Photo: Credit Dmitri Morningstar.
This post originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
There are six of us. There were many more at the time, but now there are six of us who see one another regularly and talk about what we did and why. What changed us, what turned us from all-American boys into antiwar resisters and rebels?
We were junior officers in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. We were Ivy Leaguers, graduates of the Naval Academy and respected colleges, from big cities and small towns all over the country. We manned the conn on giant ships, we flew fighter jets off aircraft carriers, we were handcuffed to secret war messages traveling up Vietnamese rivers, we trained pilots for war. And then, we didn’t — we wouldn’t.
Will Kirkland was the son of an Annapolis graduate. In June 1961 he stood with 1,300 others on the grounds of the Naval Academy, sweating, worrying as a deep amplified voice began, “Gentlemen, raise your right hands.” He already had misgivings. He had recently learned that American boys and girls had been taken from their homes; their parents from their work as farmers, store owners, teachers; and they were sent to barbed-wire camps during World War II. The jolt of that had stayed with him. He had lived in Japan for a year earlier in his life. He had played with Japanese kids, had a crush on one of them.
What was he swearing to do? To follow all orders? Would he be ordered to do something he thought was wrong?
No, Will decided, only to defend the Constitution. Orders to march civilians into camps could be disobeyed, he reasoned. He raised his right hand and repeated with the others, “I solemnly swear. …” This would be the first of many decisions hard to escape, hard choices not to participate in what was expected of him, until the day in October 1967 when, as the executive officer of a small ship, he would refuse to give orders to his crew as they departed for Vietnam.
Ron McMahan was the valedictorian of his high school class of 35 and the only one of them to go to college. He was from a small town in Colorado. His dad and granddad were Navy enlisted men — it was what you did. He got an R.O.T.C. scholarship to the University of Colorado and became the first college graduate and military officer in his family. He was married with a child by the time he went to Vietnam in 1969 with a top-secret cryptography clearance.
Ron’s wife, Jane, was his lifeline and his connection to the antiwar and youth movements exploding in the United States. She knew, more even than he could express, that Ron had strong moral misgivings about the war. He wrote her about holding a dying Vietnamese boy in his arms and how much it upset him. She sent Ron tapes with his son’s first words along with thoughts and advice. She told him he might be a conscientious objector, or C.O. When his ship returned to San Diego in the summer of 1970, Jane met him at the dock wearing granny glasses and a madras dress and carrying the local underground newspaper announcing a meeting of the Concerned Officers Movement. “You have to go,” she said. He did. By the end of the year, he prevailed in a precedent-setting case, McMahan v. Laird, and was honorably discharged as a C.O.
Paul Rogers went to Notre Dame. He was the son of a disabled World War II veteran and the Army nurse who saved his life. He had good grades, was captain of his high school football team, won an R.O.T.C. scholarship and did what was expected. But then in 1970 Kent State and Jackson State happened. The Notre Dame students voted to close the school down: Students had been killed; the war raged; Vietnam became the curriculum for the entire student body. Paul joined 50 graduating R.O.T.C. cadets in signing a petition pledging that upon becoming commissioned officers they would do everything they could to end the war. When assigned to the crew of the aircraft carrier Constellation, he carried out that pledge.
John Kent was a two-time all-American wrestler from the Naval Academy. He wanted to be an astronaut and became a jet pilot. But events kept pulling him in another direction. There was that blind date at Annapolis who argued with him all night about the Vietnam War. He thought it was a just war, but he came out on the short end of every argument. And there was that Marine major, an A-4 pilot, bragging to John’s training class of eager pilots about the old Vietnamese man on a bicycle he had incinerated with a heat-seeking missile — just for fun!
In the summer of 1967, as a midshipman, John was serving on a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. He didn’t learn much about the war, but he learned something else when his ship docked at the Subic Bay Naval Base. This was the largest American Navy installation in the Pacific, adjacent to the Philippine town of Olongapo. It was one of the most celebrated R&R destinations for military personnel in Vietnam, a so called fantasyland for adults. What he found instead was a nightmare of degradation, all in service to and fostered by the American military. You could throw coins into the sewage-filled river and see kids and desperate Filipino adults dive into the fetid water. And that was only the beginning. No thank you.
