The African American War Experience: From a Soldier's Son
Profilers: Haylie Hunt, Nicole Avendano, Ben Sussman, Kian Stevenson
Growing Up During the War
“So my name is David Ralston, and my relationship with the Vietnam War stems from my father, Richard Ralston, who’s still alive, still with us, who served in the Vietnam War in the early sixties.”
What were your opinions on the war?
“So I’m going to answer your questions from the point of view, not only growing up hearing, or not hearing from him, but also growing up, I was born in 1966. So pretty much as the war was getting into, you know, increasing and living, you know, growing up in the shadow of that war. So it impacted me in a lot of different ways, going up through the, um, sixties and the seventies. So we’ll be talking from that perspective. So I grew up born in Los Angeles, California, but also lived in New York, Rochester, New York. And so we always knew, me and my brother, you know, heard stories of my dad was in the Vietnam War. Like I said, from the early sixties, and often would wear his military, you know, green jacket with the stripes on. And, uh, occasionally let us know what happened in the war, but even beyond that, what was interesting is how much we were, the war was raging in the background, but how much of that didn’t really, it only came through in intermediate waves in terms of daily life.”
“I remember distinctly seeing army trucks driving down the highways in the United States with, you know, newly minted soldiers coming from the bootcamp getting ready to be sent off. So we were distinctly aware that this whole buildup was going on around us. The nightly news at the time, you know, black and white TV back then, so we’d always see stories of footage of Vietnam and Walter Cronkite and imports of various massacres and shootings and, as well as a protest. So all of this was swirling around. I think you’ll find out, I mean, my father has experienced, what we learned as kids was, you don’t ask questions about it. He doesn’t want to talk, you know, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Otherwise he would be here being interviewed instead of myself, you know, there’s a lot of trauma, post traumatic things that have to be reconciled with, even though he was, he was there pretty much early on and you can ask more questions, you know, you can kind of ask more questions as you go along.”
“One thing that that was very personal in the war was one of my friends growing up, his father was well known as one of the scientists at University of Wisconsin, Madison in the mass science building who was, who was killed during a homegrown bombing by anti-war protesters at the University of Wisconsin. So they, people blew out the mass science building because of its affiliation with the war efforts. And, you know, we learned that they thought, I think it was the Weather Underground. They assumed that the mass science building was empty, it was like, you know, two o’clock in the morning, but this guy, Chris Fassnacht, his dad was the only one doing research in the building and, you know, unfortunately perished in that explosion. So, yeah, so that really brought home like, wow, this, you know, this war going on, you know, halfway around the world has these kind of ramifications that, that we had to make us ask questions and try to understand what’s, you know, what’s this all about?”
“Another way that it impacted me growing up was, immediately, I think right after the war, there was a lot of Vietnamese refugees who came to America. So, I began to get acquainted with a lot of families. I was living in Wisconsin at the time. And so a lot of refugees came in and so some of my friends at the time, Tu Tron and his family, you know, so all of a sudden we’re growing, you know, we were, as Americans exposed to the new Vietnamese culture for the first time, you know. I’ve heard stories, a lot of people, Vietnamese, went to Louisiana because of the shrimp fishing industry. And you know, different parts of the country, I guess, orange County, obviously, but that was, you know, so to have friends and their family, and just the air about what they went through in this kind of surrounding them.
And you just feel this, you can just feel the kind of lingering impacts of the war, even though they had to escape. And you know, it just, if you’re in America, you know, it’s a different kind of experience that we’re sheltered from.”
Looking back on growing up during the war.
“You know, when you look back at the history, I mean the war, the war started getting really bad, you know, in 1968, early seventies, so I saw the news flash, like totally saw the caravans of soldiers. But at that time as kids, we were, you could easily turn the channel. And I think my dad and parents did that on purpose. This was the start of Sesame street and some of these shows like that, that are really putting you into this, in this whole brave new world, this whole utopia kind of situation. So, it’s kind of just funny that we’re being exposed to that. Meanwhile, behind the scenes there are war protests on the campuses, there’s people getting shot at Ken State there’s the different offenses and massacres in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of soldiers going, but yeah, I didn’t perceive that, per se. And I know that my, my dad was like I said not, and you got to understand, let me back up too, my dad was, he’s, African-American, a black man from the South, went directly to the Vietnam war from the South after trying to keep extending his deferment. But knowing that, you know, very aware of the racism of the country and very aware that, you know, as a black man, he was much more targeted to get drafted or not being able to stay in different kinds of school programs, and things like that.”
