Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Characters in Search of Jeff - I

When I began a memoir on my late brother Jeff Sharlet, I never imagined the fascinating journey that would ensue, a journey of discovery not only about my brother but myself as well. Along the way I’ve encountered many interesting people – well over 150 – who inhabited Jeff’s life and times during his last decade.

Jeff was a Vietnam GI before the war came up on the public’s radar, later a founding leader of the GI antiwar movement. He died young in ’69. I’ve been mightily assisted in the ‘search’ for my brother by Karen Grote Ferb, a very close friend of Jeff’s during his college days.

Four years ago we launched this blog, which I’ve used to put together a preliminary draft of the book underway. In the next several posts, I’d like to introduce and in some instances re-introduce, through a gallery of photos and brief descriptions, a number of the individuals I’ve met “Searching for Jeff.”
                                                                                                       Bob Sharlet

Lucien Conein, ‘Lawrence of Vietnam’

Captain Lucien Conein, 1945

Though they both played roles in a clandestine operation in Saigon now part of history, my brother Jeff never met Lou Conein. Neither did I much later – Conein died in ’98, but my college roommate knew the man in Vietnam, both were CIA. The closest I’ve got to Conein was his legend. Born in Paris, raised in Kansas, he was a swashbuckling soldier of two wars. In Europe he served as a commando behind German lines, then moved on to Asia where he fought alongside the French and Vietnamese as they drove the Japanese from Indochina.
          Fast forward to 1963, Conein’s back in Vietnam, the embassy’s secret liaison to the South Vietnamese generals planning a coup. As the plot thickened, Conein and his general staff contact rendezvoused as unobtrusively as possible. One time it was at the dentist both men shared, Conein was in the chair ostensibly waiting for the drill when General Don slipped in the side entrance. Behind closed doors in Washington, Conein became known as “a kind of T.E. Lawrence.”
          What was the connection to my kid brother Jeff Sharlet? A Vietnamese-speaking GI, Jeff and fellow linguists played a supporting role to Colonel Conein in the successful coup of November 1st – by wiretapping the generals. The White House wanted to know what was being said when Conein wasn’t around.

George Shriver, founder of the campus left

Young Socialist Alliance meeting, Indiana University,
George Shriver presiding, 1962

          A stalwart of the Left, Jeff and I met George at Indiana University (IU) in the fall, 1960. I was there in the PhD program, Jeff a freshman. George was my fellow grad student in Russian studies. Though I thought I knew the guy pretty well, obviously I missed the main story. Sure, George was studying for a PhD in Russian lit, but he was also quietly working as a skilled political organizer on campus as I only learned many years later. He had come out to IU from Harvard where he’d been a member of  the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), junior affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.
Before George dropped out for a career in radical politics, he set up a YSA chapter at the university as well as a branch of the national Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), created in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Though overlapping and very small, the groups were focused and highly dedicated. In effect, George Shriver was the link between the Old Left and emerging New Left at conservative Indiana University.
During Christmas break at the end of fall term ’60, George was organizing a trip to revolutionary Cuba. My brother signed up to go, but it turned out there weren’t enough takers, so Jeff never made it to Havana

Ditty Bopper at Phu Bai

Phu Bai, the mountains of Laos to the west, 1964

          At the beginning of this memoir project, Karen and I were trying to locate ex-GIs who’d been based at Phu Bai, a small intelligence outpost just below the border of Communist North Vietnam. Jeff had served there, but we knew little about the place. We turned up an ex-Vietnam GI who had been posted at Phu Bai. He had been a Morse code operator, ‘ditty bopper’ for short, and, like Jeff, was doing secret work. Ditty Bopper gave us a lot of helpful information.
          Then one day he asked Karen about the memoir project. He knew Jeff had preceded him to Phu Bai, but not that he subsequently became a founder of GI protest against the war back home. We had nothing to hide, but that was too much for Ditty Bopper. A ‘lifer’, or career soldier, he was proud of his Vietnam service and wanted no traffic with criticism of the war, even decades later.
          He cut us off, no more emails, but we had learned a great deal and were grateful. He would shudder to see his name in this blog.

Larry Heinemann, ex-soldier-writer

A lifetime Chicago boy and an ex-Vietnam GI, the author, late ‘70s

          After the Vietnam War ended in ’75, I decided to teach a course on the conflict – as a kind of memorial to my brother. Since I was a Soviet specialist and knew about the war only from the New York Times and nightly television news, it was to be a learning experience. That’s when I came across the name of Larry Heinemann, an ex-Vietnam GI. I had the students read his first novel, Close Quarters, a gritty story of close-combat, much of it drawn from his experience.
          Many years later when I got into this memoir, I sought out the author. By then he had won the National Book Award for a later novel. I asked if he by chance  had known my brother back in the late ‘60s when Jeff was editing Vietnam GI (VGI). A lifelong Chicago boy, Larry replied, “Among those ex-GIs around Chicago, Jeff was, well, famous.”

