This article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam. This edition can be ordered here.
This article was originally published on May 4, 1968.
When I got on the bus there at Travis Air Force Base, headed downtown for San Francisco, I had my discharge papers in my pocket and I had $1,200 in savings. It felt good. We got to the gate at Travis, and right outside was this big sign flashing Go-Go Girls! We started yelling, ‘Stop the bus, man! Stop the bus!’ And he did. And we all piled out, duffel bags and all. I mean, you can always catch another bus.”
Ronald Harmon was talking in the Blue Moon Bar on White Plains Road in the Bronx. Ten months had passed since he burst through the gates of Travis, and he was dead broke and unemployed. His last employer, B. Altman’s, a big New York department store, had laid him off two days before Christmas. His mother was in a hospital with pneumonia, brought on by holding down two jobs in an attempt to keep her family together. “It was like getting hit on the head,” said Harmon, a slender man in a shirt of red velour. “You come home thinking the world is going to open right up for you. And you find out you’ve still got to work twice as hard as Whitey, just to stay alive.”
There will be more than 40,000 of them this year. In growing numbers, the Negro soldier is coming home from the jungles and cities of Vietnam to an unsettling, uncertain future. He is a quite special man, this veteran, capable of greatly enriching the American society to which he returns, or of ripping it to shreds.
Many of them have been exposed for the first time in their lives to total integration, imposed by both Army discipline and the demands of combat. Indeed, they have been immersed in it, for within the tight, closed fraternity of a combat unit, color simply drops away. “The only color in the jungle,” the veterans say, “is green.” The cruel divider in combat is not color but courage and skill at arms.
Almost all of the veterans hold a high-school diploma. Most of them have had technical training of one sort or another during their hitches. Many have commanded white soldiers in battle. “After a tough firefight,” says a Negro paratrooper, “I have seen white boys from the South throw their arms around a Negro noncom, hugging him and kissing him.”
The militant Black Power groups know about this veteran and his importance. These groups, which denounce the U.S. role in Vietnam as “genocide,” are calling on the veteran to enlist his combat skills in a worldwide revolution of colored peoples against their white “oppressors.” On the other hand, Negro moderates like Whitney Young of the National Urban League look hopefully, almost wistfully, to the returning veteran for the new and constructive leadership that the Negro community badly needs.
During a long tour of Vietnam, and on a cross-country trip, over dozens of lengthy interviews, some basic patterns emerged.
The veterans themselves are at this point overwhelmingly concerned about their own personal futures. Their attitudes within the Negro movement will probably turn on whether or not they “make it,” a phrase that constantly recurs in their conversations. They are poised young men, but filled with bitterly mixed emotions. They can be smoothly buttoned down in a personnel office for a job interview, and then full of brooding if rejected. “It is those $60-a-week jobs that grind you down,” says Ronald Harmon. “I have pushed my share of those clothes carts in the garment district. I want something better now.”
For many Negro veterans, California is the place to go. James Price, 26, who fought for a year with the tank battalion of the 25th Division in the jungles of War Zone C, is slight and intense, a talented amateur at photography. When he got his Army discharge, he made his move from Akron to Los Angeles — where he is cleaning toilets on the night shift at the City Hall Annex and going to school all day.
The annex is a big square building at First and Main. By day it is a busy, bustling place; by night it is fluorescent and silent, except for the footsteps and mops of Price and the rest of his clean-up brigade. Between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., Price cleans 15 places. “It is all coded, automated, you see, by these tags on my cart.” He leaned a mop taller than himself against a toilet wall. “I give them all a good going-over every night, work over the toilet bowls with bleach here, and work over the mirrors there, all according to the tags. I can give you a regular guided tour.”
His voice rose up the scale of anger, and he threw a dirty, wet rag into his cleaning cart. “Is this any job for a man? Is this any job for a man?”
Later, Price explained why he had made his move to Los Angeles. “I don’t know if you know Akron. It is a small town. You can walk right downtown in 20 minutes. When I got back home from Vietnam, it was like, you know, everybody had forgotten I was alive. They said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ I was down, man, way down, so I came out here bag and baggage and moved in with my dad. He’s got a job driving a truck. We’re having some good times here, times we never got a chance to have when I was a kid.”
