Veteran Occupiers 1971, Part 2
The uniforms we wore
Occupying the South Vietnamese Consulate
by Daniel Borgström
*** GI RESISTANCE & VETERANS ***
Veterans were not alone in opposing the war. Active duty GIs were increasingly involved. As I mentioned above, while we were getting ready for our Veterans Day action, we'd heard reports of a combat refusal somewhere along the Cambodian border, at a remote outpost known as Fire Base Pace. More information came in later. Briefly, here's what happened:
A company of the First Cavalry Division had been facing an entire regiment of NVA. At one point the U.S. commander decided to send out a six-man patrol on a mission which looked like suicide, and the GIs refused to go. The captain then threatened to court-martial the six men, so the rest of the soldiers in the company took up a petition in support of their buddies.
The soldiers held a meeting and discussed their options in the presence of journalist Richard Boyle, who subsequently wrote about it his book The Flower of the Dragon: the breakdown of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Boyle records one of the GIs as saying:
"There's no way you can court-martial the whole company and keep it out of the papers and out of national attention. You can do it with six guys, and no one'll ever hear of it […]. But if you court-martial the whole company it's bound to get out."
The other solders at the fire base took a similar view, and as it turned out, they were right. The Army did not attempt to court-martial them. Instead, the company was withdrawn from the location and replaced by another unit, which then also refused combat. That left the Army without further options and Fire Base Pace had to be abandoned.
That happened on October 10th, just two weeks before Veterans Day, so it was pretty significant to us. And at the same time, right across the bay from us in Alameda, there was a major effort by sailors of the aircraft carrier Coral Sea to keep their ship from sailing off to join the war. They circulated a petition which was reportedly signed by a quarter of the ship's 4,500 man crew. To counter the antiwar sailors, the ship's lifers organized a pro-war group of sailors, so the two groups were actually facing off inside the ship--truly a bizarre situation in the military. In its October 29th issue, the Good Times reported:
A battle of the buttons was waged [aboard the Coral Sea]. … lifer non-coms started confiscating SOS (Stop Our Ship) buttons that sailors were wearing. The SOS people went to the legal officer who said they had a right to wear the buttons under existing regulations. So the non-coms had to return the buttons. On the third day out "Fuck SOS" buttons started appearing. The next day an SOS button was found mutilated and taped to the wall with a note saying 'Get the point, SOS?' An angry group of 20 anti-SOS sailors barged in on a meeting of SOS supporters in what turned out to be a verbal confrontation.
Although the ship did eventually sail, the very fact that this sort of thing was going on gave some indication of the dissatisfaction that was manifesting itself inside the military.
The reports on the Coral Sea were from antiwar sources, but the situation had reached a point where the lifer brass themselves were no longer denying it. Earlier that same year, a professional military periodical, The Armed Forces Journal, published an article with a title that said it all: The Collapse of the Armed Forces. The author, Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. wrote:
The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.
Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.
The Armed Forces Journal was NOT stashed away in some Pentagon file cabinet and stamped "top secret." It was available in public libraries and even sold on newsstands. Nevertheless, the corporate media did not pick up the story. It's true that the media did report some of the incidents, such as the one at Fire Base Pace, but that was not the norm; while not totally blacked out or censored, it was under-reported. Most people who got their information from the big-city dailies were unaware of the military breakdown and its impact on the war and U.S. military strategy, or its significance for the civilian antiwar movement.
Ironically, there was a national debate of sorts, reported in the corporate media, but it was limited in its scope, saying little or nothing about the military breakdown, and for the most part it reflected the various views and factions of our "leaders" in government, finance and industry. All of them seemed to recognize that the war had dragged on for much too long. They wanted out, they wanted peace, but most were not yet ready to cut their losses and leave Vietnam.
"Support our boys in Vietnam," the warmongers pleaded. They used the troops not only for their shooting war in Indochina, but also in their propaganda war in the U.S. media. Pro-war advocates called the antiwar protests "a stab in the back" to our GIs who were fighting and dying in Vietnam. "Just ask a GI! Ask any veteran! They'll tell you why we're in Vietnam!" the warmongers claimed. According to that myth, GIs in Vietnam believed in the war they were fighting and wanted people to give Nixon the support he asked for.
Unchallenged, the myth of the gung-ho pro-war GI was effectively used to portray antiwar protesters either as traitors or as overly idealistic students and misguided intellectuals --dupes, fools, and innocents--who simply didn't know what life in the real world was all about.
