Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Still More Characters in Search of Jeff – III

Bill O’Brien, Chicago go-to guy

Bill O’Brien, Chicago, 2006

Bill came to New York for a few days and suggested we meet. I chose a funky place in the East Village. He had been a great pal of my brother, Jeff Sharlet, in the late ‘60s during his time in Chicago. Jeff had arrived there with a big vision and a large mission and soon learned Bill O’Brien was the go-to guy for getting things organized.

An ex-Vietnam GI, my brother strongly opposed the war and was determined to give those fighting it a way to voice their concerns. Bill was one of the key people helping Jeff launch Vietnam GI (VGI), the first GI-edited underground paper designed for the guys stuck in the war.

Bill O’Brien “considered Jeff a brother” and was indispensable to him. Chicago born, Bill knew most of radical Chicago’s major activists as well as officers of the unions and even people in Boss Daley’s machine. A man of many parts, Bill’s political and academic resume was impressive. He’d been invited into University of Chicago’s prestigious honors program though he lacked a high school diploma. Later he transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York and finally took a social science degree at Columbia.

Bill was already into community organizing in his school boy years; Chicago was rife with deserving local causes. Moving on to New York, he demonstrated against the infamous HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee,  and led the initial ’67 protest at Columbia when the university first proposed taking over a Harlem park for a new gym. A year later that protest morphed into the great Columbia student uprising.

Returning home to Chicago, Bill used his political connections for ‘good guy’ causes, one time blocking a hospital expansion that would have taken out a nearby neighborhood. Later he created ‘Radio Free Chicago’, broadcasting from his attic.

In ’68, Bill, Jeff, and Jim Wallihan, another VGI editor, shared a pad on Chicago’s Near North Side. Bill was working in the Office of the Cook County Clerk, but at the end of the day he lent a hand for whatever was needed – a VGI editorial meeting, arranging useful contacts in the city, procuring office equipment, or strategizing the emerging GI movement against the war. When they needed a break, they’d hit Bill’s favorite joint, the jazz bar ‘Get Me High’.

Funds to put the paper out were always tight, so in the fall Bill pulled strings and got Jeff and Jim well-paid jobs in the press rooms of Chicago dailies. But the work was hard, and an ultimately fatal illness that first surfaced in the Vietnam bush started taking its toll on Jeff.

Forty years on, Bill had never forgotten Jeff. When I began this memoir on my brother, he devoted endless time tracking down Jeff’s former Chicago friends, many by then scattered around the country and abroad. When Bill died a few years ago, his many old friends remembered him with a gala memorial evening at the hip Heartland CafĂ©, long a haunt of radical Chicago.

Nearly 50 of us were there; many had driven great distances from all over the Midwest while others flew in from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and even Honolulu to celebrate Bill O’Brien’s memorable life – an unforgettable evening.

Marty Seligman, an evening long ago

A prominent psychologist and author of international acclaim, Professor Martin Seligman is a noted pioneer of the school of Positive Psychology. As a schoolboy though, Marty was a good friend of brother Jeff. They were cadets at a private military school – uniforms, rifles, drill, the whole nine yards. As often happens, after graduation they lost track of each other.

When Marty and I got in touch, he was only aware that Jeff had dropped out of college, gone to military language school, and died several years later of causes unknown. But Marty fondly remembered their school days together, especially an occasion late in their senior year. Both of them had been at the academy for a long time and were restless to move on.

Sitting in a green Ford convertible, as Marty described the moment:

I remember a spring evening, the sky Rembrandt blue,graduation and freedom in sight, looking up and
thinking ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever been’. I thinkJeff thought the same thing, and he may have said so.

A lifetime later at the 50th Reunion of Jeff and Marty’s class, it was fitting that the two long ago friends shared the Albany Academy’s coveted Distinguished Alumni Award, Jeff the first posthumous recipient in the history of the school.

Looking back on their time together, Marty wrote that he still misses Jeff, “the first of my friends to die.”

Karen Grote, the searcher

Karen Grote, Indiana University, 1964

Out of the blue one day, Karen got in contact. She found me through my son Jeff the writer, namesake of my long lost brother of the ‘60s. Brother Jeff had gone to Indiana University (IU), but dropped out and landed in Vietnam. That was before the Pentagon launched Rolling Thunder sent in the Marines. Back in the world, as GIs called coming home, Jeff returned to IU to continue his education.

It was on his second academic ‘tour’ in America’s heartland that he met Karen Grote (now Ferb), a very attractive fellow undergrad. She knew him well, both socially and politically, and was willing to share her memories. During Jeff’s college years, I had just begun my career as an academic.  I was elsewhere teaching and doing research, so had known little of my younger brother’s experience at IU.

After Karen filled me in on Jeff’s extensive antiwar activism at the university, she offered to help research the memoir I had started on his short but interesting life. Fortunately, I accepted and we’ve collaborated since to my great benefit.

Aside from short accounts about my brother in several books and periodicals on the Vietnam War period, I soon realized Jeff’s final decade would have to be reconstructed piece by piece through memories of his contemporaries. But locating many of them was not going to be easy – the trail had gone cold after nearly four decades.

A PC keyboard whiz, Karen’s talent was in finding dozens of my brother’s schoolmates, GI buddies, and fellow SDS activists as well as the main people in Chicago who helped Jeff get out his antiwar underground paper directed to the troops fighting the war. He named it Vietnam GI (VGI).

