Living, Perhaps Dying in Color
Profilers: Kai Baird Hewus, David Islas, Alana Seneviratne, Carolyn Tran
Introduction and Context
Gerri: My name is Gerri Lumsden, I am 73 years old and I am currently retired and loving it, I am retired from Porsche North America, I am a veteran of the US Navy. That’s probably all the news that’s fit to print. I live in suburban Atlanta, I was born and raised in suburban Boston so if you detect an accent that’s what it is.
What shaped your perspective on the war in the early stages?
Gerri: I was thinking about this earlier and what shaped my viewpoint and my perspective about the war when it was going on. I was born at the end of 1949, in the baby boom, and everybody, everybody in the neighborhood all the dads and uncles and anybody you met were Veterans of World War Two and that was one of the talking points breaking the ice. When they got together it was “did you serve?”, “where were you stationed?” and then they’d share stories and stuff. So war was always present but until Vietnam it was always the guys talking about funny incidents, and my dad talking about the Navy WAVES (the Women’s Reserves) which were women which is what I ended up being one later on. Funny things the tricks that they and hijinks and all that, and the movies that you saw they weren’t real blood and gore, people got shot and people got blown up and stuff like that, but it was all about glory.
Like I said war was not a foreign concept to us and but it was not the horror that we came to see about Vietnam. But as the years went by it became more and more prevalent because we were sending aid and we were sending troops eventually. It was on the nightly news, every night every channel. My parents used to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS and he would tell you how many Americans died, and he tell you how many enemies were killed, and it was propaganda. But you saw the films, nobody had color TV at that point, but it was people being medevacked off out of a war zone that they called it an ‘LZ’ which was a landing zone where the choppers would come down and pick up the dead and the wounded, there’s the medic running along next to the stretcher with the IV bag, people bleeding and it was a nightly occurrence to the point where and you would think when you look at that that you would be horrified and stunned and shocked by it. We ate dinner watching it. You became callous to it. It was just one of those things that was going on. I’ve wondered since then especially since becoming a mother of a boy, that how did mothers ever watch the nightly news, what if you saw your son?
Defining an Anti-War Stance
Would you say you were anti-war at the time?
Gerri: There were kids in there, kids that I went to high school with that died there. Kids I knew I mean, I didn’t know him well, but I knew him. There was one in our neighborhood, and he had a sister and a brother that was same age as my sister and brother, but he was my age or a couple of years older and they were from an old world Italian family, so I can remember seeing him walk to work, every day he’d walk past our house and we’d speak, but he finally helped pay off the mortgage and he enlisted in the Marines, and at some point he was wounded and he got sent to I think Japan for medical care, but he wasn’t wounded seriously and he got sent back to his unit, and I’m gonna guess it was like 1966, he was near a landmine when it went off and the concussion killed him, and it was hard to believe that. That was it, that was when the war came home, to me, right because it was a kid in the neighborhood that we all knew, Mikey Deprofio, God rest his soul. We all knew his parents and I remember hearing his mother Lucy, screaming when they came to her house and told her that her son was dead, she had lost another child before that to leukemia. So that made the war front and center. I was antiwar because I never believed that “red peril” thing, where they would tell us if we don’t stop them in Vietnam, they’ll be on the California coast, and I never believed that bull sh*t, and I never believed that a country should not have the right to decide what kind of government they want. I learnt years, later, I mean as recently as within the last five or six years that Ho Chi Minh petitioned the United States government for money after World War Two. He wanted to help keep the French out because they were going to come back, and we decided Harry Truman was president, Harry Truman decided to give financial aid to the French instead. What was Ho Chi Minh supposed to do. So, I never I just never thought it was right force democracy on somebody, that seems counterintuitive to me.
How did people react to your political positions throughout the war?
Gerri: Some people just didn’t give a damn. We had been in so many wars, it was just another war. It was almost oh sh*t! It’s almost an American way of life. We got people fighting and dying someplace in the world all the time, maybe that’s the price of being a world power or maybe as they say that it’s better to be fighting in Afghanistan than someplace closer to home. Did I have conflicts with my father? Yeah, because I was outspoken about it, he knew I was going to these demonstrations. I don’t know that ashamed of me would be the right way to phrase it, disappointed maybe. But he chalked it up to what the hell do you know you’re only a kid. This is someone who wanted his kids to be educated, and freethinking, and think for yourself. So one of the most infuriating things about him ever, not just about the war was, I’m all of those things and yet you resent it and you put it down. The sad part about it is that in later years, when some information was made public, that people like my dad realized they had been lied to, they had been betrayed, and when people started realizing that that was sort of the beginning of the end. Then a lot more people joined the antiwar movement.
