Wednesday, April 27, 2011

VGI's Door Gunner Distributor

The primary objective of Jeff Sharlet and fellow editors of Vietnam GI (VGI) was to get the paper into the hands of GIs in Vietnam, the guys fighting the war. In addition to the friendly antiwar unit mail clerks who would surreptitiously ‘distribute’ VGI to sympathetic troops in the Headquarters Company under the nose of the commanding officer (CO), Jeff relied on some 200 individual GIs scattered up and down South Vietnam who had volunteered as covert distributors. VGI would hear from the volunteers when they sent in the blank for a free subscription and offered to pass around extra copies as well.

One such volunteer distributor was Terry DeMott of the Americal Division. Arriving at the main base near Chu Lai in March ’68, he spent the first half of his tour on the ground in the 5th battalion, 46th infantry regiment of the division’s 198th brigade, but for the last half of his 12-month tour Terry transferred to the aviation wing of the 198th – serving as a door gunner in an observation chopper. Wounded near the end of his tour, he left Vietnam on a stretcher in February ’69, just days before his 12 months were up.

Door gunner in flight, © Mark Jury

From Terry’s perspective on the war, he and his buddies were being used as ‘bait’ to draw out and pinpoint the enemy for destruction by US military technology. As he saw it as an infantry grunt, his patrols were designed to draw fire from the VC so planes and artillery could open up on them. Even when he transferred to choppers, Terry and his buddies were still being dangled as bait, flying in formations of three up to Danang where Marine artillery was on alert at Red Beach. The mission was to fly around just west of Danang in order to draw and mark ground fire to which Marine batteries would then respond.

He remembered first coming upon a copy of VGI on his return from patrol to base camp at Landing Zone (LZ) Gator. Terry vaguely recalled just finding the paper in his squad tent, reading it front to back, and almost immediately filling out the subscription blank which he mailed to Chicago with a note offering to distribute VGI if additional copies were sent. His letter was read by Bob Brown*, one of the sub-editors who promptly wrote back, enclosing five copies of the latest issue. Bob added that the number of GIs in Nam circulating the paper had increased from 75 in July ’68 to 200 by September.

Terry carried the copies in his backpack on combat patrol, and, as he put it, “One night on a laager (night defensive position) and everybody in my squad had read them.” On return to base camp, the copies would then be passed to other squads. Once VGI made the rounds in Terry’s platoon, the papers would be handed over to other units. He was circumspect in his distribution efforts, but not too worried since they had a cool top sergeant and anyway, “everyone humping out there was against the war.”

In response to the question, Ok, but what if you did get caught distributing Vietnam GI, Terry replied: “Paranoia was a way of life out there. You were constantly worrying about your life so [getting caught distributing] seemed small potatoes. The worst they could do was pull me out of the field, send me someplace and court-martial me. And [then] I’d be safe anyway.”


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Distributing Vietnam GI

Gathering stories for Vietnam GI (VGI), printing the paper, fund raising to keep the enterprise afloat, and, not least, distributing an underground antiwar paper were all activities fraught with difficulties with which Jeff Sharlet and his editorial staff had to deal. VGI relied on GI first-person accounts from Vietnam for leads, so appropriate returning GIs had to be contacted and interviewed monthly. Most other stories in each issue also came from ‘Nam’, which meant Jeff, Jim Wallihan, and other editors had to make the rounds of stateside base camps scattered throughout the country gathering copy. Printing the paper then meant trying to find a friendly printer who had not been scared off by a visit from the FBI. Eventually, this required the VGI team driving well up the western shore of Lake Michigan to a small town Wisconsin print shop. Fund raising to support the paper was a constant struggle which routinely involved Jeff and either Jim Wallihan or Dave Komatsu working wealthy liberal circles on the East and West Coasts.

Vietnam GI, hot off the press

After surmounting these hurdles each month, Jeff and his team still had to semi-surreptitiously distribute VGI to the GI coffee houses and base camps in the US and Western Europe as well as into the hands of GIs in Vietnam. Since postal inspection in the Chicago area was in cahoots with the FBI field office as well as Army intelligence out of Fort Sheridan, Illinois, using relatively inexpensive 3rd class mail for printed matter was out of the question. Third class mail was subject to random postal inspection, and since the FBI had declared VGI seditious material during spring ’68, the individual copies or bundles could be confiscated by the US Post Office.

