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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Voyage of Discovery – From Bloomington to Saigon

[On this the 4th anniversary of Searching for Jeff, the present post has been written by my collaborator on this blog, Karen Grote Ferb. Karen knew my brother Jeff well during their university days. In 2013 she and her husband Tom traveled to Vietnam where Karen retraced Jeff’s steps as a Vietnam GI during 1963-64.]

I first met Jeff Sharlet at a house party in early January 1966, a little over a year after he returned to Indiana University (IU) from his tour as a US military advisor in Vietnam.  It was a chance meeting.  One of my house mates had been invited, but did not want to go alone; she begged me to go with her.  I really didn’t want to, but she pleaded so long I finally gave in.  Jeff was there, sitting in a dark corner alone.  I’d seen him once before on campus, standing with a group of guys in front of Ballantine Hall.

I introduced myself, and we began a lengthy conversation in that corner, then got away from the general din to continue talking student style sitting on a pile of winter coats in the bathtub.  We talked about socioeconomics, racism, and the war in Vietnam. The war had been building dramatically since the Tonkin Gulf incident in August ’64 shortly after Jeff had returned stateside – culminating in the launching of a major bombing campaign over North Vietnam followed by the landing of the Marines at Danang in early ‘65. 

Our conversation continued over the next eight months until I left for graduate school, and more and more it turned toward the war, as was happening all over the country.  Why were we fighting in Vietnam was the question many were asking, and how could we stop it.

Fast forward to the digital age and 2004 when I finally
 learned of Jeff’s tragically early death in ‘69.

Although Jeff was clear that he had done something in Vietnam he couldn’t bring himself to speak of, he didn’t talk much at all about his experiences there that had soured him on our involvement in the war. At the same time, he had developed an admiration for the Vietnamese people, although not for their oppressive regimes beginning with Diem and his cruel brother Nhu, so he joined the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during fall of ‘65; I too joined around that time.          

Antiwar protests grew exponentially from the mid-‘60s, not only at home, but abroad, and even in Vietnam itself.  The Buddhist crisis, in particular, had drawn worldwide attention as clergy began to set themselves afire in public places as a protest against the Diem regime.

Jeff at Indiana University, 1965

Fast forward to the digital age and 2004 when I finally learned of Jeff’s tragically early death in ‘69.  I had come across his namesake nephew, at the time beginning his illustrious career as a writer.  At first I thought he was the Jeff I’d known, but a little exploration proved it not so; the namesake was too young and did not resemble his uncle.  The truth was a shock.  Jeff had died of cancer at age 27.  I knew he had an older brother, Bob, so I set out to offer much-belated condolences.

As it happened, Bob, an academic approaching retirement, was determined to give his brother his rightful place in the history of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War by writing a memoir of him.  Jeff too had intended to pursue an academic career. He had begun grad school at the University of Chicago, but dropped out and used his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship funds to create the first GI-led antiwar, underground newspaper. Vietnam GI was aimed at GIs serving in Vietnam as well as on US bases in the States and abroad. 

Contacting Bob at that time was serendipitous because he had little idea of how to reach out and find Jeff’s friends and comrades from his IU days. We determined that, although I’d lost touch with my fellow IU antiwar activists, I could find them for him.

I began a voyage of discovery I could not have imagined when I last spoke
with Jeff just a few months before the first issue of Vietnam GI appeared.

Over time I did find many of those people as well as others from Jeff’s high school years, his Army days, and the time he spent in Chicago as an underground editor, which also took him across the country and abroad. Bob eventually interviewed over 150 people who had known Jeff to one degree or another, and I began a voyage of discovery I could not have imagined back in late 1967 when I last spoke with Jeff just a few months before the first issue of Vietnam GI appeared. 

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have foreseen the depth of knowledge and understanding I would achieve about Vietnam and the war, nor that I would visit Vietnam, now unified, and walk in Jeff’s footsteps, seeing the places he had seen.

I found myself in Saigon’s cavernous Bến Thành Market, in front of which a massive nonviolent Buddhist protest had taken place on August 25, 1963, the very day Jeff arrived in Saigon for the first time. South Vietnamese government troops had opened fire, killing several people, including Quách Thị Trang, a 15-year old student. 

