I came to know Bill O’Brien during the years before his death in 2011 following an electric and dizzying first encounter at a café in Lower Manhattan.† Or I thought I did. Bill was an unusual and engaging person – a force of nature – but also a modest fellow and rather reticent if asked anything about himself or his past.
Bill had figured large during my brother Jeff Sharlet’s last years, making an immense contribution to the success of Jeff’s great endeavor, the creation of Vietnam GI (VGI) in '68, the first antiwar underground paper led by a Vietnam veteran and directed to the troops in ‘Nam and stateside. For writing a memoir of Jeff, I needed to know something about where Bill came from, about the life experiences that had shaped him and made him so effective.
So ask Bill I did, even though he cussed me out for ‘wasting’ my time on his bio. But between his reluctant replies and tales about him from his longtime Chicago friends Mitchell Lieber, Patrick O’Kiersey, Bernie Farber, and others, I pieced together a kind of collage of Bill O’Brien as an adventurous young guy, a man of many parts, a Chicago natural, and above all, as the go-to guy for someone like Jeff new to town with a big vision and a large mission. Here’s Bill’s story:
Bill was a bright and rebellious teenager whose education got off to a rocky start. Outspoken and somewhat wild, he was expelled from at least two high schools. However even without a diploma, Bill was admitted to a special honors program at the University of Chicago during the era of Robert Hutchins, arguably the most progressive educator of his time. More interested in community activism however, Bill didn’t hit the books and was asked to leave the university.
Anne had gone to New York for college, so Bill decided to follow. He enrolled at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, later winning a scholarship at Columbia University and earning a Sociology degree. Manhattan was Bill’s cup of tea. He was into the arts scene, a lover of jazz, especially the music of Charlie Parker and the playing of the young Ed 'Sweetbread' Petersen. Bill even knew some of the famous jazzmen like Ornette Coleman, the great saxophonist, a major innovator in the free jazz movement of the '60s.
In New York, Bill pursued his primary avocation, community activism, with zest and energy. In '66 he volunteered for the new Head Start program in Morningside Heights on the ‘other side of the tracks’ from the Columbia campus. Along with other Columbia activists, he was also part of a rousing demo against public hearings of HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC had become infamous for its ‘red-hunting’ character assassination activities, but, with anti-Vietnam War protest spreading among the irreverent young of the mid-'60s, the committee no longer struck fear.
Perhaps Bill’s biggest 'action' while at Columbia was the protest against the university’s plans to build a gym that would extend into Morningside Park, which served a Harlem neighborhood alongside the campus. The gym plan had been afoot for several years, and Black opposition to the expansion was gradually increasing. With Bill as one of the leaders, many Columbia students joined the protest in '67.
By the spring of '68, Bill had returned to Chicago and watched from afar the Columbia student uprising that semester. He took satisfaction from the fact that, in the process of stopping the gym expansion the previous year, some of the students he mobilized, such as Mark Rudd, had gained valuable organizing experience and assumed leadership of the uprising, thus sparking political activism on many campuses across the country.
Back home in Chicago, Bill earned a living at a number of jobs – as assistant to a civil rights lawyer, as a Cook County Corrections consultant working with troubled juveniles, and eventually as a staffer in the Office of the County Clerk where he continued until retirement.
On his own time, Bill worked in local election campaigns supporting Democratic and independent candidates. As a result, he acquired some useful political contacts in Mayor Richard ‘Boss’ Daley’s Chicago. Bill would use his good offices to help friends in need, one time lending his skills and influence in a successful campaign to stop a hospital expansion that would have demolished the nearby neighborhood, displacing the residents. In a later caper typical of Bill’s political imagination, he created 'Radio Free Chicago' in the attic above his apartment, broadcasting three hours nightly on a shoestring.
