MAKING SOLDIERS: THE BOYS WHO BECAME THE MEN
On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized public opinion in favor of war. In June 1942, a “New York at War” parade up Fifth Avenue attracted about 500,000 participants and 2.5 million spectators. The parade was intended, according to The New York Times, to “visualize the magnitude and intensity of the city’s contribution to all phases of the war program.” The Times pointed out that the crowd was larger than in “any other single American city with the exception of Chicago, and there were twice as many people along Fifth Avenue as live in Detroit or Los Angeles.”1 By 1943, it was estimated that 600,000 New Yorkers were in the armed services.2 By one account, some 800,000 New Yorkers served in the military overall during the war years.3 For many children of these World War II veterans, their parents’ military service was a conspicuous point of pride.
The New York veteran Ed German is a painter and the host of a public radio jazz program that airs on WPPB, on Long Island. He lives comfortably on Long Island, in a home filled with works of art and the music he loves so much. He is both a public and a private personality, carefully sharing stories that reveal bits and pieces about himself and the world he grew up in. Recently, he published his autobiography, Deep Down in Brooklyn. He says of himself, “I don’t consider myself an African American. I am an American Negro. We’ve been Slaves and Nigras and Niggers and Colored and Spades and Spooks and Coons and Splibs and Afro Americans and Blacks, but Negro conclusively describes for me who I am and the journey that my continental ancestors took.”4
German’s parents, originally working in agriculture, were from Georgia and came from a large family: Between my mother and my father, he says, I had twenty-two aunts and uncles, eleven on each side of the family.
German’s family left the South in the early 1940s, as part of the great African American migration to the North. They moved first to southern New Jersey, where his father worked as a sharecropper. The African American population in New York City had more than doubled from 1900 to 1920 and then doubled again in the 1920s. By 1940, African Americans represented 6 percent of the city’s total population.5 They would make Harlem famous as a cultural enclave, but they also populated many other neighborhoods, like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
Eventually, the German family moved to Brooklyn. Ed’s father got a job as a building superintendent there, and his mother did domestic work. German was born at 533 Halsey Street in Bed-Stuy. His father, born in 1916, had fought in both the European and the Pacific theaters as part of a quartermaster company, picking up some French and German language skills along the way. All his uncles served in the war as well. German has never forgotten learning about his father’s service.
When I was a little boy living on Willoughby Avenue and my parents used to leave the house, we kids often would do what my mother and father [called] plundering. We’d just go up into their room and just looking at stuff, you know, opening doors and closets. And I remember one day I looked in my dad’s closet, and I saw his old Army uniform. It was in a clothing bag. I unzipped it, and I looked, and I said wow. I was only about eight years old when I saw it. I saw the medals on the outside of it, and then I looked in the inside jacket, in the inside pocket of the jacket, and there was a little leather folder in there, and I pulled this leather folder out, and I looked in it, and his Honorable Discharge was in there.
After the discovery of his uniform, German senior began to share stories of his war experience. They left a lasting impression, especially the story of his war wound.
He got shot one day in the wrist. And he told us the story. He said while he was in Germany, I think, he said he had bought a new watch. I forgot the name of the watch, but it was a really stylish kind of watch to have at that time, and he said he bought a new watch. And he was driving the jeep and he had his left hand holding on to the top of the window of the driver’s side window and he was showing off his new watch, you know, because he was—that’s what he said, he said he was showing off his watch. And he was just driving along and a bullet hit him in his wrist. And he used to show us a small bullet mark on his leg, too. I don’t know how he got that one. But he was over there from 1943 to 1946. He came home in 1946.
German would later write in his memoir: “I can see from all of this that he’s been somewhere far away and done something important.”6 By the time German returned home from Vietnam in June 1969 with his own military discharge papers and the Purple Heart medal he’d earned for being wounded in action, the idea of the uniform as a symbol of pride had changed drastically for him.
The historian Joshua Freeman writes, “In the memories and memoirs of working-class New Yorkers, the neighborhood looms large.”7 This certainly seems to be true for the Vietnam veteran John Flanagan, who was born on November 6, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York. He recalls his home and the surrounding area with a degree of bitterness mixed with anger. In his memory, the block was mainly Irish, although there were a significant number of Puerto Rican families too, and the overcrowding was intense, with as many as four families sharing a two-bedroom apartment and adults sleeping in shifts.