Bến Thành Market Protest and Quách Thị Trang, 1963

The traffic circle was subsequently renamed in her memory and now holds a statue of her in a space shared with a mid-15th century general, Trần Nguyên Hãn, a great poet, talented politician and strategist under Emperor Lê Lợi, and a hero revered for his role in liberating Vietnam from China’s Ming Dynasty.

Quách Thị Trang & General Han, 2014

No longer there to see were street-side execution posts as well as the trenches which Jeff could not have failed to notice; they surely would have added to soldiers’ anxieties about the dangers that too often erupted.

Trenches in front of Saigon City Hall, mid-‘60s
Nor were the famously well-known Buddhist self-immolations the only evidence of a profound cultural conflict and repression in the cities of South Vietnam.  Widely reported, the images of monks engulfed in flames stunned the world, although the root cause was not widely known. 

The Catholic Diem regime had retained a French colonial rule that Buddhism was not a religion, but an association, which severely limited the rights of Buddhists as opposed to those of the Catholic minority. A request to fly Buddhist flags on the occasion of Buddha’s 2,507th birthday in 1963 had been turned down while the Vatican flag flew on the occasion of the consecration of Diem's older brother as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hue.

A protest in the ancient capital of Hue of about 3,000 Buddhists was fired on by government troops.  The regime, attempting to minimize the damage and even pin the blame on its civil war adversary, the Viet Cong, was hotly contested by a huge protest march the next day of more than 10,000 demonstrators.
The protests and self-immolationssix in all, including a Buddhist nuncontinued throughout the summer of ’63, resulting in several clashes between Buddhists and troops, as well as hunger strikes—over 10,000 participated in Saigon alone—sit-ins, and street fighting between Buddhist and Catholic civilians.  All during the summer the great gong at Saigon’s Xa Loi Pagoda’s tolled, while in Hue the violence had left the main pagoda, Tu Dam, nearly a complete ruin.

Although President Diem had insisted he was pursuing a policy of conciliation, the tragedy in the streets of Saigon in August of ’63 would discredit any notion of it.  Having declared martial law, the president had given the police under his brother Nhu free rein starting that August.

Nhu’s police plundered, looted, beat, and brutally murdered 
Buddhists with abandon, killing no fewer than 100 in Hue alone.

Nhu’s police plundered, looted, beat, and brutally murdered Buddhists with abandon, killing no fewer than 100 in Hue alone. The overall number murdered or ‘disappeared’ was in the hundreds.  Thousands of Buddhists across the country were arrested and tortured by forces under Nhu, Diem’s brother, who also headed the special forces.  On August 25th, 6,000 monks, nuns, civilians, and students were arrested followed by many thousands more over the course of the following month. 

A war that had had not yet received much attention back in the States suddenly had many Americans asking questions that before long would result in massive demonstrations against it. The rest of the world began to wonder what our objectives in Vietnam actually were.  In the end, Washington declared, “… it appears that the government of the Republic of Vietnam, has instituted serious repressive measures against the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders…The US deplores repressive actions of this nature.” 

In spite of this, the American media were not quick to pick up on extent of the underlying conflict between Buddhists and the Catholic regime; that is, within the overarching civil war between Communist North and non-Communist South Vietnam, a religious civil war was raging in South Vietnam between Buddhists and Catholics.
Soon after the police attacks against Buddhists and their pagodas, the commander of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) announced military control over Saigon, instituted censorship of the press, and cancelled all commercial flights into the city.  As the US Government began to lose confidence in its client Diem, Jeff and fellow Vietnamese linguists were quickly rushed to Saigon.

As the US Government began to lose confidence in its client Diem, 
Jeff and fellow Vietnamese linguists were quickly rushed to Saigon.

Washington had finally recognized that the Diem regime was behind the attacks and had no intention of reconciliation with the Buddhists, a direct violation of a promise made. President Kennedy was also aware that a group of South Vietnamese generals were planning a coup.
The ensuing events in September and early October ‘63, to which Jeff was privy in his position of clandestinely eavesdropping on the ARVN General Staff, led on November 1st to a successful military coup and the execution of Diem and Nhu. 

