Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Indiana Surprise

The other old friend of Jeff’s who helped shape the memoir about my brother was Karen Grote, his girlfriend at Indiana University (IU). Like Ed Smith, the ex-GI, Karen had first contacted my son Jeff; unlike Ed, she knew from the outset he wasn’t the Jeff Sharlet she was seeking – too young, perhaps a namesake. Karen had searched further on the Internet and came upon the awful truth: Jeff was long gone, dead too young.

At first I thought Karen was an earlier IU girlfriend I’d met in the ‘60s, Karin Ford, whose whereabouts were unknown to me. Karen Grote told me how late that summer of ’03 she was holed up indoors during hot, rainy days – muggy weather like back in Indiana. The ironic lyrics of a ‘60s country tune crept into her head: “God didn’t make little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime ….” Jeff had lived and worked in Indy, short for the state capital, during the summer of his junior year, 1966, and Karen had visited him there. She wondered where he’d landed in life, what he was doing now.

After my son forwarded Karen’s inquiry, what did I learn about Brother Jeff? How they met, how he introduced her to Chinese food and taught her to use chopsticks (which, like many Vietnam GI’s, he had carried since they weren’t washed, just wiped after each use), and other anecdotes of everyday student life in Bloomington IN. Karen also told me about IU’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter (SDS) and its local anti-poverty project on which she and Jeff worked before Vietnam came to dominate the national organization’s focus.

Campus Entrance, Indiana University

The work involved a pocket of poverty south of town in rural Monroe County, a place of no running water, rat-infested shacks, and no services. Jeff and others, in helping those people improve their lives and obtain social services, were not above lending a hand with the dirty hard labor of cleaning the communal well, repairing roofs, sealing rat holes.

Karen also gave me invaluable insight into Jeff’s temperament as a young ex-Vietnam GI. After all, I’d known him best as child years younger than me. She said he was usually quite reserved, both in public and in private. He’d been affectionate, never effusive, and she could recall only one time he showed any anger toward her. But there were dark moods as well when he’d become uncommunicative.

One episode she remembered occurred across the border in Kentucky where Jeff and other activists were trying to advise a young man on his draft situation. The advice was divided between recommending the man resist and do prison time, or accept the draft call and agitate against the war from inside. In face of disagreement, Jeff simply went silent. Another time Karen recalled him sitting on the stoop, head in his hands. When asked what was wrong, he answered in a tone of quiet despair, “We gotta get out of this place,” which happened to be a line from a ’65 hit song that became the anthem of Vietnam GI’s. She was puzzled, Jeff said nothing further.

I’d always assumed Jeff had worked for the railroad right there in Bloomington during summer ’66. Having taken my PhD at IU, I knew the town well, remembering the tracks a block or so beyond Courthouse Square, but no, Karen set the record straight. Jeff had gotten a job in Indy that summer, 50 miles to the north, working in the freight yards as a locomotive fireman and boarding with a carpenter named Karlis Zobs in his big old ramshackle house. As the summer drew to a close, Karen remembered Jeff on the verge of telling her certain things, but he never seemed to get past the openings. He’d begin, then become uncharacteristically anxious, and stop abruptly. On the last occasion he started to tell her what he did in Vietnam, not just about Vietnam, but broke off, saying he couldn’t, that she wouldn’t understand and hate him if he told her. Karen never knew what it was.

From Source to Searcher

After Karen and I had talked at length, I realized she was something of a wannabe sleuth, obsessed with facts, and unusually computer literate; she quickly volunteered to help me locate people from the various times in Jeff’s short but fruitful life, not an easy task in the days before social networking made its appearance. I’d been researching a quasi-memoir of the Cold War, especially its domestic impact on American life, and had blocked out two central chapters on my brother – as a Vietnam GI, and later as an antiwar leader.

Karen Grote Ferb, several years later

In short order, with the flood of new information on Jeff facilitated by Karen, those chapters evolved into an outline for an entire book as I learned much more about my younger brother; his times; the underground paper he created, Vietnam GI (VGI); and its role in fostering the GI resistance movement which contributed to the war’s end.

