Veteran Occupiers 1971
by Daniel Borgström
When I left the U.S. Marine Corps in 1963, I had no idea that less than a decade later I'd be marching in antiwar demonstrations together with a lot of other ex-GIs. The world around us and attitudes in it were going through major social changes. To the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, and a resurgence of the old left, was added a veterans' movement; the war in Vietnam brought these sociopolitical elements all together.
It was a war that went on and on, with no end in sight. By the autumn of 1971, American GIs had been fighting in Vietnam for nearly a decade. Soldiers were tired of fighting it, and finding ways not to. There were even occasions when they openly refused to fight. And at home, Americans were questioning its validity. Despite all these objections, our leaders in Washington refused to end it.
Veterans were also questioning the validity of the war, and groups of us across the country were openly protesting it. In the Bay Area we were getting our own group together. This article is about that group, my memories of it, our actions and experiences.
Most of our actions took place in San Francisco. Our first was to take part in the Veterans Day parade of October 1971. That parade was sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who were vigorously supporting the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, they said they were dedicating it to the veterans of Vietnam, so we figured that would be the appropriate venue for our antiwar statement. We applied and got permission to participate.
The parade was held on Sunday, October 24th, a beautiful autumn day. It was the kind of weather we only saw late in the year, summers being notoriously cold in San Francisco.
I arrived early at the staging area and looked for our float. Actually, I was looking for Fred MacCormak and Howard Wright, and as I got there they drove up in a truck and took their place in line. It was the biggest vehicle they'd been able to rent for the day--about the size of an Army M35 troop carrier. Fred, who was driving, had been in an Army medical unit in Vietnam, and had been out of the military for 2 or 3 years by then.
Fred and Howard were both wearing combat fatigue jackets. We'd all be wearing our old uniforms for this event. I was in Marine Corps greens.
"You look good in those greens," Fred quipped. "Ever think of re-enlisting? Then you could wear them all the time."
I smiled. While we were talking others began arriving with banners which we tied to the sides of our truck. That was our float: an open back truck decked out with banners reading "Vets for Peace" and "Vets for Jobs."
We chatted while waiting for the procession to start. I was introduced to some of the others, people I was meeting for the first time that day. There was a sailor in Navy blues--Lee Thorn, formerly a seaman on the USS Ranger. The rest were mostly in combat fatigues, many with shoulder-length hair. One was prematurely gray, with the haunted look of a guy who, as I found out later, had seen over a hundred of his buddies killed around him. He was Jack McCloskey, formerly a Navy medical corpsman assigned to the USMC.
Bob Hanson, Jim O'Donnell and Mike Oliver were Army veterans. They were to play prominent roles in our chapter during the next year. Scott Appel, also Army, had just returned from Vietnam that year. I'd met Scott a couple months earlier and was often impressed by his insightful political analysis.
Another guy I knew from before was Ron Nardinelli. Ron was still on active duty, stationed at the San Francisco Presidio. He'd joined the Army to help defend the "Free World" from Communism. Then he'd gotten news from home that his fiancée was arrested while exercising her freedom in protesting the war. She was with us that day, bringing a bundle of leaflets to pass out. Ron himself was risking serious trouble with the military for just being part of our contingent. He was the only person among us not wearing his military uniform, since that alone would've been grounds for a court marshal.
About 250 units were taking part in this parade. Up and down the line, participants were making last minute adjustments to their floats, adding final touches. Immediately ahead of us was the "Milpitas Marching Band," standing around talking, waiting for the action to start. Some of them glanced curiously at us from to time, and a few stepped over to one side or the other to read our banners.
To them and to others it might've seemed strange to see a contingent of antiwar veterans. In all the parades that anyone in this country had ever seen, veterans always marched with flags, subtly or not so subtly promoting a message of blind patriotism, "my country right or wrong." And here we were, a new phenomenon on the scene--veterans calling for peace, an end to the war, an end to the killing.
Time was wearing on. It was already well past the scheduled time to be starting. People were glancing at their watches. Others were checking, rechecking and adjusting the ropes that held our banners in place.