Coincidentally, a year later in ‘64 – also on August 25 – a group of 10,000 Buddhists attacked and burned to the ground a Catholic village near Danang, after which horrendous bloody clashes erupted between Buddhists and Catholics killing and mutilating each other in the streets.  The violence soon spread to Saigon and other urban centers, creating an atmosphere of anarchy in the entire country.*

Violent clashes between Buddhists and Catholics, August, 1963

Contemporary Vietnam: Now a single unified country under Communist rule, the situation from the early-mid ‘60s has been reversed – the officially atheist Communist government now persecutes Christians, but allows Buddhists to practice their religion, although only a single sect, the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, intended to encompass any and all Buddhist sects firmly under state control.
* R J Topmiller, The Lotus Unleashed:  The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam 1964-1966 (2002), 19

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

GI in a Pagoda – From Olive Drab to Saffron Yellow

The Army Language School (ALS) sat on a vast bluff on the central coast of California overlooking Monterey Bay. Subsequently renamed the Defense Language Institute (DFI), the school still sits high on that bluff above the now revitalized Cannery Row. When the writer John Steinbeck roamed the area during the Great Depression, the canneries along the waterfront below thrived on the catch of the sardine fishing fleet.

Much later in the mid-‘50s when I was assigned to ALS for language study, the sardine fisheries had collapsed, and the canneries had gone into decline; it was a ramshackle scene notable only due to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row (1945). After I graduated, the street of defunct canning factories was officially renamed in honor of the novel and its famous author who a few years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The language school was first established in ’41 for training GIs in Japanese. After the war, ALS moved to its present location, the Presidio of Monterey, an old Spanish fort. The school’s curriculum grew rapidly apace with the challenges of the postwar international situation. When I studied at Monterey, over 25 languages were being offered by native speakers from various countries. By the end of the ‘50s, more than 20,000 military personnel had passed through ALS.

Not surprisingly, given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of the United States’ Cold War adversaries and their client states as well as instruction in the languages of our allies in the global struggle. Russian was by far the largest language program then, followed by Chinese and Korean. Collectively, the various languages of the USSR’s Baltic and East European satellites also enrolled a large group of military students.

Given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of US Cold War adversaries as well as in the languages of our allies in the global struggle.

Smaller numbers of soldier-students studied Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Burmese, Indonesian, and Thai as well as several West European and Scandinavian languages. During the year I spent at ALS studying Czech, one of my college friends was learning Persian across the post.

When I revisited the school several years ago the curriculum had changed radically since the end of the Cold War and onset of the war on terrorism. The barracks and classroom buildings where the East Europeanists had lived and studied still stood, but had been repurposed. With the liberation of the former Soviet Union’s satellites and the inclusion of most of the now-independent countries in NATO, the study of their languages was no longer essential. 

Instead, my old billet and neighboring barracks had been converted to additional classrooms for the hundreds of men and women soldiers training for America’s contemporary challenges – studying among others two of the heretofore secondary languages of the ASA/DLI curriculum -- Arabic and Farsi (Persian) – as well as new additions such as Pashto, a language of Afghanistan, and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan. 

In the ‘60s, my brother Jeff Sharlet followed me to Monterey as a GI student of Vietnamese. In ’62 a low intensity ‘hot’ war was underway in South Vietnam, and the Pentagon was steadily but quietly building up its cadres of translators and interpreters. As the war heated up, Jeff and most of his ALS cohort ended up in Vietnam.

Vietnamese had first been taught in the US during WWII. A special program for a small number of GIs was created at University of California – Berkeley and University of Wisconsin – Madison. Later during the Cold War ‘50s, Vietnamese was added to the roster of languages taught at ALS. Vietnamese native speakers joined the school’s faculty in ’54, the year of France’s defeat in the first Indochina War when the US began to assume its fateful responsibility for the newly created state of South Vietnam.

In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war – 
20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense
   Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese.