By the late '60s, Chicago, a city with a tradition of radical activism dating back to the labor unrest in Haymarket Square of the 1880s, was alive with a number of new groups spun off from the Old Left, including Progressive Labor (PL), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the reincarnated Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). No longer just poet Carl Sandburg’s memorable portrait of the "City of the Big Shoulders" and "Freight Handler to the Nation,"* Bill O’Brien’s Chicago had become a hub of national dissent during that tumultuous decade of late 20th century America.
Most notable in the city’s new profile was the emergence of the New Left (NL), the cynosure of which was SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. From its National Office in Chicago, SDS was rapidly emerging as the largest youth organization in America. In addition, the city was home to the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE), one of the two largest and most effective draft resistance outfits in the country.††
Across the political divide of the '60s, Chicago was also rife with guardians of law and order tasked to keep the Old and New Left in check. A special unit within the police, the Red Squad, was manned by hundreds of officers. Chicago also boasted a major FBI Field Office with one of the largest number of special agents in the nation.
Adding to the local surveillance culture were postal inspectors on alert for 'subversive material' in the mails, as well as the Army’s Military Intelligence branch, which infiltrated dozens of young plain clothes agents into the city’s activist circles. Well off the mainstream of law enforcement, there was also a shadowy group of right wing political vigilantes – calling themselves the 'Legion of Justice'– who not only assaulted leftist activists, but also stole their files and distributed photocopies to government agencies.
As a political liberal but a man of the left writ large, Bill was acquainted with activists from all the Chicago groups. He also had many friends in emerging outfits dedicated to fostering GI resistance to the war. As civilian antiwar protestors became aware that GIs were not the enemy of the peace movement, but potential powerful allies in the struggle, foremost among the new groups was brother Jeff’s Vietnam GI, not only an underground paper, but also a collective of individuals committed to the GI cause.
Jeff, an ex-Vietnam GI, had finished up his B.A. at Indiana University (IU) during the summer of ’67 and, with a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in hand, had gone on to the University of Chicago with the aim of getting a PhD in Political Science and pursuing an academic career. But, as his close friend Jim Wallihan later told me years after his early death, the war and Jeff’s opposition to it had remained very much on his mind during his final years at IU.
He had served in Vietnam as a 'military advisor' during 1963-64 and came home pondering how the many GIs he knew who questioned America’s mission in Southeast Asia, could make their voices heard in the rising chorus of protest.
Jeff’s preoccupation with the war was part of his baggage in grad school, dividing his attention. His concern echoed the moving rhetoric of SDS President Paul Potter at a rally against the Vietnam War in '65: “we cannot go back to what it is we did before today until that war has ended.”**
Before fall semester '67 of grad school had gotten underway, Jeff had made contact with the fledgling GI resistance in Chicago. During what had been declared ‘Vietnam Summer’ by the national antiwar movement, Jeff heard about about a CADRE meeting where he first encountered Gary Rader.††† A Green Beret – a Special Forces reservist, Rader was co-founder of the organization and a born leader.
Jeff got wind of the Bridge, which was how he and Bill first met. While attending fall courses, Jeff also found time to hang out with the paper’s editorial team, soaking up knowledge on how an underground tabloid was put together. Although the project died after only four issues that fall, looking back, Bill definitely felt the short-lived paper had been influential for Jeff as a model for his own paper, VGI.
Jeff had also been fortunate to meet Dave and Kit Komatsu during the summer, Chicago activists who had edited American Socialist, the voice of YPSL, one of several Trotskyist organizations of the left. Between what he had learned from the Bridge and Kit and Dave’s skills at writing, editing, typesetting, and getting a tabloid printed, Jeff decided to withdraw from grad school for a full-time commitment to his vision.
For Jeff, the war could only be brought to an end by the men doing the actual fighting. For that purpose he saw his mission as creating a new paper to give voice to the voiceless GIs whose opposition was apparent in stateside camps – staging areas for deployment – as well as among troops in Vietnam.
