My political feelings were anything but strong in the early 1960's. I had my feelings about the Nixon/Kennedy debates, was mildly concerned about the Cuban missile crisis, knew something about the crisis beginning in Southeast Asia, and had little, if any, concern that The Bomb would drop on the United States. In short, I felt like the kid who darts in front of cars, climbs tree, plays on railroad tracks...I won't get hurt, I am insulated from danger. My feelings about the communist nations and their citizens were clear...all were evil. The U.S.S.R. was an evil empire (of course, President Reagan confirmed that in later years!). I graduated from high school in 1962, totally naive to the world situation and totally uncaring about the political future of the world.
While in high school, I was introduced to the baha'i Faith by a close friend and eventually became an active member. Many of my friends who were baha'is were actively involved in the anti-war movement and I remember seeing their pictures in the Los Angeles Times as they were arrested for protesting. This was a bit confusing for me because the =46aith teaches that citizens are to obey the laws of their country and to be loyal to that country.
I continued my safe life, attending college, hanging around my baha'i friends, going to meetings, and generally not taking a stand on anything. When the time came to register for the draft, I thought about the trouble I might encounter with my family if I were to claim 1AO (Conscientious Objector-Non Combatant) status. Burning my draft card was unthinkable.
My Father discovered my status one day and was absolutely furious. Naturally, he would be. The fathers of teenagers in the 1960's were the same men who fought the "Holy War" of the early '40's. Mine happened to be in the South Pacific on the day I was born in 1944.
I took a vacation from school in 1965 and received my "greetings" in September of that year. The reality of my plight did not hit until October 25, 1965, the day of my induction. I was one of a planeful of scared recruits enroute to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Most hid their fear by laughing and playing cards. I was the quiet one.
At Fort Polk, the only thing known to each other were our respective status. We were either US (draftee) or RA (enlistee). There was never a question about being a conscientious objector...until the next day. At a large gathering of recruits that was organized to sell us on going "airborne", the first question asked was were there any conscientious objectors in the room. Two of approximately five hundred people raised their hands. I being one of them. I'll never forget that terrible fear that I immediately experienced. We were asked to return to our respective barracks. While walking through the crowd to the door, I can recall a few comments, one referring to me as a "chicken shit." After returning to the barracks, I sat alone, awaited the return of the other 80 or so recruits and expected the worst.
I was very surprised by the reaction I got from my fellow recruits when they returned. Some said nothing with reference to the "terrible secret" I revealed. Others were quite vocal in their praise of my beliefs.
My second full day at Ft. Polk (October 27, 1965) was rather uneventful. The secret was out that I and three or four others were concientious objectors and nobody seemed to care one way or the other. Frankly, I felt my face was forgotten from the previous evening. With our fresh haircuts and olive- drab uniforms, we all looked alike. No labels attached...US, RA, CO...it didn't seem to matter.
That afternoon, we queued up for our interviews to determine how the Army would best utilize our talents. It was pretty well known that if you were a trained engineer, you would wind up being a cook...a chef would be an Army trained engineer, and so it went. When my turn came, the interviewer asked the usual questions in a robotic manner. "Are you a homosexual?"....no..."Are you a concientious objector?"....yes. Without any kind of reaction, the interviewer stated in his robotic tone, "You will be transfered to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas for basic training....Next".
Ft. Sam was the basic training center for CO's. It was also the center for those receiving training in the various medical arts. Everything from first aid to advance training for physicians was handled at Ft. Sam. Naturally, we were segregated from the "normal" troops.
Much of our free time in the barracks was spent discussing our various religious and political beliefs. I soon discovered that many had very little in the way of political beliefs, however, were very vocal about their religious feelings. My reaction was not to get into a big discussion with a bunch of "religious fanatics."
I was a rather shy individual when I entered basic training. I was sure that I would never measure up to my peers. It took about two weeks for me to realize I was OK the way I was. Many of my fellow trainees had a real problem adjusting, which was a problem for me to understand. Believe it or not, I actually had a reasonably good time.
Vietnam Memories - Part Three
Basic training for concientious objectors was six weeks instead of the usual eight. This, of course, because there was no weapons training.
Following basic training, there were several (I believe ten...do not remember) weeks of advanced training in the Basic Medical Corpsman course. The CO's were grouped with the other trainees, however, we were in our own barracks. During this time, we would be subject to a few comments about our bravery (or lack thereof) by the non-CO trainees. These comments, however, were very very few.
Follow A.I.T., I was accepted by the Medical Training Center as an instructor in the Professional Sciences Branch. I had received some inside information from a close friend of mine (story about him follows later) who had been accepted as an instructor earlier and I applied for the position. I can remember my interview with the Sergeant Major and Executive Officer. The question asked was, "It's true isn't it, Private Watters, that you're are trying to get this job so you won't have to go to Vietnam?" I replied, "Sergeant Major, if I told you I wanted to go to Vietnam, I would be a damn liar along with every other trainee at this fort. I am applying because my civilian training is in the medical field and I feel I can best serve my country as an instructor" (while I have paraphrased, those words are pretty close to what was said). I passed that hurdle and was accepted. I knew the right answer...the one he would accept...and it worked!