H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, said of the student antiwar movement: ". . . a lot of the kids were being manipulated, there's no question about that. And it's easy to manipulate kids, because they love to get excited. You can foment them up for a panty raid, or, in the old days, gold-fish swallowing. You know, this is just another version."
Such were the White House talking points, picked up and regurgitated in various creative ways by pro-war pundits in the media who worked hard to promote a myth of Communist dupes and spoiled children. At the same time they promoted the dictum that soldiers had seen the world, knew what democracy was all about and knew the importance of fighting for and defending it.
Our response to that was to join the antiwar movement. Since the "lifers," as we called the pro-war brass and media pundits, had already put a great deal of effort into extolling our credibility in these matters, they had really set it up for us to cash in and turn their own slogans against them. They had invited people to "ask a veteran!" and so now we ex-GIs spoke up.
*** BACK IN UNIFORM ***
We hated the military. We might not have started out that way, but the way in which it became identified with an uncaring administration in an unpopular war soon brought us to this oxymoronic position. Therefore we hated everything the military was and everything the military stood for. But since our way of fighting the military was to say that, as insiders, we knew the military for what it was, we logically had to present ourselves as ex-GIs.
So we wore our old uniforms. I dug out old uniforms I'd decided to never wear again. Combat fatigue jackets were what we wore day and night. In the Marine Corps they're called "utilities," whereas the Army called them "fatigues," and somehow that's what we wound up calling them. We wore our combat fatigues to actions, as well as into court rooms where suit and tie was the traditionally accepted norm. We wore them to school, to the movies, to the corner grocery. Anywhere and everywhere, we wore our old uniforms, our combat fatigue jackets. Usually with blue jeans and hiking boots.
Of course that was not at all the way the military wanted these uniforms to be worn, and to have us, and also huge numbers of other antiwar people, a whole generation of long-haired hippies and other protesters wearing military uniforms in a decidedly non-regulation way, outraged the "lifers" to no end. To them this was disrespect of the highest order, sacrilege. In fact, until only shortly before that time, it had been illegal to wear a U.S. military uniform except while on active duty and in circumstances approved of by the military. A court ruling in 1969 brought that to an end, and now there was nothing the lifers could do about it, except to weep and gnash their teeth.
"Lifer" was an extremely pejorative term in the GI vernacular. It applied to persons who made a career of the military, and, since those who stayed in were generally the ones who acquired rank, the word "lifer" became synonymous with officer or NCO. Being veterans, we used GI slang, so the word "lifer" came to refer to anyone we didn't like, or the enemy in general. There were the "lifer police", the "lifer media", the "lifer courts", and of course the "lifer politicians" who kept the war going.
"Lifers are like flies." I think it was Jim Ketola who used to say that. "They eat shit, and bother people," he would add, counting on the rest of us to notice the missing comma after "eat."
Being ex-GIs, our military rank and branch of service was retained as part of our identity, sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek way, but at other times with a touch of seriousness. Van often referred to himself as "Sergeant Van Dale Todd of the 101st Airborne." And when I wrote about him and his death, that's how I referred to him, signing my own name to the article as: "Ex-Lance Corporal Daniel Borgström, USMC"
That was part of being in the Veterans movement. We took uniforms and all that military stuff very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that some years later when my cat died, I wrapped him in my favorite fatigue jacket, the one I'd worn at the South Vietnamese Consulate, to our VVAW-13 trial, and at the Air Force recruiting office, as well as to our VVAW meetings. The jacket was by then worn and frayed, had holes at the elbows, and was falling apart; but it had come to mean a lot to me, and I had intended to keep it forever as a treasured memento of our struggle. But the kitty deserved it, I decided, and I buried him in it. Had he been a human, I felt, he would have been a soldier and after that an antiwar veteran.
*** OCCUPYING THE SAIGON CONSULATE -- December 29, 1971 ***
Fall became winter. Christmas came and Nixon bombed North Vietnam. It'd been the heaviest bombing since 1968, and it went on for nearly a week. In response, antiwar veterans in New York occupied the Statue of Liberty. It was on the front page of the NY Times and other newspapers around the country. Other chapters of VVAW occupied the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and blockaded the entrance to the Lincoln Memorial in DC. In San Francisco we called a meeting to discuss a possible action for our chapter. I walked in a bit late, just as Lee Thorn, ex-seaman from the USS Ranger, said, "How about this idea?" He paused, took a breath and glanced around the room. "Let's occupy the South Vietnamese Consulate."
