War and Peace Corps

    Elusive Dreams
    by Ronald Wheatley (Nigeria 1963–65)

    WAR BEFORE, war during, war after, war again!

    It was August 1971, and I was alone — “a guardian of the forests” watching over the vast carpet of multispecies conifers, primarily White Pine, that covered the Yaak River Valley, a huge drainage area in Northwest Montana.

      I followed you to Texas. I followed you to Utah.
      We didn’t find it there, so we moved on . . .

         Dawn, and pewter colored clouds hung low over the treetops. Tammy Wynette and George Jones sang their duet over the portable radio.
         I was standing on the eastern side of a cantilevered platform on Garver Lookout — perfect for viewing the panorama. The lookout was set on stilt-like railroad timbers cambered together like a giant erector set that rose 60 feet above the spine of the highest ridge in a sea of ridges that stretched like waves to the horizon in every direction.
         To the far distant north I could see the snow capped mountains of the Canadian Northwest Territories. I could look down on the top of the highest tree of the forest and see an egret’s nest. At the base of the tower a big block of salt served the bear, moose and deer that came at dawn. Here and there dark patches scarred the earth, mute reminders of the devastation of fires past. But even in those burnt-out areas seedlings were poking out of the charcoal enriched soil.
         I was alone. I was at peace. My war was over.

    To a small farm in Nebraska, to a gold mine in Alaska.
    We didn’t find it there, so we moved on.

         The portable radio echoed the lament.
         I had worked for the Forest Service all through college in the early ’60s, and now was the back for the summer between my first and second year of law school. At times — as part of that service — I had been on the ground fighting those fires. Big fires had names like “Sleeping Child”; big battles in Vietnam, “Ia Drang Valley.”
         The sound of an airplane engine in the distance caught my attention. Looking south toward the source of the sound a black speck on the horizon rapidly grew larger into a single engine high-wing Cessna 180. The pilot was dangerously low, skimming just above the tree tops that seemed to reach up to grab him, and just below the low ceiling of clouds that, if entered at his altitude, would wrap his windscreen in a deadly white sheet blinding him to the hazards of peaks that penetrated the clouds. The plane was heading directly toward my tower. Suddenly the wing strobe lights flashed bright, like the fire from the sky from the “Spooky Ships.”
         There was competition then between the Forest Service pilots and the Tower Watchers as to who would spot a fire first. The flashing lights were to me a signal of competition, but also of something else — of a “missing man formation” if you will, of Captain Nguyen Van Hung.

      I followed you to Alabam’;
      Things looked good in Birmingham.
      We didn’t find it there so we moved on.

         Earlier I had been thinking of Jimmie — Sergeant James Walton. Jimmie, with his movie star good looks, with whom I had bonded earlier in the summer, and who was trying to set me up with his girl friend’s kid sister. He had promised to drive from Spokane to visit me in my tower.
         Jimmie, whose unit of the First Infantry Division in Vietnam had been ambushed. Jimmie, who had been left for dead, and when he made it back to the other survivors of his unit, they all thought he was a ghost.
          But I wasn’t a ghost. I was just an RPCV.

    The Summer of ’63
    In 1963 the instructors and professors at Columbia informed us during Peace Corps training for Nigeria that we were going to the one country that was the great hope for Western-style parliamentary democracy in Africa. It also happened to be the most important country in Africa since every fifth person on the continent lived there. It was heady stuff.
         When our group arrived in-country, the Emir of the North — the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alahji Sir Ahmadu Bello — personally greeted those of us from Nigeria VII who had been assigned to teach in the North, and invited us to his gracefully domed desert palace in Kaduna. His greeting was special, though I did not fully realize it at the time, because he was undisputedly the most powerful political and religious leader in the entire country. He was more powerful than Prime Minister Alhadji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Beleway, more powerful than even President Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe.
          Armed troops stood guard outside his palace near the Nigeria-green and white Rolls Royce. He was a big man wearing a long white robe and a turban, in what I would learn, was the simple tradition of Usman who led an early 19th Century Jihad that conquered part of the Western Sudan that became Northern Nigeria. Ahmado Bello was most gracious in his greeting and presented each of us with a Nigerian-green ostrich-feathered fan.
         He ended his welcome with a comment, or was it a warning: “We want progress, but we want it slowly.”

    Classrooms of students with respect and motivation
    I taught at the Government Technical Training School in Bukuru, Northern Nigeria, a school near the center of the Fulani/Hausa/Islamic rule not only of the North, but also of the country. The students at my school had been drilled in the Islamic tradition to respect authority especially their teachers. There was never a question of a discipline problem in the classroom.
          I was the first American at the school that was administered by the British. The first day when I introduced myself to my 10 classes of 36 students each, I mentioned that I was a university graduate; each class spontaneously burst into applause. It came as a surprise and was a bit awkward for me. When I asked why they clapped, one student raised his hand stood and said: “Sir, we clap because we think that you are the most educated of all of our teachers.”
          My challenge was to prepare these 360 students for the “O” Level English exam. An exam that we PCV university graduates took during training at Columbia, and many failed.
         All of my students were motivated to learn English — American English that I taught.
          “Sir, what is a guy?”

    It was 1964, and the dogs of war were nipping at my heels, like the bush dogs that chased me as I rode my Honda through the village near the school.
         When I joined the Peace Corps in 1963 Vietnam was not even an issue — except perhaps to a few planners in the Pentagon. By 1965, my Draft Board in Spokane, Washington had become willing agents of those Pentagon planners.
          Toward the end of my Peace Corps service in June of 1965, I received a post card at my school that I had 14 days to return to the United States because I had been reclassified as 1-A.
         Now I had to return to the U.S. to an uncertain bugle call. So I played the one political card in the family deck. I prevailed upon my cousin, who was a Prosecuting Attorney in Tacoma, Washington, and he arranged for me to have an interview for a teaching job that would give me a draft deferment. It was July — late in the season for hiring teachers.