Allow me to digress for a moment and give my experiences of the career enlisted men and officers who were our leaders. These people, obviously, were not CO's and I wondered at the beginning what their thoughts of us were. After all, here were people who experienced war first hand...in Vietnam, Korea, and some in World War II. I expected them to be tough...I was not dissapointed. They were tough on us...and, while they did not state it, it was clear they were respectful of our positions. Let me give you some examples.
I will never forget Sergeant Lopez. What a dirt ball. The first time I and my fellow trainees encountered him was the first day of A.I.T. We assembled outside the barracks before daybreak and listened to his rantings and ravings about what a bunch of no-goods we were. He was to be our leader for the next MANY weeks. He served in Vietnam and made sure we knew it. I can remember doing something wrong and I suffered by doing pushups in front of my fellow trainees. We had several pet names for him...most of them unprintable. I had no idea that months later, while I was assigned as an instructor, he would be a close friend and I would spend many an evening with his family.
Sergeant Robert Steyer...we called him "Sweet Old Bob." He served in World War II, et al. Hell, even his smile was a sneer! During training, I wanted to run for cover when I saw him coming. Months later, he too became a friend and I spent a Thanksgiving with his family.
Major Robert Miller...an up-an-coming young black officer without a chip on his shoulder (Note: I said "without"... this was Texas in the mid-sixties). Major Miller was my commanding officer at the Professional Sciences Branch and was respected and feared by those who served under him. The last order he issued to me was two days before I was to leave active duty. I had spent a few days riding my bicycle around the fort getting my affairs together in preparation for leaving. He walked into the branch, threw me the keys to his new Thunderbird, and said, "Don't scratch it."
The foregoing is just an example of how I, as a concientious objector, was treated by the military. I was often questioned about my beliefs by my leaders. While they stated they did not necessarily accept my feelings, they made it quite clear that they respected me for them.
Following AIT, I was assigned to the Medical Training Center at fort Sam Houston, Texas, as an instructor in the Progessional Seciences Branch. Because of my previous training in college, I taught primarily human anatomy and physiology. Of the several instructors in the branch, only four of us were CO's. Most of the instructor were "lifers".
Our commanding officer was a major in his mid-thirties. Young to me now, but beyond the age of trust then. The "real boss" was a Sergeant Major whom I was convinced had seen action immediately subsequent to the sinking of the Lusitania.
I couldn't help but wonder how I would be accepted as a CO. I guess acceptance was very important to me. I didn't have to wonder long.
I was assigned to train a group of Green Berets, a rather elite group, in the art of basic medicine. They did not, nor ever knew, that I was a CO. (As an aside, I feel it approporiate to give a physical description of me at that time. I was about five foot-ten inches weighing in at 130 pounds...a twenty-two year old with glasses as thick as the bottom of a coke bottle.
I took a different approach to being an Army trainer...maybe out of self preservation..I don't know. While keeping my authoritative stance, I decided to throw out the Army Lesson Plans and teach them as if they wee civilians in a college class. I did not insist on many of the "military courtesies" that was afforded me. A few of my fellow instructors felt that I was wrong...that I would not get the respect of the trainees and that they would walk all over me. Frankly, the same thing crossed my mind at first, however, the results came at the exams. My class ranked number one. I never lost sight of the fact that we were no longer in a high school gymnasium...this was serious. That was my reasoning for my training method. I felt that being more relaxed with the trainees would allow a better training atmosphere. That was true with my experience, however, I doubt it would have worked with weapons training!
By the time I arrived at Fort Sam, Steve was in Vietnam and Tom had just completed basic training. I was the last of the trio to receive the "Greetings" letter in October 1965 and Tom had filled me in on what to expect as he drove my girlfriend and I to the induction center. He happened to be on leave at that time between basic and corpsman training.
Tom had a way of describing an experience as being somewhat pleasant, no matter how horrible it really was. Of course, knowing this in advance, I took his description of basic training with the proverbial "grain of salt." He was describing an experience one would expect at Club Med. But, that was Tom. He could make the best of anything.
Tom was accepted as an instructor at the Medical Training Center at the time I was just completing corpsman training. Knowing that my civilian training was in the medical field, he talked me into applying for the same position. Subsequent to AIT, I was assigned to the Professional Sciences Branch as an instructor. At least two of the trio of friends were able to serve together.
Tom and I spent most of our free time together. If we were not at a Bah'ai function, we were working as security guards at a local mall in San Antonio. We would occasionally joke about what others might think of our close relationship but people were quite clear, we were brothers.
Late summer of 1966 saw a lot of trainees come and go from our center. Our class sizes had increased and there was a shortage of instructors. For whatever reason, Tom received his orders for Vietnam. He looked upon this as an opportunity to do something else...he was excited about the prospect.
He had some leave time and decided to spend it with his girl friend and sister in California. He bought an old sports car for about $300 and began his trip...only to have the car break down about 100 miles short of his destination. Just like Tom. I remember telling him that the junker was like the rest of the cars he owned wouldn't make it much beyond San Antonio!
