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.

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