I was the fifth child of first-generation Irish. All four grandparents came from Ireland. Most of the uncles worked “longshore” or became policemen … my father worked for the city in the Parks Department. We lived on Fortieth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. It was my grandmother’s house. My grandmother lived on the top floor. We had the second floor and the basement. We didn’t have a lot of money at all. Money was tight, and I mean all the time. Having a grandmother living on the top floor who owns the house didn’t make it any easier. She was a widow and always had one or the other of her sisters that were maidens that were living up there.
Since we lived in the house with her, we were always no good, and all of my cousins, since they didn’t live there, they were always so good. So we were always being told how bad we were and how good they were.
Flanagan had two sisters and a brother, who was two years older than he was. Shortly after Flanagan’s first birthday, his brother died.8
That sort of destroyed my father. He was just bitter, drank an awful lot, and we had some really terrible times with him. Although I recognize all of the things he went through—what I had to go through with him—I just absolutely hated him. I hated the house and to be there with him.
When they got the autopsy, they found that [my brother] had some kind of lead poisoning. It wasn’t until my mother died [and] we were going through some stuff that I came across the letter from the doctor and the results of the autopsy.
I got a remembrance of the funeral; he was laid out in my grandmother’s living room, my mother’s parents. They lived above a delicatessen. I’ve got a memory of that—of seeing a baby lying in a crib and the baby not moving—from an angle of being real low, and later on I find out that when he died, they laid him out in their front room and it took two days to get a children’s coffin in. So they in fact did lay him out in a cradle.
Immediately after his brother’s death, his parents became very protective, but as he got older, the Flanagans began to loosen their grip a bit, and Flanagan participated in the kinds of urban street games that many children played in that era.
We were playing stickball all the time. You sort of watched them from the sidewalk forever, and then when you got old enough where they trusted you to count and keep score, you could be the scorekeeper, and then when they needed somebody on the outfield or something like that [you could go into the game]. So it was a lot of fun sort of growing up there. We played that and we played box-ball, you know, Chinese handball.
Eventually, a portion of Flanagan’s street was removed to enable the building of the Gowanus Parkway. It cut right through a large swath of the Sunset Park, Brooklyn, neighborhood he grew up in. While the construction project is often blamed for devastating the neighborhood, in the eyes of a young Flanagan it opened all kinds of potential for fun. It became “Contractor Central,” as he calls it, with all its materials and equipment. Flanagan and his friends cleared out a big area, moving rocks and rubble so they could create their own urban baseball diamond.
While his father did not serve in World War II, Flanagan was influenced by other veterans who fed his patriotic pride.
I remember on Flag Day and Memorial Day having to help my father string a gigantic American flag from my grandmother’s two top windows on the top floor that would hang down almost to the basement. I mean, this was a humongous flag and very heavy, too.
Joey lived upstairs, and he didn’t have a father. His father was killed during World War II. I thought that was just “Wow; he’s got a hero father.” Plus, I had an uncle who was a tail gunner on a Flying Fortress that got shot down and bailed out over Germany. He and his crew, on the anniversary of the shoot-down, would do a conference call with all of the guys. My uncle Frankie and my uncle Herbie, they were in the Navy.
My father, he stayed home; so he didn’t sit very well with me at all, because everybody else was a hero and my father is a turd sitting back. Later I found out that because he was the oldest son in the family, he had to go to work and support my grandmother because she was a widow.
At the same time, Flanagan recalls the anxieties of the early Cold War years. For him, patriotic pride mixed with a desire to participate in correcting the problem.
I vividly remember sitting on the stoop at my girlfriend’s house on Fourth Avenue and Forty-Fourth Street. We listened to Kennedy talking during the missile crisis and having the sense that it’s going to blow up; we’re going to have a nuclear exchange, and that’s going to be the end. We’re going to die within two days. I remember those things and wanting to do something about it.