Eyes lit up. "YEAH!!!" Everyone liked the idea.
I liked it too, but I think my heart skipped a beat. Wouldn't that create an international incident? I wondered. Well, maybe that's what it would take.
"Who wants to go?" someone asked. I think it was Tom Keeney.
Twelve or fifteen of us raised our hands.
We decided to go there in the morning, arrive just as the place was opening for business, and walk in and occupy it.
Two of our people were detailed to do reconnaissance of the building, while the rest of us set about composing the statement we'd use both as news release and leaflet. We struggled for a long time, getting nowhere; finally we went to somebody's place for supper.
We sat there, eating and watching TV. Politicians and pundits were talking about the bombing, some saying the killing would shorten the war, and others saying it wouldn't. A presidential election was coming up the next year, and Senator Edmund Muskie seemed to be the strongest candidate. He and Senator George McGovern were both presenting themselves as peace candidates. But what would they do if elected, really? President Nixon had presented himself as the peace candidate back in '68, and now, three years into his term, he was still waging the war "to win the peace." His spokesmen were explaining how the bombing would speed up the peace process, and presumably save lives.
Hubert Humphrey's face was also on the tube. He'd been the previous Democratic Party candidate, the one who'd thanked the police for violently attacking peace protesters, an incident remembered as the Chicago Police Riot. Politicians like Humphrey could get air time whenever they wanted, but it seemed that the only way we'd get heard was by creating an international incident and risking a pile of federal raps.
It was thrilling to be planning an action like this, but I have to admit I was scared. Were the powers-that-be going to let us, their former military personnel, get away with something like this? My feelings were shared by some of the others, but not by all. Some apparently thought that since we were veterans they wouldn't do anything to us, that we were immune to prosecution.
After supper, we went back to our meeting place and sat up till 11 or 12 o'clock, still struggling with our statement, to be issued as a press release the next morning when we began the occupation. We knew well enough what we wanted to communicate. We were ex-GIs and many of us had been in Nam, so the killed and the maimed weren't just statistics to us; they were buddies we'd known and seen die. The U.S.-supported Saigon regime was totally corrupt and not worth fighting for. We wanted to express solidarity with the veterans who'd been taking action in cities around the country.
Statements can be hard to write, but we finally got one together. It began: "Vietnam Veterans Against the War at 9:30 a.m. this morning occupied the offices of the South Vietnamese Consulate at 870 Market St., San Francisco, California. We have been forced to take this action because of the continuous 11-year genocide against the people of Southeast Asia. . . . "
We arrived at the consulate the next morning, Wednesday, December 29th, just as it was opening. Wearing our usual combat fatigues, we walked in and told the officials and their staff to leave. They left peacefully, and we locked the doors, pushing desks and file cabinets up against them, barricading ourselves in.
A portrait of President Thieu was hanging on the wall, and we turned it upside down. We also took the Saigon regime's flag down and laid it to rest in a wastebasket. We were careful not to damage anything.
That done, there was nothing to do but wait, and we didn't know for how long. The SFPD might come busting the doors down in ten minutes, or it might take two days and a direct order from the White House to send the FBI.
So we waited. The consulate was on the 3rd floor of the Flood Building, an historic twelve-story high-rise overlooking the Powell Street cable car turntable. It was built in 1904 and had survived the earthquake of 1906 as well as the great fire which followed. Photos from that time show it standing alone, everything around having been reduced to rubble. Since that time the building had had a number of famous tenants. In the 1920's Dashiell Hammett had worked out of an office on this floor, possibly the one we were occupying.
A phone rang. I picked it up and answered, "Vietnam Veterans Against the War." Whoever it was hung up.
Glancing around the room, I saw several of our guys using the office phones, calling various media outlets and getting our story out. Nearest me was Roy Silverfarb, wearing a khaki Air Force shirt, with stripes on his sleeve indicating his rank--airman 2nd class. I think he'd been stationed in Germany. At this time he was a student at UC Berkeley, as was Tom Keeney, another Air Force veteran. Tom was on another phone, saying, "We've liberated the consulate."
Lee Thorn was sitting on a desk across the room, phone in hand. He was wearing his Navy blue pullover jacket. I could hear him reading our statement, "We're occupying this consulate to demonstrate to people of this country that the so-called government of South Vietnam is nothing more than an extension of the Nixon Administration." He paused, glanced at the upside down portrait of President Thieu, and grinned.
