Profilers: Franklin Johnson III, Joshua Kim, Kevin Yu
“Dad. What’s Vietnam?”
I can’t say that I came to Vietnam, I guess I would have to say that the Vietnam War came to me. In 1965, I was a sophomore in high school; Villa Park high in Orange, here in California. And I had a great history teacher by the name of Gary Long, who would uh, circumvented the globe for us. And I remember one day he came into class and he said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to have debate on the war in Vietnam. And Mark I want you to take the con side.’ I will never forget going home to my dad and saying, “Dad. What’s Vietnam?” And of course my dad, who had a background in aeronautical engineering, knew about the war. He was a very learned person, very well read. And he sat down and told me what he knew about the Vietnam War and helped me take the side against the war way back in 1965.
As far as my military service, you’d have to….I couldn’t couple that with the Vietnam experience. I served in a unit after 911. And how I came into that service was kind of interesting. 911 happened, I was looking around for something to do that I could help my country because I hadn’t done it back when I should have back during the Vietnam War, in my opinion. And a friend of mine, who had been in Vietnam, Jim Carville, who had been in Vietnam with the Red Cross. Actually he had an army background, but he went to Vietnam as a civilian. He called me up one day and said, “Hey our unit needs public affairs officers;” being well aware of my background as a journalist. And I said Jim, “I’m 50 years old.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter in our unit.” So I put in eight years down in Orange Country at the Joint Forces training base in Los Alamitos as a public affairs officer. I was writing stories and taking pictures of troops that were mobilizing for and demobilizing from Iraq and Afghanistan and getting stories in army publications such as Soldiers, which is the US army magazine, The Grizzly, which is the magazine of the California National Guard and many others. So that’s basically a two-pronged question that’s how I would answer that.
Connections to Vietnam
As far as who has influenced me or shake my opinion about the war, it has to be people who were there. I could name so many people: Janet Woods, who retired a few years ago as a reservationist for Alaska Airlines in Arizona. She what was called the doughnut dollies and she worked for the Red Cross. And she would go into base camps bases and bring our GIs a little bit of home. And came back with the same PTSD that the guys that went over there came back with in many cases. I remember her telling me that she went to a Vietnam Veterans of America meeting, and said to the guys at the meeting, “I’ve got PTSD,” and they looked at her and said “you got PTSD. How did you get PTSD, well?” Then she sat down and told them her story. And she became one of the club.
So many of these people that have felt the confidence in me as a listener and as a writer to write their stories, have helped to shape whatever my opinion, as fluctuating as it has been since 1968. They have helped to shape my opinion. They’re the reason why I feel the way I do today.
Regarding my family during the era, my family was against the war. I did mention how my dad guided me to an antiwar position. I remember one of things he said to me was that, “Eighty percent of Vietnam would have voted for Ho Chi Minh.”
I think my father’s position was kind of curious because he was a World War II Veteran. He was in the army. He was in the Army Air Corps; served in the South Pacific as a radioman. Came home went to the engineering school at USC on the GI Bill, class of 1950. And he had two careers, but his first one was as an aeronautical engineer and in that time he worked for example, Hughes Aircraft and other companies that he headed up. He and his many companies fulfilled many government contracts. Among them the Nike and Polaris missiles, parts for the gyroscopes on B52s that were bombing Indochina. And even parts for bombs that were dropped on Vietnam, so perhaps that weighed heavy on his mind. My Mom was a Holocaust survivor and I think if anyone who has lived through something like the Holocaust. They get very over protective of their children, but I think that was genesis for how they felt about the war. And I slid into that position.
The University of Oregon, where I was from ‘68 to about 1970. I think was like any or many college campuses during the war. There were protests that were going on. The feeling amongst, I would say, a good number of students. I don’t know that I should say majority, but certainly many students was one, which was anti-war. I have some very vivid memories being in a class called Film As Literature. I was an English major in college. And class in Film As Literature was meeting one night. And there had been, there was a radical element on campus. This group called the SDS or the Students for Democratic Society was the radical element. And at some point, during the protestations that were going on, some members of SDS were thrown in jail in Eugene. And they came storming through the lecture hall and said so-and-so and so-and-so of the SDS had been thrown in jail. We want everybody to march to the Eugene Jail now. And the professor basically said, “Well I’m suspending class. And I’m going to be marching and you all can do what you want.” Being young and nineteen years of age and impressionable, I followed the crowd.
