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Old 09-26-2017, 08:46 AM
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Arrow Vietnam Falls, Harvard Shrugs

Vietnam Falls, Harvard Shrugs

The striking Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War has excavated painful memories of arriving in Cambridge as a college freshman in 1974 when U.S. combat troops were still facing enemy fire in Southeast Asia.

I didn’t stand out much among the best and the brightest but as far as I knew I was the only student whose father had died in battle in Vietnam. He was an officer leading an infantry battalion, shot through the heart just after the 1968 Tet Offensive, leaving behind a widow and six kids.

My father, Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer L. O’Connor, one of 16,899 combat casualties that year, was buried at West Point on a cold and rainy April morning, just six years before I first walked into Harvard Yard. Back in those days, no one reflexively thanked soldiers or their families for their service. A pall of shame and silence settled over the conflict. The cathartic Vietnam Memorial, with its black wings of carved names rising from the earth of the Washington Mall, was years away.

After the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, U.S. troops had begun returning home in a massive withdrawal. The last draft call had taken place in late 1972. By the time I arrived on campus—the only student from my public high school class to attend Harvard—passionate protests of the war, which had resulted in the occupation of University Hall, had given way to disco mixers.

But even at Harvard, occasional reminders of the war intruded on student life, like receiving my notice to register for the draft on my 18th birthday and walking to the Cambridge City Hall Annex near Central Square. The registrar widened her eyes in disbelief at a Harvard student showing up for his card rather than burning it. She shook her head, causing ashes from her Chesterfield to fall to the counter as she gathered up the forms.

Periodic headlines about Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops advancing on Saigon landed like mortar rounds on my freshman routine of attending classes, washing dishes at Adams House, playing basketball at the Indoor Athletic Building (now the Malkin Center), and partying in Wigglesworth B.

Just below my window was Dexter Gate. Every time I passed beneath the lintel to head to Adams House to scrub pots, I read the inscription: “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

The kitchen at Adams House, full of working class Irish kids from Cambridge and Charlestown, seemed more my kind than the undergrads whose plates we washed. Many had brothers or uncles or cousins who had seen combat in Vietnam. They spoke openly of their sacrifice. Over the course of the Vietnam War, six young men from Charlestown died in the conflict. Sixteen from Cambridge. Harvard lost 22, but I never heard them mentioned.

Sitting alone on a battered couch in the Freshman Union—now the Barker Center—in the spring of 1975, I watched TV news reports of the fall of Saigon. Airlifts carried U.S. troops, civilians, embassy personnel, and South Vietnamese allies from rooftops in the capital to waiting naval vessels in the South China Sea. Sailors pushed helicopters, tottering like giant praying mantises, off the flight deck to make room for more.

The wrenching images stirred emotions I didn’t understand and couldn’t share.

A week later, a letter came in the mail informing me that I had won a scholarship established by Henry Kissinger with funds that came with the Nobel Prize he had received for his role in the peace accord. I got the impression the press would be notified. No one called.

ROTC had been booted off campus six years earlier. The indifference of Harvard culture towards the military seemed complete. But there was more. Not long after the fall of Saigon, a section leader joked that the Vietnam War had at least, “taken care of the riff-raff.”

I stood up in the overheated room in Robinson Hall. “My father died in Vietnam,” I said. The instructor seemed mortified.

“I didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t know.”


Personal note: History is a bitch and reliving it brings back the memories of that time. But I posted this in behalf of all those who've served and those we lost and the ones that are still suffering from that war. The current conflicts in the field today will also be history and they too (who've served) will reflect on those issues, conflicts and losses and become part of US history. Let's hope we can someday not have these conflicts or wars but it seems in inevitable that we as humans are bound to destroy one another and for reasons I just can't put into words. It's something we once again will have to live through or at least our kids and Grand-Kids - and that's a shame. Boats

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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