judge was overruled, and Pennsylvania political leaders don’t have the courage to address such an injustice. For some reason I remember a captain commanding an infantry company I spent time with. This CO was respected, even loved; he seemed like an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. One of the grunts told me how the captain had crawled out under fire to save one of his men, only to find him dead — and how they had later found the man in tears embracing the dead man.
I’m a Vietnam veteran with survival guilt. It’s my lasting bond to the names on your reflecting surface. Oddly, I do not know any of the 58,000 people attached to those names.
At a firebase I was at, the lieutenant colonel in charge of the battalion dropped leaflets daring the NVA to attack his firebase. He had mines dug in all around the camp. An NVA push was moving through the area. A guy on the perimeter let me look through his night scope, and you could see them as moving white shapes. I was pretty scared and got all my magazines lined up for a big attack. When the NVA decided to pass us by, the colonel ordered all the mines removed. One of the young privates assigned to that job blew himself to pieces just outside the perimeter near my little bunker. I watched a chaplain’s detail pick him up in pieces and put him on a stretcher. I don’t know his name, but I presume it’s on your granite surface, even if his death was caused by his own team.
The closest I got to knowing a name on your wall was when, back in base camp, someone radioed me from the field that my brother had been killed. Friends fed me warm beers as I eulogized him; his wife had just had a baby. I was going to escort the body home. Four hours later, the Red Cross called to tell me it was another Lieutenant Grant. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. My brother became a lawyer.
Writing to you like this turns my mind to inglorious things. So I should tell you about base camp life and the whoring in Pleiku bars. Later, when the 25th moved north and we were attached to the 4th Division, a little constructed village of bordello/bars was set up outside the wire of 4th Division headquarters. Girls as young as fifteen worked there and were inspected regularly by division medics to avoid any down-time due to the clap. I was young, and at times the trysts with these girls felt innocent, even sweet. But now I know different; now I understand the erotic masculine power of being part of a massive imperial Army in a poor place like Vietnam. The Tale of Thuy Kieu by Nguyen Du was published in 1820 and is considered the national epic poem of Vietnam; it is about a young woman who, in order to save her family, works as a prostitute — before she goes on to become a guerrilla fighter. It was not only REMFs; whoring was an epidemic in Vietnam, literally and metaphorically. Sometimes sexual tension was expressed in terribly abusive fashion, like the time a drunken infantry staff sergeant shot up a laundry/bar outside Pleiku and wounded one of the girls. Sometimes in the field, the mixture of this tension with fear and adrenaline led to violent rape. I sometimes see myself and my comrades in Vietnam as the worst kind of cliché American tourists in the world. Instead of cameras, we had guns.
As I imagine your long gash in the earth with all those names etched into your stone, I think of how I read Graham Greene’s famous little novel The Quiet American when I was in high school. Besides my gung-ho militarist father, more than anything, I think Greene’s vision of a sexy colonial world seduced me to want to go to Vietnam. It was a desire to “see the world,” like the recruitment posters used to say. I had nothing against the Vietnamese, north or south. My ignorance was complete. I didn’t want to kill anyone; what I wanted was to see an exotic place and meet people different than myself. I really think this was the case. The fact the huge historical enterprise you memorialize ended up consuming 58,000 American lives, several million Vietnamese lives and destroying much of Vietnam is, for me, the major tragedy of my time.
And I was there. I was a part of it.
In 2002, I visited Vietnam twice and made an 82-minute film about a wounded US Marine veteran living and working there. The experience was as powerful as my first trip. I now realize the film is really about what can only be called my love affair with Vietnam. Some psychiatrists will tell you love relationships are really complicated love/hate relationships. Given the history of US/Vietnam relations going back to fighting the Japanese with our Vietminh allies during World War Two, I think this is the case with America and Vietnam. The Vietnamese loved us in 1945, but something went terribly wrong.
As I consider your elegant simplicity and the great suffering you represent, I realize now, 49 years after my first connection with Vietnam, that I’m committed to the love side of that complex state of mind and heart. In a better world, the war would never have happened. Maybe I would have gone somewhere else in the world and done something I felt better about.
And you would not exist.
To All Vietnamese and Americans,
I am the daughter of a US marine who was killed on the beachhead of Guam July 22nd, 1944. In 1967 after graduating college, I joined the US Navy Nurse Corps, went to Officers Indoctrination School in Newport, Rhode Island, and then began working at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California. Oak Knoll had been constructed during WWII to care for the marines wounded during battles in the Pacific.
