Posts Tagged ‘1969’

Tan Son Nhut 1970

October 9, 2016

VNamMus70

When Johnny came marching home again it was in 1971, although really, there was no parade.

He wasn’t actually marching, anyway, but rather flying commercial out of Vietnam on a PanAm from Cam Ranh Bay. The jet featured American stewardesses, and this was a very favorable detail that our exiting guys did not fail to notice as they soared off to Pacific destinations and ultimately all the way back  over here to the good ole USA. It was a long flight from the war, and a long time to have to watch stewardesses traipsing up and down the carpeted aisles, serving food and drink; but our guys managed to get through it.

My old friend Johnny’s departing flight from Vietnam was a reversal of his arrival there, a year earlier, on a commercial US aircraft.

But here’s a curious fact that he confided to me. The “scaredest” he ever got while in Vietnam was on that first day, during the jet’s approach into Cam Ranh, because the descending plane was drawing enemy fire!

Welcome to Vietnam! Haha!

Last week, during the first days of October 2016, my old neighborhood friend Johnny told me about his one year tour in Vietnam. He lives in Louisiana, where we both started life; now I live in North Carolina. We brought our wives and had a Florida panhandle reunion at the beach.

We were chums in high school, but after our graduation in 1969 he went his way and I went mine. I went to college; he went to Vietnam.

I was protesting the war; he was over there in the middle of it.

Before last week, I had not seen Johnny since about 1975.

Now I’m writing a novel about that period of time, and about some of the differences–and reconciliation– between those two diverging groups–“them that went” and “them that didn’t.”

As it turned out, Johnny’s year of duty at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just north of Saigon, was, he admits, easier than the brutal combat some of our guys had to endure out in the jungles while they were on patrol  being relentlessly pursued by the silently stalking Viet Cong.

During our time of defending the former Republic of Vietnam, tons and tons of weaponry, machinery, and supplies had to be delivered into the country to supply our people there. Tan Son Nhut was a busy location for transport and communications, and we needed a lot of guys on the ground to keep systems oiled, protected and combat-ready. My friend Johnny was one of those men.

During high school, Johnny had acquired some work experience in appliances and refrigeration. After our high school graduation he was not inclined, as I was, toward college. He worked for a while. Then he saw, you might say, “the handwriting on the wall” about how career choices were shaping up in 1969-70. So he volunteered for the Army. After boot camp at Fort Polk (Louisiana) and some duty-specific training at Fort Belvoir (Virginia), he shipped out, which is to say, he was put on a flight path that landed him at the Cam Ranh Air Base where they almost got shot down before setting foot in the infamous theater of Vietnam.

StratCom

When my friend arrived at his post on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, he spent a year on guard duty, keeping watch over the rice paddies and distant jungles beyond the fence, and reporting whenever mortar fire or any other unfriendly thing was approaching the air base.

Inside the base, there were moments when our guys could take a little time off. Here’s a pic that Johnny snapped; it depicts a recreational session of high-stakes card-sharking, with maybe a little bluffing and probably some bravado bullcrap thrown in to keep the game interesting.

VNGame

Here’s a pic of Johnny, taken when he had only been in Vietnam a few days.

JLViet70

Last week, after Johnny showed me a few hundred photos that had been stored away at his home, I thanked him for taking the time to meet me in Florida so we could talk about Vietnam.

Because I can’t write a book about what was happ’nin’ in the USA in 1969 without talking about Vietnam. I also thanked my friend for his service to our nation.

And I thanked God that he survived it. There were 58,000 of “them that went” who did not.

If you were a college kid like me in the 1960’s-’70’s, you will find it well worth your time to visit a few of the men and women who did not do college at that time, but who served–by choice or by draft–in the military. Right or wrong, won or lost, however you call it, they did what our country called them to do.

We may need many more like them before it’s all over with.

King of Soul

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Robert McNamara’s Tragic Choice

August 27, 2015

My freshman year of college at LSU was a real eye-opener. The world I entered that September was remarkably different from the high school existence from which I had just graduated.

There was a lot going on in 1969. I understood practically none of it, so my college education would be a huge learning experience–not only about the subjects of classic university study, but about the tumultuous times that we lived in then.

If you have, in your life, spent a freshman year at a large university, then perhaps you know something about the changes I was dealing with. But if you were a baby boomer like me whose collegial initiations happened in the late 1960’s, then you might agree that our experience then was even more intense that most college frosh would typically experience.

Nowadays, in my 64th year of life, I have undertaken to write a novel that is centered around this experience. The book, which will be a fourth novelic publishing project, is called King of Soul.

Who is the King of Soul, you may ask. You’ll have to read the book to find out. But of course you cannot read it, until I finish writing the dam thing, probably about 3 years from now.

Now when I’m doing this sort of project, I’m heavy on the research. The direction of my research will determine much of what happens in the story. For the last six months or so, I’ve been reading many books and articles about the 1960s. My historical novels are subjective explorations of selected time periods. The three previous novelic projects were propelled by research explorations in these years: 2005 (Glass half-Full), 2000 (Glass Chimera) and 1937 (Smoke).

1969 was, as Frank Sinatra might say, a very good year. On the other hand, in some ways it was a very bad year.

Just like any year, I guess. Depends on who you are, where you are, and what is happening around you.

What I found was happening around me and the other college students of 1969 was this: a helluva lot of change, and it was going down at a very fast clip. Most of the change revolved around three areas of societal ferment: civil rights, the Vietnam War, and sex.

I wandered, like millions of other high-school graduates, into a maelstrom of disruptive events and ideas.

