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.

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