When Jeff turned his attention to the task at hand, there were two papers addressed to GIs, but both were civilian operations, one of them styled as a Marxist polemic on the war. What set Jeff’s VGI apart was that it was the first GI paper founded and edited by a Vietnam GI with the help of fellow GIs. For his new paper he set up a ‘Vietnam Veterans Advisory Committee’ made up of ex-Vietnam GIs, Marines, and airmen. Gary Rader was a member, as was Jan Barry, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW).
The first issue of VGI, bearing the date January 1968, was ready for the printer with Jeff as editor and Dave Komatsu as associate editor, but funds were needed for the launch. That proved no problem; Jeff used the proceeds from his fellowship to pay the initial bills. To save money for production costs after moving out of the university dorms, Jeff moved in with the Komatsu family.
Then, his IU friend Jim Wallihan completed his PhD coursework and came up to Chicago in April to help with the paper. Jeff introduced Jim to Bill as a guy who knew his way around town, and the three of them decided to take an apartment together in the North Halsted neighborhood. The apartment soon became one of several venues for the portable VGI editing process.
After the monthly issues of VGI were put to bed, it would be party time at the pad. Occasionally Jeff and roommates would let a draft resister or an AWOL GI on the lam hide at their place. J Edgar Hoover had ordered his Chicago office to put Jeff and the VGI team under surveillance on suspicion of ‘subversive activity’, so FBI agents would sometimes knock on the apartment door. With no hope of being invited in, it was merely a standard intimidation procedure to say, in effect, ‘We’re watching you’.
Bill was indispensable to Jeff in other ways as well. When Jeff wanted to consult a psychiatrist for insights into combat veterans back from the war, Bill lined up a friend pro bono. In New York, Jeff had made contact with Veterans for Peace (VFP), an outfit made up mainly of WWII and Korea War vets on the left doing outreach to Vietnam GIs. VGI’s initial mailing list for GIs in Vietnam came from VFP.
Jeff was interested in a Chicago group called Veterans for Peace in Vietnam (VFPIV), but Bill, keeping tabs on the group’s founder, learned he was a member of the Communist Party. Jeff then decided to keep the VFPIV at a distance, knowing the typical GI reader of VGI would be put off by heavy-handed Marxist jargon. More amenable to Jeff’s mission was the later creation of CAMP, the Chicago Area Military Project, where Bill knew several of the founders.
Money was always tight for the VGI collective. There were plenty of volunteers for typing up GI letters to the editor, proofreading, stuffing envelopes and similar chores, but there were also unavoidable hard costs. In particular, there were the relentless printer’s bills as the paper’s circulation stateside and abroad grew enormously; distribution costs for mailing copies all over the country and to Vietnam as well as US bases in Europe and Japan also increased. There were also travel expenses for Jeff on the road fundraising and gathering stories from combat veterans coming back to stateside camps.
In fall of '68, Bill was again Johnny on the spot using his connections to get Jeff and Jim into the Paper Handler’s union. With union cards, they were able to get well-paid jobs in the press rooms of Chicago’s papers, maneuvering the huge rolls of newsprint on to the presses. This helped pay the bills, but the work was hard, and Jeff’s illness that first surfaced in the Vietnam bush in'64 – an illness which would take his life – began to take its toll.
Jeff was able to make one more trip abroad that fall, representing the GI antiwar movement at a peace conference in Japan, and a last visit to a GI coffee house – the Oleo Strut outside Fort Hood, TX – but that was it, he had reached his physical limits.
Early '69 he headed for Florida to visit our parents and get some doctoring at the Veterans Administration hospital in Miami. An exploratory operation revealed cancer, and it had spread. The odds were not good, but there was still hope. Meanwhile, a number of Jeff’s Chicago friends made the long trip to Miami to cheer him on.