I was very happy to be an American and I understood what it meant and I understood the freedoms that I got. I ain’t got much, but I got a lot of freedoms that other people don’t. I could do the right thing, I could protect people, and I could eventually get married and have some kids and a car and maybe get a house on the island like my brother did. So that’s where the patriotism came. Of course, growing up Catholic, every morning we said the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer; I mean, that’s just the way it is. You waved flags; you went to parades; you were proud to see your uncles marching in the Veterans Day Parade, and that … patriotism is there.
However, given the family’s relative poverty and what he describes as a constricted sense of his personal horizons, he didn’t believe that he had much of a future to look forward to.
My goals were so limited. What I thought I was going to be able to do was nothing. I remember the view of my life that I had in my head; I could see a block of, you know, eight years, which is elementary school, and then the four-year block that’s half the size as, you know, high school, and then it was just black. There was nothing—you know, nothing at the end; there was no mountain to go up; there was no “here’s what I want to be when I grow up.” You take a look; your uncles are cops and that stuff and you say, “Okay; I’ll probably end up being a cop.”
By 1965, the military seemed a natural and appropriate way out.
While the U.S. military sent advisers to Vietnam in the mid-1950s and there were more than sixteen thousand American personnel there by 1963, the American war effort significantly expanded shortly afterward. Following alleged attacks on U.S. Navy patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964, authorizing President Johnson to use force, at his discretion, to protect South Vietnam. As a result, the Selective Service began to conscript larger and larger numbers of New Yorkers. At the time, certain groups of young men, college students and parents of young children among them, were allowed to defer the draft. Those who had completed their high school education and had not enrolled in college (or perhaps had left college for one reason or another) were the first to be drafted.9
After Flanagan graduated from high school, his certainty that he would be drafted increased. As the war in Vietnam grew, some friends and co-workers of draft age were maneuvering to get into the National Guard and reserve units. He and his friends took a number of the appropriate civil service exams. Flanagan did well but was told he would have to work on his physical fitness, not something he was inclined to do. Instead, he and his buddies visited various recruiters, because they were told that the recruiters might be able to steer them into their preferred branch of service. After listening to all the pitches offered, and hearing repeatedly that he would need to sign up for four years for the more interesting service options, including officers’ training, he decided to schedule a date for his induction into the military, effectively volunteering for the draft. As he writes in his autobiography, “This way I knew I was going to go soon, but that it would be only for 2 years.”10 Draftees served for two years; volunteers for three.
Postwar baby boomers were influenced by a generation that had confronted incredible challenges. In 1932, as a result of the Great Depression, one-third of the city’s manufacturing facilities had shut down, and 1.6 million New Yorkers were receiving some form of relief.11 In a piece written in 1955, the New York Times writer Meyer Berger would describe a resilient city that had just gone through “the tensest quarter-century in her 302 municipal years. In that period,” Berger wrote, the city “struggled out of black depression’s pit to her greatest opulence. She maintained her population lead and painfully let out her stays to prevent utter traffic strangulation. She tore down more slums in those twenty-five years than in any other quarter-century in her history; replaced them with airier housing set in green playgrounds and doubled her park space.” In this era, the Lincoln, Queens-Midtown, and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels were dug, along with additional routes out of Manhattan. That quarter century also saw the construction of the George Washington, Triboro, and Bronx-Whitestone Bridges and the completion of the Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue subways. As the war removed the last vestiges of the Great Depression, it brought new tensions and fears, including worries about blackouts, threats of a water shortage, and a rise in delinquency.12 But there was work to be done and a hungry population willing to do it. Working-class New Yorkers labored in factories and served on the police force; they worked to keep the transportation systems running and the city sanitary. They would also become grandparents and parents, raising the generation that would eventually be asked to serve in Vietnam.
Edward Blanco, a retired government worker, was born in Manhattan but raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My mother and father are from Puerto Rico, he says. They met here in this country. His father arrived in New York City after completing his U.S. military service in 1946, and his mother arrived in the same year. During that time, there was a surge of immigrants from Puerto Rico into the continental United States, New York City especially.
