Respond, Winter 2019
I read with interest the memories of those members of the Class of 1968 and their feelings regarding the Vietnam War. While that year was a year of anxiety for those faced with the possibility of going into the military, it was doubly traumatic for many of those returning home from the war. There was the trauma of being in the war and the trauma of coming home. I was one of those who came home in 1968.
I was a member of the Class of 1965 and at graduation received a commission as a second lieutenant via the ROTC program. After a year or so of going through various US training facilities preparing for a potential war in Europe with the Soviets, I was shipped off to Vietnam.
In 1968 I was part of a forty-man US military advisory team attached to a local force South Vietnamese army unit in a remote part of the Mekong Delta. A level of stress existed every hour of every day. The temperature went above 90 most days and never below the upper 70’s at night. The humidity and the bugs were overwhelming. At night you’d sleep in a bunk under mosquito netting, sweating constantly. The horrid tasting water had to be cut with Kool Aid to be drinkable. Fresh food was a dream. My province was controlled by the Viet Cong. Every patrol that went out in the day or night was usually ambushed. Every two weeks or so our camp was shelled at night by the VC with all of us clutching our gear while running bare foot through the dark in skivvies to the bunkers. Occasionally there would be a raid against the adjacent town. On those occasions when I went into the town, my Vietnamese counterpart always assigned two of his men to accompany me as bodyguards. I’d once survived a detonated IED while walking there. You never felt safe- day after day, week after week. It gets to you.
Our main source of news was the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which often included front page photos and articles about antiwar demonstrations at home. These articles angered us. The antiwar demonstrations often directed their rancor against those who were serving—the sanctimonious against those struggling to stay alive. It pitted a generation against itself and created a wound that for many has never healed. It can be argued that the demonstrations hastened the US withdrawal from the war. The North Vietnamese certainly believed that they did. However, every member of Congress had offices in their districts and this is where all the anger and vitriol should have been directed, not at friends, family members, college mates, and contemporaries who were in harm’s way.
The worst time for me and probably for many during the war was the Tet Offensive which began on the night of January 31, 1968. I will just say that the fighting that night in our camp was brutal and savage. When the sun finally rose the next day, the area around our compound was strewn with bodies, both friend and foe. There was no discussion of the war being right or wrong, moral versus immoral or the domino theory. The only consideration was personal survival and the survival of your team. Just survive long enough to get home.
Since our compound was adjacent to a small town, and also because we were attached to a South Vietnamese military unit, we got to know the local people fairly well. The civilians in our town, like all civilians in that war, were always being caught in the middle—they paid taxes to both the government and to the VC, the young men were recruited by both the government and the VC, and they sold their rice to both VC and government supporters. When the shooting started, they were often harmed by both the government and the VC forces. They only wanted to live in peace. During one night a month after Tet, the VC came into a part of the town occupied by dependents of our soldiers. The thatched houses were set on fire and men, women, and children were massacred.
April 4—my last night in Vietnam—was spent at an out-processing center north of Saigon. While I was there, the word came through of the assassination of Martin Luther King, a revered man whom I had heard speak four years before at the First Parish Church in Brunswick. I wondered about what kind of a country was I returning to? I found out within twenty-four hours.
The end of my tour in Vietnam coincided with my commitment to the Army, so when I landed at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco, I processed out. In order to get a military discount rate on an airline ticket, I had to travel in uniform. At the San Francisco airport, I was taunted by a gauntlet of demonstrators. Despite what their signs said, I didn’t feel that I was a war criminal and certainly wasn’t a baby killer. On the United Airlines flight to Boston, the stewardess handling my section of the plane condescendingly asked me if I was proud of myself. She then switched sections with another stewardess. Welcome home.
For most people, transitioning from civilian life to the military is difficult, however I think that returning to civilian life can be equally difficult. In the military there is a certain structure, common bond, and dedication to serving your country. It is something that civilians do not think about or understand. Transitioning from a combat role to civilian life in a matter of a few days is impossible, especially when you are returning to a country where a significant segment of the population is hostile to you and you are treated like a pariah. Your contemporaries who did not join the military had already moved on to start careers, gotten married, and started families. During your time away, girlfriends got tired of waiting and found someone else, and sadly sometimes this included wives. You become a social hermit—at social gatherings you stand off to the side fearful that someone will find out that you had served and start to challenge you to justify yourself. There were no support organizations—the VA was useless and veterans’ organizations like the VFW and American Legion had members who were one or two generations too far removed from us. You feel lost. I was home physically, but emotionally and mentally, I was still in Vietnam.