Circumventing the problem meant mailing VGI to stateside addresses via the more expensive 1st class mail rate which by law cannot be opened except by addressee. Even so, fictitious return addresses were regularly used to divert attention from curious eyes in the postal system. The actual posting of the bundles also required guile and the assistance of a number of helpers, often members of CADRE, the acronym for Chicago Area Draft Resisters. Dumping large numbers of bundles wrapped in brown paper at the post offices would have drawn attention, as would dropping them in one or two mailboxes in the city. Therefore, each VGI helper would drive around the Chicago metro area and even beyond to nearby cities to deposit smaller, less obtrusive bunches of packages in a variety of mailboxes.

Shipping copies of VGI to GIs at military bases in Western Europe via their APO (Army Post Office) addresses required air mail postage, the most expensive option at the time. However, getting the paper to the troops in Vietnam was the most challenging part of the distribution process. The first step was sending a large number of copies to Tom Barton, the VGI East Coast distributor in New York City. The assumption was that the NYC postal authorities had such enormous mail volume, they were less vigilant on the sedition front. Barton in turn had a list of APO South Vietnam addresses of friendly unit mail clerks who, upon receiving bundles of the latest issue of VGI, were willing to covertly circulate the copies to enlisted men. However, undercover distribution skirted lifer NCO’s who were usually heavily committed to the mission and intolerant of dissent. His modus operandi was to wrap the copies in plain brown paper and use made-to-order return addresses which no commanding officer would ever suspect carried seditious material. His favorite was ‘Protestant Pen Pals’.

Tom Barton was also responsible for distributing VGI to troops in the New York metropolitan area and at nearby bases, including Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base, both in northern New Jersey.Here the distribution technique of choice was for Barton to go with several helpers to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where thousands of troops passed through heading back from leave to the NJ bases and other East Coast military installations. If the group was hassled by the Port Authority police, they’d split up and go individually into the departure tunnels for the buses headed to the bases. To the northeast, Charlie Fisher and colleagues with the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG) assumed responsibility for circulating VGI in New England. Because their main objective was to encourage draft resistance, BDRG hit not only the bus terminals and military bases, but also the induction centers, handing inductees copies of VGI as they got off the bus to process for their physicals. They also distributed papers at the South Boston Army Center, the transfer point for all troops looking for military transportation back to base.

BDRG distributing VGI, South Boston Army Center

Finally, Jeff and his fellow editors relied on countless individuals, civilian as well as GI, to get the paper around. Every issue carried a subscription blank free for GIs. Many personnel scattered at bases around the world and in the fleet requested subs and often added, If you’ll send me extra copies, I’ll spread the word. One such ‘distributor’ was a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. He regularly passed around five copies of each issue. Civilians also lent a hand in the distribution process. Another GI paper, The Ally, based in San Francisco, facilitated circulation of VGI in the Bay Area. And occasionally, the editorial office in Chicago would hear from a lone civilian who had come across the paper and offered to get it to troops in his area. One such person was a divinity student in the Midwest who, until the Army blocked his access, managed to hand out copies of VGI to young men about to enter the local induction center.

At its peak in late ‘68, 35,000 copies of Vietnam GI were printed and circulated, and on the basis of feedback from the numerous letters-to-the-editors, Jeff heard that each copy was often read by three to five and even more GIs. Those who read VGI came to regard it as the ‘truth paper’, the antithesis of the official military organ, Stars & Stripes.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tommy the Traveler

In the annals of bizarre homefront stories from the Vietnam War, the tale of Tommy the Traveler stands out. I came across him purely by serendipity. From the FBI down to the local cops, the authorities – trying to keep track of young New Left antiwar activists – most likely experienced no shortage of willing undercover informants, paid or otherwise. Tommy, however, was in a class by himself; beginning in 1967 on his own initiative, he undertook surveillance on a number of college campuses.*

A little background. Tommy, born in 1944, was half American and half Thai with an unusual family history. Through his father he was related to the royal house of Thailand, while his paternal grandmother was a Russian from the tsarist period. Apparently Tommy’s father had worked with the CIA and Army intelligence in Thailand, presumably during early Cold War days. As a boy, he had a typical American childhood, although his fascination with guns and playing cowboys and Indians was somewhat extreme. After high school, he went out west and for a time rode rodeo. Tommy had a very patriotic upbringing.