In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war – 20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese. The great majority were sent for a short course (8-weeks) designed for officers and non-commissioned officers headed to Southeast Asia as military advisors to units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

A much smaller contingent, including Jeff and his buddies, spent 11.5 months in the classrooms of the Monterey Presidio being trained as translators and interpreters. Most of the long-term students were part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), an autonomous communications intelligence outfit, or they were assigned to the Military Intelligence (MI) branch of the Army.

Unlike my generation of Cold War GIs who, because of the Iron Curtain could at best only observe the countries of the Soviet Bloc from afar, Jeff and his fellow linguists lived and worked in a Vietnamese language environment. As a result they were able to hone their language skills with some of them becoming quite fluent in Vietnamese.

Of my fellow linguists of the European communist states who continued using their languages after leaving the military, a number became academics, specialists on the countries whose languages we had learned and worked in for a couple of years of our military tour. Jeff and his group also parlayed their language skills as well as the Vietnam experience after the service, but in more varied ways.

At least two became academics, one becoming a distinguished scholar of Vietnamese politics. Another stayed on in Vietnam, and yet another returned as a civilian employee of a US company that constructed infrastructure for the military. Another GI linguist, for whom the romance of Vietnamese culture was strong, became a student of Oriental languages back in the States as well as a poet of the Vietnam experience.

Doffing the uniform, a couple of others became players in the Vietnam War writ large. One young ex-Vietnam GI became station chief for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Saigon, later rising to the number two position in the agency back in Washington.

Then there was brother Jeff who founded the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper directed to serving GIs and in the process became an early leader of the emerging GI opposition to the war. *

Among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security   
Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk.

However, among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk. Steve Shlafer had completed a couple of years of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) when he dropped out and enlisted in ASA. Like Jeff, Steve was sent to ALS for intensive language training in Vietnamese and upon graduation deployed to South Vietnam for classified work. 

Steve Shlafer (r) at an ASA base outside Saigon, 1963

During the requisite 12-month tour in-country, Steve Shlafer became not only an outstanding linguist, but also deeply interested in Vietnamese Buddhist culture. After completing his military obligation, he returned to Vietnam, enrolling at Saigon’s Van Hanh University in – a Buddhist-run school – where he studied Buddhist theology as well as Chinese and Vietnamese literature. Finishing his studies in ‘67, Steve was hired by an American subcontractor to a Washington agency to research and write an in-depth study of a particular Buddhist sect.

In early December of ‘67, he submitted an extensive report on the Hoa Hao religious tradition. Hoahaoism is a relatively modern version of Buddhism with a populist and social welfare orientation. The movement, which today claims two million adherents across Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, focuses mainly on peasant farmers, emphasizes Buddhist lay worship at home and in the fields rather than primarily in temples, and favors aid to the poor over pagoda-building and expensive rituals.

Three years later, Steve Shlafer’s nearly 300-page study was cited in a State Department training manual for Foreign Service officers assigned to Vietnam.

Cover page of Foreign Service Institute manual on Vietnam (1970)

A few days after handing in his manuscript, Steve Shlafer completed final preparations for becoming a Theravada (also known as Southern Buddhism, the most prominent form in Southeast Asia) Buddhist monk, an extraordinary commitment for a foreigner in general and an American ex-GI in particular. After performing the ritual of walking three times around the pagoda, he entered and took his vows. With shaved head he donned the traditional saffron gown with yellow sash and was assigned a cell in the pagoda. Almost immediately the new monk became the center of media attention back in the States.

Steve Shlafer making the ritual walks around the pagoda, 1967

To further characterize Steve Shlafer’s dramatic act in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Associated Press (AP) highlighted that he was Jewish. Of course, for the American public it would have been hardly less remarkable if a Vietnamese speaking ex-GI of the Christian persuasion had been inducted into the Buddhist religion.