Several of Karen’s notable initial ‘finds’ bear mentioning. Early on, she located Tom Barton, who had worked closely with Jeff as VGI’s East Coast distributor responsible for shipping the paper to GIs in Vietnam. A lifetime left activist, Tom had then recently begun publishing a nightly online anti-Iraq War newsletter, first called GI Special (later, Military Resistance).

In one of his first issues Tom reprinted the most eloquent of the many obits on Jeff, the one from VGI of August ’69. When I rang him up, he told me that he’d conceived his antiwar newsletter as the successor to Jeff’s VGI and saw himself continuing Jeff’s work.

Another remarkable find was Joe Carey, a fellow Vietnam GI whom Jeff had known at Indiana University. A combat photographer, Joe brought back his personal photos of what the war really looked like, pictures which he shared with Jeff for the pages of VGI. However, Joe had not taken the most shocking image – it had been slipped to him by a GI who had witnessed a war crime. Trophy-style, the photo showed several GIs posing with the severed heads of two Viet Cong.

Jeff ran the shot in a spring ’68 issue, and as the first atrocity photo of the war to surface in the public domain, it caused quite a sensation.

Another of Karen’s successes was perhaps her finest coup. A fellow Vietnam GI in the Chicago area who had been on Jeff’s editorial board for VGI seemed to have disappeared without a trace. As we subsequently reconstructed, he had become a Chicago cop, got in trouble with the law himself, served prison time, and, on release, left the city with the intent of getting away from that chapter of his life.

Zeke, as I’ll call him to spare embarrassment, had moved to the West Coast, obtained an unlisted phone number, and hoped to put his past behind him.  That was before the Internet as a valuable search medium. Through great perseverance, Karen had stayed on the trail and eventually ran Zeke to ground.

We knew his wife was an amateur artist, and she happened to be active in art circles. For an upcoming exhibition, she had posted her name and telephone number online. When I rang Zeke, he exploded in anger, “This is an unlisted number! How did you get it?” From your wife, I said. What could he say?

Dave Reinhardt, badlands rancher

Dave Reinhardt, Lehr, North Dakota, 2004

Far from Vietnam of his youth, Dave, proud Marine, is today a rancher in the Dakotas. He never knew Jeff Sharlet, but had preceded him at the same remote post in what might then have been dubbed the badlands of South Vietnam – right up against the border of the Communist North.

Dave Reinhardt joined the Marines in ’59 and was subsequently in the first Vietnamese class at the Army Language School (ALS). Jeff arrived at ALS and bunked in the same Vietnamese barracks a few years later. Dave deployed to Vietnam as a linguist in ’61, with a small Marine radio intelligence unit in Pleiku and Phu Bai. Jeff was based with the Army Security Agency (ASA) detachment at Phu Bai in early ’64.

Because Jeff’s work was highly classified, his letters home were spare. Yet I needed to know about Phu Bai, the place where he had spent much of his Vietnam tour. Luckily Karen, my searcher, turned up Dave Reinhardt on the Internet. Dave served as a fount of information on Phu Bai. Along with describing the physical layout of the base – the barbed wire perimeter, the various antennae, and the ops buildings – Dave also conveyed a sense of the daily routines.

He told me how the Marine intel group worked side by side with ASA, although tasked with different but related missions. The Marines were listening to North Vietnamese (NVN) Navy radio traffic, while the larger ASA unit was tracking NVN Army communications. 

However, the differences between the military culture of the Marine radio intercept contingent and its ASA counterpart were stark. All the Marines, regardless of specialized skills, had undergone several months’ of  combat infantry training and were all qualified riflemen. They were a very shipshape crew. In contrast, ASA was a laidback outfit, military in only the broadest meaning of the term.

In spite of the great heat and humidity at Phu Bai, the Marines wore their olive green field uniforms, while many of the ASA guys went about their jobs shirtless in boxer shorts and flip flops. Similarly, the Marines had rifles, M-14’s with ammo, while the unit Jeff would join was given only low caliber carbines and no ammo.

As Dave said, that was probably a good policy since ASA troops had little weapons training, and someone could have gotten hurt. One time the Army colonel commanding both units, a veteran of WWII and Korea, summoned Lance Corporal Reinhardt and asked him to drill the ASA troops, try to whip them into shape. While the ASA Morse Code operators and the linguists did their work well, Dave concluded that trying to turn them into soldiers was a lost cause.

After his Marine enlistment, Dave returned to Vietnam on the CIA payroll. With his language skill and military training, he was in effect a civilian combatant for the next several years.

Later, back in civilian life, he struggled with undiagnosed PTSD. When the Pentagon eventually acknowledged his condition and gave him back compensation, Dave bought the ranch in North Dakota where he raises a variety of animals and takes in, cares for, and puts to pasture injured, abused, and neglected horses otherwise destined for the glue factory.

Robin Hunter, Marxist guru

Robin Hunter, antiwar rally, Indianapolis, 1967

Born outside London during WWII, educated in Canada, Robin came to the States to take a PhD in Political Philosophy. He chose Indiana University (IU), arriving on campus in the early-mid ‘60s where he became a co-organizer of the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In its earliest incarnation, Robin later wrote of IU SDS,

we were seen as not just political, but as part of every-thing groovy and anti-establishment: folk music,radical, ‘concerned’, politics, dope, sex, bohemianstyle, cool, and hip.