On his way to Miramar, Calif., for F-8 training en route to Vietnam for the second time, John went home on leave. It was November 1969 and one of the biggest antiwar demonstrations was gathering in Washington, D.C., near where he lived. His siblings were going, and he and his dad decided to follow. The power of hundreds of thousands of antiwar voices was immense, and the songs brought both of them to tears. Pete Seeger led the huge crowd in singing, over and over, John Lennon’s line, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” Between choruses Seeger would sing phrases like, “Are you listening, Nixon?” “Are you listening, Pentagon?”
John was listening, and before they left the Mall he turned to his dad and said, “I don’t think I can go back to Vietnam.” He didn’t, and within a few months, along with other naval officers, he founded the San Diego chapter of the Concerned Officers Movement.
Jim Skelly grew up in an Irish working-class family within a strict Catholic tradition, which he rebelled against, leaving him with a hatred of arbitrary authority. He got into the University of Minnesota on an R.O.T.C. scholarship. By the time he graduated in 1967, he was already ambivalent about the growing war. He volunteered to work on an oil tanker with the Atlantic Fleet, even though he was increasingly disturbed by what he was reading and hearing about the war. Shortly after learning of Robert Kennedy’s murder in June 1968, he wrote a letter saying he was opposed to the war and asking for a better way to serve his country. He never sent it.
In January 1970 Jim received orders to become part of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam in Saigon. He knew that if he went to Vietnam he might well come back a human wreck, drunk and dead at 40. Not sure what to do, he went to his predeployment training in San Diego and began searching. He found some literature from the Movement for a Democratic Military, an antiwar group, in a local head shop.
When he showed up at the M.D.M. office, he met a San Diego police officer named John Paul Murray, then disguised as Jay King, an antiwar activist. They talked for a while and then “Jay King,” playing his antiwar role, said, “You sound like a conscientious objector.” Jim said, “Oh, O.K.,” and within a few months had filed his application for C.O. and found the other men in the Concerned Officers Movement. He was the first of several of us to file a federal lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird seeking to be released from active duty as conscientious objectors.
The day John Huyler graduated from Princeton University in June 1967 and became an officer in the Navy, he knew that the Vietnam War was wrong and that he would refuse orders to go there. He had majored in philosophy, thought a lot about values and personal integrity, war and peace, and became a Quaker. His senior thesis was on civil disobedience: Thoreau, Gandhi and King. He had concluded that the war was wrong but thought that he could outwit the system. He thought the war would be over in the 18 months required to become a naval aviator. When it was not, he decided to become a flight instructor, avoiding the war for another 18 months. After those three years the war still was not over. When John received his final orders to a noncombatant squadron based in San Diego, he thought he had finally made it through.
In San Diego, John became active with the Concerned Officers Movement, where he met other officers who had declared themselves conscientious objectors, refused orders to Vietnam and stood trial when the Navy denied their claims. He watched a film called “Faces,” a 10-minute, silent, black-and-white documentary showing the faces of Vietnamese children during bombing raids, which turned his stomach. His thoughts had moved into his gut and he realized that if he was connected in any way to the terror in even one of those faces, he could no longer look himself in the mirror. The next Monday he told his commanding officer that he refused to fly because he was a conscientious objector. He was granted an honorable discharge on that basis.
From all our different directions we came together in San Diego. We organized against the war and to stop the Constellation from returning to Vietnam. As officers and pilots, we could take advantage of tactics not normally available to other antiwar groups, such as John Huyler’s flying the banner reading “Constellation Stay Home for Peace” frequently over San Diego, and making antiwar stickers appear everywhere onboard the Constellation, including in the captain’s personal bathroom (which Paul Rogers to this day claims he had nothing to do with). We influenced public opinion through numerous public statements. We joined with thousands of others in San Diego and many, many more throughout the United States and around the world in resisting the war. We know we made a difference.
We went on with our lives. We became a college professor of peace studies, an environmental mediator, an accountant for Native American tribes, a union organizer, a successful entrepreneur and a revolutionary communist. We are all proud that we had the courage to stand up against injustice and an unjust war. Today, we continue to be a group of close friends with a powerful common experience who are still active and committed to peace and social justice.