Blanco lived on West Twenty-Ninth Street until his parents’ marriage failed, when he moved with his mother and sister to the Sumner Avenue public housing projects, in Brooklyn, where he lived until he went to Vietnam. His mother worked in the garment district as a seamstress. Many first- and second-generation Jewish and Italian workers who had dominated the garment industry until that time had retired or left the business. This meant new employment opportunities for minorities, including Puerto Ricans, and African Americans, and women like Ms. Blanco.
Blanco recalls the projects where he grew up as a tough neighborhood.
It’s low-income families. At that time, there were no doctors or lawyers or, you know, any professionals living in the projects. There were people who worked in factories; my mother worked as a seamstress. People were on public assistance. When I first moved into the projects, there [were] a few nonblack or Hispanic families, but very, very few. The projects were brand-new; they had just built them. And so there were a few Jewish families and a few Italian families, but within four or five years they were gone. There was a Jewish family that was there much longer. They were, like, older people, and I guess they didn’t have anyplace else to go. But it was mostly black and Hispanic families.
As he thinks back, he remembers how he and his friends were outside all the time, playing in the parks—softball especially. There were a lot of drugs in the neighborhood, and kids occasionally had run-ins with the police and with the youth gangs in the area.
My project had a gang. Just to give you an idea of what kind of neighborhood I lived in. All the projects had their own gangs, and the neighborhoods had their own gangs. And the gang that was in my proj-ect was called the Buccaneers—mostly a black gang with some Latinos and Puerto Ricans—and then there was the Chaplains, there was the Stompers, there was the Black Knights. The Buccaneers were a relatively small gang, but they were pretty fierce. And we would get invaded by Stompers and Chaplains in the nighttime in the summer and spring.
One time the Stompers came to my project. There had been a gang fight, and [the Buccaneers] killed a Stomper in front of my project building, a seventeen-year-old kid who had just graduated from high school that summer. He was supposedly the president of the Stompers. We had chains to separate the grass from the walkways, and people used to take those chains, cut them, and use them as weapons. And what I heard was they stomped and chained him and they killed him with the chain. Soon after that the Stompers lost another guy. He was knifed and killed by the Buccaneers. Now they had lost two guys.
I wasn’t into any gangs, but I knew guys in the Buccaneers; it was good to know them. [Laughs.] And I saw this guy coming. I always remember because he’s got white pants on, a dark shirt, and, like, a little hat—like a straw hat, and he’s got a cane. [Gestures.] And I see him walking and he gets past the first light and then he enters the second light and he’s walking, but then as he leaves, like, the second light, I see in the first light where he has been about five, six, or seven guys. So I said, “Holy shit; I think these are the Stompers coming back and this guy might be with them. I don’t know who the fuck he is.” And he comes up and he says, “Do any of you motherfuckers jitterbug?”
And I panicked … just took off because I … didn’t know what these guys were going to do. So he yelled out, “Get that motherfucker,” and I was running. I was like sixteen years old or something, and I was running like crazy. And they started chasing me, and I ran into a building and I ran up to my apartment and I didn’t have the key and they caught me. But when they saw me, they saw I wasn’t the Buccaneer. But they got pissed because I had made them run and chase me, and he said, “Let’s kick his fucking ass.” And the other guy said, “Nah.” Anyway, they argued about it for like a second or two, and they just took off.
I knew people who died of ODs and stuff like that. But most of my closest friends and I stuck to playing softball. We didn’t get into any heavy drug use or gangs. We had a softball team, and we just kind of stayed out of that kind of trouble.
Blanco attended the local junior high school and had the gift of a math teacher, Mr. Gibson, who had a tremendous impact on his life. Mr. Gibson wanted more minorities to get into one of New York’s selective high schools, Brooklyn Tech, in Fort Greene. So he identified several young boys to groom for admission into the school. He took these children under his wing and tutored them, gave them additional homework, and tried to push them academically. They took the admissions test in the eighth grade and failed. So he pushed them twice as hard. In ninth grade, Blanco and three others passed the admissions test and started Tech in the tenth grade.
It was me, this guy Jeff, and Arthur; we went to Brooklyn Tech, which was a very good high school. I didn’t realize it at the time. I mean, I didn’t even think about those things. But it made a difference.
While World War II stories did influence Blanco and push him toward military service, he remembers that his father’s story probably involved as much invention as truth.
