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.”


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