A Taste of Home
From what I’ve read in my own “research and studies.” I would say probably ’65, ‘66 there was general support for the war, but as the war began to come home. And, has been said by people far more astute than me, when people in middle America started to see the coffins coming and the increase in reportage on the war, I think that’s when things began to turn. There are countless stories I’ve heard some, because most of my friends these days and people that I know professionally, are Vietnam Veterans. My own internist, Dr. Jean Fishman, tells a story of when he was in Vietnam, ‘66 and ‘67, which would have predated the Tet Offensive. Being told by a cousin of his, who had come back earlier, “Be careful when you come back to the world because the protestors are spitting on the GI’s.” Here’s a man who was a captain in the US army, flies home to Travis Air Force Base gets a bus to San Francisco, goes into the bathroom at the Greyhound bus station, takes off his uniform and throws it in the trash can. Puts on civvies, civilian clothes, and flies home to Los Angeles. To me, there’s something inherently sad about an officer in the US army having to do something like that. And I think that the American public today, with another Vietnam Veteran says “newer sabers rattling.” learned its lesson from that. Thank God I never was one to disrespect a person in uniform or doing any spitting or anything like that.
I’m not so sure that 1968 was the demarcation point. I think 1968 did affect people in the country because remember this was the first basically television war. The war was brought home basically to us here in the United States because the journalists, whether TV, print, radio still photographers had unfettered access. They never had it before to that extent and they’ve never had it since. ‘68 itself was if I think of the whole war, all year was certainly a pivotal year in the war. Not only did you have the Tet Offensive, where for the first time, people saw the American Embassy being overrun by the Viet Cong. You had the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, in his famous speech in March 1968. Telling the American public that he wouldn’t seek, and he wouldn’t run for another term as President of the United States. And I can remember distinctly saying, “All this is great. The war will be over before I graduate from high school.” And of course that wasn’t the case; technically speaking, went on for another seven years until April 30th, 1975.
I think one of the reasons I got into military journalism was because I regretted, and have regretted for many years, the fact that I didn’t serve my country when I should have in some capacity. Whether I would have ended up like my neighbor who is a Vietnam era Veteran or in some other capacity. And I think that my venturing into military journalism is in some way, an effort on my part in my psyche and in my heart of hearts and my soul, to make up for that. If I didn’t serve in Vietnam at least the least I can do is write about who did. I’ve met refugees, who felt like we abandoned them starting in 1972 with the Vietnamese invasion of the war and 1975 when Saigon fell. And I’ve been, a lot of my Vietnam Veterans, friends feel exactly the same the same. They feel that we betrayed people, Vietnamese in particular. There is a group of people that is not heard about too much these days they go by their French name, the Montagnards, the mountain people. They were our staunchest allies in the Vietnam War in central highlands in particular. They’re sort of tantamount to the Hmong in Laos. They’re hill tribes’ people. We made a promise to those people that if anything that happened, if we had to leave Vietnam, we would take them with us. And we reneged on that promise because we left them there. To this day, largely because of their Christian faith, they are harassed and discriminated against, forced to intermarry, forced to forgo their customs And very few people in the world other than people who fought with them in the Vietnam War who know of their history because they settled in North Carolina for example most of them. The world just as doesn’t hear about them.
The Power of Journalism
A lot of people are of the mind and Vietnam Veterans many of them among them that the journalist who covered Vietnam are the reasons, is the reasons that quote, unquote we lost the Vietnam War. As I said earlier I’m not at the opinion that we did lose it, but I don’t really see that point of view. I know why people feel that way because pictures for example, the very famous one of Kim Phuc, the napalm girl, taken by the Vietnamese AP Photographer, Nick UT and Eddy Adams photo of General Juan shooting a Vietcong in the head. I can see how people would come to or could come to the conclusion that losing the war was the journalist fault. A lot of these guys and gals have become my friends over the years or acquaintances; I’m talking about those who covered the war. And I believe they just had a job to do. I don’t believe that it was their intent to purposely make us lose the Vietnam War. In point of fact, I envy them for the experience and a big part of me wishes that I had been there along with them to, in a sense, bring the war home to the American Public.