Jim Wallihan drove down. So did Susie 'Creamcheese' Rosenberg, Dave Komatsu, and others. Bill O’Brien made the long haul twice. Second time down and short of money, Bill had to camp out in a local park. A jazz festival was underway at the park that weekend, so the cops cut ‘campers’ some slack. Six months after his surgery 44 years ago this month, Jeff died.
Decades later when I began this memoir project on brother Jeff, Jim Wallihan put me in touch with Bill, whom I hadn’t known. After our initial meeting in New York, Bill was indefatigable in finding and connecting me to nearly everyone from the Chicago era of VGI who had known Jeff, many of them by then scattered to other parts of the country.
Bill became a virtual search engine, locating Joan Lichterman from the Roosevelt University group; Earl Silbar, who had been Progressive Labor; Dick Stevens, his late sister Anne’s ex; and a former couple who had made their apartment available to Jeff as a kind of ‘safe house’ to which he occasionally retreated when daily life in the political fever zone became too intense.
Then Bill himself fell ill with a progressive and debilitating condition. It slowed him down, but didn’t stop his efforts on my behalf. Searching for Susie Creamcheese, he’d drive around Chicago checking possible addresses, and even riffled through the municipal obit file. To no avail, but Bill never gave up the quest.
Late in life, Bill had become interested in Cuba where he would winter for a month or two in Havana to get away from the windy city. In fact the year before he died, he invited my son Jeff and me to visit him down there for a week, a reprise of our brunch several years back. We were looking forward to it, but at the last minute Bill’s doc vetoed his departure. Bill knew he was dying, he said so; still, when the news of his death reached me in November 2011, I was surprised that so vital a person would no longer be walking the earth.
A month later a memorial was held in Chicago. Even in death Bill ‘presided’, as the celebration of his life became a grand reunion of his many friends from the Chicago left, some of whom hadn’t seen each other for a long time, even years. The gathering was at Mike James’ Heartland Café in the Rogers Park section of North Chicago – a funky combo eatery, bookstore, bar, and music venue renowned for decades as a gathering place for the left. The room was fairly large with a small stage at one end. There on an easel was a large color poster-portrait of Bill chin up, a familiar feisty look on his face.
A mike was set up, Kate Hogan, co-owner of the café, served as MC, and those who wanted to were invited to tell their favorite Bill O’Brien stories. Many spoke, including Bernie Farber, who told hilarious stories about Bill’s duels with unscrupulous landlords in housing court. Although not trained as a lawyer, Bill had been one hell of an advocate for ‘good guy’ causes.
Jim Wallihan and I together were among the last to speak. Both of us evoked memories of Bill and Jeff – Jim talking about VGI days, while I told the story of meeting Bill in Lower Manhattan not too many years earlier, and how I had momentarily glanced at a gorgeous young woman sitting nearby with the actor Sam Waterston as Bill was telling a lively ‘Jeff’ story – until the raconteur brought me up short with ‘Pay attention’. The experience was familiar to the gathered friends – Bill was a serious guy to whom attention had to be paid.
And so it’s appropriate that Bill inspire the final word here. In the late '80s, the writer Gerald Nicosia had interviewed Bill on background for what became his masterwork Home to War: The History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement.*** By then Jeff was long gone, but the author had heard of his Vietnam era exploits and was directed to Bill O’Brien to learn about Jeff.
In the course of a long interview, Bill related stories of Jeff and their time together in antiwar Chicago of the late ‘60s. Drawing on Bill’s vivid memories, Gerald Nicosia wrote that the difficulty in writing about the GI movement
in American history is that the ... movement was so
widespread, so utterly grass-roots, that to concentrate
on particular individuals inevitabley slights those who
are missed. But America too has its 'mute inglorious
Miltons' and 'Cromwells guiltless of their country's
blood, and one of them is surely Jeff Sharlet.****
***G Nicosia, Home to War (2001).
****Gerald Nicosia, Manuscript on the GI antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, 100. Special thanks to the author for sharing this excellent material.