I thought that I would become part of the healing process for the wounded; I thought that I would be able to undo the destruction of war and conflict in southeast Asia. We had an amputee ward at Oak Knoll where the guys had their limbs attached to meat hooks, their raw, open wounds hanging oozing infections so bad you could smell the sweet, sticky odor when you came into the unit. At night, they would talk with each other through their ongoing nightmares—“be careful, there’s a land mine there; go slowly, there’s a trip wire” as they wandered through the dense jungle—these youngsters, living on horror and fear. I was dedicated to getting them better and able to go out into life, but so many couldn’t-the psychological imprint of what they had seen and done couldn’t be cured by surgery and antibiotics, and the military didn’t believe that war caused psychological pain and damage so severe it would haunt them for life. We were an extraordinary team—physicians, nurses, corpsmen and corpswomen—working long and difficult hours to heal our patients. I was training corpsmen who would be sent to the front lines, and so I became an instrument of war. I helped the military to function.
Like many others, Vietnam became a turning point in my life. It became personal, and I couldn’t live with myself and continue to be part of this death and destruction-done in my name, by my government. GI’s and veterans were organizing a march for peace in the San Francisco Bay Area in October, 1968. And so I joined them. We formed groups at Oak Knoll Hospital and would post posters and flyers announcing the demonstration—on the many barracks and wards. They were all torn down by morning. The nightly news had stories of the US dropping flyers on the Vietnamese, urging them to go to “safe hamlets.”
So, along with a couple of friends, we loaded up a small plane and dropped flyers over multiple military installations in the San Francisco Bay Area, announcing the GI and Veterans March for Peace—and thousands showed up on October 12th, 1968. We spoke out against US involvement in Vietnam; we demanded to “bring the boys home.” We spoke about the old men in Washington sending the young to die. And we thought we’d stop the war. We really believed that the American people and the US government would listen to us.
The fact that the war continued, that so many millions of Vietnamese and thousands of American soldiers lost their lives continues to haunt me and make me question what else we could have done. How could we have stopped this insanity?
As a child, I spent many Sundays visiting my father where he is buried in Chicago, Illinois. I watched my grandmother drop to her knees and talk to her son: “look, here is your daughter—see how she’s grown” and I’d walk away from the grave, embarrassed and confused.
To all who have suffered, to all the family and loved ones who died and had their lives changed from the American War in Vietnam, I am so sorry we couldn’t have done more. We tried—and we’ll continue our struggle for peace and justice in this world in your name.
Susan M. Schnall
I’m writing in support of the Vietnam War Full Disclosure Movement. Born in 1943, I was of draft age, though I did not go. I had a 1-Y classification based on significant myopia, correctable but leaving me useless without glasses. I still don’t know how much the deferment was genuine and how much the work of my parents talking to my eye doctor; they were staunch Republicans and apparent supporters of the war, but concerned parents as well. My uncertainty is evidence of how little I understood the situation circa 1965.
Returning from study in West Berlin in 1966, I became engaged in the anti-war movement, especially as I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts during Vietnam Summer. I remember reading Bernard Fall’s history of Vietnam, which dramatically changed my view of America’s role in Southeast Asia. I remember marching in a New York City protest, carrying an American flag which I meant to represent an ideal lost in the fog surrounding the war, but which also drew an angry response or two from those around me. I believe that it was this same march which began with men with American flag pins on their lapels—assumedly FBI agents–taking photos of us boarding buses outside Lowell House at Harvard.
I also remember visiting Carl Sagan at his Central Square apartment to deliver letters he would then share with those on a charter flight to Europe, encouraging them to speak with other Americans abroad, urging them to voice their concerns about American involvement. It was morning, and he was still in his bathrobe, hardly the scientist rock star of Cosmos. And I visited Noam Chomsky at his M.I.T. office, though the passage of years has erased what we talked about. Certainly his seminal New York Review of Books article, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” had influenced me.
Despite my intellectual opposition to and activism against the war, it was not until 1972, however, that I returned my draft card, together with a respectful letter outlining my reasons for doing so, to my local draft board in Philadelphia. I expected blowback from this moderate action, but never heard a word. Many years later, around 2000, I was involved in a resistance movement opposing the fingerprinting of school employees in Maine, and sent $25 to the FBI asking for a copy of my record. To my surprise, I was told that they had no information about me, which suggests either incompetence or sympathy from my draft board many years before.
And I remember interviewing returned Vietnam veterans in Somerville, Massachusetts, for a novel I was writing. It was at a neighborhood BBQ that Manny Kolidakis, one of these, heard someone set off a firecracker and threw himself to the ground in a Vietnam flashback.
But of course none of this compares to what was being experienced by those who did go to Vietnam, whether willingly or through the draft. Or did not ever return. Still—and this persists fifty years later—I cannot talk about the war without choking up. It is my own private echo from that time, a sort of shadow of PTSD that, like the real thing, is always there, mostly submerged amid the hurly-burly of life, but never quite forgotten by that part of my brain that remembers how bad it was, how insane and twisted, how unconscionable. Perhaps the silver lining is how the experience of coming of age during the Vietnam War pulled me loose from my insular upper middle class background and led me to question and adjust ever after beliefs in ideas like patriotism and historical truth.
Bernie Huebner, Waterville, Maine