I was talking with one of my former students from Union College about Indiana University (IU) in the Vietnam War era. I was telling him about the undercover informant in IU’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter (see Blog post for 3/30/11), and he in turn said that a similar character passed through Union College while he was an undergrad there. News to me. It was a guy nicknamed Tommy the Traveler.

Tommy had been a traveling salesman, and his beat was upstate New York which took him through a number of college towns where he styled himself a free-lance agent provocateur. He reportedly visited State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, University of Rochester, Hobart, Cornell, Union, and SUNY-Albany, among other schools. He’d appear on campus and connect with the activists. SDS’s lack of national hierarchy, or often even local structure, made it easy for Tommy to get close to them.

A handsome young man with neat, close cropped hair, three-piece tweed suits, and a snazzy new Ford Mustang, SDS activists on several campuses suspected him as an undercover cop. However, Tommy skillfully dropped names from one relatively isolated campus to another and managed to ‘pass’ undetected. His modus operandi was to persuade activists to carry out violent actions on their campuses. Though he had little success, turmoil followed in his wake. By early ’69, Tommy had parlayed his networking into a major speaking role at a regional SDS meeting held at SUNY-Albany.

'Tommy the Traveler'
After he’d developed an extensive network of contacts, Tommy apparently sold his services to the Buffalo FBI field office, a hundred-strong outfit, because of long-time concern over Old Left activity in the industrial heartland. But because he was extreme in his proposed provocations and considered a little nutty (he had a lot of military gear including an M-1 rifle, grenades, and a pistol), the FBI cut him loose, recommending him to the Ontario County Sheriff for undercover drug work on the campuses. When later interviewed by CBS’s Walter Cronkite, the sheriff defended Tommy showing students how to build bombs as “perfectly proper behavior for a police agent attempting to infiltrate student radicals.”

In his narc role, Tommy finally succeeded in realizing his violent anti-antiwar agenda. At Hobart College in Geneva NY, he persuaded a couple of impressionable freshmen to toss a Molotov cocktail into the campus offices of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in the basement of a dorm with students sleeping above. The culprits received short jail sentences, while in the end Tommy the instigator got off nearly scot free. During that campus visit he’d also set up and fingered several other students for a NY State Police drug bust which had turned into a riot. The bust briefly brought Tommy local celebrity, and he even considered running for the office of county sheriff. He went on to study criminology, worked as a police officer in Pennsylvania, and later in life became a horse and cattle breeder. More recently, he was spotted as a Civil War re-enactor in Oklahoma. Tommy still gets around.

*Esquire, July 1971

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Surveilling 'Vietnam GI' - Resume of an FBI Informer

He was "white, blond, looked like a college football player," so Thomas Edward Mosher was described by a former national officer of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Chicago. A former Stanford professor Mosher had harassed added that he was short and wiry, wore a crew cut, and cultivated the image of "a traned tough guy." Others described him as "scrappy" and "punchy". Mosher became on of the FBI's most valuable undercover informants in the '60s, subsequently testifying to Congress on SDS and an array of left organizations. Mosher, a Stanford university dropout, began as a civil rights worker in the South became a community activist, got involved in the antiwar movement, became disenchanted, and volunteered his services to the FBI. Along the way, he was a leader in a radical Chicago community group, gained access to national SDS circles, spied on Brother Jeff and Vietnam GI (VGI), went to Cuba for revolutionary training, and successfully penetrated the Black Panthers.

T.E. Mosher (see arrow) disrupting a Stanford faculty meeting, ‘70

Although Mosher’s been lost sight of over the decades since the turbulent ‘60s/early ‘70s, a rough timeline of his whereabouts and activities can be sketched:

• 1942: Born in Chicago 1960: Attended Loyola Univ, Chicago

• 1961: Enlisted in Marines, just 2.5 months active duty, inactive reserve.

• 1962: Enrolled at Stanford Univ 1965: Dropped out of Stanford, did civil rights work in Mississippi 1966: Returned to Chicago, joined ‘Rising up Angry’ (RUA), a radical working-class white outfit which interacted with national SDS Hq, Chicago, through its affiliate JOIN or ‘Jobs or Income Now’.

• Summer 1967: An SDS national leader described Mosher as a “freelance organizer” who was “most enthusiastic about [carrying out] diversionary actions” to distract the Chicago police should they attempt to put down a Black ghetto uprising.