Steve Shlafer (l) taking his monastic vows, 1967

At a mini-press conference in his pagoda cell, Thich Thien Hien, aka Steve Shlafer, told the newsmen that his parents back home were aware of his plans, and he had just written them that he had taken the step. He fended off questions about his parents’ reaction, saying – perhaps with a smile, “They probably think it’s another one of my wild schemes.”**

Simultaneously, the New York Times interviewed his mother in New Jersey who expressed skepticism of her son’s whole venture. Saying that she had tried to “kid him out of it,” his mother speculated that Steve would give up the idea of being a monk in a few months and return to college in the States.***

Not long after the solemn ceremony – in late January ’68 when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam – Steve in his religious regalia reportedly took temporary cover with his old unit out near the airport. Given the fact that Saigon was a battle zone, it was probably a wise decision notwithstanding his new status and appearance as a monk – especially as a rather conspicuous American Caucasian Buddhist.
In the end Mrs Shlafer was right since Steve eventually did give up monkhood. However, that wasn’t and still isn’t unusual in Buddhist practice where men have been known to enter the pagoda for a period of time and then return to their previous lives. In any event, Steve Shlafer married and spent a dozen years in Sweden from 1974 to 1986 where he completed medical school at the University of Goteborg.

Returning to the States, he did his medical residency and became a physician. Many decades on since wartime Saigon, Dr Stephen Shlafer has long been a respected pediatrician in the Pacific Northwest.

*For an account of the GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, see

**AP story run in the New York Times, 4 December 1967

**New York Times, 4 December 1967

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Last Days of VIETNAM GI

Jeff Sharlet, my brother, died in June ’69 from complications of something that may have begun earlier during his tour in Vietnam. He was only 27, but left behind a notable legacy.* Jeff had founded Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68 as the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to GIs. VGI quickly found its audience in Vietnam and in stateside training camps and gave impetus to the emerging GI protest against the war.

As it turned out, June ’69 was a turning point in the war itself as well as in the antiwar movement writ large. Recently elected President Nixon announced the first withdrawal of troops and the beginning of the reduction in US force levels in Vietnam during the week before Jeff’s death.

Then, shortly after news of his premature death, what became the last national conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) opened in Chicago with a minute of silence in memory of Jeff. Over the next few days of contentious debate, the largest youth organization in America and the backbone of the civilian antiwar movement met its demise, splitting asunder into two mutually hostile irreconcilable factions, one of which was the infamous Weatherman.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Jeff’s passing, Dave Komatsu, his deputy editor, did his best to carry on, but money was tight, and his heart was no longer in it. As the US war effort began to decline, Dave and his wife Kit, both long term left activists, moved on and founded the underground paper Wildcat directed primarily toward factory workers, the classic proletariat of Karl Marx.

Nevertheless, out of loyalty to Jeff’s memory, Dave and staff managed to publish three more posthumous issues. Most notable was the August issue of VGI, the cynosure of which was Dave’s long, eloquent obituary for Jeff under the heading Jeff Sharlet Dies. The tribute opened with writerly élan and inevitably closed on a sad end note:

                       Many good men never came back from Nam. Some
                   came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a
                   pretty together cat….

                       At the end he said that he had many new ideas for
                   our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about

During fall ’69, Dave tried to hand off editorial responsibility to other staff members, but in the vacuum left by Jeff’s death, staffers had started drifting away to various political projects and other GI papers. Also, absent Jeff who had been the paper’s principal fundraiser, the cash box was empty, and the reluctant decision was made to suspend publication of Vietnam GI.

That was not to be the end of the story however. The tale of VGI’s decline, its subsequent short-lived revival in ‘70, and its final demise can be seen in the following excerpts from VGI’s office correspondence for the last year of the paper’s existence.**

The initial excerpts bear brief explanation – due to unusual circumstances at the time, they are from consecutive letters two months apart. The first is from RESIST, a national organization in Cambridge MA led by radical academics such as Noam Chomsky of MIT and Richard Flacks of the University of Chicago; the prominent left public intellectuals Paul Goodman, the writer, and Marcus Raskin of the Institute of Policy Studies, a critical think-tank; and, among others, a Harvard College chaplain. The group’s mission was to provide financial assistance to all parts of the broad Vietnam antiwar movement.