I had taught the Vietnam War for years and became intrigued by the cohort Karen and Jeff – had he lived – represented, a cohort that came of age in the middle of the Cold War, in the fever zone of Vietnam, the turbulent ‘60s, and beyond. I was constantly on the lookout for references to Jeff in the historical literature, had read Dissent in the Heartland*, an excellent study of the ‘60s at IU, and here I was face-to-face with a participant, a member of SDS who had known the activists the author had written about: Bernella and David Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Peter and Lucia Montague, Joe Fuhrmann, Professor James Dinsmoor, and others who were all old friends with whom she’d lost touch, but now found.

The Owl Coffeehouse just off campus; IU’s alternative paper, The Spectator, edited by Jeff’s friend Jim Retherford; Guy Loftman of SDS wins IU student presidency; the rallies in Dunn Meadow. And there were the campus antiwar protests against the likes of General Maxwell Taylor and General Lewis Hershey, the head of the draft. Karen and Jeff were at those demos together.

Hershey demo at IU, May, 1966

Karen had special memory of the arrests of IU protesters in Indy, July ’66, on occasion of President Johnson’s speech at the war monument in the city’s center; she’d been one of those arrested, but that’s a story for elsewhere. Although Karen didn’t know them personally, she was aware of the campus pro-war conservatives, most notably Tom Huston, a law student; Robert Turner; and Bob Tyrrell, all of whom later rose to prominence in the nation’s capital.

In effect, Karen became my witness to the history of Jeff’s SDS years, to the rich IU chapter of his story. And I should add she's been scarcely less productive in tracking down his military buddies from the Army Language School (ALS) and ASA, or the Army Security Agency, as well as the Chicago group around VGI and the GI coffeehouse people who manned those antiwar outposts around the country outside the major Army bases. Names I had known only from old letters, photos, and articles in Jeff’s files turned into individuals I was able to interview and got to know, thanks to Karen, the tireless searcher.

*By Mary Ann Wynkoop.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Vietnam Coup Capers

In the beginning I was not the only searcher for my brother Jeff Sharlet – two of his oldest friends from the ‘60s also sought to reconnect with him. Instead, they found my son Jeff, a writer highly visible on the Internet and my brother’s namesake. At the time I was working on a memoir on my Cold War experiences that I envisioned would include a couple of chapters on Brother Jeff – on his time in Vietnam and as a leader of GI protest against the war, so young Jeff referred both old friends to me. The first voice from the past was Ed Smith, an ex-Vietnam GI, who wrote that he was Jeff’s best friend in Vietnam. That got my attention. Over the years since, Ed had taken a degree in Oriental languages, become a published poet, served 15 years in the ministry, and was then working as an insurance agent struggling to rediscover his poetic voice. A great admirer of Vietnamese culture, Ed sent me some lovely poems he had recently written about his Vietnam tour, including one about his passionate love affair with an older Vietnamese woman. His poetry suggested a man entering the age of nostalgia, recalling happier times. In that spirit, Ed came looking for his old friend Jeff decades later.

I had only a general idea of Jeff’s time in Nam during 1963-64; I was in Moscow that year writing a PhD dissertation. Jeff hadn’t talked much about his experience, and I hadn’t asked since I knew the work was classified. Half a dozen years after me, my kid brother had followed in my footsteps into the military. We’d both dropped out of college, and in those days there was a draft, so why not enlist and have some choice. Jeff and I each spent a year at the Army Language School (ALS) and served in a special communications intel outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), military arm of the NSA or National Security Agency. There was one big difference; I had studied the Czech language and got a very comfortable posting to Cold War Europe in the ‘50s while Jeff, upon arriving at Monterey on the California coast, had been bumped from Russian into Vietnamese. As fate would have it, that moment shaped the trajectory of his remaining short but interesting life.

Ed Smith, a Harvard dropout, had also joined ASA and preceded Jeff to the Language School where he too had been bumped – out of Chinese into Vietnamese. It was summer ’61 not long after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and JFK, smarting from defeat, zeroed in on Southeast Asia where he would meet the Soviet global challenge. Sure we needed Russian and Chinese linguists, but building up a cadre of Vietnamese speakers was the priority. Jeff arrived at ALS midway during Ed’s course and the two became close pals, pub crawling through the bars of Monterey and nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea, including Sade’s on Ocean Avenue where my ALS classmates and I had once spent many a pleasant afternoon.

