Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Radical Chicago

Spring ’67. Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI graduating with honors at Indiana University (IU) had just won a prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship for graduate study, fondly known to recipients as a ‘Woody Woo’. He had applied to PhD programs at Yale, Michigan, and University of Chicago, which, I assumed, he chose on the merits of its noted Political Science Department anchored by David Easton, a luminary of the discipline’s new behavioral persuasion, as well as Leo Strauss of the older tradition of political philosophy.

What I didn’t know was that Jeff was ambivalent about his immediate future. As one of his IU mentors told me after Jeff’s early death in ’69, my brother was torn between two divergent paths – pursuing an academic career in the long run, while in the near term continuing his struggle against the Vietnam War. He was well qualified for both paths. He’d served in Vietnam 1963-64 and been a major antiwar leader at IU, while earning respect for his quality of mind, even from those faculty who disagreed with his politics. In effect, it was a question of whether to go with the head or the heart.

 In retrospect, I think Jeff chose Chicago, the “City of the Big Shoulders”*, which of course happened to have a great university. Ann Arbor, college town of the University of Michigan, and Yale’s New Haven were no match for a young man emerging from the classroom, eager to grasp the world and acquire higher learning. As Sandburg sang, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”*

 In late summer ’67, Jeff headed to Chicago, a cynosure of the antiwar movement as well as powerful currents of grass-roots street activism.  The city was the site not only of the headquarters of SDS, which rapidly grew into the nation’s largest youth movement, but also a number of street-level groups, most initially below the radar of the national media and for a time even the underground press.

CADRE, the pacifist Chicago Area Draft Resisters was the first to organize against the Vietnam War draft. The grass-roots ‘Jobs or Income Now’ (JOIN), an offshoot of SDS in its early anti-poverty phase, sprang up in poor and working class neighborhoods.  JOIN then spun off the Young Patriots, white migrants from Appalachia led by Jack ‘Junebug’ Boykin. The Young Lords, Puerto Rican youth headed by Jose ‘Cha Cha’ Jimenez, joined with the Patriots and Fred Hampton’s Chicago Black Panthers to form the ‘Rainbow Alliance’—the first multi-racial, multi-ethnic alliance—to improve the quality of life for communities that had traditionally been adversarial.

Mike James, a leader of Chicago’s white working-class radicals
 Photo:  Michael James Archives

They helped people get social services they were entitled to; led rent strikes against slumlords; and mounted protests against police brutality, a familiar feature of life in powerless neighborhoods of Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Eventually Mike James, a prime mover of JOIN, co-founded ‘Rising Up Angry’ (RUA), an offshoot of the Young Patriots with the same mission.

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy,
'Cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy**

Radical Chicago supported two underground papers.  The Seed, was especially noted for its artwork, initially under co-founder Don Lewis, then Lester Dore. The Bridge, created by Bernie Farber, the late Bill O’Brien, his sister Anne, and others, was short-lived.  The city also sported two coffee houses as gathering places for activists and others, one on the University of Chicago campus, and ‘Alice’s Revisited’ in a neighborhood where the young camped out, eventually succeeded in the ‘70s by ‘Heartland Café’, co-founded and still run today by Mike James, in the Rogers Park section.

The notorious Mayor Richard J Daley and his political machine had scarce tolerance for these grass-roots organizations -- or the Vietnam antiwar movement. The Chicago Police Department’s ‘Red Squad’ surveilled dissent wherever it raised its head. In opposing the Rainbow Coalition, the mayor could call on J Edgar Hoover, who regarded the Black Panthers as “The greatest single threat to the internal security of the country,”*** as well as the US Attorney for the Northern District.  To monitor antiwar activity, he could also count on the Department of the Army’s Military Intelligence unit (MI) at Fort Sheridan IL.

The Daley machine could field a formidable array of forces against those who challenged the municipal status quo or, according to Daley’s super patriotic standard, subversively used Chicago as a base for spreading sedition nationally and beyond. This was the Chicago to which Jeff moved in August of ’67, his attention split between continuing his antiwar mission and preparing for grad school.  

