Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Snapshots from a Short but Interesting Life I

Prologue: Herewith dear readers is Part I of the final two-part post of Searching for Jeff, the blog history of my long trek to trace and reconstruct the last decade—1959-1969 – of my brother Jeff Sharlet’s short but interesting life. Bringing the blog to a conclusion will enable me to devote full-time to completion of the memoir on Jeff now well underway.

          After five years and 125 posts, we have hit all the major moments of Jeff’s trajectory through the ‘60s. In these two closing entries, we present a pictorial perspective on his journey – a slide show lite – from cradle to grave. A number of the photos were taken by Jeff himself. As the saying goes, pictures speak for themselves, so we’ve appended only brief commentaries. 

We thank those tens of thousands who have followed the blog for your readership – either regularly or periodically. As we sign off here, for those who might be interested, we will in the near-future be posting from time to time excerpts from the memoir in progress at our Yola Web site,

The last picture show will cover the main phases of Jeff’s life as follows:
  • Small town boy *
  • Academy years*
  • Good times in Monterey*
  • Assassination in Saigon*
  • Up north in harm’s way*
  • Indiana days
  • Destiny Chicago
  • Journey’s end
(Asterisked periods are covered in this first installment today. The remaining three topics are the subject of tomorrow’s, February 11th, second and final installment)
 Small town boy

Crandall Park Pond just a block from Jeff’s house

Jeff Sharlet was a typical child of the middle class. He grew up in a small town along the Hudson River in upstate New York. The family lived on a quiet dead-end street across from the town park.

 In the ‘40s boys entered from one side, girls the other

Grade school was about a half mile walk up the main street. It was even closer if one crossed the fields and cut through the local cemetery.

 An afternoon at Round Pond, Jeff in the middle

Jeff’s hometown was in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The summers abounded in outdoor life. Nearby lakes and ponds were an easy drive in the backseat of the family car.

 An idyllic place to grow up

          In 1944, Look magazine ran a series of well-illustrated articles designating Glens Falls as ‘Hometown USA’. It was indeed an idyllic place to grow up.

 Firemen reading about D-Day, 1944

          America was at war, but except for practice air raid drills, the sounds of bombs and guns in Europe and the Pacific were distant from childhood pursuits.

 Glens Falls Insurance Co. where many townspeople worked

Glens Falls had a neat little downtown area with shops and stores. It was often referred to simply as ‘downstreet’ since it was at most a short bus ride up Glen Street, the main drag. First sighted from the bus windows was the biggest building in town, the insurance company on Monument Square commemorating the Civil War.   


Jeff’s father’s furniture store was across from the bank

 A little farther on, there was the bank – a handsome white marble structure – and then the 5¢ & 10¢ stores and specialty shops.

        In the late ‘40s, Jeff’s family moved to Albany, the state capital.
 Academy years

Jeff running for charity

Most of Jeff’s formative years in Albany were spent at a private country day school. With the student body organized as a cadet battalion, school days ran long from early morning to dinner time. A demanding academic schedule and military training, as well as late afternoon sports practice, filled the hours. Saturdays were home and away games with local teams and New England prep schools. An active social life with area girl’s schools occupied weekend evenings.

The Albany Academy

          It was a very old institution from the early 1800’s. There was much emphasis on traditions. Overall, the atmosphere was conservative. There was little interest in contemporary politics. Preparing for college was the Academy’s mission and the boys’ main preoccupation.

Jeff taking the baton pass

          Jeff played football and ran track at the Academy. He was also expert at the rifle range and twice in a cadet unit winning the drill competition.

Jeff (l) at the annual spring dance

By senior year he had become a top student. He was appointed an officer of the battalion. A large number of graduates were headed to the Ivy League. Jeff had his eye his eye on Dartmouth. But his father went bust. It was out of reach. Instead, he enrolled at a large Midwestern state university. He was unhappy there. Jeff dropped out mid-freshman year. Thereafter his life followed a radically different trajectory than his erstwhile classmates.

Distinguished alumni plaque, foyer of the Albany Academy

          Fifty years on, Jeff was posthumously awarded the Academy’s coveted Distinguished Alumni Award. He was honored for the distinction of his short but interesting life as a founding leader of the GI movement against the Vietnam War.

    Good times in Monterey

Standing Friday retreat at the Army Language School

          A college dropout during the Cold War, Jeff faced the Draft. He made a deal with the Army – he gave up three years; they gave him a year of language study. He was sent to the Presidio of Monterey atop a bluff on the California coast, probably the most relaxed post in the military universe. The Presidio was home to the Army Language School, renamed the Defense Language Institute (DLI). It was akin to a small college.

The military taught Jeff Vietnamese. That meant six hours a day of class, and just a few light chores. Otherwise, garrison regimen was at a minimum – show up late Friday afternoons for Retreat formation. Taps were sounded, the flag was lowered. It was goodbye DLI until Monday morning.