Where I think I feel a little stirring inside, is the fact that after the Vietnam War was over the journalists, like the soldiers, went home. Maybe they’d had it up to here with the war and I certainly understand, but what transpired after the war, I believed is far worse if not equally worse than what happened during the war. You have basically up to about a hundred thousand Vietnamese, like my brother-in-law, forced to live in communist re-education camps. If you ever saw the movie The Killing Fields, which is about Cambodia, very similar things happened in Vietnam. Certainly happened to my brother-in-law. I just wonder where was everybody then. Yes, they were willing to report the war as they saw it to bring it home I wish that someone was more steadfast in telling the American Public what was going on in Vietnam after we left. Because I think, like me, who changed his mind, my mind, about the stance I took during the war, that a war protester, they might have changed their minds too.
Returning to Vietnam
My three trips to Vietnam happened in 1990, 1992 and the last time was 1995 so I have not been back recently. But my wife is from Vietnam and has friends that have gone back, family members have gone back. I have friends who were both correspondence in Vietnam and Soldiers and Marines in Vietnam. And they have gone back and we get pictures and emails and we are totally blow away. Skyscrapers in Saigon, resorts on the beaches on the beautiful beaches in Vietnam.
I Have A Letter
By the time I got to Vietnam in 1995, there was a marked change. First of all, we just opened up an embassy in Hanoi. And I remember distinctly meeting the brother-in-law of one of my teacher colleagues. In fact, we taught ESL together in LA and this woman’s happened to be my Vietnamese teacher at dare I say it, UCLA. She had a note for her brother-in-law. And I was shocked in 1995 when he openly walked into the lobby because of Vietnamese national during the first two times I was in Vietnam was not allowed to walk into a hotel lobby where Westerners will stay. He walked in and had a seat and I said to him I whispered to him I have a letter from your sister-in-law shall we take a walk. And he said, “Oh No, things are much different now.” And he asked to see the letter and he read it right there. And I saw him about three weeks later, we met up again at the Continental Hotel in the lobby and he jokingly said, “I have a letter from my sister-in-law. Would you like to take a walk?” And I said, “No, that’s fine.” So I saw a marked difference in 1895, and have not been back. My career I think as an educator well it ended as far as the LA school district was concerned in 2012, but I’m now an adjunct instructor at Pasadena City College. And I teach when there’s a need at the University of Laverne and also Columbia College. A private school that has satellite campuses on military bases and they happen every campus where I served when I was In California State Military reserves, the unit that I had alluded to earlier. So those things and my wife’s work schedule, have kind of gotten in the way. We talk about going back to Vietnam together one day and I don’t know we will, it’s just not in the immediate plan.
Regarding my book, Distant War that came about Distant War Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia came about because I got to a point in my career as a military journalist, having written for a lot of different publications some of those I mentioned earlier. And I started looking around for something to do and I had this plethora of articles that were Vietnam related and I thought, “Well why not put them into a book.” I thought I might be able to interest someone. It took a couple years, but I did actually it’s been published twice. What I strove for in putting the book together what’s to be eclectic in my choices and certainly the people that I interviewed and those who relate to the book seem to be appreciative of the fact that I kind of went to write about or included stories that were Vietnam related that hadn’t been explored before.
I think if there’s any lesson to be learned from the war that we can apply to today it’s that they’re two. Number one, that we should never go into a conflict with one hand tied behind our back like our Vietnam Veterans were forced to experience for, politically reasons, both in the beginning of the war and in my ways throughout the war because it was an undeclared war. And the other thing I would say, is that we should never again, treat our Soldiers, our Marines, our Airmen and our sailors the way that they were treated when they came home from Vietnam
Very insightful interview. Enjoyed this, all three parts. There’s a lot about what went on in this time period that can be applied today.
Very nice interview Marc. I think you accurately captured what we all were feeling and experiencing especially before graduating from high school in 1968. Thank you for your service brother!!!
Great expression of your studied experience and opinions, Marc. As a VN veteran I absolutely agree with all you’ve said and can relate to the feelings that you shared. Vietnam was our war unlike any other in American history. There isn’t a vet alive today who wasn’t strongly affected by their experience there and who by now hopefully has put it long into their distant past. The real tragedy is that any young man or woman ever has to go off to the horrors and brutality of war. Sadly, it is a recurring theme in mankind to visit bloodshed on another nation or culture in the name of patriotism, ethnicity or religious beliefs. And we’re still at this nasty business of making war a half-century or so later in a changed setting, with different motivations. But as long as other humans on this planet with twisted beliefs come at us with evil intent, we will continue to repulse them and strike back with all our might. Soldiering is a dirty, ugly job but somebody’s got to get out there and do it. You have largely devoted a career to honoring these great men and women who gave so much. Thank you for that.