“So, I think that experience and going to Vietnam and then coming back, which happened to a lot of soldiers where, you know, they don’t, you don’t feel the, you know, you come back and then the peace movement is starting up the anti-war protest and people are, you know, these images, people spitting on soldiers and protesting the planes as they come back and making, you know, so people, the soldiers would feel like they’re being called traitors or this or that by the hippies and whatnot. So it was like something, you know, you just feel bewildered. And, and for him, it was like a double antagonism, coming back to a country that’s also going through the civil rights movement and then the anti-war movement. So it’s not something that you want to come back and advertise that you were a Vietnam soldier. So in that respect, he didn’t take us to, you know, at that time I was at UCLA campus around there. And I don’t know if there were sit ins and things like that. And they did have groups like soldiers against the war and stuff like that. But, we avoided going, I didn’t go to any of those kinds of things as a kid. So I think that was, you know, pretty much intentional.”
Insight Into Service
Was he informed what he was fighting for?
“Well, my understanding it was, um, it was big and also because at the time it was not characterized as a war. So, you know, a lot of people went in initially, like, even gung ho like, you know, this is to stop the dominoes of communism, following the French. And I think what I gathered from my dad was that the impact of JFK and service to your country, it had a big impact. So there was, it was a deal of patriotism involved. But of course, nobody wants to go to war. Nobody wants to be stationed out there.”
“And, I think my dad, his approach was because it was early on. He could already see the writing on the wall. Like this was, this was gonna turn into, it’s kept every year, more and more American soldiers were dying and getting further in there. This is after the Cuban missile crisis. So the tensions already, you know, the cold war kind of tension is ratcheting up. I think he, he made the strategic, this is a story he told us, he made this strategic choice after initially getting drafted to volunteer for assignment in Vietnam. Cause at first he was drafted and he was in bases in Hawaii and Guam as they’re starting, bringing in incidentally, they were bringing in the dioxin chemicals later known as agent orange so they’re starting already to stockpile those, you know, tens of thousands of tons every year, bringing those in. So you could kind of see, and you could feel the tension, but he volunteered for assignment in Vietnam because he made a calculation. If he waited to be assigned or get drafted, it happened with a lot of black soldiers and other soldiers, you’d be put into a combat frontline position. So he wanted to volunteer. So he could use education that he had and do more like, you know, logistics, operations and things like that.”
“So as far as what they’re fighting for, yeah, I don’t think it was clear. I mean, you kind of, you know, everybody, you have the propaganda, you’re fighting to stop the, the commies and they’re gonna, you know, take over the world.”
His military experience was more logistical?
“So he was there, I think 61 to 64. So at that time he was based in Saigon and he was, you know, they were ramping up. So he was part of the operation of, like I said, bringing in, at least from what I understand, the helicopters, the different bases that they’re expanding, there’s chemical weapons.”
“So it was at that time, I think the South Vietnamese, so one of the major, a couple stories that really stick out in my mind, that he experienced at that time was the self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk, this was about 1962, I believe. And so that really, that was a monumental event because I think that was so profound for Americans back home and for John F. Kennedy and like, you know, this was kind of a threshold moment. And I think it led to the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government at that time. And so that really started kicking things off as far as the tensions and the fighting. But I know he felt like in Saigon, it was already like being in a war zone because there was so much tension and there’s multiple enemies. I mean, you didn’t know if it was a friend or the North Vietnamese or the South Vietnamese fighting, the Buddhist rebels or what was going on there. So he almost, you know, I think he said something like, it was like a 360 degree, being in a 360 degree war. You’re not exactly sure what is going on.”
What was his turning point?
“What he did indicate was a huge turning point for him and for a lot of other black veterans. I mean, like, so one thing – I should back up – is like his family, my uncles, his brother, they fought in the Korea War, so there’s a big tradition of serving in the army as a way of actually getting ahead and getting professional skills and stuff like that. So it wasn’t, my dad was really interested to get into, even considering the Peace Corps or do kind of like, international work, more in terms of helping people, not killing people, but the army was definitely, it was seen as a positive professional development avenue. But I think a big turning point for him and a lot of black veterans was I think even before 1968, but when Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam war, you know, those kinds of things. And I don’t know about the, Muhammad Ali stuff, I don’t know if that came later. But I think a lot of black veterans started getting politicized once they got to Vietnam and started hearing some of this stuff that was happening back home.”
