Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Eight More Characters in Search of Jeff

Paulann Sheets, one time revolutionary

Taking a break on the Mediterranean coast, Paulann Sheets, 1966
          Paulann Sheets, nee Hosler, and I first met in an arty town in the Hudson valley north of New York. She was staying at the Morning Glory B+B on Upper Tinker run by an attractive Chinese woman with freckles named Pansy.
          Once an all-American girl, then a student revolutionary, now a counselor of the law with leftward bent, Paulann knew my brother Jeff Sharlet at Indiana University (IU) some 40 years back. She was of good memory.
          Paulann’s life has been an interesting journey. Entering IU as a freshman in ’59, a politically conservative young woman – a Goldwater Republican – within a short time she was an ardent Marxist.
A Nixon supporter in the 1960 presidential campaign, by ’62 Paulann had become a committed Trotskyist. The FBI field office took note, enlisting 11 confidential informants at IU to keep track of her activities. Initially a rah-rah sorority girl, she became a key player in the two most salient events on the left in the history of the university at that time.
Paulann joined the tiny campus chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), junior affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. IU YSA in turn founded a local branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) in support of Castro’s Cuban Revolution.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up in ‘62, YSA and FPCC supported Cuba. When President Kennedy (JFK) blockaded the island to stop Russian missile-carrying freighters, Paulann and comrades announced a protest march against US policy.
Gathering on the steps of the campus auditorium to begin their march, the small band of brothers was stunned to see a sea of angry, shouting students lining their route. Facing the dozen demonstrators were well over a thousand counter-protestors.
The situation was dangerous so the guys decided to defer the protest, but Paulann and Polly Smith, the only women in the group, disagreed and declared their intention to march. With little choice, the young men joined them, and they set off brandishing their colorful signs – Paulann’s, ‘a fierce JFK head on a huge eagle with its talons sunk into the small island of Cuba’.
Within minutes, ugly catcalls began, punches were thrown, and the provocative signs ripped up by enraged young ‘patriots’. Miraculously, the protestors made it to the library and escaped the raging mob.
Several months later the group invited a YSA national officer to speak on campus. Although his remarks were fairly moderate – ‘a sedate, academic affair’ in Paulann’s words – the politically motivated county prosecutor saw it differently.
Partly as payback for their ‘un-American’ pro-Cuban march, he indicted the YSA leaders under Indiana’s anti-communism statute for attempting to overthrow the Government of the United States.
Paulann organized the defense of the ‘Bloomington 3’ (B-3), whose lives would be disrupted for the next two years. She led the ‘Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, or CABS, which involved her taking a leave of absence, traveling extensively to publicize the case and raise defense funds. Thanks to her leadership, a prominent radical lawyer joined the case and soon brought to an end the trumped up charges.
Back from the Vietnam War, Jeff returned to IU as the B-3 case was winding down. Paulann well remembered him for his charisma as chair of the campus SDS group. I noted that several others had also referred to Jeff’s charisma. Paulann’s comment—‘How could anyone have missed it’.

Spooks at the rifle range

Specialist-3 John Buquoi (haloed),rifle range, outside Saigon, 1963

 Looks like a picture of regular GIs, doesn’t it? The time late ’63, the place South Vietnam, specifically an Army rifle range. The guy haloed in the middle is John Buquoi, a great friend of brother Jeff.
John and Jeff were soldiers, although in name only, part of the Army Security Agency (ASA)—an autonomous intelligence outfit. ASA’s priorities did not include good marksmanship. The agency prioritized a very different set of skillstraining young men, usually college boys, as linguists, cryptographers, and intelligence analysts—a far cry from combat, the heart of the warrior profession.
I too had served in ASA, but in the ‘50s. The setup however was the same John and Jeff experienced—eight weeks of minimal military training before we were sent off for up to a year to acquire specialized skills.
Since John and Jeff looked like regular GIs—ASA was the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington—their superiors occasionally paid lip service to the soldierly calling with a little close-order drill or a tune-up trip to the rifle range.
John Buquoi followed Jeff at the Army Language School where they met. Completing his Vietnamese language course, he was dispatched to Saigon. Jeff met him on arrival and gave John a kind of social introduction to Vietnam, a tour of Saigon’s great bars and cafés.
Taxiing into town, they set off on a whirlwind pub crawl starting at the Papillon and ending many hours later at the Happy Bar. Along the way, they dined at the Peacock where 60 piasters (50 US cents back then) bought them a steak (probably water buffalo), fries, salad, and a Vietnamese beer to wash it down.
On another night out, they were approaching one of Jeff’s favorite places—French style, Vietnamese run—and were stunned by an explosion at the café just ahead on the street.
Two Viet Cong (VC) ‘cowboys’ had sped by on a motor scooter and rolled a grenade into the place. Injuries were fortunately very minor. The guys peeked in and walked on. VC street bombings were not infrequent in the South Vietnamese capital.
Later both John and Jeff were assigned to Phu Bai in the far north of the country. Occasionally they borrowed a jeep and drove down Highway 1 for a weekend in Danang on the coast, staying at a hotel.
Another time driving over the high mountain pass enroute, they turned on to a side road. Down below poking into the South China Sea was a small verdant peninsula. The two young GIs mused, wouldn’t it be a great place to set up a gambling casino after the war.
That was early ’64, and of course neither could foresee the war would go on for many years.  
John later told me that some of their buddies became Vietophiles while others were Vietophobes, but Jeff was neither. He was a realist, skeptical about the US mission in Vietnam, and critical of the emerging war.