Jeff’s pal Keith going high

After classes, Jeff and fellow students were on their own. Uniforms were shed, evenings and weekends were theirs. Guys could hang out on campus– in effect, that’s what the place was – or go off base.

Cannery Row of Steinbeck fame 

          Down the hill was the town on the bay. Plenty of bars and eateries. Cannery Row was a celebrated fixture of Monterey, famous as the site of a John Steinbeck novel. Although the bay was nearly fished out and most of the canneries closed, a few funky restaurants were tucked among the ruins.

The beach at Carmel

          Or Jeff and pals could cross the peninsula to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an arty little town. Ocean Avenue, the main drag, ran down to the Pacific. At the foot was the beach.

Nepenthe’s at Big Sur

          Jeff and Keith owned an old motorcycle. They could range far and wide. A favorite weekend hangout of Jeff’s was a restaurant down the coast. Nepenthe’s was on the coast road south of the peninsula at Big Sur. The restaurant extended off a cliff high above the waves crashing below.

A view of San Francisco Bay

          Other weekends Jeff and Keith would mount up and head north. San Francisco was an hour and a half up Highway 101. Hitting town, they’d go straight to the Mark Hopkins, the hotel atop Nob Hill. Arriving, Jeff handed the cycle off to the doorman to park. The two guys ascended to the top floor – to the ‘Top of the Mark’, a piano bar looking out on the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. A year passed, Jeff graduated as a Vietnamese linguist. The good times at Monterey came to an end.

        Sojourn in the tropics

Hello from the Philippines

          Jeff shipped out to the Philippines, a rear area of the war in Vietnam. If the Defense Language Institute was akin to a college in khaki, his tour in the islands resembled an extended spring break.

Welcome to Clark

At Clark, he was assigned to an Army intelligence group housed at an Air Force base on the island of Luzon. Clark was an enormous place, the size of a small city with a giant airport, home to a tactical squadron. Fighters were constantly taking off and landing, patrolling the Cold War skies of the Asian flank of the Soviet empire.

Mt Arayat to the east

Looming over the thousands of airmen and GIs was Mt Arayat, an extinct volcano about 10 miles distant. About 25 miles to the west was Mt Pinatubo, an active volcano. Fortunately, it remained dormant throughout the Cold War. However, it came to life spectacularly in ’91 with the second largest eruption of the 20th century.

Army Security Agency barracks, Clark Air Base

The linguists, cryptographers, and support personnel of Jeff’s outfit were billeted in comfortable rooms with louvered windows to ease the heat of the tropics.

The pool at Clark

Off-duty troops as well as military dependents could take a cool dip.

Jeff on an afternoon break

Off duty, Jeff and buddies could relax on post. Evenings they’d gather at the Enlisted Men’s Club where drinks were cheap.

The dark side, secret work

          It wasn’t all fun and games at Clark. Jeff and comrades had Top Secret and Cryptographic security clearances. They worked shifts in a heavily guarded Operations building off in a far corner of the base. Apparently, no photos of the facility were permitted.

But the giant antenna field by which North Vietnamese military communications were intercepted, gave an idea of the classified work. The great circular structure was dubbed the ‘elephant cage’.

Jeff’s buddy Keith on a rare field day

 Fatigue uniforms were worn at the Ops facility. Otherwise ASA specialists had few military duties other than an occasional field day. For that exercise troops donned their steel helmets and were issued carbines (without ammo).

The general idea was to refresh military skills last practiced during the first eight weeks of Basic Training more than a year earlier for most. No one took field day seriously.

A leisurely dinner in Angeles City, Jeff at the back

Not far from Clark was Angeles City, a Filipino town of bars and brothels catering to soldiers. There were also a few cafes and restaurants where a guy could get a decent meal.

The road up to Baguio

Farther afield, Jeff spent a weekend or two at the hill station at Baguio, high above the hot, dusty plains. With its subtropical climate, the little resort town was well worth the hair-raising bus journey up a narrow, tortuous mountain road.

Manila Bay

Or he would catch the train to Manila, capital of the Philippines. A major city, there was much to do – clubs, upscale restaurants, and even a race track.

Gunners on the leave ship

Periodically ASA GIs got a week’s leave. They were could visit any Asian capital of their choice. Navy ‘leave ships’ plied the sea routes, or guys could hop an Air Force transport plane, space available.

Coming into Hong Kong harbor

          Jeff’s first leave trip was by ship to Hong Kong, then still a British colony.

Mt Fuji high above Tokyo

Later he took the leave ship to Tokyo. He found Japan fascinating.

Then one summer night the leisurely pace of island life abruptly halted. War beckoned. Jeff was ordered to Vietnam.

        Assassination in Saigon

Shoulder patch worn by US military advisors, early ‘60s

          Jeff and fellow linguists (lingys) were flown to Saigon late August ’63. They landed in a country at war against a Communist insurgency. The fighting was not going well for the nepotistic and militarily inept regime of President Diem. There was great dissatisfaction with his leadership, both in Saigon and in Washington.