• 1968: Involved with SDS at the national level, worked with Rennie Davis: Spring: With RUA/JOIN contingent, attended SDS National Council meeting, Lexington, KY Summer: Chosen by Bernadine Dohrn to go to Cuba, met with Vietnamese Communists Fall: Attended SDS National Council meeting, Boulder, CO; bunked with Mark Rudd.

• 1969: Returned to Stanford, majoring in Economics Volunteered services to Palo Alto FBI Infiltrated activist groups at Stanford and in San Francisco Bay Area Penetrated Black Panther National Office in Oakland Linked Panthers with other left groups in Bay Area Trained with weapons and explosives in the mountains November: Learned of executions within Panther circles of victims of FBI disinformation

• March, 1971: Testimony before US Senate Committee

• September, 1971: Published a brief summary in Reader's Digest magazine under the title “Inside the Revolutionary Left.

• Summer, 1971: Lived in Cambridge MA under an assumed name.

In his three days of testimony to a Senate subcommittee chaired by Senator Eastland of Mississippi, Mosher recounted in detail his extensive journey inside the left, initially as an activist and then as an FBI informant. During ’68, he appeared to have good access to the SDS national leadership in Chicago, even to the extent of providing the subcommittee with a floor plan of the headquarters building and layout of the offices. More importantly, Mosher reported on SDS plans for a ‘training school’, with various sessions led by Yale historian Staughton Lynd; Bernardine Dohrn, who led the Weathermen the following year; Rennie Davis later of the Chicago 7 trial; and Brother Jeff on ‘organizing in the military’. In this context, he amplified his testimony on Jeff describing him as “the first editor of a GI paper … now deceased.” Later in the spring when J. Edgar Hoover put VGI and its editors under surveillance and FBI agents came calling at the apartment Jeff occupied with Jim Wallihan and Bill O’Brien, the group became more vigilant. It may have been around this time that a new guy appeared, an ex-Navy petty officer who had served in Vietnam, offering to work on the paper. Jeff and Jim, sensing that he may not have been kosher, turned him away.

The following year, not long after Jeff’s death in June ’69, the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial opened, and the former naval petty officer reportedly turned up as a prosecution witness. Meanwhile in 1969, Mosher had returned to Stanford, signed on with the FBI, and managed to infiltrate the California National Office of the Black Panthers, and, according to a journalist, “pulled armed robberies ‘to support the revolution’, supplied friends with guns and explosives, started fights, set fires, helped a fugitive to escape, and established a mountain hideaway for would-be revolutionaries ….” It was later that year that he learned from a Black friend of the execution-murder of a Panther leader at their remote mountain hideout, promptly reported it to his FBI liaison, and, according to what he told the Senators in ’71, was dismayed and no doubt personally scared when the FBI ignored the crime resulting from their planted disinformation.

In his continuing testimony, Mosher seemed to be in the room with Jeff, Dave Komatsu, Jim Wallihan, and other VGI editors as they discussed the history of GI protest, dating back to the Philippines in ’45 when US troops protested the slow pace of demobilization. As he testified,
The people who organized this paper [VGI] were very familiar with the history of that movement. I remember them discussing it in depth, and they talked about the possibility of organizing [GI] coffee shops near bases, distributing newspapers within the military and so on. … [T]he question of their success is not moot. I mean, they have been successful.
In my interviews with Jeff’s editorial team, nothing has turned up about Mosher; no one fitting his description has been mentioned. Of course during early ’68 when VGI was first being published monthly, meetings, editorial and otherwise, were neither secret nor exclusive. Jeff needed many hands to get the paper out – typists to transcribe the numerous GI letters to the editor, drivers to run the originals up to the printer in Wisconsin, others to address envelopes and packages, and volunteers to drop the mailings in post boxes throughout the greater Chicago area as well as in neighboring cities to avoid postal surveillance. Under these circumstances, VGI meetings were of necessity relatively open.

A few months after his Congressional appearance, Thomas Edward Mosher was heard from publically one more time, writing in Reader’s Digest: “I am taking no chances; I have left the San Francisco Bay Area. I am usually disguised, always armed. It will be months, perhaps years before I can lead a normal life.” He had fled to Cambridge MA where he lived under the assumed name of Edward 'Tim' Cox.