Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Still More Characters in Search of Jeff – III

Bill O’Brien, Chicago go-to guy

Bill O’Brien, Chicago, 2006

Bill came to New York for a few days and suggested we meet. I chose a funky place in the East Village. He had been a great pal of my brother, Jeff Sharlet, in the late ‘60s during his time in Chicago. Jeff had arrived there with a big vision and a large mission and soon learned Bill O’Brien was the go-to guy for getting things organized.

An ex-Vietnam GI, my brother strongly opposed the war and was determined to give those fighting it a way to voice their concerns. Bill was one of the key people helping Jeff launch Vietnam GI (VGI), the first GI-edited underground paper designed for the guys stuck in the war.

Bill O’Brien “considered Jeff a brother” and was indispensable to him. Chicago born, Bill knew most of radical Chicago’s major activists as well as officers of the unions and even people in Boss Daley’s machine. A man of many parts, Bill’s political and academic resume was impressive. He’d been invited into University of Chicago’s prestigious honors program though he lacked a high school diploma. Later he transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York and finally took a social science degree at Columbia.

Bill was already into community organizing in his school boy years; Chicago was rife with deserving local causes. Moving on to New York, he demonstrated against the infamous HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee,  and led the initial ’67 protest at Columbia when the university first proposed taking over a Harlem park for a new gym. A year later that protest morphed into the great Columbia student uprising.

Returning home to Chicago, Bill used his political connections for ‘good guy’ causes, one time blocking a hospital expansion that would have taken out a nearby neighborhood. Later he created ‘Radio Free Chicago’, broadcasting from his attic.

In ’68, Bill, Jeff, and Jim Wallihan, another VGI editor, shared a pad on Chicago’s Near North Side. Bill was working in the Office of the Cook County Clerk, but at the end of the day he lent a hand for whatever was needed – a VGI editorial meeting, arranging useful contacts in the city, procuring office equipment, or strategizing the emerging GI movement against the war. When they needed a break, they’d hit Bill’s favorite joint, the jazz bar ‘Get Me High’.

Funds to put the paper out were always tight, so in the fall Bill pulled strings and got Jeff and Jim well-paid jobs in the press rooms of Chicago dailies. But the work was hard, and an ultimately fatal illness that first surfaced in the Vietnam bush started taking its toll on Jeff.

Forty years on, Bill had never forgotten Jeff. When I began this memoir on my brother, he devoted endless time tracking down Jeff’s former Chicago friends, many by then scattered around the country and abroad. When Bill died a few years ago, his many old friends remembered him with a gala memorial evening at the hip Heartland Café, long a haunt of radical Chicago.

Nearly 50 of us were there; many had driven great distances from all over the Midwest while others flew in from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and even Honolulu to celebrate Bill O’Brien’s memorable life – an unforgettable evening.

Marty Seligman, an evening long ago

A prominent psychologist and author of international acclaim, Professor Martin Seligman is a noted pioneer of the school of Positive Psychology. As a schoolboy though, Marty was a good friend of brother Jeff. They were cadets at a private military school – uniforms, rifles, drill, the whole nine yards. As often happens, after graduation they lost track of each other.

When Marty and I got in touch, he was only aware that Jeff had dropped out of college, gone to military language school, and died several years later of causes unknown. But Marty fondly remembered their school days together, especially an occasion late in their senior year. Both of them had been at the academy for a long time and were restless to move on.

Sitting in a green Ford convertible, as Marty described the moment:

I remember a spring evening, the sky Rembrandt blue,graduation and freedom in sight, looking up and
thinking ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever been’. I thinkJeff thought the same thing, and he may have said so.

A lifetime later at the 50th Reunion of Jeff and Marty’s class, it was fitting that the two long ago friends shared the Albany Academy’s coveted Distinguished Alumni Award, Jeff the first posthumous recipient in the history of the school.

Looking back on their time together, Marty wrote that he still misses Jeff, “the first of my friends to die.”

Karen Grote, the searcher

Karen Grote, Indiana University, 1964

Out of the blue one day, Karen got in contact. She found me through my son Jeff the writer, namesake of my long lost brother of the ‘60s. Brother Jeff had gone to Indiana University (IU), but dropped out and landed in Vietnam. That was before the Pentagon launched Rolling Thunder sent in the Marines. Back in the world, as GIs called coming home, Jeff returned to IU to continue his education.