Standing next to him, Sheldon Warren nodded, but didn't grin. Lee continued, "We're acting in solidarity with our brothers at the Statue of Liberty, Travis Air Force Base, the Betsy Ross House and every brother and sister in Southeast Asia who tries to stop the war by struggling for peace."
Some guys watched or listened in silence. Others sat in small groups talking quietly among themselves. Scott Appel was saying something to Ron Nardinelli. Ron, as I recall, had just gotten out of the Army a week or so earlier.
We'd done it! We'd occupied the consulate as planned, and were letting the world know about it.
"The course of action taken by the U.S. has been an illegal, murderous barrage of death and destruction ..." That was Lee Thorn again, speaking to yet another newsroom.
After an hour or so the phones suddenly all went out of service. The surprising thing was that the police or building manager hadn't already turned them off. Our action had apparently caught them off guard.
But by this time our message had gotten out. TV crews arrived and one even climbed in the window and shot footage of us to be aired later that day. We were even being interviewed by Chronicle and Examiner reporters through the transom.
People around me were settling in. A couple of guys were playing chess with a portable set. Several were reading newspapers (the consulate staff had kindly left a pile of them on one of the desks for our reading pleasure), and another was reading a beat-up paperback edition of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
Scott Appel and I were plowing through the stack of newspapers. Most were in English, some were in Vietnamese and others in French. Le Monde was there; so were the SF dailies. I found a day-old edition of the New York Times. On the front page was a photo of the Statue of Liberty (with an irreverent upside-down American flag) then being occupied by the NY chapter of VVAW.
The accompanying article, after describing the occupation, went on to say that similar antiwar protests had been carried out across the country by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Twenty-five veterans at the Betsy Ross House demonstration were arrested, and a hospital ward at Travis Air Force Base had been barricaded by active-duty GIs.
It must've been about half an hour later when I saw ex-Navy Corpsman Jack McCloskey standing on a chair by the door, peering over the transom, talking with someone out in the hallway. It was the building manager, accompanied by police. "I'm asking you to vacate the offices and picket peacefully outside the building," the manager told us.
Jack replied, "Is there any reason that Nixon can't vacate Vietnam and picket peacefully?"
They left us alone for a while, but eventually the police returned. "Listen, fella, can I talk with you?" a police lieutenant said to Jack, who was still standing on a chair at the transom. "I think you've got all the publicity you're going to get and you'll be subject to arrest if you don't leave."
Jack turned and relayed the message to us. Everyone looked up from whatever they were doing and listened attentively. Newspapers and books were set aside, the chess game halted, and a discussion was held.
By then we'd held the place for about two hours and some of our people felt we'd made our point and should go, especially now that the police seemed to be offering us amnesty. As I recall, Jack was for leaving. Others were for staying.
"Do the police think this is just a publicity stunt?" said Scott Appel. He felt that we should not leave so readily.
Why were the police so willing to let us go? Perhaps someone in Washington was desperate to smooth this situation over and avoid a crisis. What were the international implications of seizing a foreign consulate? Even one representing a puppet dictatorship. We weren't sure; there were a lot of unknown factors, but having come this far, it seemed to some that we should stay and take our action to its logical conclusion.
The veterans occupying the Statue of Liberty had been threatened with arrest, but had hung in there for two days, and left without being arrested. But their situation had been different. We argued the pros and cons of staying and getting arrested.
The discussion went back and forth. Finally Fred Barker, who'd driven our truck-float for the Veterans Day parade, spoke up, "Some of us have jobs to worry about. I for one have a job and I phoned in sick this morning and took the day off to come here. If I get busted I might get fired--but I'm staying."
We took a show of hands. Our decision was to stay.
Jack got back up on the chair; returning to the transom, he relayed our message to the police. "We will not leave and will consider ourselves prisoners of war if arrested."
We stayed, and, unsurprisingly, got arrested for trespassing. The police escorted us out of the building one at a time, POW style with our hands on our heads. Up the hall, down an elevator, and out the door to paddy wagons. A large crowd of people, both young and old, had assembled outside, and as we came out the door they clapped, cheered and chanted, "Nixon set the date! Evacuate!"
As the police escorted us through the crowd, people on both sides were saying, "Right on! Brother, right on!" Near the wagon, an elderly lady about my mother's age and who looked a bit like her, stepped up to me and said, "God bless you!"
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3 -- which is not yet ready for posting. This is a work in progress
The Death of Sgt. Van Dale Todd
Labels: Veteran Occupiers