He became the Marxist guru of the new group, leading theoretical discussions in Bernella and David Satterfield’s living room a stone’s throw from the campus gates. In spring ’65 when the fledgling group went to Washington for the first big New Left anti-Vietnam War demo, Robin was there.

Brother Jeff Sharlet joined SDS a few months later, and he and Robin became good friends and close collaborators. In early ’67 when Jeff headed the chapter, Robin helped draft his speech to the activist community, ‘The Role of the New Left on Campus: The State of the Student’.

That spring, Robin attended a rally in the state capital where Jeff addressed the assembled audience, and then back on campus the two of them worked together to ensure the election of Guy Loftman as student body president, the first New Left activist to win the post.

However, Robin Hunter’s most lasting contribution to the Indiana scene was to serve as its diarist. In the English political-literary tradition of Samuel Pepys, the great diarist of the 17th century; and later Harold Nicolson, a heralded chronicler of the 20th century, Hunter recorded in fluent prose a decade of the IU New Left’s main actions.

Robin has been well remembered even by a major adversary, a leading campus conservative who became a national leader of the pro-war New Right. A few years ago, Robert Turner spoke of Robin Hunter as “the most able of the anti-Vietnam activists I encountered at Indiana.”

Terry Whitmore – Marine hero to deserter

Lance Corporal Terry Whitmore, Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, 1967
A poor boy from the Upper South, Terry enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. He and brother Jeff never met there, but would later cross paths in Scandinavia. Whitmore was a good Marine for whom the US mission in Southeast Asia went unquestioned. However, as a fire team leader in a company-size sweep of a suspect village, he found himself in a moral quandary.

The company CO had lost a brother to the war and was bent on revenge. When a single shot came from the village, he ordered it leveled. That meant tossing grenades into family shelters, burning huts, killing adults, and rounding up children.

The Marines followed orders, but when the vengeful captain ordered the youngsters to be ‘wasted’, Terry and other Marines were taken aback. Not likely the kids were Viet Cong, but nonetheless a Marine mowed them down. The CO noticed one hut still standing and told Lance Corporal Whitmore to take it out with a rifle grenade.

Orders were orders, Terry fired, the grenade hit the hut but didn’t detonate.
A mother and child stuck their heads out the door -- Terry, seeing the captain looking elsewhere, silently motioned to them to run for their lives, to get away. He turned to walk back to the unit when a loud explosion went off. Out of curiosity the little boy had picked up the unexploded but live grenade. Terry felt remorse, but remained silent.

Later in his tour, Terry distinguished himself in battle, saving the platoon leader and his radioman, both wounded and pinned down under enemy fire. But in the melee, Terry himself was severely wounded by a mortar round and medevacked out of the line. He was convalescing at the Navy hospital in Cam Ranh Bay when President Johnson (LBJ) made a lightning visit to the facility. LBJ took the opportunity to personally award medals to wounded Marines recommended for bravery, including Corporal Whitmore.

Subsequently, Terry was transferred to a major US military hospital in Japan. After some months he was well enough for out-patient treatment and allowed to go out on the town. Then the day came when the docs cleared him to return to his combat unit. By now Terry was developing misgivings about the war, but duty called.

Twice his plane back to Vietnam was canceled due to weather, and he had to return to barracks. His growing doubts about the war then came to the fore. Try as he might, Terry couldn’t think of any justification for Uncle Sam “to be wiping out the Vietnamese people [or] one good reason for me to help Sam in his dirty work.”

Lance Corporal Whitmore had finally had enough – he deserted, as had others, and was sheltered by the Japanese left, moving the American deserters from safe house to safe house to evade the US Military Police. Eventually the Japanese activists found it hard to keep the deserters safely hidden, and arranged to spirit them out of the country.

Terry and several others were clandestinely transported to northern Japan. They boarded a Japanese fishing boat whose skipper rendezvoused with a Soviet coast guard vessel that took the Americans aboard. After a whirlwind tour of the USSR during which the Soviets exploited them for propaganda, the US Vietnam deserters were flown to the West and sanctuary. Stepping down at the Stockholm airport, Terry Whitmore began his long exile.

It was there in the Swedish capital in late fall ’68 that Terry and Jeff crossed paths. Jeff was in town with a delegation of American antiwar clergy and laity to offer support to the deserter community – Jeff the sole ex-Vietnam GI in the group, representing the burgeoning Vietnam GI movement against the war.

Door gunner distributor

Door gunner over the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam, 1968

Terry DeMott went to Nam as a grunt, humping a rifle in the bush, but later transferred to the division’s aviation wing, finishing his tour as a helicopter door gunner.

Early on, returning from a patrol, he remembered coming upon a copy of Vietnam GI (VGI) in his squad tent, avidly reading it front to back, and immediately clipping the free subscription coupon to send off to Chicago.

He added a note that if they could spare extra copies, he’d pass them around. Thus, Terry became part of Jeff’s network of nearly 200 sub rosa VGI military ‘distributors’ in units up and down South Vietnam.

Carrying copies in his backpack, Terry would pass them to guys in his squad who’d share with the other squads.  Once VGI made the rounds of the platoon, the copies would be handed off to other units. Later Terry similarly circulated the paper in the aviation wing. Thus the multiplier effect as a handful of copies was read by dozens of GIs.

While Terry was careful to keep the antiwar paper out of sight of the brass, he told me he wasn’t too worried about getting caught, saying in so many words, What could they do, send me to Vietnam? 