It was on his second academic ‘tour’ in America’s heartland that he met Karen Grote (now Ferb), a very attractive fellow undergrad. She knew him well, both socially and politically, and was willing to share her memories. During Jeff’s college years, I had just begun my career as an academic.  I was elsewhere teaching and doing research, so had known little of my younger brother’s experience at IU.

After Karen filled me in on Jeff’s extensive antiwar activism at the university, she offered to help research the memoir I had started on his short but interesting life. Fortunately, I accepted and we’ve collaborated since to my great benefit.

Aside from short accounts about my brother in several books and periodicals on the Vietnam War period, I soon realized Jeff’s final decade would have to be reconstructed piece by piece through memories of his contemporaries. But locating many of them was not going to be easy – the trail had gone cold after nearly four decades.

A PC keyboard whiz, Karen’s talent was in finding dozens of my brother’s schoolmates, GI buddies, and fellow SDS activists as well as the main people in Chicago who helped Jeff get out his antiwar underground paper directed to the troops fighting the war. He named it Vietnam GI (VGI).

Several of Karen’s notable initial ‘finds’ bear mentioning. Early on, she located Tom Barton, who had worked closely with Jeff as VGI’s East Coast distributor responsible for shipping the paper to GIs in Vietnam. A lifetime left activist, Tom had then recently begun publishing a nightly online anti-Iraq War newsletter, first called GI Special (later, Military Resistance).

In one of his first issues Tom reprinted the most eloquent of the many obits on Jeff, the one from VGI of August ’69. When I rang him up, he told me that he’d conceived his antiwar newsletter as the successor to Jeff’s VGI and saw himself continuing Jeff’s work.

Another remarkable find was Joe Carey, a fellow Vietnam GI whom Jeff had known at Indiana University. A combat photographer, Joe brought back his personal photos of what the war really looked like, pictures which he shared with Jeff for the pages of VGI. However, Joe had not taken the most shocking image – it had been slipped to him by a GI who had witnessed a war crime. Trophy-style, the photo showed several GIs posing with the severed heads of two Viet Cong.

Jeff ran the shot in a spring ’68 issue, and as the first atrocity photo of the war to surface in the public domain, it caused quite a sensation.

Another of Karen’s successes was perhaps her finest coup. A fellow Vietnam GI in the Chicago area who had been on Jeff’s editorial board for VGI seemed to have disappeared without a trace. As we subsequently reconstructed, he had become a Chicago cop, got in trouble with the law himself, served prison time, and, on release, left the city with the intent of getting away from that chapter of his life.

Zeke, as I’ll call him to spare embarrassment, had moved to the West Coast, obtained an unlisted phone number, and hoped to put his past behind him.  That was before the Internet as a valuable search medium. Through great perseverance, Karen had stayed on the trail and eventually ran Zeke to ground.

We knew his wife was an amateur artist, and she happened to be active in art circles. For an upcoming exhibition, she had posted her name and telephone number online. When I rang Zeke, he exploded in anger, “This is an unlisted number! How did you get it?” From your wife, I said. What could he say?

Dave Reinhardt, badlands rancher

Dave Reinhardt, Lehr, North Dakota, 2004

Far from Vietnam of his youth, Dave, proud Marine, is today a rancher in the Dakotas. He never knew Jeff Sharlet, but had preceded him at the same remote post in what might then have been dubbed the badlands of South Vietnam – right up against the border of the Communist North.

Dave Reinhardt joined the Marines in ’59 and was subsequently in the first Vietnamese class at the Army Language School (ALS). Jeff arrived at ALS and bunked in the same Vietnamese barracks a few years later. Dave deployed to Vietnam as a linguist in ’61, with a small Marine radio intelligence unit in Pleiku and Phu Bai. Jeff was based with the Army Security Agency (ASA) detachment at Phu Bai in early ’64.

Because Jeff’s work was highly classified, his letters home were spare. Yet I needed to know about Phu Bai, the place where he had spent much of his Vietnam tour. Luckily Karen, my searcher, turned up Dave Reinhardt on the Internet. Dave served as a fount of information on Phu Bai. Along with describing the physical layout of the base – the barbed wire perimeter, the various antennae, and the ops buildings – Dave also conveyed a sense of the daily routines.

He told me how the Marine intel group worked side by side with ASA, although tasked with different but related missions. The Marines were listening to North Vietnamese (NVN) Navy radio traffic, while the larger ASA unit was tracking NVN Army communications. 