Komatsu had written to the Cambridge organization in the early fall to request funding for a follow-on October issue of VGI. RESIST replied much later:

                   RESIST                                            November 17, 1969

                   Dear David,

                             With the number and amounts requested by
                   other groups this month, we were unable to provide
                   the entire $650 your letter specified. However, a
                   check for $400 is enclosed here. …

                             I apologize for the weeks delay in getting
                   this off to you.

Because of government interference, Komatsu – unaware that VGI had been re-funded – replied belatedly two months later:

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 19, 1970

                   Your letter (with the $400 check) of November 17,
          1969 just arrived two days ago. …

                   We had no idea that RESIST had voted us that money
          in November. … As we are now finding out, the Post Office – or
          the FBI – completely disrupted our mail. We are just now
          starting to get some November and December mail. …

                   Publication of Vietnam GI was suspended until
          February-March [1970]…. Next month two new Vietnam
          vets (both with base newspaper experience) are moving
          here [to Chicago] to take over this operation.

During the next couple of weeks, Dave and fellow staffers began answering long delayed mail from late ’69 held up by the postal inspectors or more likely the FBI:

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 28, 1970

                   After Jeff died we staggered along for three issues,
          then decided to suspend publication temporarily. We had
          no money….

                   Before he died … Jeff recruited the core of what
          would be a whole new staff. The first of these cats gets
          out [of the Army] next month.

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 29, 1970

                   The new editor is Maury Knutson and he was one
          of the cats who started Little Giant (first underground paper
          in Vietnam) and later RAP!, the GI paper at Fort Benning [GE].

The much heralded Maury Knutson did indeed arrive in Chicago to take over where Jeff left off. In Vietnam, in addition to working on the first GI paper in the war zone, Maury had been part of Jeff’s extensive network of below the radar GI distributors of VGI in-country.

However, he got caught in the act and as punishment was ordered to ‘walk point’ (i.e., to lead), the most dangerous place on a combat patrol. The idea was to get him killed or wounded. Maury survived unscathed, but the experience left him in some disarray.

After finishing his 12-month tour, Maury was sent back to his home unit at Fort Benning to complete his military obligation. While there he continued his antiwar work, launching the underground paper RAP!, especially addressed to issues of concern to Black GIs.

Maury also played a minor role in a feature film on the war – ironically a pro-war movie – while waiting for his release at Benning. Gung-ho actor John Wayne was making his film, The Green Berets, on post, and the Pentagon ‘loaned’ him a number of troops to play extras. Maury ended up playing a diminutive Viet Cong officer (he was 5’5”) in a scene opposite The Duke, the iconic rightwing Hollywood star.

Maury Knutson (r) pictured in VGI, April ‘68

In Chicago during the spring of ’70 the much anticipated revival of Vietnam GI under Maury’s aegis did not go smoothly. The re-launch was beset with difficulties. Liberal antiwar money was drying up as US involvement in the war continued to wind down. In addition, many hands were needed to get the paper out, but the local VGI staff, who had experience in production and distribution, had redirected their energies to Wildcat, Dave Komatsu’s new paper.

The final straw for Maury though was the arrival on the VGI staff of a group out of the auto factories in Detroit who identified with Lutte Ouvrière  (Workers’ Struggle), a tiny Trotskyist party originating in France. The newcomers, according to Maury, were “old-time sectarian leftists who wouldn’t give an inch”; hence, there was no coherent viewpoint in VGI.***

Nonetheless, Maury hung in there and brought to press his first and, as it turned out, only issue. The VGI May ’70 issue with its blurred focus reflected Maury’s concerns. Aside from several pieces obviously drawn from his own experiences at Benning as well as his tenure as editor of RAP! and an interview with a combat Marine buried in the back pages, the rest of the May issue drifts away from VGI’s formerly exclusive emphasis on GI issues.

The front page leader is appropriately on President Nixon’s surprise invasion of Cambodia in late April, but it spins off into a broad political critique of the president, who is also blamed – instead of the governor of Ohio – for sending state National Guard troops onto the Kent State campus.