Having gotten there early, we now sat there waiting. "Hurry up and wait." But having spent years of our lives in the military, we were all accustomed to that, or should've been. Anyway, the parade marshals were a bunch of lifer brass, so what could anyone expect?
A guy whose name I've forgotten was reading the Sunday paper. "Hey, look at this," he said and showed us an article titled, "Anti-War Vets Seized at Vets' Parade." Our first reaction was surprise, since we hadn't marched yet. We crowded around, craning our necks to see, and then saw that it was an AP report from Denver.
Scott took the paper and read the article aloud, "Seventy eight persons, most of them identified as members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were arrested when they attempted to march in the city's Veterans Day Parade."
The news gave us a shudder, though it didn't seem likely to happen to us here in San Francisco. The parade marshals knew we were an antiwar group and they probably weren't exactly pleased with our views, but they were allowing us to participate.
We reviewed our plan of action to make sure everybody had it down. In accordance with standard parade protocol, our float permit allowed us 45 seconds to do a performance in front of the reviewing stand. I assumed that the other side of the street would be where newspaper reporters, TV crews, photographers and crowds of spectators would gather.
"Maybe they'll even applaud us," said someone optimistically.
I wished there were more of us to be applauded. Another two or three veterans had arrived, bringing our numbers to about ten or so. Where was everybody?
"There'll be more," someone said confidently. "They're probably waiting for us up ahead."
Really? I wondered if he was saying that just to reassure himself, but I kept my doubts to myself. I'd been to demonstrations where nobody came, and others which had exceeded expectations.
Scott handed the newspaper back. "Anything about the guys at Fire Base Pace?" Howard asked.
"I didn't see anything."
"Fire Base Pace?" I asked. "What's that about?"
"A squad refused to go out on patrol, and the rest of their company took up a petition in support of them." Howard told me.
"Has that been confirmed?" I asked. Signing a petition is considered mutiny in the military. It's a court-martial offense.
"The Army's denying it happened," Scott said with a grin.
"That means it did happen," I heard someone remark.
"Hey! The Parade's starting up!" someone yelled. "Let's get aboard!" It was Mike Oliver, a coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). He was from New York or somewhere back east, and had apparently come to SF to talk to us about forming a chapter of VVAW.
We mounted the truck, and from there we could see units up ahead beginning to move. Fred climbed into the cab, started the engine, and we were rolling. We were at last making our debut onto the streets of San Francisco as a contingent of antiwar veterans.
Spectators lined the streets, gathered in groups there and there. They'd look at us, first as though wondering what to make of us, wondering what they were looking at. Then, reading our banners, they applauded.
"Are you veterans?" I heard someone near me call out. "If you're veterans get on the truck with us!"
Our truck momentarily halted while two or three guys climbed aboard.
The rest of us took up the chant, and whenever we saw anybody that looked like they'd been in the military, we called out: "Are you a vet? If you're a vet get on the truck with us!"
Many did, and, towards the end of the parade route, our truck was packed with veterans, some together with their wives and girlfriends. Near me was a father with his little boy, maybe about six years old. Before long, the back of our truck was really crowded.
While this was partly spontaneous, many of those veterans had probably been expecting us. It had been announced in the underground newspapers and also aired on KPFA that a veteran's antiwar contingent was going to be in this parade and that veterans were invited to join.
What made us unique is that we were antiwar veterans in an event intended to glorify the military. Peaceniks at a warmongers' festival, getting applause from onlookers. It's not surprising that the pro-war VFW parade marshals were displeased.
But they didn't suffer us in silence; they came and hassled us. My impression was that they wanted us to stop leafleting, and also stop inviting veterans to join us on the truck. Mainly, they wanted the parade to support the war effort, and they certainly must've hated the fact that the audience was cheering us.
A couple of motorcycle cops started following us, and the more veterans that climbed on the truck, the more cops trailed us. Pretty soon there were 4 behind us, 6 up ahead, and 5 on each side. A 20-cop escort. "That's about as much as the president gets!" I heard someone remark.
"Look at our escort!" we shouted to spectators along the way.