However, the differences between the military culture of the Marine radio intercept contingent and its ASA counterpart were stark. All the Marines, regardless of specialized skills, had undergone several months’ of  combat infantry training and were all qualified riflemen. They were a very shipshape crew. In contrast, ASA was a laidback outfit, military in only the broadest meaning of the term.

In spite of the great heat and humidity at Phu Bai, the Marines wore their olive green field uniforms, while many of the ASA guys went about their jobs shirtless in boxer shorts and flip flops. Similarly, the Marines had rifles, M-14’s with ammo, while the unit Jeff would join was given only low caliber carbines and no ammo.

As Dave said, that was probably a good policy since ASA troops had little weapons training, and someone could have gotten hurt. One time the Army colonel commanding both units, a veteran of WWII and Korea, summoned Lance Corporal Reinhardt and asked him to drill the ASA troops, try to whip them into shape. While the ASA Morse Code operators and the linguists did their work well, Dave concluded that trying to turn them into soldiers was a lost cause.

After his Marine enlistment, Dave returned to Vietnam on the CIA payroll. With his language skill and military training, he was in effect a civilian combatant for the next several years.

Later, back in civilian life, he struggled with undiagnosed PTSD. When the Pentagon eventually acknowledged his condition and gave him back compensation, Dave bought the ranch in North Dakota where he raises a variety of animals and takes in, cares for, and puts to pasture injured, abused, and neglected horses otherwise destined for the glue factory.

Robin Hunter, Marxist guru

Robin Hunter, antiwar rally, Indianapolis, 1967

Born outside London during WWII, educated in Canada, Robin came to the States to take a PhD in Political Philosophy. He chose Indiana University (IU), arriving on campus in the early-mid ‘60s where he became a co-organizer of the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In its earliest incarnation, Robin later wrote of IU SDS,

we were seen as not just political, but as part of every-thing groovy and anti-establishment: folk music,radical, ‘concerned’, politics, dope, sex, bohemianstyle, cool, and hip.

He became the Marxist guru of the new group, leading theoretical discussions in Bernella and David Satterfield’s living room a stone’s throw from the campus gates. In spring ’65 when the fledgling group went to Washington for the first big New Left anti-Vietnam War demo, Robin was there.

Brother Jeff Sharlet joined SDS a few months later, and he and Robin became good friends and close collaborators. In early ’67 when Jeff headed the chapter, Robin helped draft his speech to the activist community, ‘The Role of the New Left on Campus: The State of the Student’.

That spring, Robin attended a rally in the state capital where Jeff addressed the assembled audience, and then back on campus the two of them worked together to ensure the election of Guy Loftman as student body president, the first New Left activist to win the post.

However, Robin Hunter’s most lasting contribution to the Indiana scene was to serve as its diarist. In the English political-literary tradition of Samuel Pepys, the great diarist of the 17th century; and later Harold Nicolson, a heralded chronicler of the 20th century, Hunter recorded in fluent prose a decade of the IU New Left’s main actions.

Robin has been well remembered even by a major adversary, a leading campus conservative who became a national leader of the pro-war New Right. A few years ago, Robert Turner spoke of Robin Hunter as “the most able of the anti-Vietnam activists I encountered at Indiana.”

Terry Whitmore – Marine hero to deserter

Lance Corporal Terry Whitmore, Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, 1967
A poor boy from the Upper South, Terry enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. He and brother Jeff never met there, but would later cross paths in Scandinavia. Whitmore was a good Marine for whom the US mission in Southeast Asia went unquestioned. However, as a fire team leader in a company-size sweep of a suspect village, he found himself in a moral quandary.

The company CO had lost a brother to the war and was bent on revenge. When a single shot came from the village, he ordered it leveled. That meant tossing grenades into family shelters, burning huts, killing adults, and rounding up children.

The Marines followed orders, but when the vengeful captain ordered the youngsters to be ‘wasted’, Terry and other Marines were taken aback. Not likely the kids were Viet Cong, but nonetheless a Marine mowed them down. The CO noticed one hut still standing and told Lance Corporal Whitmore to take it out with a rifle grenade.