Nancy Goodlin Sharlet, secret writer

Nancy Sharlet and Jeff the namesake, The Cloisters, New York City, 1974

Nancy died way too early, but at least, unlike her brother-in-law Jeff, she made it into her 40s. Unbeknownst to anyone who knew her, she had been writing for years. After her death, a trove of myriad unpublished writings was discovered in the drawers and cupboards of Nancy’s house.

When our son Jeff, my brother’s namesake, later came of age, he wrote a memoir of his mother by drawing on her many journals, short story fragments, character portraits, and word sketches of people she knew as well as things going on around her. Young Jeff dubbed her a ‘secret writer’.

One piece Jeff found among her papers was a brief but beautifully written, poetic evocation of his Uncle Jeff’s last days.  It was, in effect, Nancy’s obit for brother Jeff.

A few lines illuminate Jeff’s fleeting passage through our lives:

       He had that ancient look of a Persian or an Assyrian
      He had a gift for friendship
      His mind was facile, theoretical
      His experience was valuable

And Nancy’s final image – as we walked the grounds of the VA medical center, Jeff’s hospital robe, caught by the wind, “billowed like an Arab’s caftan.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

More Characters in Search of Jeff – II

Bernella Satterfield, fiddler on the left

 Bernella & David Satterfield, San Francisco Bay Area, 1962

            Bernella and David Satterfield hailed from very different places, but music was their bond. A ‘red diaper’ kid, Bernella came from a family of socialists and anarchists – even an aunt in the Communist Party. Bernella went off to UC-Berkeley.
David, an all-American boy, grew up in tiny Stoney Lonesome, deep in southern Indiana. He headed to Dartmouth in staid New England where he captained football and studied literature. The two connected in Greenwich Village as folk music, their mutual love, was coming of age at now iconic music venues. They hung out with young Bob Dylan and other folkies of the day.
Arriving at deeply conservative, politically quiet Indiana University (IU) in the early ‘60s, the Satterfields helped found a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. They continued making music, David the guitarist, Bernella on the fiddle – folk, blues, bluegrass, country.
The war in Vietnam was escalating, and their living room just off campus became the hangout for Marxist rap sessions as well as planning for emerging antiwar protest at IU. Bernella later wrote of their fellow SDS co-founders:

            Most of us were 'outsider' types – we were
            beatniks, grad students, often older than
            the typical IU undergrad, and some of us
            were from different parts of the country or
            the world.  We were the weirdos, the
            bohemian fringe, the vanguard. 
My brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, was part of the group. Bernella described him as less a Marxist, more a strategic realist and tactical pragmatist – he well understood Bloomington was not St Petersburg on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
Later however, when Weatherman seized control of national SDS and turned to violence, Bernella, saying she “didn’t sign up for this,” took off for the coast where she resumed music full time. For the next two decades she toured the country and beyond with various bands, making music and writing songs.
            Moving later to Tennessee, Bernella, now Nell Levin, again took up political activism, becoming a prominent statewide activist. Ever the musician though, her new Shelby Bottom String Band recently issued its first CD, East Nashville Rag.

Ed Smith III, soldier-poet-minister-salesman

Ed Smith reciting his poetry, 2003

            Born to missionary parents in war-torn China by the light of a lantern under Japanese bombing, Ed Smith was raised in America. Twenty years later, he returned to the Orient, a Vietnamese linguist (lingy in army-speak) in a semi-secret outfit. Ed was the first of Jeff’s friends I encountered for this memoir.
            Ed and Jeff met at military language school and then shipped out to the Philippines (PI) where they awaited the call to war just across the South China Sea. Both had dropped out of university – Ed had gone to Harvard – so for them life in the tropics was akin to an extended college break with weekend sojourns to the capital a train ride away, a high mountain retreat above the heat of the plains, or beautiful white sandy beaches beneath swaying coconut trees.
            In late summer ’63 on very short notice, Jeff, Ed, and several fellow lingys received orders to pack their gear and report to the flight line for assignment to Saigon. A coup was brewing with the White House’s covert blessing. Still, Washington wanted to make sure it knew the generals’ moves.
            The lingys were brought in to tap the conspirators’ phones in a top secret operation. Two months later, after the coup took place, the lingys were reassigned, Jeff up to Phu Bai near the DMZ. Later, back in civilian life, Ed and Jeff kept in touch for a while before losing contact.
            Forty years on, unaware that Jeff was long gone (d. ’69), Ed searched the Internet for his old pal. Instead, he found me.  I was glad to hear from him – I knew few of my brother’s friends, least of all the GIs he served with.
            Returning stateside, Ed had studied Oriental languages; become a published poet; and then, following in his father’s footsteps, took up the ministry for some years. When I met him, he had moved on to the corporate world – as an agent for a large insurance company.
            When we talked, I sensed Ed was restless – he was trying to regain his poetic voice as he waxed nostalgic for his adventurous youth. A few months later when I dropped him a line with further queries about Vietnam, there was no reply. Nor did he answer his phone. Finally I rang Ed’s office, but learned only that he was no longer with the company, had left no forwarding address.
            Years later, my research assistant, Karen Ferb, finally resolved the mystery. Less than three months after Ed had first contacted me, he had taken ill with the flu and died suddenly of a rare complication the day after Christmas, 2003.
Fred Halstead, presidential candidate