In June ’62, Ed graduated at the top of his class and was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland for eight weeks of specialized training by NSA experts. In September he deployed to Southeast Asia, to the 9th ASA battalion at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands (PI). Four months later, his Viet course over, Jeff joined Ed at Clark. They worked side-by-side on the night shift, translating North Vietnamese (NVN) military intercepts. Off duty, they partied – in nearby Angeles City; at Baguio, the mountain resort high above the heat of the plains; and in Manila, a train ride to the southeast. Presumably NSA had given Jeff additional training in PI since he worked exclusively with Ed helping the cryptographers, or ‘crypts’, break low-level NVN codes.

Ed Smith (arrow) with Jeff, right

The Coup Missions

As Buddhist opposition to the repressive and incompetent Diem regime mounted during summer ’63, a group of South Vietnamese (SVN) generals discreetly sought US approval for a possible coup against the SVN president. Washington ‘green-lighted’ the plot, and in mid-summer Ed Smith was sent over to Vietnam to reinforce Davis Station, home to ASA’s 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU), a secure facility at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon. Several weeks later Jeff and a team of lingy’s, linguists in ASA parlance, followed. NSA briefed the team on a top secret mission. No one in ASA without ‘Need to know’ was privy. The American Embassy had assigned Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, to liaise with the generals plotting the coup, but the White House wanted an additional channel of information on the plotters’ plans.

Realizing that I hadn’t been aware of what Jeff had been involved in, Ed abandoned caution and said, “What the hell, the war’s over; I’ll tell you what we were doing.” The ASA team set up in a remote corner of an Army signal battalion base near a ville called Phu Lam to the west of Saigon. The base handled all military communications for the region, American and Vietnamese. Hooking into the football-field size antennas, the team worked out of communication vans 24/7 surveilling SVN general staff communications. By mid-October ’63, their assignments completed, Ed and Jeff returned to Clark AFB. Two weeks later, the generals pulled off the coup, killing Diem in the process. Since Jeff later became a major opponent of the war, I asked Ed if he’d heard him express any antiwar sentiments. No, he replied, we’d both bought into the prevailing Cold War consensus that the Soviet global threat had to be met, although we’d felt uncomfortable snooping on our allies. Obviously the bigger picture of which they were part was above their pay grade.

President Diem of South Vietnam & General Minh, head of post-coup junta

Back in the Philippines, Ed and Jeff resumed their routine, secret work and the good life of college boys on extended vacation. Then one night late January ’64, they returned from clubbing in Manila to find orders taped to the barracks door – Report to the Clark flight line with gear noon the next day. Another coup was about to occur in Saigon, and a contingent of Viet lingy’s was rushed back to Vietnam. This time the coup went smoothly, power was quickly consolidated, and the ASA team stood down. But 400 miles north at Phu Bai near the ancient capital of Hue, lingy’s were needed to backup highly classified cross-border operations. Ed was ‘short’, his enlistment nearly up, but Jeff had time left, so the military sent them off in different directions – Ed back to Clark to begin his exit from the Army, Jeff up to the North Vietnamese border. But that’s another story.


Returning to the States, Ed briefly attended UC-Berkeley where Jeff, who mustered out several months later, paid him a visit, the last time the two guys saw each other. Nearly 40 years later when Ed found me, he’d had no idea Jeff had died back in ’69. We talked extensively, Ed was an immense help as I began thinking about setting aside my own memoir and focusing on Jeff. Later, I turned to Ed again with additional questions about Vietnam, but couldn’t find him. Emails unanswered, I called his company which said he was no longer there and, somewhat cryptically, provided no further information. Years passed, and then in 2010, a tribute to the late Edward W. Smith III, a well-remembered poet, surfaced on the Internet. Just three months after Ed and I had met, he’d fallen ill and died of a rare complication, the day after Christmas, 2003.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Other Academy Boy

Brother Jeff Sharlet went to a small country-day school called The Albany Academy. A very old institution with some historically distinguished grads – Melville the novelist, Henry the scientist, Learned Hand the jurist – the Academy was a very conservative place, conservative in the older sense that favored tradition and regarded askance any but minimally incremental change. I preceded Jeff in the Class of ’53, he was the Class of ’60, both of us under the reign of the long serving headmaster, Harry E.P. Meislahn, a man of a certain age and considerable size, a crusty Princetonian with much gravitas who at weekly chapel read the Old Testament from a massive podium resembling the prow of a great whaling ship.