The idea of organizing soldiers with doubts about the war in Vietnam was very much on his mind since he’d been in New York earlier that summer where he had joined the new Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) and met its co-founder Jan Barry. He also looked up Tom Barton, an IU alum whom he had run into the past spring. Tom put Jeff in touch with another young man, Dave Komatsu of Chicago, also a seasoned Old Left activist who additionally had experience running a shoestring underground newspaper.

In Chicago, Jeff found his way to antiwar circles where he met Tom Cleaver, an ex-Vietnam sailor, at a CADRE meeting on draft resistance presided over by the flamboyant Gary Rader, a Northwestern grad and Special Forces reservist. Classes began, the semester wore on, but Jeff’s heart was not in the academic game. He hung out at the campus coffee house, hooked up with local activists at Alice’s Revisited, and did more brainstorming antiwar options with Komatsu than coursework.  Jeff also spent time with the editorial group for the alternative paper The Bridge soaking up ideas on how a small paper was put together.

His initial idea of organizing ex-Vietnam GIs gave way to the more modest effort of starting an underground paper directed to active-duty GIs, thus giving voice to the voiceless in the antiwar movement. Jeff now realized that the task of planning an antiwar paper was not conducive to PhD work. Heart won out over head; Jeff withdrew from the University of Chicago, moved in with the Komatsu family, and began working full-time to launch a GI paper. Key to the operation was money for a typesetting machine, printing costs, and distribution expenses – a problem Jeff solved by putting the rest of his Woody Woo, a goodly sum in those days of a few grand, into the project.

Launched in January of ’68 in the midst of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, Vietnam GI (VGI) took off quickly, catching the attention of Vietnam GIs as well as stateside troops training to deploy.  The months ahead proved eventful. President Johnson abruptly pulled out of the presidential race in late March; and Martin Luther King (MLK) was assassinated in Memphis in April, igniting riots in ghettos across the country. Federal troops were deployed in Chicago.  In May, VGI ran a sensational photo of GIs posing over an atrocity that brought MI to town looking for the negative so embarrassing to the Army. The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy followed in June.

University of Chicago campus

Getting the monthly issue to press and mailing it under the vigilant gaze of postal inspectors on the lookout for seditious material took a lot of hands. As a deadline approached, Dave Komatsu would call upon his CADRE friends as well as political comrades to lend a hand with typing, transcribing and other chores; there were big monthly ‘mailing parties’. Money always in short supply, Jeff was frequently on the road raising funds for VGI’s coffers.

An appeal for financial help to SDS had fallen on deaf ears – Rennie Davis was disposed, Tom Hayden opposed – it hadn’t yet dawned on the organization that soldiers also opposed the war. Jeff’s road trips included stops at GI coffee houses outside base camps where he’d rap with returning combat veterans, gathering their stories for the paper. At the coffee house outside Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Jeff met Fred Gardner, founder of the GI coffee house network.

The ’68 Democratic Convention was set for Chicago, and the Mobe, the national umbrella organization of the New Left, planned to bring in large numbers of protestors to demonstrate against the war. The prospect was anathema to Mayor Daley who secured commitments from the Illinois National Guard and from Washington for riot troops.  Foreseeing a major confrontation, Jeff and Jim Wallihan, his close friend from IU who’d come up to Chicago in the spring to help edit VGI, decamped with the materials for the forthcoming August issues, taking no chances that the Red Squad might use the public fracas as cover to crack down on local radicals.  

While street battles raged in Chicago, Jeff and Jim crashed in the Bay Area with Joe Carey, an ex-Vietnam GI combat photographer who had supplied the paper with some revealing photos. They readied the press run for the regular August issue of VGI as well as for a brand new ‘Stateside’ edition with GI protest news attuned to US base camps. The headline of the initial Stateside issue concerned a large group of Black Vietnam combat veterans who refused to deploy for riot duty at the Chicago convention.