Matt Rinaldi, antiwar chronicler

Matt Rinaldi’s ground-breaking essay on GI protest, 1972

A young man of the left and an antiwar activist, Matt Rinaldi and Jeff met at a GI coffee house near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  As VGI editor, Jeff went  on the road from time to time, touring training camps as well as nearby coffee houses run by activist friends. He was trawling for combat GIs to interview and other Nam stories for his next issue.
Decades later when I was spoke with Matt, he was still chuckling about something Jeff had told him. My brother had recently telephoned his parents, and our apolitical father asked his youngest son, “Jeff, are you still with those anti-groups?” Not long after Jeff’s early death, Matt Rinaldi published one the first accounts of GI protest against the war:

Vietnam GI was created by Jeff Sharlet, a vet who had served in Vietnam in the early years of the war.  He came back to the States fairly disillusioned. ... VGI was widely circulated and well received. ... It represented a significant breakthrough when it first appeared and helped play a catalytic role throughout the services.

Destiny Handelman, campus SDS leader

Destiny at rest, Bloomington, 1966

          Coming home from Vietnam in ‘64, Jeff headed back to Bloomington, to Indiana University (IU) to finish his education. By the following year the country was edging toward full-blown war in Southeast Asia. When LBJ escalated in March ‘65, protest against the war came alive throughout academe.  At IU every Friday afternoon, a small band of protestors rallied in Dunn Meadow.
          Jeff was also opposed the war and as the rare Vietnam vet on campus, was drawn into protest circles. The group became the nucleus of an SDS, or Students for Democratic Society, chapter at IU. Hostile to hierarchy, the chapter evolved a rotating 4-person leadership team.
          Bernella Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Destiny Handelman (nee Kinal), and Jeff took turns chairing the group. Under Jeff’s aegis, demonstrations were mounted against pro-war speakers who came to campus – General Maxwell Taylor, former US Ambassador to South Vietnam; and General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, aka the draft.
          Eventually the four moved on – Bernella to professional social activist; Jim to academe, a specialist on labor relations; Destiny, to environmental activism, later a novelist; and Jeff to his place in history as founding leader of the emerging GI antiwar movement.

Vachel Worthington, gung-ho linguist

101st Airborne on patrol, Vietnam, late ‘60s

 Jeff came back from Vietnam with a troubling secret. Something he couldn’t talk about. I only learned about it decades later when Karen told me. What had he done, what had he witnessed? I sought out GI buddies,  but they had no idea. Except Vachel Worthington. 
At the Army Language School (ALS), Jeff and Vachel shared a room in the Vietnamese language barracks. Most of their classmates were fairly casual about military life, something to put up with. Vachel was the exception, a gung-ho trooper, reveling in the military culture.
We located Vachel in Florida. He had a notion of what Jeff had been doing that troubled him. Vachel told me he’ been doing the same thing. As the only linguist in Jeff’s cohort to re-up – re-enlist – gung-ho Vachel was attached to the 101st Airborne, the ‘Screaming Eagles’ of WWII fame. Specifically, he soldiered with the Pathfinders, a deep recon unit operating in the Central Highlands.
The Pathfinders’ assignment – locate Viet Cong (VC) radio transmitters and call in air strikes or artillery missions to take them out. Because VC units were often near villages, inevitably the rain of bombs and shells caused considerable collateral damage – the death of civilians. Vachel took it in stride – the fog of war.
He believed Jeff had worked with the Marines in I Corps earlier in the war on similar long range recon patrols.
          The Marines’ modus operandi was to call in naval fire missions from warships off shore with unintended consequences quite familiar to Vachel – more collateral damage. He speculated that Jeff felt guilty about his complicity in the killing of innocent civilians.
Maybe, but we’ll never know. Jeff died young, taking his secret to the grave.

Keith Willis, friend to the end

Cadet Captain Willis, Albany Academy, 1958

I’ve interviewed many people from Jeff’s life and times, but just one had known him through that final decade of his short but interesting life. Keith Willis and Jeff had gone to the same military prep, Keith two years older and an officer in the school battalion. Jeff was in his company. Both were jocks, Jeff – football  and track, Keith lettering in three Varsity sports.
Taking a degree from Penn, Keith enlisted in ASA, the Army Security Agency, to avoid the draft and possibly the infantry. He followed Jeff to ALS in the same Vietnamese program. The two of them bought a used motorcycle and on weekends cruised the beautiful California coast – up to San Francisco, down to Big Sur. Jeff and Keith both deployed and were stationed with the 9th ASA in the Philippines; later Jeff was sent over to Vietnam.
After his Vietnam tour, Jeff went back to college, Keith into the corporate world, but the two guys landed in Chicago and kept in touch. Later, in spring ’69 Jeff fell terminally ill, but remained hopeful. It was Keith he contacted to help him draft an appeal to the government for a disability pension. The letter went off to Washington, but the reply came too late – Jeff was already gone. It didn’t matter anyway, it was a rejection letter. Keith Willis though, friend to the end.