Orders were orders, Terry fired, the grenade hit the hut but didn’t detonate.
A mother and child stuck their heads out the door -- Terry, seeing the captain looking elsewhere, silently motioned to them to run for their lives, to get away. He turned to walk back to the unit when a loud explosion went off. Out of curiosity the little boy had picked up the unexploded but live grenade. Terry felt remorse, but remained silent.

Later in his tour, Terry distinguished himself in battle, saving the platoon leader and his radioman, both wounded and pinned down under enemy fire. But in the melee, Terry himself was severely wounded by a mortar round and medevacked out of the line. He was convalescing at the Navy hospital in Cam Ranh Bay when President Johnson (LBJ) made a lightning visit to the facility. LBJ took the opportunity to personally award medals to wounded Marines recommended for bravery, including Corporal Whitmore.

Subsequently, Terry was transferred to a major US military hospital in Japan. After some months he was well enough for out-patient treatment and allowed to go out on the town. Then the day came when the docs cleared him to return to his combat unit. By now Terry was developing misgivings about the war, but duty called.

Twice his plane back to Vietnam was canceled due to weather, and he had to return to barracks. His growing doubts about the war then came to the fore. Try as he might, Terry couldn’t think of any justification for Uncle Sam “to be wiping out the Vietnamese people [or] one good reason for me to help Sam in his dirty work.”

Lance Corporal Whitmore had finally had enough – he deserted, as had others, and was sheltered by the Japanese left, moving the American deserters from safe house to safe house to evade the US Military Police. Eventually the Japanese activists found it hard to keep the deserters safely hidden, and arranged to spirit them out of the country.

Terry and several others were clandestinely transported to northern Japan. They boarded a Japanese fishing boat whose skipper rendezvoused with a Soviet coast guard vessel that took the Americans aboard. After a whirlwind tour of the USSR during which the Soviets exploited them for propaganda, the US Vietnam deserters were flown to the West and sanctuary. Stepping down at the Stockholm airport, Terry Whitmore began his long exile.

It was there in the Swedish capital in late fall ’68 that Terry and Jeff crossed paths. Jeff was in town with a delegation of American antiwar clergy and laity to offer support to the deserter community – Jeff the sole ex-Vietnam GI in the group, representing the burgeoning Vietnam GI movement against the war.

Door gunner distributor

Door gunner over the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam, 1968

Terry DeMott went to Nam as a grunt, humping a rifle in the bush, but later transferred to the division’s aviation wing, finishing his tour as a helicopter door gunner.

Early on, returning from a patrol, he remembered coming upon a copy of Vietnam GI (VGI) in his squad tent, avidly reading it front to back, and immediately clipping the free subscription coupon to send off to Chicago.

He added a note that if they could spare extra copies, he’d pass them around. Thus, Terry became part of Jeff’s network of nearly 200 sub rosa VGI military ‘distributors’ in units up and down South Vietnam.

Carrying copies in his backpack, Terry would pass them to guys in his squad who’d share with the other squads.  Once VGI made the rounds of the platoon, the copies would be handed off to other units. Later Terry similarly circulated the paper in the aviation wing. Thus the multiplier effect as a handful of copies was read by dozens of GIs.

While Terry was careful to keep the antiwar paper out of sight of the brass, he told me he wasn’t too worried about getting caught, saying in so many words, What could they do, send me to Vietnam? 

Nancy Goodlin Sharlet, secret writer

Nancy Sharlet and Jeff the namesake, The Cloisters, New York City, 1974

Nancy died way too early, but at least, unlike her brother-in-law Jeff, she made it into her 40s. Unbeknownst to anyone who knew her, she had been writing for years. After her death, a trove of myriad unpublished writings was discovered in the drawers and cupboards of Nancy’s house.

When our son Jeff, my brother’s namesake, later came of age, he wrote a memoir of his mother by drawing on her many journals, short story fragments, character portraits, and word sketches of people she knew as well as things going on around her. Young Jeff dubbed her a ‘secret writer’.

One piece Jeff found among her papers was a brief but beautifully written, poetic evocation of his Uncle Jeff’s last days.  It was, in effect, Nancy’s obit for brother Jeff.

A few lines illuminate Jeff’s fleeting passage through our lives:

       He had that ancient look of a Persian or an Assyrian
      He had a gift for friendship
      His mind was facile, theoretical
      His experience was valuable

And Nancy’s final image – as we walked the grounds of the VA medical center, Jeff’s hospital robe, caught by the wind, “billowed like an Arab’s caftan.”