Halstead for President, '68 election, official portrait & campaign button

            An immense man at 6’6”, 350 lbs, one couldn’t miss Fred Halstead on the campaign trail. As presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the ’68 election – a quixotic pursuit for a Trotskyist – he traveled the country and even took his campaign abroad.
            Fred had cut his teeth politically in the southern Civil Rights movement during the ‘50s. A garment-cutter by trade, he became a lifelong member of SWP. As able writer and effective public speaker, Fred was one of SWP’s most skilled political operatives.  His greatest impact was in the Vietnam antiwar movement.
            The parties of the left routinely ran candidates for public office. Harboring no illusions of winning public office, the left regarded elections as a chance to reach a wider audience with their political message.
In ’68, Halstead ran for the presidency on the SWP line. Since the Vietnam War was an issue between the two major candidates,  he used his campaign to project the party’s opposition to the war.
            Halstead’s campaign took him to Japan to speak at an international peace conference. There he met Jeff who, as a GI antiwar leader, had also been brought in as a speaker. Acknowledging that the two of them didn’t share the same ideological outlook, Halstead was nevertheless impressed with Jeff and his role in the GI antiwar movement. Writing about GI opposition to the war, he said of Jeff:

                      An important development was the growth
                      of antiwar GI newspapers. The first of
                      these were published by civilians and 
                      aimed at GIs. The most influential in the
                      early period was Vietnam GI, published
                      in Chicago by Vietnam veteran Jeff
                      Sharlet, who managed to accumulate a
                      mailing list of thousands of GIs in 
                      Vietnam itself.
Joe Carey, combat photographer

Sp4 Joe Carey, near Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1967

            On patrol with the Wolfhounds, an infantry outfit out of Cu Chi, Joe Carey was handed a shocking film – a grinning GI holding two Viet Cong (VC) heads near their decapitated bodies, he and his buddies posing like great white hunters. As a combat photographer, he had witnessed and photographed many rough scenes, but nothing like this.
            Joe’s job was to get publicity shots of the Wolfhounds in action for the 25th Division magazine back at base as well as for distribution to other military and civilian publications. Knowing that his edgier shots would never pass muster for publication, Joe filed them away in his personal portfolio on the war.
            Some combat GIs carried small cameras in their backpacks and one of them had photographed the grisly scene – the beheaded enemy bodies. Seeing Joe arrive with cameras slung around his neck, the GI wordlessly slipped him the roll of film.
Joe and Jeff had been acquainted at Indiana University. After graduating, Jeff had moved to Chicago where he launched Vietnam GI (VGI), his antiwar paper. Finishing his Nam tour, Joe also found himself in Chicago, heard what Jeff was doing, and passed along the headless photo.
It was the first atrocity photo to surface; Jeff ran it in VGI, and it was picked up and reprinted elsewhere in the country and abroad, causing the Pentagon considerable embarrassment.
             Joe had brought his own revealing photos home as well – the ones too hot for publication in the 25th Division’s Tropic Lightning News. He shared them with Jeff, who printed several in subsequent issues of VGI.
            In spring ’68 the French Left contacted the American antiwar movement requesting an antiwar ex-GI be sent over to speak at a rally; Jeff was tapped. But too busy getting his paper out, he sent Joe Carey to Paris along with blow-ups of his photos showing what the war really looked like.  Narrating the shots for his French audience, Joe was a big hit and much in demand by other Parisian anti-Vietnam War groups.
            Long after Jeff was gone, Joe became a noted American chef. As Chef Joseph, he ran an acclaimed culinary school and wrote two cookbooks. He is now a novelist. As for the postwar fate of that shocking headless photo Jeff ran in VGI? – it hangs today in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

 Lynn Wilson, keeper of a ‘safe house’

Lynn Wilson on a walk near Seattle, 2010

            Chicago in the late ‘60s was a city of tumult where the Red Squad roamed – undercover cops tailing and harassing activists of all persuasions. UC-Berkeley may have been the cynosure of campus antiwar activism, but Chicago was the big stage, an epicenter of protest in all its colors and hues.
            Jeff set up shop in Chicago and began publishing Vietnam GI. The choice of locale was fortuitous since he needed not only editorial help, but myriad other hands to get the paper out. When the print run of many thousands of copies of the monthly issue was ready to stuff and mail, local lefties came forward with willing hands.
            Not everyone made the mailing parties though. Lynn Wilson and her ex- helped Jeff in another way. They lived in a comfortable apartment not far from his place. VGI didn’t have an office as such – it would have been too easy a target for the Red Squad and their minions. Instead, the paper’s editorial operations moved like a floating crap game around Chicago’s Near North Side where Jeff shared a pad with two of his editors.
            Fund raising to support VGI and putting the paper out kept Jeff under relentless pressure. To give him an occasional breather, Lynn and her ex- offered their place as a kind of ‘safe house’. When she first mentioned the phrase, I was thinking hideout, but Lynn meant a retreat, a place of temporary respite from the fever zone of antiwar activism. Jeff had an open invitation.
            He would walk to Lynn’s place “after dark, having followed a circuitous route” to ensure he wasn’t followed. He was off-duty, no one knew where he was. Lynn set a nice table, and Jeff often arrived for dinner. Other times, he’d come later, and the three of them would just hang out, play music, and drink wine.
            Jeff talked about Vietnam – not his secret work of course, just the social scene – Saigon’s fine restaurants, his fondness for the Vietnamese, and how he liked their food. Lynn remembered he loved to laugh, his wonderful smile.
            A year later, Jeff lay dying of an illness that first hit him in the bush in Vietnam.  To spend a weekend with him, Lynn, her ex-, and Jeff’s roommate Bill O’Brien, drove her VW Bug day and night straight through to Miami.  Just as before, the good friends hung out, drank wine, and listened to music. Jeff was still optimistic, but he didn’t make it.     
Gordon Livingston, ‘an embarrassment to command’

