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by Brian R. Bland
Brian Bland (holding helmet) with other soldiers in Vietnam. Photo courtesy the author.
Some of us knew early in 1968 that books would be written about the year. Six months in, after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, we all knew it. Long before December 31, we were hoping never to see such a year again.
I began the year as a twenty-six-year-old Army captain in Vietnam with two months left before going home. That would also end my three years in the Army. I had voluntarily extended my original two-year obligation by a year, and volunteered for Vietnam specifically to take the job that I had. My unit, the 25th Infantry Division, was in Cu Chi, a large base camp fifteen miles north of Saigon. As the Division Photo Officer, my job was much like an assignment editor or photo editor at a TV station or a newspaper. My “staff,” the enlisted men under me, consisted of eight or ten combat photographers and about a half-dozen lab guys. We produced mostly still photos, though we did do some motion pictures.
My primary duty was to decide which infantry units my photographers should go into the field with. That meant staying in touch with the operations officers in the infantry battalions, as well as following up on any information my men might pick up in the field. Although we shared some photos with the Public Affairs Office for the division newspaper or the civilian press, our mission was, simply, to document our division’s part in the war. But in this first-ever “helicopter war,” we also did some intelligence gathering. Our photos from low-flying or hovering helicopters of partially covered sampans among reeds along a canal, a cache of arms or ammunition found in a cave, pictures of sleeping or eating areas inside large tunnels with tiny entrances, all provided information on how the enemy was operating and where its units might be concentrated within our division’s huge area of operations.
During my first ten months in Vietnam, including six weeks at Dau Tieng, a similar base farther north, we were sometimes bombarded with mortars or rockets. Most of the casualties came within the first minutes of an attack. Sheltering bunkers had been dug throughout the base, fortified with sandbags. At the first sound of a siren or an explosion, we dove into the nearest bunker. Vegetation had been cleared from around the base and the perimeter was heavily fortified and guarded, so our chance of being overrun was virtually nil.
In addition to my quasi-journalistic Army job, I wrote a half-dozen articles for a monthly literary magazine published in the southern U.S. called The Delta Review. The “delta” in the title referred to the Mississippi River, not the Mekong. I had Army permission, of course, and my stories had to be strictly features—no news about specific operations and no commentary on why the U.S. was in Vietnam or how the war was going. Within those confines, it was gratifying to tell civilian readers what life was like in my corner of the war.
Officers lived in two-man huts called hootches. The last six months of my tour, my hootchmate was a young officer who had turned down a college music scholarship to enlist for Officers Candidate School. Jan became a Second Lieutenant at eighteen, served a year at the Pentagon, then came to Vietnam as a First Lieutenant, turning twenty soon after arriving. He was smart, friendly and had an amazing singing voice. He proved it to us one evening at our makeshift officers club with an a cappella rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.” Jan’s display of talent and professionalism brought the place to a standstill. In the months that followed his arrival, and with the six-year difference in our ages, I came to think of him as a younger brother.
In late January, North Korea captured the Navy ship USS Pueblo and its crew in the waters off the Korean peninsula. Those of us with only a few weeks left in Vietnam felt there was a strong chance we’d be kept in place, while troops scheduled to replace us would be diverted to South Korea, to bolster U.S. forces there. That never happened, but a week later, we had a real problem: thousands of Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese and American troops all over South Vietnam, including Saigon itself. It was the Tet offensive, named for the Vietnamese New Year.
At Cu Chi, the rocket and mortar attacks intensified; we were hit nearly every night. Despite the country-wide increase in fighting, men who were scheduled to go home continued to do so. I left Cu Chi on February 20th, spent a night at a base near Saigon, then flew to the States. Jan moved two hootches away to join another friend of ours, Dan, whom I’d known in the States. About daybreak on Feb. 22, just one rocket hit Cu Chi. It blew apart the hootch where my friends were sleeping, killing Jan and wounding Dan slightly. I didn’t know about it until weeks later, when I opened a letter from Dan.
Within hours after landing in California, I processed out of the Army in Oakland and was greeted by my girlfriend whom I had met in 1966, a few months before heading to Vietnam. I’d visited her in the San Francisco Bay area just twice before going overseas, but was determined to start my career in broadcast journalism in the Bay area and to be with her. The next ten or twelve days were heaven, although it was impossible to ignore the anti-war feelings that had mushroomed in the year I’d been away. The Tet offensive had been a military disaster for the enemy, but was not seen as a victory for the U.S. and South Vietnam, as the enemy had been able to mount attacks simultaneously across South Vietnam. The conflict was a stalemate.
My next stop before settling down was Memphis, my hometown, where my parents were waiting to see for themselves that their only child had, in fact, made it back in one piece. Dan’s letter regarding Jan was waiting for me. After several bad hours, I convinced myself Jan would want me to party rather than mourn. Initially, that worked. I had rarely spent more than a couple of weeks at a time in Memphis since leaving for the University of Illinois more than eight years earlier, but many childhood friends were still in town. We filled more than three weeks with beer, barbecue and catching up.