Fall ’68. Jeff shared an apartment with Jim Wallihan and Bill O’Brien. Bill, well connected in Chicago labor circles, got Jeff and Jim into the Paper Handlers Union; that meant hard work maneuvering enormous rolls of newsprint in the city’s press rooms. By then, a medical problem Jeff first experienced in Vietnam was beginning to take its toll, and the job proved too demanding. In October, he made one last trip abroad on behalf of The Mobe – to Stockholm to meet with GI deserters. He had already gone to Japan on the same issue in August. Jeff made his final coffee house visit in late November ‘68 when he spent a week at the Oleo Strut outside Fort Hood, TX where he again crossed paths with Tom Cleaver and met ex-Vietnam GI Dave Cline, both of whom were on staff at the Strut.

The late Bill O’Brien of Chicago
Photo by Mary O’Kiersey

That was effectively the end of the line for Jeff as an activist; his final half year would be spent in Miami area hospitals dealing with a serious illness which would prove terminal. Even so, from hishospital bed he maintained telephone contact and a lively correspondence with many of the activists in his national network. Komatsu and colleagues had gotten out the January ’69 Asian and Stateside editions of VGI 

 Back in Chicago on the first anniversary of MLK’s assassination, the Rainbow Coalition of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots held their first ever joint press conference to commemorate the occasion and renew their commitment to helping the poor. Finally, in June ‘69 just a week after Jeff’s death, SDS held what would be its last national conference at which the organization dramatically split. Weatherman, the winning faction, espousing violence, went underground six months later.


A year later in 1970, VGI was still alive. Dave Komatsu, who had moved on to another project, handed off to Craig Walden, an ex-Vietnam Marine; John Alden, ex-Vietnam-era Navy; and for a short time Lenora ‘Nori’ Davis, an early feminist and anti-racist activist. David Patterson, aka Joe Harris, succeeded Nori as the third member of the troika. Natives of Chicago, Craig and his wife Judy were active with the Young Patriots, while Nori worked with RUA and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.

As America’s involvement in Vietnam wound down and an end could be discerned, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) finally succeeded in revoking the tax-exempt status of the East Coast outfit funding the GI coffee houses and underground papers.  With operational funds dried up, Vietnam GI expired with the August ’70 issue after a two and a half year run, relatively good longevity by standards of the GI underground press. By then Jeff’s legacy was secure – Vietnam GI had inspired by example well over a hundred underground papers at Army posts, Air Force bases, Marine camps, and on board ships of the line, which collectively broadened and deepened military protest against the Vietnam War, eventually contributing mightily to the end of the ill-fated US mission in Southeast Asia.

Rainbow Alliance press conference ’69, Panther co-chair presiding, Junebug Boykin sitting to his right and behind him in beret & sunglasses, Craig Walden, VGI co-editor in ’69-’70.  Photo: Michael James Archives

*Carl Sandburg, Chicago (1916).
**Street Fighting Man, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, 1968
***Quoted in A. Sonnie & J. Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists (2011)

  Tom Barton:
  Tom Cleaver:
  Gary Rader:
  Fred Gardner:
  Joe Carey:
  Dave Cline:
  Craig Walden: and









Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Black Marine from War to Exile

Terry Whitmore’s journey began in the rundown Black ghetto of Memphis, a Tennessee river town on the Mississippi. Poor but contented, he didn’t fully appreciate the extent of racial hostility awaiting him beyond the old neighborhood. Coming of age and seeking a job in the white world was an early awakening. A series of random encounters with racist whites had a sobering effect. Several years later aboard a plane about to land in Sweden, a land of predominantly blue-eyed blonde people, he lamented, “Ain’t there nowhere I can go and be at peace?”*

Graduating high school in ’66 with no plans for college (“Student deferment? I wasn’t even sure what it meant”), Terry, like any footloose young man of that time, faced the draft. A macho guy, he chose a three-year commitment to the Marines instead of two years in the Army. Boot training at Parris Island was the expected nightmare, far worse than the relatively sanitized version later seen in the film Full Metal Jacket. Trained as a Marine infantryman specializing in the M-79 grenade launcher, Private Whitmore was predictably deployed to Nam.

Off duty at base camp in a forward area, he hung out with Black Marines, but in combat neither he nor white Marines made any distinctions since survival was the name of the game. Terry was a good Marine to whom orders were orders, the American mission in-country unquestioned. Along with many other combat Marines, he shared an intense dislike for ‘hippies’ demonstrating against the war back home.