Major Gordon Livingston, Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, 1968

            In the ‘50s, Gordon Livingston and my kid brother were schoolmates at a private military school. Jeff was just a freshman in one of the line companies when Gordon Livingston, a senior, was an officer of the cadet battalion.
            Gordon and Jeff later ended up in Vietnam, and both returned to the States disillusioned about the war. Each of them took on the military – Jeff as an ex-GI, Gordon as a senior officer in a combat unit. Jeff now has a posthumous niche in the history of the antiwar movement, but Gordon – today a noted psychiatrist and author – is undeservedly a nearly forgotten footnote in the literature.
            Gordon was no ordinary soldier; he had gone off to West Point and was destined for a brilliant military career. Qualifying as an Airborne Ranger, he commanded an 82nd Airborne unit, was certified as a pilot, and, not least, Gordon was Regimental Surgeon in a crack outfit in Vietnam. As a soldier-physician, he even earned a combat medal for valor.
            However, as an officer endowed with high moral conscience, he became increasingly disturbed with what he was witnessing in the 11th Armored Cavalry (‘Blackhorse’), and grew progressively disenchanted with the US mission in Vietnam. Knowing that he was running afoul of command, he carried out an audacious protest before the entire in-country military establishment.
            The occasion was Easter Sunday ’69, the change of command ceremony for Colonel George S Patton III on completing his successful tour as CO of the 11th ACR. The audience included the commander of all US forces in Vietnam and 20 generals.
In what an angry fellow officer referred to as a blasphemous rendering of the Bible, Major Livingston wrote a highly irreverent ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, surreptitiously mimeographed it, and handed out copies to the assembled officers.
            In swift reaction, a court-martial was contemplated, but the idea was shelved as much too awkward – after all, the miscreant was a West Pointer as well as a physician. Instead, the Regimental Surgeon was deemed ‘an embarrassment to command’, shipped home, and allowed to resign his commission.
            Gordon Livingston went on to a brilliant career of a different kind – in medicine and letters – but his ‘prayer’, a wicked satire on a terrible war should not be forgotten:

                             God, our heavenly Father, hear our prayer.
                             We acknowledge our shortcomings and
                              ask thy help in being better soldiers for
                              thee.  Grant us, O Lord, those things we
                              need to do our work more effectively.  
                              Give us this day a gun that will fire 10,000
                              rounds a second, a napalm that will burn
                              for a week.  Help us to bring death and
                              destruction wherever we go, for we do it in
                              thy name and therefore it is meet and just.
                              We thank thee for this war, mindful that,
                               while it is not best of all wars, it is better
                               than no war at all. ...In all things, O God,
                               assist us, for we do our noble work in the
                               knowledge that only with thy help can we
                               avoid the catastrophe of peace, which
                               threatens us ever.  All of which we ask in
                               the name of thy son, George Patton.  Amen.

Elvis Stahr, the man whose luck ran out

Dean Rusk being heckled, Elvis Stahr glowering, Indiana University, 1967

            Buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors, from childhood on Elvis Stahr had been a winner in life. A prodigy, he went to university at age 16, attained the highest average in the school’s history, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, was decorated for valor in WWII, served as Secretary of the Army, and methodically climbed the ladder of academic leadership – until he slipped.
With his impressive winning streak, Elvis probably thought why not reach for the pinnacle of academe – in due time, perhaps an Ivy League presidency. His relentless ascent took him to top positions at several universities until he made it to the presidency of a major research institution, Indiana University (IU) – and that’s where his luck finally ran out.
Elvis Stahr arrived at IU just as the war in Vietnam was heating up and the first shouts of student protest could be heard on that politically dormant campus. In his opening address, he said all the right things and initially handled dissent calmly and with forbearance.
But with each new campus protest, President Stahr, a classic liberal, grew more uncomfortable with radical activism. Complicating the situation, his Washington connections enabled him to attract major national figures to IU – all of them pro-war.
It was a march of the titans – Richard Nixon; General Maxwell Taylor; General Hershey of the draft (who, in terms of student reaction, was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back); and Secretary of State Rusk, the ultimate bĂȘte noire of the antiwar protestors.
            By the time Nixon, Taylor, and Hershey had come and been met with noisy but peaceful, albeit small demonstrations, Elvis had lost patience with the student minority who were roiling the campus waters, disturbing his presidency. In the fall of ’66 in a talk to incoming freshmen, the president criticized an upcoming New Left demonstration, invoking the bogey of a threat to ‘basic freedoms’ at IU.
Several months later in his annual address to the faculty, Elvis let loose a harsh broadside against the campus New Left. Using intemperate language normally not heard at a university, least of all from its president, Stahr bluntly questioned the motives of the New Left at IU, peppering his remarks with such inflammatory terms as ‘dogma’, ‘deceit’, ‘propaganda’, ‘conspiracy’, and ‘puppets’.
            Jeff had just assumed the leadership of the IU SDS, and he and fellow activists were not about to let Stahr’s remarks go unanswered. Initially, Jeff addressed a polite open letter to the president, asking him to either substantiate his allegations or retract them.
Although Jeff quoted back to him the offensive remarks, Stahr declined to retract. Speaking as SDS president, Jeff responded with a counter-address, ‘The Role of the New Left on Campus’, a reasoned defense of the rise of student protest at universities across the nation. Published verbatim in IU’s alternative paper and issued as a small booklet, Jeff’s well-crafted rebuttal of Stahr’s “enemies of freedom” diatribe gained wide attention on and off campus.
Elvis Stahr staggered on at for another year at IU before throwing in the towel. After a relatively short tenure, he claimed he was ‘retiring’, citing “presidential fatigue”, but from his bitter exit interview, it was clear he had fled the university in some disarray.  Stahr’s race to the top had come to an end in a setback at IU, his long winning streak broken.
Nonetheless, quick on his feet, Elvis Stahr landed at the Audubon Society where he enjoyed a successful tenure, but it wasn’t the same. He’d been shunted off the main line of academe to a quiet siding more suited to his comfort zone.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Characters in Search of Jeff - I