The Memphis sanitation workers had been on strike for decent wages and improved safety conditions since before I left Vietnam. The strike had dragged on in large part due to Mayor Henry Loeb’s stubbornness. He and many others did not want the largely black workers to unionize. Memphis had an influential Jewish community that somewhat identified with the black civil rights movement. But Loeb, who was Jewish, did not.
On March 28, Dr. Martin Luther King was in Memphis for a parade in honor of the strikers; it ended in a riot. King left the city, but returned a few days later determined to head a peaceful march. His speech at a local church the night of June 3 was moving and eerie, and became known as the “Mountaintop” speech, as he spoke of the possibility of not getting to the promised land of equal rights with his friends.
The next evening, I was at my folks’ home about dinner time when we got the news of Dr. King being shot. How we heard is lost to memory—a phone call, a broadcast bulletin, whatever. The shock rolled through the city and out to the rest of the world. In Memphis and scores of other cities, the response was rage and violence. Adding fuel to the flames was the fact the assassin was at large.
More reporters poured into Memphis. A memorial parade was set for a few days later. The police department had no true press liaison and turned to Memphis State University (now, University of Memphis) for help. The school sent its community relations chief, the late Charlie Holmes, to fill the role of spokesman. Holmes, an acquaintance of mine, promptly called me to ask my help for a couple of days, on a volunteer basis. I quickly agreed.
It had been nearly four years since I’d completed my broadcast journalism studies at Illinois. When Dr. King was killed, with scores of reporters already in town, I had neither the ability nor the desire to try to find a news client and be part of the press corps. But I was gratified to be able to help Holmes, a former newspaper reporter and excellent college public affairs officer. My duties were like any aide: make and take phone calls, pass the word on upcoming news conferences, etc.
But the most vivid memory is of driving to my parents’ house late at night on the dark and debris-littered streets of my hometown, passing through checkpoints manned by uniformed young men who looked just as I had looked about forty days earlier. With me were the thoughts of the war, the loss of Jan and others, and now a sudden national tragedy a little more than four years after JFK was assassinated.
My next seven weeks were filled with car trips and job hunting in the South and Midwest. But by June, I was back in the San Francisco area. On June 4, as I pulled into the parking space for my studio apartment about midnight, I listened with satisfaction as Bobby Kennedy told the crowd at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”
I snapped off the radio, trotted up one flight of stairs to my apartment and, minutes later, turned on the TV to hear NBC’s Sander Vanocher say that Kennedy had been shot. I felt as if the war had followed me home. Two world-shaking murders in the space of two months. Like millions of others, I could barely process what was happening in our country.
Where were we? Robert Kennedy was dead. President Johnson had said he wouldn’t seek reelection. Vice-president Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed sluggish. His opponent, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, was surprising the country with his strong campaign to be the Democratic nominee, built around his firm anti-war position. Richard Nixon was trying to come back after his failed 1960 run for the presidency against John Kennedy.
My next four months were a long slog of looking for a job against a backdrop of craziness; August was a prime example.
Richard Nixon accepted the GOP presidential nomination, deploring the fact the U.S. was “tied down” in Vietnam with “no end in sight.” (As president, Nixon kept U.S. troops in Vietnam more than four additional years, until March 1973.)
In eastern Europe, the USSR and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, ending that country’s move toward freedom, known as the “Prague Spring.”
Still later in August came the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where thousands of anti-war protesters, including some who were violent, were beaten indiscriminately by what the government-appointed Kerner Commission later labeled a “police riot.” The convention also was marred by what many believed were backroom deals steering the presidential nomination to Humphrey.
My funk about the state of the country was not lightened by my job search. There were two key things I didn’t know about the San Francisco area: seemingly everyone in the country wanted to move there, and everyone who had a radio or TV news job there planned to stay put forever.
Based on my resume, I did get in the door of some stations. Here’s how an all-too-typical interview went:
The news director interviewed me about my reporting background, which was varied: breaking news, politics, farm and labor issues—but all of it was as an unpaid reporter during grad school (in essence, an intern). The news director then had me rewrite some wire-service copy into a tight five-minute mock newscast, which I then recorded. This all took about an hour. Then, the news director would play the tape, sometimes for just fifteen seconds, and say, “You still have some southern accent” or, “You don’t have a major-market voice.”
Finally, I began presenting myself as a news writer, which led to my first paid news job, in mid-October, at an independent TV station in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco. Outside of coming home from Vietnam, it was, for me, the best event of the year. The break came as I was wondering how much longer I could afford my $90.00/month apartment.
The next downer was just weeks later, as Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were elected president and vice-president, in part because of their “southern strategy” and the promise of a path out of Vietnam. Both men eventually resigned in disgrace.
But 1968 still wasn’t through with me. Not long after I left Memphis, my father had a heart attack. By phone, he assured me it was a “mild” one—no need to come home. He rested for nearly five months, but resumed smoking. On Dec. 12th, mom called to say dad had died of a heart attack a few days after returning to work. He was 56. The station granted me bereavement leave to eulogize him and say farewell.
FIfty years since Tet, my return from Vietnam, Jan’s death, the murders of MLK and RFK, riots with the themes of race and war— including a police riot—the end of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Nixon’s election, my father’s death—and the continued killing in Vietnam. That was my 1968.