I’ve always marveled how Jeff found his way to a radical view of society from such infertile soil. The Academy after all was a military school. We wore uniforms, drilled daily, and marched as a battalion in the annual national day parades through downtown Albany, the capital of New York. Though we were seven years apart in age, neither Jeff nor I grew up in a home where the subject of politics was the order of the day. I was standard issue from the ‘50s, the Eisenhower era, serving in the Cold War amidst the prevailing consensus of the times – we were the good guys up against the wicked Soviets and their minions.

Jeff came out of the same environment, but just a few years after the long gray line of the Academy he found himself in Vietnam, a very different war from whence he developed a critical stance on the world around him. His name is recorded on a plaque at the Academy listing cadets who served, and in some cases, died in Vietnam. While Jeff finished his tour as an NCO, many though not all the boys on the wall with him, served as officers, having gone through college ROTC programs. A few of them made a career of it, a pilot here and an infantry officer there, but most returned intact, unmarked by war in mind or body, and took their places at the bar, in the medical ranks, in the professional world of their fathers.

Jeff of course eschewed that route and went on to become a leader of the GI antiwar movement. For a long time I thought of him as singular among the Academy ex-Vietnam GIs, the only one who broke ranks with the US mission in Southeast Asia and came back irreversibly changed. That was until I learned about a fellow cadet, Gordon Livingston of the Class of ’56. Neither Jeff nor I knew him personally, although Gordon may have known of me since I cut a figure on the football field. In his senior year when he served as second in command to the battalion major, Gordon was unlikely to have been aware of Jeff, just another III Former or 9th grader in public school parlance.

Gordon Livingston, AA ’56 and (see arrow) Cadet Captain Livingston on parade, spring ‘56
However, Gordon went on more than a decade later to make one of the most unique statements against the Vietnam War. At the Academy he’d been a model cadet, cum laude honors, Varsity soccer, captain of hockey, editor of the school paper, and of course Executive Captain. He would have been a logical candidate for the Ivies where Headmaster Meislahn sent many of his boys year after year, but Gordon’s father had other plans for him. His father, a WWII veteran and well-connected politically, arranged an appointment for his son to West Point when he was still a youngster. Although Gordon would have preferred a life of the mind, he followed the course set for him by his father and went to the Point. He took to the military life, deciding to make a career of it until the day in Vietnam when he took a dramatic stance against the war.

Gordon Livingston’s protest against the Vietnam War was rare, highly unusual, and, as an act of conscience, took uncommon moral courage. His was an extraordinary moment of protest, a selfless action little known in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement. As Gordon later recounted in an article in a national magazine, long since forgotten, he dramatically proclaimed his opposition to the war on Easter Sunday ‘69 at a remote US combat base in South Vietnam.

I say Gordon’s was a rare action because I know of no other instance of a senior officer serving in the combat zone taking such a step. I refer to his protest as highly unusual since it occurred in the presence of the commanding general of all US forces in Vietnam, to whom Major Livingston personally handed a copy of his incredibly irreverent antiwar statement. Finally, I add that Gordon Livingston’s act of conscience called for uncommon moral courage because he was well aware he faced the likelihood of a court-martial and the end of his military career.

Gordon Livingston was no ordinary soldier. He was a West Point officer, an airborne ranger who had commanded a company of the 82nd Airborne, a qualified pilot, and a Regimental Surgeon decorated for valor in battle who, before deploying in November ’68, had taken the trouble to study the Vietnamese language, culture, and history. Nor did he join just any line unit. He became Regimental Surgeon to the 11th Armored Cavalry Brigade, nicknamed the ‘Blackhorse’, a crack, aggressive 5,000-man outfit commanded by Colonel George Patton, Jr., scion of WWII Patton.
Shoulder patch, 11th Armored Cavalry (the 'Blackhorse')

Livingston went to Vietnam believing in the war and was a good soldier in every respect, but his doubts and disillusionment with the US mission gradually grew, fed by seemingly isolated incidents – Patton’s cynical remark at a briefing that 90% killing with 10% hearts & minds was about right; a hot-dogging chopper pilot showing no remorse after recklessly killing a Vietnamese girl who just wanted Doc Livingston to clear him to fly again; as well as the harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians and wanton destruction of their property Major Livingston witnessed as he flew around the country visiting various bases.