Life After Service
Did he keep a diary?
“I don’t think he kept a diary. What he has been doing is, what’s interesting is he had the opportunity to go back to Vietnam a couple of years ago. So 57 years after he was, you know, some 50 years afterwards as kind of a remembrance and trying to come to terms with what happened and visit old sites and things like that and that bring it brought forth a lot of memories and, reconnecting with, you know, I think some of the things that struck him were, one, how almost forgiving people in Vietnam that he met seemed to be, not, you know, like, and he, I think he felt like he didn’t really feel any personal guilt. At least he didn’t have to, from what I know, he didn’t have to engage in any kind of, you know, actual shooting or anything like that.”
“But also, things like how in Vietnam, you know, it’s called the American war. So the whole notion of, the Vietnam war, well, for Vietnamese to see America, the American war. Cause you know, we came there. Yeah. So, yeah, I don’t think he ever, he never told me if he kept a diary or anything like that. I never, I never saw anything. I never saw anything like that. He took photographs. He did, he did a lot of photography. I think kind of to a little bit to your question when he went back and I’ve seen all the photos and images when he went back and the things that struck, and I know people hear this all the time, but things that immediately come backward, like smells and the particularly different types of foods and the smells. And like you said, that the sounds and the music, you know, here, like really brought back like some of the popular music songs at the time and made him really want to. He remembered even some of the Vietnamese language that he learned and he was telling me stories about, I guess the language like, even to say water is like so many different realities and meanings and stuff like that. And just, kind of anecdotes like that, that brings back, you know, cause you know, when you’re there for years you start to pick up a lot of the language and then you forget it. And now you kind of just to remember it.”
Did your father share any impactful stories?
“One thing that, that stuck out is, that’s not his story so much, but sometimes we’d have other – later on we’d have other Vietnam vets come by. One guy, one guy told me he, he went to Vietnam later, but he was in, I guess as it became a little bit more, you know, Vietnam was the first war that wasn’t that segregated, but there was still like, you know, de facto segregation, some of these units. And I think after 65, a lot more blacks were being drafted. I think it was almost a cynical move to lower the education threshold. So hundreds of thousands of more blacks were being drafted into the war. So it really became more political. But this guy, this gentleman was part of a, almost like a green beret, like special ops unit or something like that. Well, they were like a unit of black soldiers and he told me how they were basically sent on like suicide missions with the expectation that they know you’re not gonna make it back, you know, like let’s send these units in because we don’t want to send anybody else.”
“Then, you know, it’s okay if they go on a suicide mission, but these guys were so badass that they would succeed in all their missions to the point where, airline, I mean the pilots and the white soldiers who got in trouble, they call for this unit to come get them out of trouble because they knew these guys, you know, would do it. They knew, you know, it sounds like a good play for TV. So yeah, those are, those are the kinds of, um, memories.”
“And then just the, the juxtaposition, like I keep going back at that time between, you seeing the Apollo moon mission on TV, that’s something that’s very prevalent in my mind seeing the astronauts going on the moon and then the next second, the news is going to soldiers with the rifles going through the Vietnam rice patties or the famous images of the napalm girl or the, that guy who got shot on the street. Yeah. So, you kind of see, you know, and then we’ll go to Sesame street and everything’s, you know.”
“So it was like really, really weird, like, what is reality where you know, where we’re here and then, and then you start to see the campus protests and in the anti-war movement, all of this stuff was swirling around at the same time. And, um, yeah. So those are some of the stories.”
“I mean, for myself, I mean, definitely like when I came up age where we were under fear of being drafted for the Gulf war. So this had been, yeah, this would have been in the eighties and they were talking about reinstating a draft, you know, for the Gulf war to have friends going to that. And you know, so the whole, just at that time, it was like, we definitely want to figure out how not to go. I mean, the same thing, like the famous lines from the people in like late sixties and stuff was like, ‘you got to get good grades or die’. You know, it’s like, if you don’t, if you’re not gonna stay at school and get good grades, make yourself mobile for the draft and, it’d be thrown out to, some warfront. So, yeah, so it was a, it was a good reminder to, you know, the benefits of school and things like that.”