When I began a memoir on my late brother Jeff Sharlet, I never imagined the fascinating journey that would ensue, a journey of discovery not only about my brother but myself as well. Along the way I’ve encountered many interesting people – well over 150 – who inhabited Jeff’s life and times during his last decade.

Jeff was a Vietnam GI before the war came up on the public’s radar, later a founding leader of the GI antiwar movement. He died young in ’69. I’ve been mightily assisted in the ‘search’ for my brother by Karen Grote Ferb, a very close friend of Jeff’s during his college days.

Four years ago we launched this blog, which I’ve used to put together a preliminary draft of the book underway. In the next several posts, I’d like to introduce and in some instances re-introduce, through a gallery of photos and brief descriptions, a number of the individuals I’ve met “Searching for Jeff.”
                                                                                                       Bob Sharlet

Lucien Conein, ‘Lawrence of Vietnam’

Captain Lucien Conein, 1945

Though they both played roles in a clandestine operation in Saigon now part of history, my brother Jeff never met Lou Conein. Neither did I much later – Conein died in ’98, but my college roommate knew the man in Vietnam, both were CIA. The closest I’ve got to Conein was his legend. Born in Paris, raised in Kansas, he was a swashbuckling soldier of two wars. In Europe he served as a commando behind German lines, then moved on to Asia where he fought alongside the French and Vietnamese as they drove the Japanese from Indochina.
          Fast forward to 1963, Conein’s back in Vietnam, the embassy’s secret liaison to the South Vietnamese generals planning a coup. As the plot thickened, Conein and his general staff contact rendezvoused as unobtrusively as possible. One time it was at the dentist both men shared, Conein was in the chair ostensibly waiting for the drill when General Don slipped in the side entrance. Behind closed doors in Washington, Conein became known as “a kind of T.E. Lawrence.”
          What was the connection to my kid brother Jeff Sharlet? A Vietnamese-speaking GI, Jeff and fellow linguists played a supporting role to Colonel Conein in the successful coup of November 1st – by wiretapping the generals. The White House wanted to know what was being said when Conein wasn’t around.

George Shriver, founder of the campus left

Young Socialist Alliance meeting, Indiana University,
George Shriver presiding, 1962

          A stalwart of the Left, Jeff and I met George at Indiana University (IU) in the fall, 1960. I was there in the PhD program, Jeff a freshman. George was my fellow grad student in Russian studies. Though I thought I knew the guy pretty well, obviously I missed the main story. Sure, George was studying for a PhD in Russian lit, but he was also quietly working as a skilled political organizer on campus as I only learned many years later. He had come out to IU from Harvard where he’d been a member of  the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), junior affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
Before George dropped out for a career in radical politics, he set up a YSA chapter at the university as well as a branch of the national Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), created in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Though overlapping and very small, the groups were focused and highly dedicated. In effect, George Shriver was the link between the Old Left and emerging New Left at conservative Indiana University.
During Christmas break at the end of fall term ’60, George was organizing a trip to revolutionary Cuba. My brother signed up to go, but it turned out there weren’t enough takers, so Jeff never made it to Havana

Ditty Bopper at Phu Bai

Phu Bai, the mountains of Laos to the west, 1964

          At the beginning of this memoir project, Karen and I were trying to locate ex-GIs who’d been based at Phu Bai, a small intelligence outpost just below the border of Communist North Vietnam. Jeff had served there, but we knew little about the place. We turned up an ex-Vietnam GI who had been posted at Phu Bai. He had been a Morse code operator, ‘ditty bopper’ for short, and, like Jeff, was doing secret work. Ditty Bopper gave us a lot of helpful information.
          Then one day he asked Karen about the memoir project. He knew Jeff had preceded him to Phu Bai, but not that he subsequently became a founder of GI protest against the war back home. We had nothing to hide, but that was too much for Ditty Bopper. A ‘lifer’, or career soldier, he was proud of his Vietnam service and wanted no traffic with criticism of the war, even decades later.
          He cut us off, no more emails, but we had learned a great deal and were grateful. He would shudder to see his name in this blog.