Fred Gardner, antiwar impresario

Fred Gardner in recent times

           Fred Gardner never got the credit he deserved for the rise of the GI movement against the Vietnam War. Trained as an Army reservist, he remembered the sleazy GI town near the base with its grungy bars and dives. With that and his growing opposition to the war in mind, Fred came up with the idea of setting up coffee houses for GIs near major base camps as alternative hangouts.
They’d be pleasant places where a GI could get away from the military milieu – to drink coffee, listen to some music, and, especially, peruse the small but growing number of underground antiwar papers, notable among them brother Jeff’s Vietnam GI.
Start-up capital was needed, so Fred turned to the New Left antiwar movement for help. He got a cold shoulder—the New Left at the time was hostile to GIs, saying they were ‘no better than cops’. Like Jeff, Fred knew differently—there were many GIs with doubts about the war.
With $10,000 of money he raised, he and two friends opened the first GI coffee house near Fort Jackson, SC. In a play on the WWII USO canteens offering troops sandwiches and a little entertainment, they called their place the ‘UFO’. It soon attracted hundreds of off-duty GIs. 
More such venues followed, the next one outside Fort Leonard Wood, MO; then another near the gates of Fort Hood, TX – the lively Oleo Strut. The Army took notice and, in collusion with local authorities, orchestrated a harassment campaign against the new GI gathering places.
Nonetheless, Fred’s idea took off and new GI coffee houses began springing up at bases all over the country. With few exceptions, harassment was the norm, and in some instances anonymous violence— in Idaho the Covered Wagon was firebombed one night, while a grenade was tossed into the coffee house near Fort Dix, NJ.
Fred has had an extensive career as a writer and editor. Starting with the Harvard Crimson, he wrote for the critical magazine of the day, Ramparts; served as an editor at Scientific American; and frequently contributed to other publications.
In 1971, he published a widely read, still definitive book, The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case, an account of a major event in antiwar history. Fred dedicated his book to Jeff:

Jeff Sharlet, founder of
Vietnam GI,
dead at 27

Once upon a time in Indianapolis

 (Life is what happens while you’re making other plans, as the saying goes.  That is precisely what happened to Karen Grote Ferb on July 23, 1966.  Here’s the story she related to me.)

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Indianapolis, IN

In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) made a Midwestern swing for the off-year congressional elections that included Indianapolis (Indy) IN in the heartland.
My old friend Jeff Sharlet was spending the summer there working on the railroad, and I often went up from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington to spend weekends with him; one of those weekends LBJ spoke at Indy’s downtown Monument Circle. 
The IU New Left planned to welcome the president with a peaceful antiwar protest. I went up to Indy to join them the night before.  Jeff, disappointed that he had to work that sultry Saturday, dropped me off at the rally point early. 
I joined a handful of protesters, parade permit in hand and antiwar signs at the ready.  That’s as close as we got to protesting.  In short order, cops arrived and told us to move. Showing our permit, we refused. Then they returned with Chief Jones, a good-sized man wearing a tan trench coat, a brown fedora, and an annoyed expression.
Unbeknownst to the IU activists, the feds and local law enforcement had worked together to preempt the protest. License numbers of their cars had been relayed ahead, and the Indy police arrested them on arrival.
Each time the paddy wagon filled up, the group was transported to a sheriff’s bus out of sight of the crowd, the press, and especially the president’s podium. LBJ finished speaking and left for a businessmen’s luncheon where he ironically declared, “We will abide civil protest” as the would-be protesters were carted off to jail. 
Chief Jones thought the roundup of the protesters with their “lousy signs” was a good idea, but the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) immediately protested: 
It is incredible that responsible public officials would utilize the power of their position in such a flagrant suppression of the efforts of the citizens to exercise their fundamental right of freedom of expression. 
By dark we’d all been released. A small crowd of supporters awaited us outside the jail. Jeff was there, quietly outraged.  He intuitively understood how frightened I’d been and how anxious I was about the pending court case. 
That Sunday’s New York Times gave the story brief coverage in the back pages, saying the president had vigorously defended his Vietnam War policy before a crowd of several thousand at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis.
As for the thwarted protesters, the report included a statement by a sheriff’s deputy that we might be kept overnight and charged with breaking up a public meeting.  Only one arrestee was named, IU Professor James Dinsmoor, charged with interfering with the police.
When I came to trial, the initial charge of Disorderly Conduct had morphed into Resisting Arrest. The arresting officer falsely testified I had struck him with my sign. I was nonplussed and felt little satisfaction with my eventual verdict of not guilty. 