My current enquiry about that anarchic decade has identified three main influences:

~the civil rights movement, which had started long before, but was accelerating in its intensity during that time

~the Vietnam War, and the draft

~the metamorphosis of the 1950’s “beats” into something new called the hippies

My first great discovery has been that the groundbreaking civil rights activists of the 1950s-60s taught the antiwar activists of the late 1960s how to mobilize and organize in order to get things done. The “Freedom Summer” of 1964 is the clearest expression of this development. That’s when bunches of white kids from up north spent their summer going down south to help blacks in their struggle for civil rights, and America was never the same after that.

My second great revelation is (as if we didn’t already know) the elephant in that era’s living room: the war in Vietnam.

This may seem obvious to anyone who was there, in the USA at that time. But God, and my advancing age, have taught me a great lesson in recent years. And the lesson is this:

One of life’s greatest satisfactions is to, by study, delve back into the time in which you were growing up, and learn about what the hell was going on then when you were so young and clueless about it all.

Toward that end, I am reading a great work of jouralism now, one of the best I’ve ever picked up: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Brightest-David-Halberstam/dp/0449908704

Today I encountered in that book a startling realization. You can perhaps discern what it is by reading this selection from page 242 of the 1972 Ballantine paperback edition:

“. . .in making his (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s) arguments against nuclear weapons, forcefully, relentlessly, he had to make counterarguments for conventional forces. We had to have some kind of armed might, so he made good and effective arguments for conventional weapons (and if the Chiefs wanted to use them in Vietnam, to send American combat troops without nuclear weapons, he had to go along, since he had developed the thesis, the mystique of what conventional weapons could do with the new mobility). He gave them a rationale, for his overriding concern was quickly to limit the possibilities of nuclear war, to gain control of those weapons.(emphasis mine).”

In other words, the slippery slope of  conventional warfare in Vietnam war escalation came about as an effort to prevent ultimate nuclear war with the Communists!

That’s something to think about. Who knows, maybe the strategy worked. Maybe it will help us understand how that war slid, over the course of a dozen years or so, from a few military advisors deployed in 1961 to 54,000 Americans dead by the time we finally got out of there in 1975.

There was, admit it or not, a rationale to the tragedy of Vietnam.

As we (still) face a 21st century situation of potential nuclear disaster, maybe the strategy of conventional war–a lesser evil– can fend off the worst possible bellicosity–nuclear war against the “Communists” of our present age, the Islamic State of Iran, or North Korea.

Our detonation of atom bombs over Japan in August 1945 has changed the world–and the world’s strategic inevitable realities–forever. We’d best not forget that. For the preservation of human life on this planet, any bellicose nations who strive to develop nuclear warheads must be kept in check.

 

Smoke

The Old Men and the Young

July 25, 2015

If ghosts could speak, they would probably agree with what the old man said. Sitting on the lowered gate of his black pickup truck, Ramus was saying that old men make wars; but young men fight them.

Now while we understand there is some truth in such a statement,  we all know that it’s not really as simple as that. Nothing in this life is so easily explained, especially the thing called war.

Ramus blinked both his eyes at the same time. It was a habit he had. Some crows were making a ruckus in the nearby hickory, but he paid no attention to them.

“Consider Medgar Evers: he was a young man,” Ramus said. “He slogged his way across Europe, along with thousands of other Allied soldiers, to arrive triumphantly in Germany and then knock the hell out of the Nazi war machine. So he contributed to that great collective effort through which we won the big war. But then he came back to Mississippi and was told to go to the back of the bus.

“So, at the end of his homeward journey, Medgar entered, almost involuntarily, into another great war. It was an old war that had been started by old men. That is to say: men who we think of as old because they had lived and died long ago—men who, in centuries past, had embodied the fallacies and the limitations and atrocities of their own era. Those men had brought his ancestors to America in slave ships. It was a helluva an evil thing to do, but that’s what was happening at that time; there was shit just as bad going on over in Africa that enabled the slavetraders to do what they did, and that’s what started all this trouble we got now.

“Any trouble you find on the face of the earth is traceable to shit that happened a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t know if it ever ends. I hope one day. . .”

Behind Ramus and his truck, the morning sun was peeking up from behind distant pinetops. For whatever reason we know not what, the nearby troop of bothersome crows decided to vacate the hickory tree they’d been in, and get the hell out of dodge. Their sudden departure presented a scene of black wings flapping out against a cloudless summer sky. Ramus glanced at their disturbance, but gave it not a thought. In these mountains, their antics were as old as the hills.

The volume of Ramus’ speech, which had steadily increased in order to compete with the birds, now rescinded to a soft, summary tone. “The Mississippi man’s newfound battle—a great struggle into which he found himself caught up, by default—it eventually killed him. So he was a young man who never tasted the privilege of becoming an old man. Although he had marched with the victors in World War II, the battle that he found simmering back home was the one that put him in his grave.

“In 1963, only six months before Kennedy was killed, Medgar Evers was shot dead in his own front yard in Jackson Mississippi. He had just come from speaking to some brothers and sisters at the New Jerusalem church.”

That quiet following the crows’ departure was blissful.

“But I got to go now: places to go and people to see.” Ramus said. He slid off the tailgate, called to his old hound dog and prepared to leave. His talk about old men, young men, and old wars was put on the shelf of memory for a while.

Now in 1969, a new war, hot off the press, was being waged. But it was fast becoming an old one. Young men were dying by the thousands. Old men too, and women and children. What else is new?

VietMem2

The scene above is an excerpt from the new novel being written:

King of Soul