Tom was stationed at Quin Nhon and began working for an eye doctor who taught him how to refract for lenses. During his off hours, he would set up entertainment for the troops. He was quite an entertainer himself and had a beautiful singing voice. His letters were the usual. The way he described everything, I had expected to receive a picture post card! I can remember hearing from people who knew Tom at Quin Nhon that he was a real morale booster for the troops.
Steve completed his tour in An Khe and returned to Fort Sam to complete his active duty as a company clerk. I was working evenings and on occasion and Steve would attend my classes just for amusement. Steve was unusually quiet one evening as we were driving to class. I asked him if there was a problem and he said there was, but he would tell me after class. Being the type of person I am, I told him that I was really bothered and to tell me now what the problem was (I figured it was bad news). He handed me a letter from his mother. the first sentence I will never forget..."Tom was killed in a plane crash."
An Army General in Saigon had heard about Tom's idea for converting a building in Quin Nhon for troop entertainment. He was so impressed that he requested Tom fly to Saigon to meet with him and discuss his idea. On the return trip, the plane made a fuel stop and crashed on takeoff. Tom lived for one day.
I taught the class that night as if nothing had happened. I don't think I taught it out of sense of duty. Frankly, I don't remember my feelings at that time. I was probably very numb. Word reached the Branch and I was called in by the Commanding Officer. He had little to say except that he knew Tom and I were close friends and that he felt a personal loss.
I remember one Master Sergeant, a mean, nasty, tough-as-nails sonofabitch calling me into his office. He talked to me of his experience knowing Tom and working with him. He broke into tears.
I still think of Tom often. He had one thing against him from birth. His father was black, his mother white, and we were in the south in the '60s. I remember the trip we took with other friends from San Antonio to Houston and the cafe we stopped at. We left because he couldn't sit with us. He could never come to my house because my parents would not accept a friend who was black.
I think of Tom often.
October 25, 1967 was an important day in my life. I left active duty after serving my two year requirement. I entered a career with the airlines shortly thereafter and took advantage of the pass opportunities afforded me by the industry.
In 1969, I took a trip to Europe. A trip I had dreamed of for a long time. I looked forward to meeting people of other countries...Sweden (my relative's homeland), Denmark, France, Germany, et al. Frankly, I expected to meet friendly people...people who would be friendly to Americans. The fact that we were still heavily involved in the Vietnam conflict did not matter to me. Yes, I served in the military, however, I was not personally responsible for what was happening "across the pond". Nobody would hold that against me. Or would they?
After several hours in the air, I arrived at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen. My first hint as to what was in store for me came when I went to retrieve my luggage. The baggage handler noted the American flag attached to the suitcase handle and, not knowing I was watching, spat on it. This was only one of several encounters I experienced with young Europeans. Please note, I said "young Europeans". Older people who remembered World War II were very friendly.
After two weeks visting several countries and experiencing the hate toward Americans, I was ready to go home. A trip I had dreamed of became a very depressing experience.
I hated Paris. I had planned on spending a few days there and, after two days, decided to return to Copenhagen to catch a flight home. I was on a pass supplied by Scandinavian Airlines, so all travel was in and out of Kastrup.
I arrived at Le Bourget airport about three hours before the departure of my flight. I wandered around the terminal to pass the time. I heard people singing and decided to investigate. I came across a group of young people sitting in a waiting area singing songs in a language I could not place. One had a guitar. The music sounded like American folk songs, but sung in another tongue. I stood nearby and listened to the group (about ten people) singing when one of them motioned for me to take a seat and join them. I did. They continued singing and talking in a language I still could not place. One of the young men began talking to me and I replied (mostly by sign language) that I could not understand. He thought for a minute and pulled out his passport. I understood his communication and I pulled out mine. We exchanged passports. When I saw the hammer and sickle and the "CCCP" on the cover of his passport, I knew immediately who I was with. I thought I was out of my mind to be sitting with a bunch of Soviets. If Europeans hated me, surely the Soviets would want to lynch me on the spot. I've got to get out of there...fast!
One of the Soviets did speak fairly good English. For the next 45 minutes, we compared our visit to Paris...The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Le Etoile, etc. Several of the young people asked me many questions. One question I will never forget came from a young lady..."Do you know Laguna Beach?" (Laguna Beach is a seashore town in Southern California). I noted one oriental lady in the group holding an infant. I was told she was with their group and was from North Vietnam. As a matter-of-fact, several people in their group were from North Vietnam. I wound up holding the baby for a few minutes.
My new friends invited me to visit Moscow. They could arrange the visit. I told them I would like to do that in the future. As I was ready to leave, one person told me that it was enjoyable talking with me and sharing our experiences of Paris...even though our governments do not get along. Politics were never a part of our conversation. Nobody seemed to feel that they had to defend their government. We all seemed to be in a safe space.
I returned to my hotel in Copenhagen that evening and thought about my experience that day. I cried.
Please note: Ray Watters was a Conscientious Objector, who opposed warfare in general on religious grounds, but was not an not opponent of the Vietnam War in particular. Therefore, I do not want any of his comments to be misconstrued as being supportive of the antiwar movement (although they may be sympathetic).