Column: Young men and Vietnam


I’ve been watching a good bit of Ken Burns’ Vietnam series on PBS.

It brings back a clutch of personal memories of that era and drives home the ubiquitous horror of war in general and the particular atrocities in that one, both on the battlefield and in the highest offices of the American government.

The endless shots of twisted, grotesque bodies in the jungles look eerily like the fallen soldiers strewn in corn fields in Burns’ preeminent opus on the Civil War. But truth and morality were the shredded victims in Washington, D.C. Even if you mostly know the tragedy of the Vietnam War, this series can stab at the heart.

The vast wasting of human life and the capacity of government leaders to collude in that wasting are a steady incomprehensible drumbeat, a strong current running through the entire monstrous endeavor. I almost gasped a couple of times.

In stark contrast, my involvement in the war — other than it utterly changing the course of my life — was a lark. At the time, as a young able-bodied male, there were, of course, choices to be made, but my draft board in St. Louis got the ball rolling by sending me a straightforward letter in my senior year at Northwestern informing me that, in case I had been residing on the moon, upon graduation, I could expect another letter calling me into the horde of young men tagged for duty.

I graduated in 1968, a dangerous year for the draft-exposed. The draft lottery had not been put in place and all usual post-graduate deferments had been stripped away. I was waiting to hear from a West Coast law school, but even an acceptance would be no defense from the Selective Service. I needed a plan.

Like thousands of other men in my shoes, I was not built to evade the draft.

Although we all thought the war a travesty and a personal life-threatening menace, our strategy simply boiled down to jungle avoidance. I busted my butt to get into the Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS). Although there was always the possibility of getting assigned “in country” in Vietnam, the chances were overwhelming of settling at sea on a ship, in a relative safe haven, with no threat of jungle rot.

To undergo a draft physical is to feel exactly like prime Grade A cannon fodder. Mine was in downtown Chicago and, as I recall, you plodded ahead in a line marked with white painted feet, with toes, on the floor to show you where to go, although the dozens of men in front of you and behind you left very little room to go astray.

We were in our underwear, carrying our shoes, stopping at various stations to be probed and tested for jungle worthiness. The bored enlisted man at the color-blindness table flipped through the book of mottled letters and numbers so fast that I missed a couple and he failed me.

There was no appeal.

Move on, he said.

This forced me to go to an optometrist to right this wrong in order to keep my critically important OCS application on track.

Those were the days when college kids went to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for spring break. Four of us drove down in a car whose steering mechanism we glibly rated at 2.5 on a scale of 10 where 1 was considered “this car is not steerable.” We found this amusing and dodged death several times.

Back at Northwestern, I had two fat letters waiting for me. When you apply for something, you deeply desire fat, even obese letters in return. The law school and OCS had come through.

I tossed the law school letter aside and eased into the certainty that for the foreseeable future the Navy was going to be making a lot of important decisions for me.

I wound up on a baby destroyer. (Island boaters take note: it was a cheeseball Korean War-era destroyer, actually called a destroyer escort; it was 315 feet long and had one screw. One.)

Although I had elected to ship out to the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific where the action was, I got the Atlantic Sixth Fleet instead, and was based in Newport, Rhode Island.

We cruised the Caribbean and did nothing of consequence. The high water mark of excitement was when a Cuban gun boat sprayed our bridge with high-intensity light, a commonplace harassment, when we were patrolling off Havana.

One of the things I was reminded of in the Burns’ Vietnam series is that my fellow shipmates and I were largely shielded from the antiwar mayhem convulsing the country.

We were mostly at sea in 1969 and 1970 — hot years for dissent and Kent State — and, while not uninformed, our distance from the riotous tumult was a buffer.

Of course, in the diabolical whimsy of military service, the one junior officer (with little kids) who was most rabidly antiwar was transferred to Vietnam and the dreaded riverine force in the Mekong Delta. I hope today he is fat and girded by grandchildren.

The destroyers back then were basically sleek gunboats with some meager antisubmarine ability. I was in charge of the “Combat Information Center,” an interior cabin stuffed with radar scopes and sensitive radio gear to pick up enemy radar beams, although there were no foreign naval combatants prowling the Caribbean.

One day one of the radiomen said, “Hey, Mr. Bornemeier, get a load of this.” After a while we figured out that we had picked up some transmissions from some big event in upstate New York.

We had stumbled on Woodstock.