As we remember our war veterans this Memorial Day, we at the Greenwich Oral History Project also remember interviewer and photographer, Janet Klion, who died on April 18 of this year, and who over the years contributed many veteran interviews to the project’s archives.
|Oral History Project Interviewer|
Twenty-one of Janet’s interviews reside in the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center (http://www.loc.gov/vets/about.html). The project’s mission is to collect, preserve, and to make accessible “the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”
Of the interviews Janet conducted for the veterans project, fifteen have also been contributed to the Greenwich Oral History Project. Last year’s Memorial Day blog post was dedicated to our Greenwich World War II veterans. (http://glohistory.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2015-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2016-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=6)
This year we turn to the war in Vietnam. Only one of Janet’s interviews in the veterans project database pertains to that war, the interview of Patrick Michael McDermott, U.S. Navy, lieutenant, junior grade. (Interview #2871, “Vietnam War Experiences,” 2013, in the Greenwich Oral History Project listing.) In his interview, McDermott, as a Navy man, notes that when two of our destroyers came under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Tonkin Gulf and when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, “that immediately led to expanded combat operations....So I think,” he adds, “there was justification for our being in it,” meaning the war.
McDermott recollects difficult losses and sacrifices and reflects on moments of dismay when after his honorable discharge in 1970, he returned to co-workers who refused to shake his hand because of his participation in the war. He is delighted that today returning men and women in uniform are greeted with expressions of gratitude for their service. While attesting that he does not “hold a grudge,” he also notes that there are no Jane Fonda videos in his home.
An interview Janet conducted for the Greenwich project not appearing in the veterans’ database is that of Joseph Kantorski who served as a field medic from 1968 to 1970 (Interview #2753, “Conscientious Objector in Vietnam Era,” 2007). Opposed to the war, Mr. Kantorski was granted conscientious objector status as a result of having been in seminary for five and a half years, studying for the priesthood. He knew that if he were to be drafted, he would most likely be a non-combatant in the medical core. Soon after leaving school at the Pratt Institute in New York, he was indeed drafted and would go on to be trained as a medic.
He was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for training and was told by a sergeant there that he would never be able to make a living in America because he was “a traitor to the country.” He was next sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for further training. He was ultimately stationed near Frankfurt, Germany in the 31st Surgical Hospital as a result of his status as a conscientious objector. Mr. Kantorski notes that he was passionate about his objections to carrying a weapon and participating in combat. He also reflects on the fate of many other conscientious objectors trained as medics who were stationed in combat zones and who, unarmed, lost their lives aiding the wounded.
|Panel from the Vietnam Veterans|
Any recollection of the war in Vietnam will eventually include its controversy, including the fraught domestic “battle” concerning those who served and those who, because of moral objections, did not. The news of the period abounds with reports of objectors fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft and of those labeled as “draft dodgers,” fairly or not, who used various exclusions to avoid serving.
To lend a local perspective, there are among our interviews, two, not conducted by Janet Klion, that comment on the attitudes and opinions toward conscientious objectors, including how over the years public opinion changed as the war became increasingly unpopular.
The first, conducted in July of 1975 is with Leatrice Fountain, 1924-2015 (Interview #970, “Teenagers in the 1960s in Greenwich”), who worked as a draft counselor during the war. She is better known as the daughter of John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy, actors, but her role as a counselor cannot be undermined.
As a result of her involvement with the Quaker Friends, she was instrumental in helping young dissenters who sought her counsel to become conscientious objectors. She notes the hostility she faced during this time as a result of her role, but also comments on changing attitudes as the war continued. Eventually, she notes, many who had been critical of her actions came to understand and to regret their behavior.
The second interview, January 1977, is with Emile Jacques, Greenwich attorney, who was on the draft board during the war and who openly expressed his anti-war views from the start. As a member of the board, he was responsible for reviewing the applications for conscientious objector status that came before him. (Interview #2136, “The Draft Board.”) He notes that it was customary before his time on the board to reject applications out of hand and to pass them along to appeals. He drew fire objecting to the percentage of denials as he fought to ensure that those with legitimate claims would be granted conscientious objector status. The conflict and hostility he originally encountered changed during his tenure and as attitudes toward the war grew increasingly negative.
Taken together, these Vietnam era interviews in the Greenwich Oral History Project collection contributed by Janet Klion and others weave a telling story of our community during this period, one rife with conflict, heartache, and passionate emotions on all sides. It is a story worthy of a Memorial Day tribute to our veterans and to those who out of conscience objected. It is also a time to pay tribute to our narrators and interviewers, and this year especially to Janet, who through her work has bequeathed us an enduring legacy.
The interviews referenced here are available in the reference area on the first floor of the Greenwich Library or through the Oral History Project office, located on the lower level of the library.