The second lead at least has a GI angle – Operation Graphic Hand dispatched military personnel to New York City to man 17 post offices during the largest wildcat strike in US history – but soon the piece wanders off into a discussion of federal labor relations and collective bargaining issues specific to postal workers.

However, even more discursively for a front line GI paper, the rest of the issue is devoted to pieces on the Woodstock pop festival and on working conditions for women. Editorially frustrated and preoccupied with personal problems, Maury Knutson resigned in despair and departed Chicago.

Although Maury left town, he didn’t leave VGI in the lurch. He turned over the editorship to his sidekick from Ft Benning, David Patterson, who had worked with him on RAP! Patterson, who chose to operate under the nom de plume Joe Harris, was in turn assisted by two ex-Vietnam veterans – Craig Walden, a Marine; and John Alden, a sailor.

In fund-raising circles from afar, the revival of Vietnam GI – albeit a rocky process internally – was greeted with enthusiasm:

RESIST                                                                            April 1, 1970

Dear Joe,

          We are all very cheered that Vietnam GI is again
a reality.

Another left fund-raising outfit – this one dedicated exclusively to funding GI antiwar initiatives – quickly came to the rescue of the newly revived
VGI with a check for $400 to cover the cost of mailing the paper hither and yon.

Like RESIST, the United States Servicemen’s Fund (USSF) sported a distinguished board of directors designed to attract money from wealthy individuals opposed to the war on its masthead. Based in New York, USSF listed Fred Gardner, creator of the GI antiwar coffee house network, as president, but he later told me that his leadership of the endeavor was nominal. He had merely lent his name with the understanding that Robert Zevin, listed as Secretary/Treasurer, would run the show.

Zevin, a PhD economist then teaching at Columbia University, was a masterful fundraiser and manager of money. The two officers of USSF were joined on the board by Donald Duncan, the famous Green Beret, a soldier’s soldier who resigned from the Army early on in protest of the war; and Dr Howard Levy, the officer who served time in federal prison for refusing to train Special Forces medics bound for Vietnam.

A former naval officer, Susan Schnall, who had had the temerity to fly a small private plane over West Coast Navy facilities, including an aircraft carrier in port, and ‘bomb’ them with antiwar leaflets, was recruited for the USSF board. Reverend Richard Fernandez, the executive director of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), an influential antiwar group, was also brought on board. The list was rounded out with an array of nationally known public intellectuals, including Dr Benjamin Spock, the distinguished antiwar baby doctor.

Unaware of the shifting political complexion of Vietnam GI since Jeff’s time, Bob Zevin of USSF sent Joe Harris a warm welcome for the revived paper:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                      April 6, 1970

                   I agree … that Vietnam GI used to fill a need which is
          still not being met by any other base or national GI paper.

                   The unique asset of Vietnam GI was always that it told
          the truth in the language of its readers. … GI editors [now]
          seem almost universally susceptible to the temptation to
          preach at their readers and to edit the news to fit a political

                   It was precisely because Vietnam GI told the truth that
          it was such an invaluable organizing tool.

          Taking charge of VGI, Joe Harris attended to its running correspondence with other antiwar editors, with groups seeking multiple copies for local distribution, and most importantly, with the steady flow of ‘letters to the editor’ from individual GIs.

In one such letter, a Vietnam GI offered to distribute copies of VGI within his unit. In ’68 and ’69 Jeff had had a phantom network of some 200 GI volunteers surreptitiously circulating the paper – considered subversive material by the military authorities – to Vietnam GIs. However, with guys completing their tours and rotating stateside and because of the long hiatus between the September ’69 issue and the May ’70 revival, the sub rosa distribution setup in Vietnam probably no longer existed, so Joe Harris embraced the opportunity to rebuild as he wrote in reply:

                   As to your wanting to distribute papers we can help
                 you. Our papers are sent in a plain envelope and wrapped
                 inside in white paper with a phony [return] address on the
                 outside [to avoid detection by military authorities].

The June ’70 VGI was Joe Harris’s first issue as editor and reflected his tighter editorial control over content. Compared to the May issue, nearly all the articles were GI-relevant. By then, with GI protest rising in the ranks, several pieces were on GI antiwar activity.