Entrance, main ASA base in South Vietnam

The team of lingys was assigned to Davis Station, a secure enclave at the Saigon airport.

                Symbolic signpost at Davis Station 

          Vietnam and its smoldering little war – an off-shoot of the global Cold War – was a long way from anywhere.

The base at Phu Lam

          Jeff and the lingys worked at a US Army Signal Bttn post to the southwest. Located in a remote corner of the base, their mission was Top Secret.

Giant antennas at Phu Lam

          Senior South Vietnamese generals had become fed up with Diem’s conduct of the war. They planned a coup. The Kennedy Administration gave tacit support. Jeff and the team had been rushed to Saigon to secretly eavesdrop on the generals’ communications – to give the White House an ‘ear’ on what the plotters were saying off the record.

Jeff at work

          The lingys worked in shifts around the clock in air conditioned communication vans at Phu Lam.
A couple strolling down Tu Do [Freedom] Street in Saigon, ‘Paris of the Orient’, and a reminder of French colonial days, the pissoir

          Saigon street scenes.

Before American GIs flooded the city after the ’65 escalation, Saigon was an elegant city.

More street scenes.

Off-duty, Jeff and pals taxied in from Davis Station to spend their evenings pub crawling in the capital. The Blue Moon, the Peacock, and L’Imperiale were some of their favorite watering holes.

Jeff at play

          Although they were in a war zone and a city beset by terrorist attacks, Jeff and the guys nevertheless managed to have a good time in one of the exotic capitals of the Orient.  Knowledge of the language and something of the country’s culture, gave them cachet in the bars and cafes.

Diem, the Mandarin President

          A Vietnamese patriot, Diem was an incompetent ruler. A minority Catholic, his regime was harsh on the Buddhist clergy. Most of the generals were Buddhists.

Leader of the coup

          Big Minh led the junta that overthrew the president. In the process, Diem was assassinated. Jeff and the Phu Lam crew were pulled out and returned to their base in the Philippines.

        Up on the border in harm’s way

Sunset at Phu Bai

          The junta proved incapable of governing effectively, and within a few months was overthrown in another coup by General Khanh. Jeff and the lingys were rushed back to Saigon, but it was a bloodless affair, over in a day. Jeff’s next duty station was Phu Bai up below the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.

A lush, green attractive land, the small remote ASA post at Phu Bai was not one of South Vietnam’s scenic spots. Flat, surrounded by scrub brush, and with a single elevation – Hill 180 with its antennas – the place was wedged in between the mountains of Laos to the west and the South China Sea. However, it was an ideal listening post and jumping off point for making mischief in the Communist North.

Ops buildings, Detachment J 

          The ASA station was designated Detachment J. Other than the operations buildings where the Morse code ditty boppers and the lingys worked, it was a ramshackle place.

         Tent life in the boonies             The infirmary                    
          Moldy old WWII tents were still in use. Jeff lived in a six-man squad tent with a plank walk in front. Among the hazards of life in a primitive place in the tropics, there were also rats and insects to contend with. For those who had the bad luck to get sick, there was the medical tent with little equipment.

Jeff unfortunately had first-hand experience with the Army’s minimal medical facilities. A mysterious pain which went into remission, was never successfully diagnosed or treated. Agent Purple, the more toxic predecessor to Agent Orange, was used at the time for defoliation – could Jeff somehow have been exposed? We’ll never know.

              The barbershop              The Detachment J Store

          The other non-operational facilities weren’t much more impressive – a thatched roof barbershop and a tiny store for buying toiletries and such.

Jeff, a duty day at Phu Bai

          The primary mission of Jeff and comrades, was tracking North Vietnamese Army communications. A secondary task was maintaining radio liaison with South Vietnamese commandos slipped into the North. Inevitably, most were soon killed or captured.

Street scene, Hue

          Not far down the road was Hue, ancient capital of Vietnam. Light duty sometimes entailed driving a truck to the city to pick up supplies. Off-duty days Jeff and pals could tour the Citadel and have dinner at a French-style cafĂ©.

  Moorings, the Perfume River                     South China Sea 

          Other times the lingys could walk along the Perfume River running through Hue to reach a white sandy beach on the South China Sea.

   Jeff socializing            Talking with a local man                                                                       
          Knowing the language, Jeff got around easily. Off-duty, he could talk with government officials and civilians alike, even reportedly the local Viet Cong (VC) cadre.

Over the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass to Danang

          Another favorite venue was Danang on the sea to the south. Jeff and John Buquoi would borrow a jeep and drive over the Hai Van Pass down to Danang for a weekend.

Floating restaurant, Danang

          Less traditional than Hue, Danang had more to offer young off-duty GIs – bars, restaurants, hotels. A commercial hub, it was a livelier town.

Danang transit

          Jeff’s Vietnam tour came to an end. He headed home disillusioned and critical of the US mission in South Vietnam. He had seen and heard a lot, none of it encouraging.

[The concluding Part II will appear tomorrow, February 11th.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.