Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Dear Jeff", Vietnam GI’s Mail Bag

At the end of fall semester ‘67, my brother, Jeff Sharlet, withdrew from the University of Chicago grad school to go fulltime on his passion, GI antiwar protest. He and fellow ex-Vietnam GIs launched his underground paper Vietnam GI (VGI) at the start of ‘68. The January and February issues had been sent out – to Army bases in the States and to quite a number of individual soldiers in Vietnam. The initial issue contained a box offering VGI free to any military personnel whose address was received. The response was almost immediate and enormous.

Offer to receive VGI free

Handwritten letters-to-the-editor, “Dear Jeff”, began arriving along with ‘subscription’ requests at VGI’s Chicago office from troops in Vietnam as well as stateside units. Members of the paper’s floating staff (civilian supporters who turned up to stuff envelopes and other clerical chores as needed) would type up each letter; the letter writer then received the next issue of VGI along with a reply from one of the editors. By the March ‘68 issue, the first batch of letters ran on page two under ‘Mail Bag’ in large, bold letters, identified just by the writer’s rank and unit to protect him from military retaliation for his act of protest.
The first seven letters to appear reflected the scope of VGI’s reach, from Vietnam in – the Central Highlands, to up near the North Vietnamese border, and on a war ship in the South China Sea; and to West Germany as well as stateside Army and Air Force bases (AFB). The lead letter dated 8 March 68 from Pleiku was typical of many that followed. A trooper in the 4th Infantry Division, having read the first two issues, requested a subscription not just for himself, but for a number of his buddies. Another writer from the China Beach area, most likely a Marine, asking for the next issue, said simply “I like most what I seen in your paper and what you stand for.”

A private writing from Fort Campbell KY went a step further, as many other letter writers later would. Saying that most of his fellow trainees expected to be sent to Vietnam, he offered to serve as a ‘distributor’ for VGI;
I could distribute about as many copies of the paper as you send
me …. I’m putting copies in the day rooms of the training companies,
but could easily hand them out to hundreds of individual trainees
and men back in my unit.
From the sailor aboard a ship off the coast of South Vietnam came news that the first issues of VGI had been “widely read by enlisted and junior officers alike,” and if multiple copies could be sent “the whole ship (340 men) could be covered.”

But in that first wave of feedback, a letter from Bolling AFB outside of Washington, DC went to the very heart of Jeff’s purpose in creating Vietnam GI – to give voice to the voiceless guys fighting the war: “God knows that those of us who have been there – and who are yet silent, trapped by fear or bitterness or impotence – need a surrogate speaking for us.”

During spring ’68 Jeff began sending me each issue of VGI as it came off the press. I was well aware of his antiwar views as an ex-GI, but found each new batch of letters surprising. At that point in the Vietnam War – except for an occasional media-visible protest such as the Army doctor who refused an order and was court-martialed in ’65, the Fort Hood Three who said No to Vietnam and received long prison sentences, and four sailors who deserted the aircraft carrier Intrepid in Japan in ’67 – there was little or no public awareness of a protest mood among many military personnel.

VGI Mail Bag continually surprised me with its blunt letters critical of the war from a wide range of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and, not least, members of the ‘Green Machine’ (the Marines) – reflecting significant military dissent below the radar of the national media. On one occasion I asked Jeff if the letters were for real, had he made them up. No, he replied they were the real McCoy, but added he could have written them.
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, Son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one.*
By the April ’68 issue, Jeff and company had even received a letter from a retired general, a critic of the war, approving of their work. In that same mail bag was a letter from a GI in Germany at a base facing regular levies of troops being reassigned to Nam. Predictably, he reported the only support for the war came from the ‘lifers’ or sergeants, career soldiers.

A spring letter from Fort Gordon GA indicated that VGI was having an impact by raising GI consciousness about the war, and breaking through the wall of silence surrounding military life:
Dear Jeff:
Thanks for the letter and especially the copies of Vietnam GI ….
We’ve been attempting to organize against the war … [and papers
like VGI] are very helpful in making guys feel they are not alone….
Let’s face it. With the possibility of being sent to Vietnam … being
almost a certainty for the vast majority of us … what have we got
to lose by fighting against it.
More and more letters poured in from all branches of the military and a wide variety of units, including the 1st Marine Division, 1st Air Cavalry, Danang Air Base, 198th Infantry Brigade, 155th Assault Helicopter Company, 196th Light Infantry, a sailor aboard the SS Valley Forge, 1st Marine Air Wing, and even from wounded Vietnam GIs in Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital as well as Watson Army Hospital, Fort Dix NJ. Almost every writer mentioned multiple readers of a single issue as a Spec-4 (Specialist 4th Class) wrote: “Within 5 minutes every man in the billet was peering over my shoulder reading your publication. Raquel Welch would not have received a hardier reception.”

                                   1st Air Cavalry Patch                        USS Valley Forge

The immense popularity of VGI was evident wherever US military personnel were stationed. As an avid reader with the 198th Light Infantry put it: “It’s an even money bet which is more popular in our unit, Playboy or Vietnam GI.” The reason was clear – as a ‘sky soldier’ near An Khe with the 173rd Airborne wrote, VGI was “the Truth” paper.

* “Fortunate Son”, written by John Fogerty .

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