However, in the course of his deployment he began to experience an ethical, if not political, consciousness. Serving in I Corps in the northernmost part of South Vietnam in a battalion which had taken heavy casualties, Terry was on a company-strength operation led by a commanding officer (CO) reportedly seeking revenge for a brother lost in the war. Coming upon a hamlet with a dozen sub-hamlets, the CO ordered that if a single shot was fired from that direction, the entire community was to be leveled. A shot was heard, and the Marines went at it with gusto, tossing grenades in the hooches, burning them to the ground, and shooting all the civilians, a merciless massacre that preceded My Lai unnoted.

One hut remained standing. The CO ordered squad leader Whitmore and his fire team to take it out, so Whitmore fired a rifle grenade, but there wasn’t sufficient distance for the round to detonate on impact.  An old peasant woman and a small boy came out. Whit, as his buddies called him, wasn’t into killing women and children, so he signaled for them to get out of sight. Turning away, he heard a loud explosion. The curious child had picked up the unexploded grenade, killing the two instantly. Whit felt remorse, a rare feeling in the combat zone.

The adults were dead, the children rounded up. Marines were usually fond of little kids, so asked the CO to where to take them. To the surprise of Whit and others, the CO brusquely ordered the children wasted. Orders were orders, and after a few M-16 bursts on full automatic, there were no survivors in the nameless hamlet. Whit was shocked, but remained silent. However, another Marine, sickened by what he had witnessed, went to the chaplain. The battalion commander was informed and the captain relieved of command.

Several months later in ’67, Whit’s platoon headed out to set up an ambush just a thousand yards below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the boundary separating the two warring Vietnams.  His unit was led by a green lieutenant (LT) not long out of officer’s school. Unbeknownst to the concealed Marines, a full North Vietnamese Army (NVA) company three times their strength moved into a covered position no more than 15 yards in front of them. Suddenly three enemy soldiers were spotted, fire was exchanged, at which point the gung ho LT jumped up and ordered the men forward, assuming there was just a handful of NVA to take out. Instead the well-entrenched NVA opened up with heavy machine guns and AK-47’s, inflicting heavy casualties on the exposed Marines and pinning the platoon down on open ground.

Whit and his men managed to beat a retreat back to cover, but the LT was among the first hit. As he lay out in the open, he kept calling for Whit to help him. Abandoning caution, Whit ran out into a field of fire and dragged his seriously wounded CO back. Then one of the radiomen got hit, and once again Whit put himself in harm’s way to bring him to safety. Marine Air flew to the rescue. To mark the enemy’s position, the surviving Marines threw red smoke grenades. Knowing what that signaled, the NVA jumped up and pulled back, exposing themselves to Whit and his team, who quickly cut down two dozen of them.

Finally, a Marine tank came up to evacuate the wounded, and the NVA opened up with mortars trying to take it out. Whit was hunkered in a B-52 crater when a mortar round landed nearby, peppering him with over a hundred pieces of hot shrapnel. His legs a bloody mess, he was paralyzed. A white Marine, wounded himself, threw his body over Whit to spare him more damage, and then dragged him to rear, keeping up a constant chatter, jiving Whit to keep him from going into shock. Much later Whit commented that even if the guy was a racist, he’d vote for him for president.

Whit wended his way through a series of military hospitals, finally landing at the superbly equipped hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, where he had his ’15 minutes’ of fleeting fame when President Johnson (LBJ) made a surprise visit to award medals. Coming to Whit’s bedside, seeing him swathed in dressings, LBJ paused, looked genuinely saddened, and asked Whit gently if he could pin the medals to his pillow. The photo snapped by trailing newsmen was seen across America.

LBJ awarding medals to Terry Whitmore, ‘67

Not long after, one of the doctors came by and told Whit he had some bad news. “You got polka-dotted pretty bad” – they would have to send him to Japan for treatment. Whit was elated, he was getting out of Nam. After a couple of months in Yokohama, he began to recover, became ambulatory, and was allowed to leave the hospital for a little nightlife. He met a Japanese girl, a university student, and began an affair.  They loved to dance.  Life was looking up.   