Larry Heinemann, ex-soldier-writer

A lifetime Chicago boy and an ex-Vietnam GI, the author, late ‘70s

          After the Vietnam War ended in ’75, I decided to teach a course on the conflict – as a kind of memorial to my brother. Since I was a Soviet specialist and knew about the war only from the New York Times and nightly television news, it was to be a learning experience. That’s when I came across the name of Larry Heinemann, an ex-Vietnam GI. I had the students read his first novel, Close Quarters, a gritty story of close-combat, much of it drawn from his experience.
          Many years later when I got into this memoir, I sought out the author. By then he had won the National Book Award for a later novel. I asked if he by chance  had known my brother back in the late ‘60s when Jeff was editing Vietnam GI (VGI). A lifelong Chicago boy, Larry replied, “Among those ex-GIs around Chicago, Jeff was, well, famous.”

Matt Rinaldi, antiwar chronicler

Matt Rinaldi’s ground-breaking essay on GI protest, 1972

A young man of the left and an antiwar activist, Matt Rinaldi and Jeff met at a GI coffee house near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  As VGI editor, Jeff went  on the road from time to time, touring training camps as well as nearby coffee houses run by activist friends. He was trawling for combat GIs to interview and other Nam stories for his next issue.
Decades later when I was spoke with Matt, he was still chuckling about something Jeff had told him. My brother had recently telephoned his parents, and our apolitical father asked his youngest son, “Jeff, are you still with those anti-groups?” Not long after Jeff’s early death, Matt Rinaldi published one the first accounts of GI protest against the war:

Vietnam GI was created by Jeff Sharlet, a vet who had served in Vietnam in the early years of the war.  He came back to the States fairly disillusioned. ... VGI was widely circulated and well received. ... It represented a significant breakthrough when it first appeared and helped play a catalytic role throughout the services.

Destiny Handelman, campus SDS leader

Destiny at rest, Bloomington, 1966

          Coming home from Vietnam in ‘64, Jeff headed back to Bloomington, to Indiana University (IU) to finish his education. By the following year the country was edging toward full-blown war in Southeast Asia. When LBJ escalated in March ‘65, protest against the war came alive throughout academe.  At IU every Friday afternoon, a small band of protestors rallied in Dunn Meadow.
          Jeff was also opposed the war and as the rare Vietnam vet on campus, was drawn into protest circles. The group became the nucleus of an SDS, or Students for Democratic Society, chapter at IU. Hostile to hierarchy, the chapter evolved a rotating 4-person leadership team.
          Bernella Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Destiny Handelman (nee Kinal), and Jeff took turns chairing the group. Under Jeff’s aegis, demonstrations were mounted against pro-war speakers who came to campus – General Maxwell Taylor, former US Ambassador to South Vietnam; and General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, aka the draft.
          Eventually the four moved on – Bernella to professional social activist; Jim to academe, a specialist on labor relations; Destiny, to environmental activism, later a novelist; and Jeff to his place in history as founding leader of the emerging GI antiwar movement.

Vachel Worthington, gung-ho linguist

101st Airborne on patrol, Vietnam, late ‘60s

 Jeff came back from Vietnam with a troubling secret. Something he couldn’t talk about. I only learned about it decades later when Karen told me. What had he done, what had he witnessed? I sought out GI buddies,  but they had no idea. Except Vachel Worthington. 
At the Army Language School (ALS), Jeff and Vachel shared a room in the Vietnamese language barracks. Most of their classmates were fairly casual about military life, something to put up with. Vachel was the exception, a gung-ho trooper, reveling in the military culture.
We located Vachel in Florida. He had a notion of what Jeff had been doing that troubled him. Vachel told me he’ been doing the same thing. As the only linguist in Jeff’s cohort to re-up – re-enlist – gung-ho Vachel was attached to the 101st Airborne, the ‘Screaming Eagles’ of WWII fame. Specifically, he soldiered with the Pathfinders, a deep recon unit operating in the Central Highlands.
The Pathfinders’ assignment – locate Viet Cong (VC) radio transmitters and call in air strikes or artillery missions to take them out. Because VC units were often near villages, inevitably the rain of bombs and shells caused considerable collateral damage – the death of civilians. Vachel took it in stride – the fog of war.
He believed Jeff had worked with the Marines in I Corps earlier in the war on similar long range recon patrols.
          The Marines’ modus operandi was to call in naval fire missions from warships off shore with unintended consequences quite familiar to Vachel – more collateral damage. He speculated that Jeff felt guilty about his complicity in the killing of innocent civilians.
Maybe, but we’ll never know. Jeff died young, taking his secret to the grave.

Keith Willis, friend to the end

Cadet Captain Willis, Albany Academy, 1958

I’ve interviewed many people from Jeff’s life and times, but just one had known him through that final decade of his short but interesting life. Keith Willis and Jeff had gone to the same military prep, Keith two years older and an officer in the school battalion. Jeff was in his company. Both were jocks, Jeff – football  and track, Keith lettering in three Varsity sports.
Taking a degree from Penn, Keith enlisted in ASA, the Army Security Agency, to avoid the draft and possibly the infantry. He followed Jeff to ALS in the same Vietnamese program. The two of them bought a used motorcycle and on weekends cruised the beautiful California coast – up to San Francisco, down to Big Sur. Jeff and Keith both deployed and were stationed with the 9th ASA in the Philippines; later Jeff was sent over to Vietnam.
After his Vietnam tour, Jeff went back to college, Keith into the corporate world, but the two guys landed in Chicago and kept in touch. Later, in spring ’69 Jeff fell terminally ill, but remained hopeful. It was Keith he contacted to help him draft an appeal to the government for a disability pension. The letter went off to Washington, but the reply came too late – Jeff was already gone. It didn’t matter anyway, it was a rejection letter. Keith Willis though, friend to the end.