I would visualize that he was in action, but later on I realized he didn’t really see any close-up action. He may have been on an island that got bombed or something, but … he had a little vaccination scar here. And when I was a little kid, he told me it was a bullet wound.
He also links the images of war on the silver screen to his own interest in the service.
I would watch a lot of World War II movies, you know, John Wayne and everything. And then when the news started talking about Vietnam, it caught my interest and I was in high school. In ’65, I was just graduating; it was my last year in high school, and that’s when the Marines landed [in Da Nang] in March of ’65. And I was just paying attention to it, and even before that I was paying attention to it. I was just, “There’s something going on here.” And I kind of was getting interested in joining.
By the time Blanco graduated, a lot of his slightly older friends from the neighborhood were already gone. They had either joined the service or been drafted. While Blanco could have gone to college, he decided not to. Everyone in his class at Brooklyn Tech was planning on college, and they thought he was crazy. But Blanco wanted to serve. At age seventeen he asked his mother to sign the papers to allow him to go into the military. She refused. He had to wait until he was eighteen.
He got a job with ITT, bringing in $72 a week—good money at the time. He also took the test to qualify for work at the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and while he did well on the exam, he found he couldn’t work there until he was eighteen. He returned to the MTA when he turned eighteen and got an offer for $112 a week (it was the starting salary), more than his mother was making. Thinking he ought to stay home and help his mother, he took the job but quickly began to reconsider his decision.
The war was blowing up, and my friends were all there, two of them were already in Vietnam. And I said, “Nah, I’m going to go.” I really wanted to go there; I wanted the adventure of it, you know. Throughout the ages, young boys have been wanting to go to war for the adventure and the excitement; I’m no different.
At first he aspired to be a Marine, in part because he loved those old movies so much.
They ate up my mind. I wanted to be a Marine, and they were an elite unit. I was going to go into battle and be with an elite unit; I don’t want to be with some scrubs that got drafted, you know. That’s the way I’m thinking back then. I don’t feel that way about draftees now, but back then … But I said, “I’m not going to join for four years. I just don’t want to join.” So I did a lot of research, and I realized that Airborne to me was an elite unit, too, you know. And if I got drafted, I could volunteer for Airborne; that means I would be in an Airborne unit, like the 101st Screaming Eagles. And to me that’s as good as being in the Marines.
I figured I was going to get drafted eventually; everybody was getting drafted—everybody. I was 1-A [immediately available for military service]. But I couldn’t wait; so I found out that I could volunteer to be drafted. I went down to the draft board and waited until they opened, got in, and volunteered to be drafted. I didn’t tell my mother or anything. I just made believe that I had gotten drafted.
The Hamill family, from Brooklyn, are well-known in New York. Pete, the oldest of seven, is a widely acclaimed novelist and has had a long career in journalism. In 1965 he covered the war as a reporter. He went on to write for The Village Voice, New York Newsday, and the New York Daily News.
Pete’s brother John, now in his sixties, works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a director of external affairs. He has a full head of gray hair and walks with a limp at times due to the shrapnel that remains embedded in his knee, a gift of the North Vietnamese. When we spoke about his Combat Medical Badge, John told me that it was the only medal I ever received that meant something to me. He wanted that badge for the hard-earned knowledge it represented, just as he wanted to serve.
I met John through his younger brother Denis, who is a New York Daily News columnist. In 2004, Denis wrote a column about John’s service in Dak To in 1967—one of the bloodiest battles of the war. They agreed to sit down and talk to me about the Brooklyn they grew up in and the impact Vietnam had on their lives. We met in Denis’s home in Queens.
John described himself as one of the lucky guys. I got to experience Vietnam and the ’60s both here and abroad, and I’m still on my feet. I mean, I’ve done some damage, you’d say, since, but I consider myself lucky.
Denis explains further:
I did a column about this a couple of years ago. I was walking with my little guy, and I stopped to look at this wall where we [his childhood friends] all used to carve our names in the wall with can openers. I was fifty years old, and I looked at it and I said, “Holy shit. All these guys are dead.” Glen blew his head off. Bat died on drugs, got hit by a car, you know. The Doyle brothers are all dead, about four of them. And there’s just an endless march of guys from AIDS and from shooting dope. And it is just an endless parade of guys who were my friends in the ’60s who are all gone.