The reviewing stand was at the end of the parade route, in front of the San Francisco City Hall. The stand was of course full of lifer brass, the parade marshals who were members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, as well as some active duty officers from nearby bases, including the San Francisco Presidio.
The largest crowd of spectators was gathered on the opposite side of Polk street, across from the reviewing stand. On this day, however, there were also a couple hundred antiwar people who were protesting the lifers' glorification of themselves and their wars. Presumably, those protesters knew of us, that we'd be in the parade, and would be looking forward to seeing our float. However, we didn't know about them, so our actions were not coordinated with theirs. In fact, it was only this month, thirty nine years later, while doing research for this article, that I came across the other half of the story of what happened that day.
It was written by a reporter for The Tribe, a popular underground newspaper. Thanks to that reporter we have a spectator's view of the parade. It was a lengthy procession, taking two or maybe even three hours before our contingent, which was near the end, eventually arrived at the reviewing stand. The following paragraphs are excerpts from that article:
There were about 200 of us …. We stood across from the reviewing stand and unfurled NFL and North Vietnamese flags. . .
The parade was pretty much your basic American flag-waver. There were pigs of all sorts. There were Army generals and Navy lieutenants and Air Force captains and Marine sergeants and police on motorcycles and police on foot and police in cars and police in windows and police in jumpsuits and police in street-clothes. . . Lots of pigs.
Then there were the American Legions and V.F.W.--burned out defeated old men living the past, living to march on this very day. There were the high school bands and ROTC units, forced to march or flunk. And of course there were lots of politicians up for election.
It would have been a typical American celebration of nothingness and glorification of death, but we were there. Our voices drowned out the old American legioner MC. He blustered and flustered and turned this way and that trying to find SOME way to be heard above them damn hippie demonstrator rowdies.
Our chants dominated the day. When military units came by, it was "Frag the brass" or "Turn the Guns Around."
To high school women looking like plastic wind-up toys: "Free our Sisters, Free Ourselves!" A few laughed, most frowned and looked the other way. Alas, only one upraised fist returned the whole day.
"Rich men make war--Young men die."
We even provided musical accompaniment. A brother blew some heavy sounds on a slide trombone at just the right moments, fucking up the marching bands.
The march dragged on and on. Finally, we sighted the Vets Against the War Contingent up the street. A roar from us--we moved in the direction of the truck, carrying about 60 Vets for Peace, Coalition of Vets for Jobs, Vets Against the War.
The pigs moved up the street too--motorcycle pigs, Tac Squad pigs, the paddy wagon--the works. It all came together at the corner of McAllister & Polk, about a block from the reviewing stand. The pigs stopped the truck, saying the load was "dangerous" and it couldn't proceed. Demonstrators responded with "Let the Vets March. Let the Vets March!"
Being in the midst of this action, things were happening so fast that I just caught sound bites and snapshots of visual images which remain imprinted on my memory to this day. I remember our truck had stopped and we were all piling out, unfurling banners which read "Stop the Killing" and "Free Billy Smith." (Billy Dean Smith was a GI charged with the fragging deaths of two officers.)
Our intention, as we'd discussed earlier, was to march past the reviewing stand. I couldn't see what was going on up ahead because of the banners in front of me. Suddenly a sailor collapsed in front of me--it was Lee Thorn. The police were attacking! It seemed to happen all at once. A cop appeared in front of one of the veteran's wives. She, like the rest of us, seemed unaware of what was transpiring. Without a word, he clubbed her to the pavement.
Among the photos taken that day is one of a policeman with club raised, bounding towards Lee Thorn who at that moment was apparently distracted and unaware of the impending attack. Years later, in a recording session with an oral historian, Lee recalled:
We just got off the truck in front of the reviewing stand. […] first we had to get into ranks so we had some kind of order so that [if] we had to deal with some cops, we would be in a position to do it. They had all kinds of cops there. I had the bullhorn. I was in front, and I couldn't get the line straight. I said, 'Let's go.' When I started moving up . . . this guy over here [pointing to the right], who it turns out was a cop, . . . came down on my head with his club. He was trying to kill my ass. So I go down. Mike Oliver, who's got shrapnel all up and down his back, jumps over on top of me and protects me. They started hitting Mike on the back. Most of the people split. Jack [McCloskey] and Jim O'Donnell stayed, and they distract the cops away from Mike. Mike carries me off to the side, and then [Bob] Hanson takes them all on. What a horrible film [this episode was filmed by a news team] of Hanson on his back, kicking like this. . . . There's six cops on him. We got beat up.
