A lot of history went down between the day I enlisted in the Navy Air Reserve in March of 1968 and when I arrived in San Diego in September of 1969 to find out where on Earth I would be stationed. Personally, the worldview gained from finishing high school and spending a year in college. Globally, an urgent need to resist retrogressive elements in society 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. It 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. Some of their positions were more radical than mine, but the substance of their argument fit my nascent political awareness.
I drew an interpretation of their logo with a Marks-A-Lot. With casual defiance, I taped it to the front of my locker door. Other budding dissidents saw it and wanted a version for themselves. I reproduced my illustration on paper, t-shirts, hats, notebook covers, luggage, and a guitar case. Using a white laundry marker, I drew it on my new black leather gear bag.
A week later, orders came down from on high outlawing the group, their newsletter, and the Duck Power image. The symbol’s brief time on the barricades was over. I could no longer carry the gear bag and had to get another. Obediently, I removed the drawing from my locker. Promptly, but not nearly as obedient, I drew Duck Power Donald on its inside back wall with the indelible marker.
A few months later, following 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 to put my training to use.
By the time I landed in South Vietnam, the ambitious plans of all sides in Southeast Asia were FUBAR. The Vietnamese people, North and South, military and civilian, were suffering ghastly losses. Conflicting propaganda filled newspaper columns and airwaves, accurately reflecting the chaotic decision-making by one administration after another. To all appearances, the top brass of the military attempted to fill the leadership gap with tactical thinking unburdened by on-the-ground reality.
American servicemen began to realize their reward for courage and loyalty would be needless suffering for the sins of a cursed foreign policy. Increasingly, no one wanted to be the last to die for a lost cause.
Seeing this up close shattered my belief that the contemporary role of the U.S. military was equivalent to that of my fascist-fighting father in World War II. To this day I grieve. We failed the majority of South Vietnamese who feared the Communists as much as they hated their corrupt homegrown regime and the clumsy sway of American influence.
Despite such misgivings, my comrades-in-arms and I did our jobs very well. I was proud of that, but I needed to alleviate some of the hardship on the locals. Every payday I sought donations from members of my squadron, VRC-50, and those in VQ-1, an intelligence-gathering squadron that shared a defensible area on the western edge of the airstrip. An avionics technician from that unit and I used those funds to buy soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, detergent, first aid supplies, and so forth. Then we bummed a squadron truck and delivered the goods to an orphanage less than an hour south of the airbase.
My associate in the orphanage endeavor organized a small group from both squadrons in a campaign to write a letter to every member of Congress with the aim of convincing them that American strategy in Southeast Asia had gone off the rails. He persuaded us that a Vietnam postmark would mean something in Washington. The letters we wrote were respectful, attempting to sincerely convey what we saw personally and what we learned from the Marines in the field. Senator J. William Fulbright and only Senator J. William Fulbright replied. He thanked us for our perspective.
Right after the Kent State shootings, a loudmouth hailing from Anchorage joined our detachment. The killing of unarmed protesters had not gone down well with most young members of the armed services. We’d been led to believe we were risking our lives for the continuance of American constitutional freedoms. The incident was just one more way many of us felt betrayed.
This new airman was full of macho bluster. Among other boasts, he claimed his father was a sheriff who, unprovoked, shot a hippie in the stomach. Just as a warning, he said, to let all of them know they weren’t welcome in his town. His story was probably bullshit, a usually accepted, even exalted, form of communication in the Navy. Not so in this case; he just made himself repugnant right off the bat. Naturally, he considered those of us in the letter writing campaign to be “commie pinkos” and worse.
Thrilled to be in Vietnam, yet having enlisted in the relatively laid-back Navy, the talky tenderfoot was not close enough to the glories of war roiling his imagination. He asked when he would be assigned to stand guard duty. One of us pointed out that we felt safer relying on real warriors to meet that need. The new guy was aghast, but not deterred. To our surprise, the Marines humored him. All of a sudden he was strutting around the barracks with a .38 caliber revolver strapped to his hip and toting a sawed-off shotgun.
The next day, a Marine sergeant who could not wipe the grin off his face approached the squadron office. He told us that even after being ordered to leave the pistol in its holster, this ersatz gun-slinger decided to practice his quick draw. As if the embodiment of the whole screwed-up war, the Alaska Kid blew off part of his foot.
On my 20th birthday, I flew out of Da Nang back to Japan. Once there, I moved into my friend’s apartment in the Sagami-Otsuka neighborhood of Yamato. Having learned that something more incendiary than polite letters may be needed to get attention, I brought up reviving a form of Duck Power. A similar idea had already occurred to my roommate and two of his buddies. They claimed to have a line on a mimeograph machine recently used for an underground newspaper by some Air Force personnel at nearby Yokota Air Base. It was available because those airmen got busted for their journalistic efforts. They endured courts-martial, getting demoted in rank and reassigned to distant duty stations.
My friends and I knew protest carried a risk. We decided to move forward anyway. That weekend, a member of our budding cabal met with the airman he knew at Yokota. Soon, the Navy reassigned the four of us to posts outside Japan. We never put our hands on the machine.
I spent the remainder of my active duty chasing Russian submarines from the Bering Sea to the Indian Ocean aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Ticonderoga. Fulfilling our mission, we worked twelve on, twelve off, seven days a week.
The old guard may not have known what to do about the debacle in Vietnam, but it could effectively reduce a voice of dissent to a lone quack in a vast, indifferent ocean.