Before writing his ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, a perfect parody with provocative lines like “Give us this day … napalm that will burn for a week. Help us to bring death and destruction wherever we go …,” Major Livingston was well aware of the case of Dr. Howard Levy, an Army doctor who, refusing to train Green Berets, was convicted by court-martial and served three years in federal prison. Undeterred, Major Livingston sprang his surprise at Colonel Patton’s change of command ceremony attended by General Creighton Abrams and a bevy of flag officers. The military’s reaction was predictable – the dissident Regimental Surgeon was arrested and bound over for court-martial.

Fortunately, the Army thought better about making a martyr of a West Pointer, a physician and an officer who had witnessed his unit’s atrocities, and permitted Livingston to resign. Returning to Johns Hopkins, his medical school, the erstwhile military doctor trained as a psychiatrist and, while the war still raged, appeared as an expert witness to war time atrocities at civilian antiwar events. However, in spite of his spectacular act of protest at the heart of the military machine, to this day Gordon Livingston, the other Academy boy alongside Jeff, remains a relatively unsung alumnus of the GI antiwar movement.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

VGI's Divinity School Distributor

Getting Vietnam GI (VGI) into the hands of young men stateside destined for military service as well as to the thousands of others undergoing training for Vietnam, entailed a helping hand from countless civilian volunteers. Two of the major draft resistance groups assisted the cause. Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) not only helped the VGI staff in mailing the paper, but also distributed it to area draftees, giving them a firsthand look at what they’d be getting into. BDRG (Boston Draft Resistance Group) printed an extra three-to-five thousand copies of VGI and reached not only inductees at the processing centers in New England, but they also passed out the paper to troops traveling to and from bases in the region.

A major point of distribution to the troops undergoing Basic Training (BT) or Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) were the GI coffee houses manned by civilian antiwar activists outside the gates or nearby the major Army and Air Force bases. The coffee houses went by catchy names like the UFO at Fort Jackson, SC; the Oleo Strut, Fort Hood, TX; and the Shelter Half near Fort Lewis, WA. Jeff Sharlet and his team would ship bundles of each issue of VGI to the GI coffee houses where GIs dropping by off duty could read the paper while having a cup of coffee or, ideally, take it back with them to the barracks. Military rules permitted possession of a single copy of such publications, but there was no restriction on a guy sharing his copy with buddies.

By summer of ’68, the media had picked up on the GI coffee houses and the antiwar papers. The New York Times ran a long story with a front page photo of GIs in civvies relaxing at a coffee house while reading VGI. The NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report broadcast a segment showing uniformed GIs reading the paper at the UFO in Columbia, SC. Esquire published a story with pictures, and a two-part series appeared in the Atlanta Constitution. Some of the GI coffee houses were short-lived, but as long as the coffee houses lasted, they were sanctuaries where soldiers, Marines and airman could read the underground antiwar press, including VGI, and get an unvarnished view of the war.

New York Times photo of off-duty GIs at the UFO GI coffee house, Columbia, SC, August ‘68

Far from the metropolitan centers or the huge semi-rural military training bases occasional lone individuals took up distribution of VGI. In the fall of ’68, Larry Christensen was in divinity school in Dubuque, IA, in the religious wing of the antiwar movement. He and fellow divinity students did “kneel-in” protests at local churches and were constantly in search of something that might bring the war to an end sooner. One day while at a college coffee shop, Larry came across a copy of VGI. He was much impressed with its reports “direct from the trenches” and wrote the Chicago office for multiple copies to distribute.

Rolled up in a brown paper cylinder, the papers arrived in the nick of time for the forthcoming scheduled induction of Dubuque’s new draftees. On the appointed day, Larry and friends handed out VGI to the inductees as they boarded the bus to the induction center. The military authorities were taken by surprise, not expecting antiwar activity in the middle of the conservative Midwest. The divinity students pulled it off again on the following induction date, but then the Army caught on and changed the bus pick-up to a place where unauthorized access could be blocked. Decades later, Larry remembered VGI as a “straight-from-the-ranks type of reporting,” very unusual in the heavily intellectualized peace movement of the day.

'Search for Jeff' continues every Wednesday.