Wednesday, May 23, 2012

GIs Have a Say on Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco, was long the site of two dramatically different military worlds. High on a hill overlooking the bay sat the Army Language School (ALS),* while across the water, along miles of prime California beachfront, Fort Ord spread over the landscape.  Separating the two bases was the long-defunct Cannery Row, which lent its name to a John Steinbeck novel, and the then-sleepy fishing port of Monterey.

ALS was designed much like a small college specializing in foreign languages. Most of the student-soldiers were either college grads or at least had a few years under the belt. Instead of dorms, there were barracks. What at a college would be described as a dining hall was called the Mess Hall at ALS. The food was not so different, maybe even a bit better. We even had lawns and flower beds.

I studied Czech at ALS in the ’50s; brother Jeff Sharlet was there in the ‘60s for Vietnamese; and, not long after, our cousin John Sharlet went through the 11-month Russian program. All three of us were in the Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence outfit, although other branches of the military also sent their people to ALS for intensive training in one of the nearly two dozen languages taught by native speakers.

Military duties were held to a minimum, and everyone was free at the end of the class day as well as on weekends when some of us headed across the peninsula to Carmel-by-the-Sea with its beaches and upscale pubs, while others took off up Highway 101 to the San Francisco Bay Area. As military life went, it was great duty.

Well they're out there a'havin' fun
In that warm California sun**

If a guy landed across the bay however, he was in for a very different military experience. Fort Ord, a sprawling 28,000 acre site the size of a large city like Boston, was Sixth Army headquarters and home to the 6th Infantry Division (later the 7th). During the Vietnam War, Ord was the country’s major Army Basic Training Center where tens of thousands of young men inducted into the Army underwent an 8-week infantry course in the fort’s sprawling facilities.

Drills, obstacle courses, and rifle practice were the routine. Trainees were also familiarized with a mock-up of a Vietnamese village and the kinds of booby traps used by the Viet Cong.  Back at the barracks after long, hard training sessions, spit & polish was the order of the day. Upon graduation from the Basic course, those not shunted off to armor or artillery bases received Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) followed by a short leave, then invariably were shipped to Vietnam via Travis Air Force Base north of the Bay Area.

 Basic training graduation parade, Ft. Ord, '60’s; new trainees look on.  
Photo:  Jim Vestal

During my time up on the hill at ALS, most of the Ord troops were sent to US garrisons in either South Korea or West Germany – neither posting placing them in harm’s way during the Cold War ‘50s. However, when our cousin John arrived at the language school for intensive Russian, Ord was training large numbers of infantry for the escalating Vietnam War. The sign over the Close Combat Course said it all: If you fail here – you fail in combat. If you fail in combat, you die.

By the late ‘60s the tally of men killed in Vietnam had passed 25,000, the war had become increasingly unpopular with the public, and opposition to it had begun to spread among the GIs themselves. In January ’68 after Jeff launched Vietnam GI (VGI), the first GI-led underground antiwar paper addressed to active-duty troops, the extent of unrest among the those fighting the war soon became apparent in numerous letters-to-the-editor published monthly.

Meanwhile, a lot was happening on the homefront – In late March President Johnson dropped out of the ’68 presidential race, leaving the Democratic nomination contest to his pro-war vice president and two popular antiwar senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Opposition to the war was in the air, and dissent in the ranks wasn’t confined to troops in Vietnam. It was growing as well among those training to deploy. A report from a GI which Jeff ran in the April VGI, reflected the mood at Ford Ord.
It is hard to actually describe the antiwar feeling that exists here at Fort Ord, for much of the activity is confined to the minds of men.  A common reply to the statement 'I'm opposed to this war' is the simple but inclusive answer 'Who isn't?' There is little enthusiasm toward the policy of the war in Vietnam.  It shows in the disgruntled attitude of most of the men on their jobs. ... It's not as if the men were apathetic toward their country or its people, nor are they unwilling to sacrifice personal comfort, safety, and ambition, it is simply the fact they don't believe in what we're doing in Vietnam. ...
                        ♫ Ain’t gonna fight, fight war no more
                                 We’re giving it up, we’re gonna let it go
                                 We’re giving it up, we’re gonna let it go**
 There has been some open expressions of  antiwar sentiments, a few people have gone to jail, some have distributed leaflets, and many have openly discussed their feelings with other people.  The future is sure to bring an increase in open antiwar expression.  Many CO [Conscientious Objector] applications will be refused, and many of these people will go to jail.  More leaflets written by GIs are appearing, and antiwar graffiti is to be found everywhere around the fort. ... One thing is certain, the troops are getting restless and disillusioned with this war.  Some are vehemently opposed, while others are beginning to experience doubts, and this is sure to manifest itself in some way.  There are many here who realize what's going on in Vietnam, and they don't like it.

While Fort Ord was one of the largest bases in the country, it was just one of many turning out soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airment for Vietnam, and, as similar reports in other issues of Vietnam GI indicated, GI protest at Ord was not unique. 

*Renamed the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in the '70's.
**California Sun, by Henry Glover and Morris Levy, 1961
***(Ain't Gonna) Study War No More, by Willie Dixon and Alex Dixon, 1988,

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