A lot of history went down between my enlisting in the Navy Air Reserve in March of 1968 and arriving in San Diego in September of 1969 to find out where on Earth I would be stationed. Personally, the knowledge gained from finishing high school and spending a year at a university. Globally, all over America and the world, an urgent need to resist arose among young adults. In the Navy and Marine Corps, that collective urge coalesced under the name G.I.’s Against Fascism just a month before I checked in. This movement came to my attention when I found a copy of their underground newsletter, Duck Power, in the transit barracks. Its logo was a crude cartoon of Donald Duck raising a clenched fist.
I liked that. Of an artistic bent, I drew a larger and, in my opinion, improved interpretation of it with Marks-A-Lot and taped it to my locker. Others saw it, and a bunch of fellow pseudo-rebels wanted it for themselves. I reproduced my illustration on paper, t-shirts, hats, notebook covers, luggage, and a guitar case. Using white laundry marker, I drew it on my new black leather gear bag.
Not a week later, orders came down from on high outlawing the group, their newsletter, and the duck power image. The symbol’s brief time in the sun was over. I could no longer carry the gear bag and had to get another. Obediently, I removed the drawing from my locker. Promptly, and not so obedient, I drew Duck Power Donald on its inside back wall with the indelible marker.
A few months later, after an intense education in all aspects of aviation maintenance administration at the Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan, I flew to my squadron’s detachment at Da Nang Airbase in South Vietnam to put that knowledge to use.
The ambitious plans of all sides in Southeast Asia were already, in today’s parlance, a dumpster fire. Vietnamese, North and South, military and civilian, were suffering ghastly losses. America was officially pulling out. A landslide of conflicting propaganda argued the present and future. We didn’t know that there would still be a U.S. presence in Vietnam for five more years, but no American fighting this war wanted to be last to die for what we suspected was a lost cause.
I still grieve for the millions of abused South Vietnamese who didn’t want the Americans or Communists in charge any more than they wished to have their own corrupt regime run the country. Sadly, I signed up believing the contemporary role of American fighting forces was equivalent to that of my fascist-fighting father in World War II.
Regardless, my folks raised me to be helpful. In addition to doing my part to make a squadron function, I assumed the volunteer role of a departing airman. Every two weeks on payday, I sought donations from members of my squadron, VRC-50, and an intelligence-gathering squadron that shared the same defensive ring along the edge of the airstrip, VQ-1. A guy from that unit and I then bought soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, wash rags, towels, detergent, first aid supplies, and so forth, and delivered them to an orphanage about an hour south of the airbase.
My associate in the orphanage endeavor also organized a small group of us in a campaign to write a letter to every member of Congress with the aim of convincing them that, in this case, American policy had gone off the rails. A Vietnam postmark should mean something, he reasoned. The letters we wrote were respectful and an attempt to sincerely convey what we personally saw and what we learned from the Marines in the field. We received a total of one reply, from Senator J. William Fulbright, thanking us for our perspective.
Most of our squadron mates were completely apolitical, which was cool. They contributed to the orphanage and they did their critical jobs of putting aircraft in the sky very well. Then they got drunk, sometimes instigating fights for fun. These guys didn’t object to our peacenik activities at all. However, a loudmouth, hailing from Anchorage, joined our squadron right after the Kent State shootings. The killing of unarmed protesters had not gone down well with young men led to believe they were risking their lives for American constitutional freedoms. Not reading the room, this young airman came in claiming his father was a sheriff who, unprovoked, shot a hippie in the stomach to let them all know they weren’t welcome in his town. Probably bullshit, which is normally an accepted, even exalted, form of communication in the Navy. Not so in this case. All he did was make himself repugnant right off the bat. I won’t bore you with what he had to say about our anti-war activism.
This fool was so happy to be in Vietnam; he really wanted to live the warrior life. Why he joined the Navy, I’ll never know. Nevertheless, he volunteered to stand guard duty, even though the real warriors, the Marines, did that stuff for us. I guess they decided to humor him. All of a sudden he’s strutting around the ramp with a service .45 strapped to his hip and toting a sawed-off shotgun. He puffed up his chest and told us he’s guarding the gate that night.
Humor turns crude and cruel in an all-male environment, and all the more so in a war zone. That’s just the way it is. With that understanding, I hope I am forgiven for recalling that the single most hilarious event my whole time in-country was when this gun-slinging idiot blew off part of his foot that very night, his first night on guard duty. The Marine corporal, who could not wipe the grin off his face, said this guy was “practicing his quick draw” after being told to leave the gun in the holster. That was the last we saw of the Alaska Kid.
On my 20th birthday, I flew out of Da Nang back to Japan. Once there, I moved into my friend Mike’s apartment in the Sagami-Otsuka neighborhood of Yamato. Thinking that something more incendiary than polite letters may be needed to get attention, I brought up reviving a form of Duck Power. This had already occurred to Mike and two other of our buddies, Bill and Burny. They had a line on a mimeograph machine recently used for an underground newspaper by some Air Force personnel at nearby Yokota Air Base. It became available because those airmen got busted for their journalistic efforts. They suffered courts-martial, yet merely got demoted in rank and reassigned to distant duty stations for their “seditious” behavior. Even though we never actually put our hands on the machine, within two months we, too, were all mysteriously reassigned.
I spent the remainder of my enlistment chasing Russian submarines aboard the specially-equipped aircraft carrier, USS Ticonderoga. Working twelve on, twelve off, seven days a week, the ongoing debacle in Vietnam faded into the background.