Early in 1968 Josh Gould and friends opened a coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, offering a respite from the Army to GIs stationed at nearby Fort Hood. Dissent within the ranks was being expressed in myriad ways. That summer, 43 Black GIs stationed at Fort Hood refused to be deployed against protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I was in Chicago putting out the Ramparts Wallposter, and Gould called in the story, which we ran alongside a photo of Cazzie Russell, the great basketball player, whose National Guard unit had been called up to patrol the streets. Russell was in fatigues and had a sad look on his face in the picture shot by Jeff Blankfort.
The story of the Fort Hood 43 then vanished. The refusal of 43 soldiers, many of whom had already done tours in Vietnam, to board a plane that would bring them to Chicago for riot-control duty was arguably the largest organized act of dissent ever by US GIs; but nobody covered the ensuing court-martials. The Army lawyers played it smart when it came to filing charges, seeking punishment sufficient to ruin a man’s ability to make a living but not so drastic as to make his court martial newsworthy.
Two months later 27 prisoners at the Presidio of San Francisco stockade held a non-violent sit-in to protest conditions and the fatal shooting of a mentally ill 17-year-old who had jogged away from a work detail. The 27 were charged with mutiny. The first to be tried was sentenced to 16 years, and that got the attention of Life Magazine’s Barry Farrell and your correspondent, among others. But only intrepid Andy Stapp, organizer of the American Serviceman’s Union, would report on the fate of the Fort Hood refusers.
According to antiwar filmmaker David Zeiger, who maintains the Sir, No Sir website, this is what went down:
“Not only were they thrown into the stockade, they were also beaten and clubbed by 60 MPs.
“The major who commands the prison initiated the beatings by swinging his steel helmet into the face of one of the 43. Another soldier, who had been wounded in the kidneys in Vietnam, was beaten in the kidneys by the MPs.
“Fifty-eight of the MPs were white, the two black MPs did not join in the beatings. It is not known if they were punished for not joining in the attack.
“These are some of the facts discovered by Andy Stapp, national president of the American Servicemen's Union, on a visit to Fort Hood.
“Col. Joseph Carroway, one of the officers who negotiated with the GI's, said the GI's felt they were ‘carrying the white man's burden… Most of the grievances were typical of the colored race. They discussed such things as unequal opportunity.
“ ‘It was all most unusual,’ the colonel added.
“Thirty-five of the 43 are being tried by special court-martial and the remaining eight are receiving general court-martial. The 35 are being tried five at a time to minimize the impact of such a large group being tried at once. Several of the groups have been given six-month sentences, the maximum penalty, by the all-white all-brass judge-jury system of the Army. The men were stripped of their rank and fined two-thirds of their pay for each month in prison. They will also be required to serve an extra six months in the Army, since stockade time is bad time.
“The charge against them was not even disobeying a direct order, but not showing up for reveille. They had conducted an all-night meeting on a street corner in the post.
“Most GI's who do not make reveille are given a couple days of KP and a reprimand.”
* * *
All those years ago Josh Gould had mentioned that a lieutenant in a Fort Hood Army Intelligence unit was becoming increasingly sympathetic to GI dissenters. After a stint in Vietnam this officer, whose name was Michael Uhl, would come out as a dissenter himself. In 1970 Uhl helped organize the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes in Vietnam. In 2007 he published a memoir called “Vietnam Awakening,” in which he recounts his futile attempt to help one of the Fort Hood 43. The sad, poignant little chapter is called:
One Saturday morning in August the phone rang early at CI, where I'd spent the night as weekend duty officer. My immediate boss, the deputy G-2, was on the line. I better get my young ass over to the MP lock-up on the double, the major advised. There’d been a "riot" the night before. Scores of black soldiers had gathered in a parking lot, and many refused a direct order to disperse by no less an authority than the commanding general himself. Over 40 arrests had been made. Something to do with Chicago and the men wanting a guarantee that they wouldn't be used there “against their brothers and sisters in the ghetto." The major suspected "outside agitators,” and I was to interview several of the "leaders" to find out who was pulling their strings.
The young black man behind the bars of the cell was a study in contradiction. His summer khakis were crisp and embroidered with the evidence of many service achievements. He had three proud stripes, a buck sergeant, and was heavily decorated. Beneath several rows of ribbons he wore the CIB, the combat infantryman’s badge of honor (in contrast, my breast pocket sported a single commendation, the National Defense or “everybody medal” they give you just for showing up). Lean and handsome, his was an image off a recruitment poster. But his face was broken with fear.
He made up some tale about having been a victim of mistaken identity, asleep in the back seat of his car and rounded up in an MP dragnet just because his skin was black. “Please, Lieutenant” —I wore my rank in conformity with my assignment as duty officer— “Call my company sergeant and have him come pick me up.”
It made me sick to have this combat veteran stand before me and beg for help; everything he’d gained in the army, everything he’d given in Vietnam, counted for nothing now. Singled out as a leader of a petty mutiny, he would be court-martialed, sent to jail, then, very probably, cashiered from the service in disgrace.
I asked a guard if I could use the phone to ring up the young man’s unit. A voice at the other end bellowed, Company such-and-such, this is Sergeant First Class so-and-so, SIR!” I could hear his heavy breathing as I repeated the prisoner’s alibi, telling him he could come and secure the man’s release at his convenience. "Now you listen to me, Lieutenant,” he spat our, the cadence of his words purposely slow and threatening. “I saw that boy there personally and he can rot in that cell before I’ll lift a finger to get him out.”
This was not the response I had anticipated. Foolishly, I imagined that a call from an intelligence officer assigned to corps headquarters would carry some clout, that I could spring this one forlorn trooper whose courage in refusing to be herded off to Chicago to police urban blacks or protesters deserved — in my eyes — an additional medal for his already resplendent chest. What really disturbed me, however, was that this man had been to war, and this was how his country rewarded him.
I was furious and humiliated when I hung up the phone, and easily defeated. Slinking away, I left that soldier his despair and returned to my office knowing that my boss, the deputy G-2, would never follow up on this investigation. He was a cracker who'd come up through the ranks; a mustang, they called them. I’d been out drinking with him once, and the "Negro question" soon dominated the bar chat, as it often did then when Northern and Southern whites sat down to socialize. After a few stiff Bourbons the major bared his teeth…
The case against these men in the major's mind was open and shut long before he put me on the spot that morning. The young sergeant may have been a scoundrel for all I knew; but he stood condemned, as he and I could both agree, as much for his race and pigmentation as for his actions. Twenty-six of those men known as the Fort Hood 43 were convicted and sent to prison, the longest for 10 months, a relatively light sentence, the histories reassure us.