Carolyn: You mentioned that you attended a lot of demonstrations or protests. Could you tell me a little bit more about those. What were they like? – the atmosphere of those demonstrations.
Gerri: We actually thought, and maybe we were, that we were making a difference. That someone would be listening and seeing what we were doing, and I went to college in Boston. I was living at home still in the suburbs and I can remember several big antiwar demonstrations that took place on Boston Common. They were you know, you’ve been to Boston, it’s full of college kids, just full of college kids so it drew a lot of people but the mood of the demonstration was, we were a generation that was going to make a difference with our voices and I think ultimately, we did.
Reflections on the War
How did growing up among the turmoil of the war shape you to this day?
Gerri: I guess I was resigned to some degree to living with the turmoil because that’s the way America seemed to be. The part I could never resign myself to was the lies that the government told us. That they would just, several presidents said and military leaders said they’re not going to be the ones to lose a war, the first president or the first leader to lose a war for America. So, they kept sending people from my generation to be cannon fodder. So yeah, it shaped me in that in that respect. It also taught me along with my upbringing that when something ain’t right you speak up. If there’s an injustice you speak up. I learned that there were things that were totally, kept from us in subsequent wars like the Iraq Desert Storm and (I’ve lost track) Afghanistan, Iraq whatever, that they don’t show you pictures, because Americans haven’t got the guts to look at it. We don’t want to see and you may or may not be familiar with this photograph of a little girl running down the road naked with napalm all over her. She was on the cover of, you need to look this up, she was on the cover of Life Magazine. She is still alive today but she was in a village that had napalm sprayed on it, that’s an incendiary and it burned her clothes off and she’s running, she’s only about eight or nine years old and the photographer captured her as she was running down the road with her arms out and she’s stark naked and Americans saw pictures like that and that’s the kind of thing that started to help turn the tide of public opinion because we started seeing things like that. As long as we can pay our taxes and they make the bombs and they handle that sh*t somewhere else and it isn’t happening here, God don’t show us the pictures. So they don’t anymore because it shapes public opinion.
Did the Vietnam war have the biggest impact on you in comparison to other wars you have lived through?
Gerri: I think yes in the sense that I have much more visual perspective of it because it was on TV, because it was everywhere. It was on the cover of magazines, it was on TV, there weren’t a lot of movies about it. There were movies about it after the war, things like “Apocalypse Now” and“Platoon” and those two I think were the most famous but yeah, I mean, I saw that. I remember writing an article or writing an essay when I was at Mercer and I referred to that we watched the war on TV in ‘living perhaps dying color’ we did. We watched it. We watched these people die. We watched villages be blown up. We watched Agent Orange being sprayed, it’s the most visual of any war because like I said after that they didn’t show us the pictures and aside from that it was a horrifying defeat. Look at all the people in Vietnam that we killed. I mean sometimes when I meet Vietnamese people, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry it was for nothing, it was a show, it was theater and we lost what 58,000 but you guys lost millions of people. What a travesty of justice and so counter to what we’re supposed to stand for.
Previously in our interview, we talked a lot about your antiwar view but we were just curious as to despite being so antiwar, why did you decide to join the NAVY waves (The Women’s Reserves)?
Gerri: Oh that’s a good question… Oh my God Carolyn, that’s so tough… It’s because despite the fact that I was antiwar, I was still pro-American. Just because you don’t necessarily believe what your government is doing doesn’t mean that you’re anti-government or anti-country. I don’t think that we always do the right thing, but I think we try. I think that sometimes we’re not uninformed, but what’s the word or what’s the phrase I’m looking for… sort of misled or there are there are geopolitical aspects to our government decisions that the populace is not aware of but that doesn’t mean that I’m anti-American. I don’t think that what we did in Vietnam was right, but I am a diehard American. We did wrong, but that doesn’t mean that I’m anti-American — I’m Anti-some American policies. I don’t know how else to say that I mean, it’s like you can look at your kid and you love that kid to death, you just love that kid to death but you see them make stupid mistakes, that are ill-informed or not thought out or not what you would agree with but you love them to death anyway.