The lead was a story on the Big Red One, the 1st Division. Other articles covered a large antiwar demonstration at Ft Dix NJ on Armed Forces Day, an account of a wounded Marine’s sad fate in a poorly run Veterans Administration hospital, and a first-person piece by an ex-Vietnam GI who became an antiwar activist on return to the States.

The most dramatic item was a longish letter to the editor from a GI based at Chu Lai describing a Viet Cong assault on the post.  In the course of an hour nearly 200 rockets and mortar rounds pummeled the area to lethal effect – 11 dead, 10 wounded. It a grim reminder to readers that, while the US may have been gradually pulling out, Vietnam still remained a dangerous place for American troops.

However, the June issue still contained a few instances of windy political rhetoric – a political analysis of CIA machinations in Cambodia’s capital and a broadside editorial on American ‘imperialism’ in the Third World that concluded with a message reminiscent of the British Empire in the 19th century:

                   Throughout the world, US troops are protecting American
                   business and political investment. The government and
                   big business come in with the money and gain a new colony,
                   and the troops are brought in to ensure that the colonists
                   don’t get restless [emphasis in original].

The first indications of impending problems for the editorial collective appear in the June ’70 correspondence file. Joe Harris writes to USSF that VGI has lost the use of its typesetting machine, which means that all typesetting will have to be done commercially at increased cost. In another letter concerning the delay of the July VGI, he explains that in the midst of final production he learned that his sister had fallen seriously ill and had to fly back east immediately.

As a result of the rushed catch-up on the July issue, it was only half the length of previous issues at just four pages. Nevertheless, in the tradition of VGI on Jeff’s watch, the leader was a front-page combat interview, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Laos.”

The long piece, which takes up nearly half the issue, describes in dramatic terms Marine Force Recon infiltrating small teams of commandos into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam as early as 1965. Although the interviewee was unnamed, it was Craig Walden who had returned from the war grievously wounded and in the summer of ’70 was an associate editor of the paper.****

Cpl. Craig Walden in Vietnam

In July a bombshell letter arrived at the VGI office. In retrospect it foreshadowed the end of Jeff’s project. It was a long missive from USSF sent to all the GI groups being supported by the fund. The threat to VGI’s future was self-evident:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                      July 1970

          Dear Friends,

                   The United States Servicemen’s Fund received a
          letter from the Manhattan District Director of the Internal
          Revenue Service [IRS] stating that ‘this office will
          recommend to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue that
          the exemption from federal income taxes granted to you
          … be revoked since inception’.

                   The stated reasons are that the USSF is a political
          action organization whose primary purposes are ‘ending
          the war in Vietnam and abolishing the draft’.

                   The IRS maintains that the Fund has supported ‘that
          segment of the military establishment who are opposed to
          the Vietnam War and the use of conscription to wage
          that war’.

In spite of the foreboding news, both RESIST and USSF managed to
send small checks to Vietnam GI during July to help fund production costs for the August issue. But then in early August ’70 the situation darkened considerably.
News of the IRS recommendation had gotten around, and with the likely loss of the fund’s tax-free status, donations had begun to dry up.

As a consequence, USSF was forced to send out another ‘Dear Friends’ letter:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                       August 4, 1970

                   We cannot send out your monthly checks for August
          right away. There just isn’t any money. It seems the [donation]
          drought is beginning even sooner than we thought.

The end was not far off. Funds from donors slowed to a trickle as USSF predictably lost it tax-exempt status, and without a funding source Vietnam GI met its final demise as a voice of GI protest. David Patterson, aka Joe Harris, got out one last abbreviated issue for August before resigning and flew home to be with his dying sister.

As Maury Knutson mused many years later, perhaps “Vietnam GI [had] died with Jeff’s passing [in ‘69]” which meant the revival efforts of 1970 were essentially denouement.*****
*See his Wiki for a brief account of Jeff’s life and posthumous recognition:

** Many thanks to Craig Walden of Chicago, who for nearly 40 years, saved the invaluable Vietnam GI office files until I finally located him as part of the memoir project on my brother Jeff.

*** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010

***** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010