Dan Kaplan, to create a better world

Dan Kaplan, SDS chair (carrying books), leading a demo, Indiana University, 1967

A teenage stalwart, Dan has done it all – civil rights activism, SDS leader, Trotskyist journeyman, antiwar organizer, college professor, and longtime union activist.
At a New Left reunion in 2013, Dan, conceding that their side hadn’t been winning the battle for fundamental social change, said he still remained committed to engaging in the struggle ‘to create a better world’.
Dan knew Jeff at their alma mater, Indiana University (IU), succeeding him as president of the campus SDS chapter. Dan remembered him well.
They first met at an SDS meeting. Both were following the discussion with interest when someone remarked that since Jeff was an ex-Vietnam GI, he should be asked his opinion on the matter.
Dan, a freshman, recalled being amazed that the activist next to him had been in the war. Turning to Jeff, he asked, ‘Are you really a Vietnam veteran?’‘Yes, I am’, Jeff said, ‘but this is where I really belong.
Later that year, Jeff as SDS leader gave a speech at a rally Dan has always remembered, a demo outside the residence of the university president. Jeff opened, saying ‘This is the second time in my life that I’ve belonged to an organization run by Elvis Stahr’.
He explained that he had served in Vietnam under Stahr as Secretary of the Army, and was now again under his aegis as President of IU. Rhetorically, Jeff asked why a man of the ‘war machine’ was qualified to be president of an institution of higher learning, then answered that in various ways the American university system served the military-industrial complex, hence senior personnel of the two organizations had become interchangeable.
Jeff went on to grad school at University of Chicago with a prestigious national fellowship. Dan’s memory of their last encounter had an elegiac tone.
Jeff told Dan he had decided to drop out of Chicago, instead using his fellowship funds to launch a much needed GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI.  Dan expressed surprise that Jeff was throwing away a coveted fellowship at a distinguished university. Jeff replied– and presciently, given his short but interesting life:

He told me that this was what he wanted to do at this time in his
life.  And that he thought this would be the most important thing he had ever done. 

Anti-hero of GI protest

Grave marker, Pvt James Richard 'Rusty' Bunch, 1949-1968

High above San Francisco Bay sat a nondescript white stone building, the Army stockade at the Presidio of San Francisco. The majority of the prisoners there were maladjusted soldiers serving short-term sentences, mostly for AWOL  (absent without leave).
In the fall of ’68, conditions at the stockade were seriously wanting – it was badly over-crowded with insufficient sanitation facilities and sometimes short rations. Many of the GI prisoners were a disorderly bunch–some had gone AWOL during their first days and weeks in the Army, others multiple times.
A number of them came from unstable homes, were poorly educated, and generally unable to adapt to military life. Mental illness was not uncommon among the prisoners, some of whom repeatedly attempted suicide.
Among this odd lot, one young prisoner stood out as truly bizarre. From his arrival at the stockade barracks, it was apparent to all that Private James Richard ‘Rusty’ Bunch was a very strange bird. He often conducted two-way conversations with himself; fantasized about space ships; believed he had been reincarnated; and claimed he could walk through walls.
He was clearly suicidal, asking a bunk mate the best way to do it–slashing wrists, drinking a toxic fluid, or trying to escape while under guard. The guards had standing orders to shoot fleeing prisoners. Rusty chose to run, and died of a shotgun blast.
The next day 27 prisoners protested his death and prison conditions generally with a sit-down. Refusing an order to disperse, they were arrested. The 27 were charged not with ‘Willful disobedience to orders’ entailing a light sentence, but the extreme charge of ‘Mutiny’ calling for death or life imprisonment.
None of the offenders had expressed any interest in the war–Vietnam was not their issue, stockade conditions were – but the Army prosecutor construed their actions as antiwar and anti-military. The alleged ringleaders were court-martialed first and got 14 and 15 year sentences.
The heavy sentences for a peaceful protest immediately ignited press and public reaction in the San Francisco Bay area. Jeff’s Vietnam GI got on the story as outrage spread quickly throughout the broad antiwar community.
The Presidio case soon took on national dimensions, reaching the halls of Congress. The Pentagon hastily reduced the sentences, but it was too late; and GI protest, heretofore buried in the back pages, became national news.
No matter that not one of the Presidio 27 was protesting the war; in the public mind the late Pvt Rusty Bunch went from a tragic figure to an unintended martyr to the GI cause, or, as a GI antiwar activist later put it.