Denis described the Brooklyn he grew up in as a collection of small towns: a big, notorious place, with clearly delineated neighborhoods, like the one he lived in. Now known as Park Slope, when the Hamills lived there it was simply called South Brooklyn. John says:
It was a really small world. [The] same kind of hermetically sealed feel that you had in some bad ghettos, you know. So you didn’t feel poor, because nobody had much. I mean, you could play ball and make people move their car if it was on the corner.
They lived and played on the street:
John: The fucking house was so hot.
Denis: There was no such thing as a playdate.
John: [Laughs.] That didn’t exist. The playdate was “Get the fuck off of that.” My mother wouldn’t let us stay in the house, because we would wreck it. So we’d go out and come back in when it’s dinnertime.
It was a neighborhood, as my brother Pete described—but it’s very accurate—that the Depression never left. It was a place that never got to boom time, postwar, or any of that. So it was factory and dockworkers, essentially; some civil servants. I mean, we didn’t know any white-collar people hardly.
As boys from the neighborhood became men, they sometimes did better than their parents, moving into civil service or back-office jobs on Wall Street or becoming police officers or sanitation workers or taking other uniformed service jobs.
Denis portrays his brother John as a young man who dreamed of moving beyond Brooklyn and beyond the Staten Island housing project where they lived for a time. He recalls John reading I. F. Stone’s Weekly, the New Left magazine Ramparts, and Paul Krassner’s Realist as well as newspapers like the Daily News and The New York Times. To Denis this seemed very unusual for a seventeen-year-old.
He had this sense of history about Vietnam when it happened that it was the biggest event of his generation.
He was really smart and I was a fuckup. I mean, school for me was a big pain in the ass, and I was more interested in chicks and sports and eventually drugs and everything else. But Johnnie became very politicized during the war. He was in his teens. We’d go to these meetings in church basements in Bay Ridge. I remember going to one where there was a guy from the Green Berets speaking to all the pink-faced men in Bay Ridge and Johnnie stood up in the middle of them all and told them what [he] thought about it, the war. He stood up in this room full of guys and he was booed down and the people were telling him he was a pacifist and a punk and all that kind of stuff. I remember that very clearly.
John recalled the same incident:
I said, you know, “I don’t think this is such a great idea.” I didn’t think that we had the justification yet, you know. It was “Show me.” Weeks later, John joined the military, thinking he might as well see for himself. And there were other influences as well.
You want to run away from home when you’re seventeen, you know. That’s part of it. And it is a rite of passage in America, isn’t it? I mean, in Brooklyn to, you know, join the military.
I was a sophomore in high school the day Kennedy got killed, and four years later, to the day, I was in Vietnam. So, you know, after Kennedy and when that started, I said, “This is going to be the defining moment. There’s no question about it.” This country’s never going to be the same, the world’s never going to be the same, and it’s like missing the last boat; you know, in a way I thought it was, you know, our generation’s event. I didn’t feel such an obligation so much as I felt a sense of wanting ownership of the facts of it, you know, to be able to say, “I know what this is about. I don’t speculate about it. I don’t have opinions. I have experiences.”
For Denis, John’s choice was enormously painful:
I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I wept because it was the end of our childhood. I mean, it was, we were just getting into marijuana and the Beatles and, you know, and Donovan and Dylan and all of that and the ’60s were here and we were having a great time and he was going to Kingsborough [Community College]. And boom, he dropped out of school and went into a recruitment station and joined the Army and then went Airborne.
The Hamill family actively tried to dissuade John from reporting for his swearing in. John recalls:
May 8, which is my brother Brian’s birthday, of 1967 was the day I was officially inducted into the Army at Fort Hamilton in New York. Had been a big party the night before, where my older brother took out three grand in cash and says, “Here, take this and go somewhere, but don’t go in the Army.” Well [laughs] … [it was the] first of several decisions I still question, but at any rate …
I wanted to do it.
Copyright © 2013 by Philip F. Napoli