Got what I got the hard way
And I make it better, each and every day
So honey, don't you fret
'Cause you ain't seen nothing yet

I'm a soul man, I'm a soul man**

A doctor told him it would just be a matter of time before they’d send him home, his war over. But later, in fact on his birthday in March ’68, another doctor came by to announce that he was fully recovered and would receive orders in the morning to head back to Nam and his unit. Whit was stunned, felt betrayed, but his Marine training kicked in, and he reconciled himself to return to combat.

That night he told his girl the news. She was distraught and raised the race issue for the first time. “Why you Black people fight? … What does America do for you?” He knew she was right, but his sense of duty trumped, and off he went in the morning to the airport. He ran into a sailor enroute, a Black Muslim, who told him that’s not for you brother, that’s not for us. Whit’s transport to Nam was delayed two days in a row; each time he’d go back to his girlfriend’s pad with growing doubts.

In a kind of soliloquy, Whit thought about his obligation to ‘Sam’, slang for Uncle Sam:  Sam has put me through a lot of shit - and I can't even say why. 

Not only can't I come up with some good excuses for Sam to be wiping out the Vietnamese people, but I can't even think of one good reason for me to help Sam in his dirty work.

On the third morning Whit lingered, passing the reporting hour, saying to himself, “It’s all over between me and Sam,” choosing desertion, and radically changing the trajectory of his life. He spent the next week on the run, dodging the ever present Shore Patrol (SP), the Navy police. Fortuitously, he was put in touch with Beheiren, the leftwing Japanese peace group that helped US deserters get out of the country.

After much cloak and dagger in Tokyo, changing cars and taxis frequently, and moving from place to place to throw off possible police tails, Terry Whitmore was shifted from one safe house to another until Beheiren organized an escape plan: he was escorted to a departure point where he met four other deserters also kept under cover by the Japanese left. The deserters, disguised as tourists and carrying luggage, were to board a plane for Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The exception was Terry Whitmore; Beheiren had earlier given him a cover identity as a student from East Africa.

On Hokkaido, the group was spirited to the house of a Japanese fishing boat captain. The next day they donned fisherman’s outfits and boarded his boat. A sixth deserter was later put aboard, all kept out of sight below decks until the craft rendezvoused with a larger Soviet Coast Guard vessel in Soviet waters. The boats came alongside, and Soviet officers boarded them under the pretext of inspecting the Japanese captain’s papers. Meanwhile, the deserters were assembled at the stern for transfer. The two vessels were pitching in rough seas as each of the Americans made a parlous leap onto a mattress on the cutter’s deck below. Soviet sailors then hustled the Americans below deck, and the two ships parted.

After several days, the Americans were put ashore on Sakhalin Island, Soviet territory, and flown to Vladivostok, the USSR’s main Pacific port. After a welcoming reception, an overnight stay, and a brief car tour of the city, the group flew on to Moscow where an official reception awaited. As guests of the Soviet peace organization, Terry and his five companions were treated to an extended tour of the Soviet Union – Moscow, Leningrad, Tbilisi in the southern republic of Georgia, a Black Sea resort on the USSR’s Florida-like coast, and Gorky on the Volga, a city otherwise off limits to foreigners. At every stop, the propaganda value of American deserters from the war against a fraternal ally of the Soviet Union was maximized.

Terry grew weary of Soviet hospitality – they were always closely watched by three keepers – and was quite happy when told they were to move on. Terry’s final destination of his long journey was to be Sweden, a neutral country offering humanitarian asylum to US deserters. On May 25, 1968 the commercial jet landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport, and Marine Lance Corporal Terence Marvel Whitmore of Memphis stepped down onto Swedish territory, beginning the first day of his exile, which would last nearly the rest of his life.***

Terry Whitmore and fellow deserters arriving in Stockholm, ’68
©AP Images The Associated Press

*Quotes in this post are drawn from Terry Whitmore’s memoir, Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter (’71, reprinted ’97)
**Soul Man, by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, 1967
***Terry Whitmore eventually returned to US for good in the year 2001. A few years before his death in 2007, he made an appearance in the documentary Sir! No Sir! (’05), the first film on GI resistance to the Vietnam War, bearing the dedication to “Dedicated to Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), founder of Vietnam GI, the first GI underground paper.”