The Presidio 27 was the best thing that ever happened to the GI movement – it put us on the front page.

Dave Komatsu, keeper of memories

Header for Dave Komatsu's obituary for Jeff, Vietnam GI, 1969

Perhaps no one knew Jeff in his last years as well as Dave Komatsu of Chicago. Jeff harbored a big vision of how to stop the war; Dave helped him realize it. The two first met through a mutual friend in New York, summer, ’67. The rest is antiwar history.
Dave, an exceptionally bright and insightful individual, skeptical of all certainties, had long been a left activist. He led a breakaway faction of the American Socialist Party that became the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).
Dave and Kit, his wife, set up a newspaper for YPSL, American Socialist, a briskly written, well-edited tabloid Jeff happened to read and admire.
Returning from the Vietnam War, Jeff planned to organize GIs to oppose the war from within the military, a formidable undertaking. Dave suggested an interim step, a newsletter or bulletin reflecting GI opinion.
Thus was born Jeff’s antiwar underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), which soon became a platform for raising GI political consciousness and encouraging self-organizing against the war. An instant success from the initial issue, VGI ultimately inspired dozens of antiwar papers created by serving GIs.
Jeff’s aim was to mobilize GIs to bring the war to a halt, but unfortunately his time was cut short. An illness he first experienced in the Vietnam bush resurfaced and took his life.
 Dave had known my brother much better than I. For me Jeff was a much younger sibling, while Dave remembered him as a man he greatly admired. He compared Jeff’s tightly wound power and self-containment to Steve McQueen's racing car driver in the film Le Mans.
 Many obits on Jeff appeared in the underground press, but Dave’s, in a posthumous edition of Vietnam GI, was the most eloquent, the most poetic, as reflected in the opening and closing lines:
 Many good men never came back from Nam. Some came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a pretty together cat – and he came back angry. Jeff started VGI and, for almost two years poured his life into it, in an endless succession of 18-hour days, trying to organize men to fight for their rights.
[At the end] he said he had many new ideas
for our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about them.

Tran Van Don, coup-maker

Major General Tran Van Don, South Vietnam, 1963

The Vietnam War was not going well in ’63; the Viet Cong controlled much of the rural countryside. South Vietnam’s President Diem was a generally benign but inept leader. There was much dissatisfaction among the populace as well as the elites.
Minority Catholics, Diem and his brother Nhu, the secret police chief, ordered a violent assault on the Buddhist clergy. For the army generals, mostly Buddhists, who long felt that both the war and the country itself were being badly mismanaged, that was the last straw.
General Don was delegated to find out what the US would think of a coup. He contacted an old friend, a CIA officer at the embassy. The US was secretly supportive – Washington was fed up with Diem’s ineffective leadership.
Born in France of Vietnamese parents, educated in Paris before WWII, Tran Van Don had been a senior officer in the South Vietnamese Army since the establishment of the republic in the mid-‘50s. He held the trust of both the general staff and the presidential palace.
Late summer/early fall ‘63, Don and Lucien Conein (US liaison to the plotters) maintained surreptitious contact. Although Jeff never met Conein, he and fellow Vietnamese linguists were part of his operation. From a secret location outside the capital, they clandestinely monitored the generals’ communications as backup to Conein’s meetings with General Don.
The day before the planned coup, Don tried again to persuade Diem to change his policies asking, ‘Can you make some changes to your domestic policy by reopening the pagodas, freeing the monks and nuns, and bringing about a more flexible government?’
       His plea was to no avail, the president replied, ‘No, there is nothing to do … the situation is fine.’ The next day the generals carried out the coup. Diem and Nhu were executed. General Don was distressed; they were supposed to have been sent into exile.