Price was raised by his mother. “I used to put my old man down, but I can see now he had his problems. In hard times, it is the man that gets thrown out of work. The woman can always get some sort of a job. It will break a man’s heart. It’s the system, not the man.
“Is ‘Go West’ a good plan? Well, I will tell you. If you’ve got a case of the smarts, this place will knock it out of you. I still feel lost. It’s so big and it’s wide. In Akron, I know who you can trust. Out here you can’t trust nobody; they’re all of them hustling. Now I am making $420 a month, but it slips away, $20 here and $20 there.
“I’m going to hang in there with the work and the school. This chick I was out with the other night said, ‘Money, money, money, that’s all you think about,’ and I said, ‘That’s all there is.’”
The Negro veteran headed for college is a promising, and badly needed, young man. But his problems would defeat all but the most determined. If his high-school training was poor, like Price’s, he must often do remedial work even to get in. The GI bill pays only $130 a month for a single man, just enough to cover tuition in most cases. He must usually hold down a full-time job in addition to his demanding academic work. Price is attending refresher courses in English, math, and economics at an adult training center in Los Angeles. He is hoping to enter Trade Technical College this fall to study accounting or data processing if he can pass the entrance exams.
“I’m losing weight because I’m running so hard all the time,” says Price. “I never have time for a righteous meal. I’m always tired. I work from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and I go to school from 9:30 till 3:30. The classes bend me just about out of my mind. You are tired and you doze off for a minute, and you’re an hour behind. You miss one week of class and it takes you a month to catch up. It puts you down on yourself.
“My math teacher is this nice white woman, and I sometimes imagine her trying to run a crap game with 10 side bets going and the odds changing with every roll. That is a math exam I could handle without even thinking, and she would flunk. But you’ve got to play the white man’s game — so many apples and oranges, and interest at 6 percent per annum. But going back to school was one of the few good moves I ever made.
“What am I aiming for? I’m going to set me behind a big desk and push some buttons somewhere.”
Many Negro veterans of Vietnam are finding within the Army itself the sort of status and authority that Price is seeking. Their reenlistment rate is three times that of the whites. Many are becoming an elite guard, the shock troops and centurions of a society they could not breach as civilians. Many are paying for it in blood, volunteering for the most dangerous units and most hazardous jobs. Although only 11 percent of the troops in Vietnam are Negro, they have taken 14 percent of the combat death toll. “If you have been called ‘boy’ all your life,” one Negro paratrooper explains, “you want to prove that you’re a man.”
An Air Force veteran, Cpl. Algernon Trimble of Harlem, makes another point. “When you hit E-6 [Staff Sergeant], you have really got it made. Where else would a Negro get to boss white boys around? If he is married, where else could he make enough money to keep his family together?”
A splendid example of this new professional soldier is Elija Fields, 29, of Quincy, Florida. He is modest in speech and unobtrusively flawless in the cut and press of his uniform as an E-7 [Platoon Sergeant] in the 101st Airborne. At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he runs the combat firing range, he is a star. Over his breast pocket, Fields wears the modest blue, red, and white ribbon of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s highest decoration after the Medal of Honor. On February 8, 1967, Fields crawled into Viet Cong machine-gun fire and, although hit twice himself, pulled a badly wounded man to safety.
“I’m staying in for the 20 years, and I’ll probably do 30,” Fields says. “The services are still far ahead of the world outside in integration. But the world outside is changing. I believe in Black Power if it means more economic and political power for the Negro. Black Power is like an infantry tactic that can be used well or poorly.
“I’m staying in because it’s a good job, and I like it and do it well.” Fields lives in a brick three-bedroom duplex on post and drives a 1966 blue Ford Galaxie. The family shops at the PX at bargain prices. Rent is free, and Fields takes home $463 a month. “Security for my family is part of it, of course — it is for any Negro. I do hope to be able to send my two children to college. But I’m not a killer for hire. I wouldn’t be in if I did not believe in this country.”
—“I’m Going to Make It — I’ve Got To!,” May 4, 1968