Jack McCloskey, in the same interview, said:
Myself, Mike Oliver, Lee Thorn, Jim O'Donnell got the shit beat out of us. About four or five of us had to go to the hospital. Each individual did what they had to do. I started to struggle. I'm not going to stand there and let some cop beat my fucking head. We never took it. I know there were some cops who wanted to kick our ass, but there were other cops who were very reluctant.
"Meantime I'm bleeding like a pig," Lee recalled. "I got a concussion, and I'm thinking to myself: Boy this is going to be great TV."
Those interviews with Jack and Lee were conducted in 1991, two decades after the event, but it's clear that they were both remembering that day as though it were the previous week. Now two more decades have passed, but to me as well, it still seems like only yesterday.
Another eyewitness was a reporter for the Good Times, a San Francisco underground paper. She wrote: "Banners flashed quickly and were gone under a sudden and unexpected hail of clubs and helmets. Veterans fighting back were maced and beaten. Spectators, including women, were struck. And uniformed pigs seemed to be falling out of the sky."
Continuing with the report from The Tribe:
. . . crack! shove! mace and fists and sticks in the face--a few demonstrators emerged bloody with cracked heads--more than a few staggered to the fountain to rinse off their maced faces. Vision of stark scary reality--on the roof of the truck were a Vet and a boy about 6 or 7 years old. He was initiated to the pigs way at an early age--he seemed bewildered and terrified and almost lost his balance in the scuffle.
It was all over in a couple of minutes. Once the Vets' truck passed the reviewing stand, the Veterans' Collective wisely advised us all to disperse. No one wanted a slaughter.
The day was both depressing and invigorating. We made ourselves heard; in fact, at times we were the only ones who COULD be heard. We ruined Veterans Day for all the straight old flag-wavers who love a parade. We let them know that we aren't going to forget.
For many of us, it was our first experience relating to GI's and Vets as "one of us," not "one of them."
A front page article in the next day's San Francisco Chronicle, (Oct 25, 1971) downplayed the violence of the police attack, quoting the police captain as saying he'd ordered his officers to push us back "as docilely as possible." The newspaper did not report that five people were hospitalized.
San Francisco's other daily, The Examiner, quoted Jack McCloskey who told their reporter, "We should be honored today. Instead we're met with clubs." The paper did not, however, report that Jack was among the persons hospitalized.
An underground weekly, the Berkeley Barb, did publish an unvarnished report of the brutal police attack. It quoted Lee Thorn, who said, "At the completion of the march, many of us had hoped to donate blood, designating it for wounded Vietnam servicemen and Vietnamese children. Instead, we left our blood on the streets of San Francisco."
There was an even stranger omission in the Examiner and Chronicle. They didn't name or identify any of the brass or parade marshals in the review stand. Considering those newspapers' almost obsessive penchant for reporting names and trivial details, it strikes me as an unusual omission since the parade marshals were the ones presiding over the event. Supposedly, it was their day, the annual event which honored them. So why weren't they mentioned? I can only speculate that they didn't want to be identified as having presided over an event where their guests of honor were attacked and beaten up.
While the SF dailies did not comment on the full extent of police violence, they did give us a lot of coverage, hardly noticing the rest of the parade, which consisted of about 250 floats, bands and other units. The articles were almost totally about us. The VFW parade marshals had obviously intended the event as a flag waving celebration of themselves and their wars, but we effectively stole their show.
There was a report about another group in the procession, this one of "fifty veterans wounded in Vietnam," but didn't bother mentioning that they were apparently from a military hospital, on active duty and ordered to be there. As far as I can tell from newspaper reports of that time, as well as from my own memory, we were the only Vietnam era veterans voluntarily in the parade, and of course we were beaten up and kicked out.