An advantage of being home was that I could get the news in real time. The disadvantage was that I wondered what war was being reported upon by the major TV networks and print media like Time and Newsweek. It bore little semblance to what I’d left. So much was agenda driven.
When I returned, I stayed at my parents’ house for a few months. At night, I barricaded my bedroom door fearful of the Viet Cong sneaking in, a Viet Cong that no longer existed for me. For the first few weeks when I went out to the driveway to start my car, I first had to open the hood to ensure that there were no bombs wired to the engine, bombs that I knew did not exist. In Vietnam, the gates to our compound were closed an hour before sunset and not opened until sunrise. At home it took a while to relax while walking outside at night alone without a rifle. Loud noises startled me, and that year’s Fourth of July fireworks terrified me. Eventually, within that first year back, I got beyond these issues and tried to get on with my life.
However, some issues lasted longer. I had nightmares for almost five years. Sometimes I’d wake up grabbing at an empty space on the floor next to my bed looking for my helmet, rifle, boots, and clothes so I could run to a bunker. Spontaneous fits of anger bordering on rage came over me for no apparent reason—walking down the street, watching a movie, in business meeting, anywhere. I tried to figure out what could have caused them—something said? A noise?—but could never figure it out.
I have had a lifelong bitterness and distrust related to the government. We should never have been in Vietnam. When Vietnam became too much for the US president in 1968, he decided that he would run out the last eight months of his term and go back home to his ranch in Texas; having done that, he then should have let all of us go home. Congress dithered while every day American soldiers and their families were being destroyed.
For months after I returned, I worried about the American team members I’d left behind until I knew that they’d all made it safely home. All did except one. I never stopped being concerned about the fate of the Vietnamese, both civilian and military, who lived in that town. When South Vietnam fell to the North, all the South Vietnamese officers I’d known were either executed or sent to prison camps.
Despite all that went on, I feel that I was lucky. So many others experienced far worse horrors than I did and have had to live with them their entire lives. I wasn’t killed, nor did I receive any debilitating lifelong physical injuries. I also had a close support group (including two who were antiwar) consisting of my wife (then girlfriend), parents, brother, and several Bowdoin classmates. They were like lifesavers thrown to a drowning man.
The anxiety felt by those facing possible military service in 1968 is long gone. For those who returned home in that year, the effects may have abated but have never left.
Joe Gorman ’65
I was pleased to see my old Orient colleague Nat Harrison responding to the shock of fifty sudden years by exploring his classmates’ memories of 1968 and their responses when faced with participating in the Vietnam War. Nat’s selections reflect the variety of personal history and philosophy that Bowdoin students brought to their decisions. All these years later, the stories we tell express the principles, and the occasional tortured rationalizations, that we all used in grappling with the dominant moral question of our time.
Bruce Griffin ’69
Kudos to Nathaniel Harrison (For Conscience and Country) for documenting the reflections of nine members of the Class of 1968 who were faced with an uncertain future as they approached graduation. As a member of this class, I recall vividly the dynamics of making decisions and abiding their consequences during the Vietnam War era. And I also remember and appreciate the respect my classmates showed one another regardless of the content of those choices. I would also like to mention the existence of the Bowdoin Peace Movement, which operated in a small room above Day’s Variety Store on Maine Street. The space was supported and managed by Bowdoin students and was known as the William Ladd Peace Center, named after the founder of the American Peace Society. Ladd had spent much of his life in Maine from 1778 to 1841 supporting the cause of peace. The center served as a resource and counseling agency. An article about the Ladd Peace Center was published in The Bowdoin Orient, April 18, 1968.
Sam Rettman ’68
I think Nathaniel Harrison and the contributing letter writers from the Class of 1968 did an exemplary job highlighting the Vietnam conundrum that many Bowdoin graduates faced from 1963 to 1971. After serving a combat tour in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970, I came home hoping that our government learned a lesson from this tragic war. Sadly, I am not sure we did.
Tim Brooks ’67