Wednesday, April 1, 2015
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
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 bête 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
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.”
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
[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-immolations—six in all, including a Buddhist nun—continued 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