*** THE MEMORIAL AT THE PRESIDIO ***
The next day, about thirty-five of our group set out for the military cemetery in the Presidio to hold a memorial service and lay a wreath. It was at the scenic northern end of San Francisco, near the Golden Gate Bridge, and as its Spanish name indicates, it was a military base, one of the oldest in California, dating from the era of Spanish rule back in the 1770's.
The cemetery was on the base; we therefore needed permission to enter. We'd applied some weeks earlier, had been refused, and had taken it to court. However, the judge had refused to overrule the commanding officer. We decided to go anyway.
Our group marched up to the Arguello street gate, a nicely designed piece of military architecture, constructed of stone in 1896. There we were met by a platoon of 25 MPs in riot gear. There were even more MPs behind them. They did not let us in.
One of our intended speakers for the ceremony was a war widow, Judy Keyes. Her husband, Lt. Don Droz, was a patrol boat skipper who had died in a firefight on the Mekong Delta. So Judy stepped forward and spoke to the provost marshal, Lt. Col. Harrageones. "My husband was killed in Vietnam," she said. "I would like to memorialize him and those who died with him on both sides with this wreath. Are you telling me I can't do this?"
"That's correct ma'am," replied the colonel. "Your request for memorial services has been denied."
Colonel Harageones was lifer; he'd probably spent years dreaming of the day when he'd be top cop on some base. Privates and PFCs, on the other hand, do not become MPs by their own decision; they are appointed to those positions. One of our own group, Bob Hanson, who had been beaten up and hospitalized the previous day, was a former Army MP, so it was conceivable to us that some of those 25 MPs confronting us may have been at least partly somewhat open to our message.
Perhaps with that in mind, one of our group said to them, "When you guys are back in the barracks smoking joints, you can talk this over and think about it."
"Ain't it the shits, man," said another veteran to the MPs, "It's Veteran's Day, and we can't even go in there to where our brothers are buried. Just to lay a wreath."
In addition to the MPs, the SF city police were there, although mostly in the role of observers. They could've added their own bit of harassment, but they did not. In contrast to the Tac Squad police of the previous day, these were neighborhood cops from Richmond station under the command of Capt. Daniel Quinlan. The SF Good Times, an underground newspaper which rarely ever had anything good to say about the police, spoke highly of Captain Quinlan that day. "As tempers flared, Quinlan himself moved in between the veterans and the line of MPs. He was obviously upset about what had happened." But of course it was not he, but the U.S. Army, represented by Colonel Harageones and his MPs, who ran things at the Presidio.
We held our brief ceremony right there outside the gate. Judy Keyes laid the wreath on the concrete, in the middle of Arguello street. In a breaking voice, she said, "I got letters from the President of the United States [and others,] down to my husbands' commanding officer when he was killed, all saying how marvelous it was that he had died so people could be free." She paused, then concluded. "If this is freedom, I don't want any part of it."
The Presidio incident was reported in the newspapers--even UPI sent it out--and the military later complained that antiwar people had caused them to get bad press. Actually, if they'd just let us inside to hold the service, there wouldn't have been any negative reports. The incident illustrated the absurdity of imposing a military solution on a peaceful ceremony which could hardly even be considered a protest. How could the military ever expect to win hearts and minds in Vietnam when they couldn't even do it at home?
We learned afterwards that in over a dozen major cities across the country antiwar veterans were likewise attacked, arrested, and, in some cases even excluded from participating in Veterans Day parades and events. We'd already read about the seventy-eight Veterans who were arrested in Denver.
There are times when police repression and military solutions seem to actually energize a movement rather than squelch it. Prior to the parade, our group had been a temporary coalition of two veterans groups, plus numerous unaffiliated veterans. One of these groups was Marxist, the other was more into counter culture and the tactics of Saul Alinsky's book "Rules for Radicals." The parade experience bonded us together into a single entity, and we became the San Francisco chapter of the nationwide organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). During the next year, we launched a series of actions, mostly but not all in San Francisco.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO--click here
Daniel41 ( ) trip.net
PHOTO ESSAY--there are also photos of these actions, to be posted as soon as I can get them ready
NOTE: some of the names have been changed.