    “Mr. Wheatley is a fucker.”
    I met with the principal, who was young and ambitious and taking command of a new facility in the inner city. It was at the height of the civil rights movement in the city and he knew this was a great opportunity for him and his career. As far as he was concerned, because I had taught in Africa for two years, I was exactly what he needed, and I could do anything.
         What I did not know, and he did not share with me, was that the “Special Education” position he was assigning me meant, at that time, a class of students who “did not fit” — mainly for discipline problems — in the other classes.
         What he did not know, and I did not know, was that that teaching in Northern Nigeria had spoiled me for what was in store for me as a “teacher” in America.
         “Mr. Wheatley is a fucker.”
         It was scrawled in an awkward print on the black board of my classroom. At least the spelling and grammar were correct so I must have been doing something right, I thought at the time.

    They also serve . . . who serve
    Having completed my contract for the 1965–66 academic year in Tacoma and having received an offer to renew it and extend my deferment, I decided that teaching, at least based on my experience in Tacoma, was not for me.
         For some time it had bothered me that it seemed like only the under-privileged could not get deferments, and were being sent to Vietnam. So that summer I volunteered for the draft. I took someone else’s place.
         I completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington in December of 1966, and, because of myopia, was assigned to the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps, not the infantry! What luck!

    In the Signal Corps
    “This is as far as the trucks go,” someone called out.
         The other Signal Corps recruits and I jumped out of the back of the two-and-a-half-ton trucks — “deuce and halfs” as we called them — onto the rocky dry creek bed that led up into the piney woods of the Superstition Mountains that framed the distant horizon from our base at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
         We got into yet another formation and met our new section chief, a Special Forces Sergeant. We were now guerillas in the Country of “Arizan,” which was friendly to the United States, and which was being invaded by troops from a hostile nation to the north. We were “sworn in” and given headbands with the letters ALA printed on them. Considering my background it was ironic, but far from being devout followers of Allah, we were now soldiers in the “Arizan Liberation Army.”
         Our job for the next month was to work with a Special Forces “A” team. A twelve-man elite Army unit that parachuted in the darkness to the Landing Zone where we held flashlights pointed toward the C-130 Hercules. We were going back to school and the forest would be our classroom. Sticks, pinecones and pieces of string were our visual aids. Our vocabularies were supplemented with new terms like “D-Z,” (Drop Zone) “time on target,” “recon patrol” and “counter insurgents.” We learned how to set up ambushes, how to practice field medicine, how to move tactically and how to live off the land. This was the Signal Corps!

    With Charlie Company at Chu Lai
    When I volunteered for the draft I knew that I would be sent to Vietnam, and nine months later I arrived at Chu Lai in July of 1967. It was then I learned that my unit, Charlie Company, 37th Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade had been assigned to the Marine Corps Division that was operating in the area. I was a Communications Specialist.
         Imagine a beautiful beach, a stretch of one lane highway, then a few acres of sand that edged up to a triple canopy forest. That’s all you could see unless you looked closer for the spider hole in the sandy area that served as our entry and exit; other than that there was no evidence of our presence. Once inside the spider hole you entered a state of the art (for that time) communications and command center. As such we were a vital communications link — and target. We were in constant peril of being overrun. At night mortars and Russian-made 122 mm rockets would shell us, and trip flares would go off indicating that someone was in the perimeter — or was it a cow? Nearby almost an entire Company of the 173rd Airborne Division had been wiped out in an ambush.
         But our ace in the hole was the “Spooky Ships” that we could call in if we were being overrun. Their gattling guns would make a high-pitched whine and fire would come from the sky. No one inside a football-sized field could survive their fire.

    The Peace Corps & War Corps
    There was one shining moment at Chu Lai when the goals of the Peace Corps and War Corps came together, at least for me. Three of us soldiers were taking a walk in the sun “patrolling” Chu Lai beach. We entered a small shack that had a sign “Cold Cokes.” Just then we saw a man throw a Vietnamese woman across the room, and jump over the makeshift bar to pummel her more.
          “Stop it,” we ordered.
          “She Viet Cong, she Viet Cong! She must die,” said the uniformed Asian man who was throttling her.
         “Leave her alone,” we demanded. He gave us a defiant look, but there were three of us with weapons. He left the shack cursing us. Maybe she was Viet Cong. I will never know, but I am still forever grateful that we intervened.

    A friend remembered
    I met Captain Nguyen Van Hung in the 12th USAF Evacuation Hospital near Bien Hoa where we were both recuperating from battle injuries. He was a Squadron leader of a South Vietnamese Air Force Squadron of A1-E’s and AI-H’s Douglas Skyraiders, “Spads” as they were affectionately called because their design was of early post-World War II vintage. Imagine a single-engine plane that required 40 gallons of oil for the engine. You could always tell a Spad jockey by the oil stains on his flight suit. But the Spad could loiter for up to eight hours over an area and could carry about the same bomb load as a World War II B-17 Bomber. They were perfect for ground support, and for escorting both Huey helicopters to Landing Zones, and the big Sikorsky’s or “Jolly Green Giants” on so-called “Sandy” missions to rescue downed pilots.
         It was on such a mission and Nguyen was flying so low that his plane shook from antiaircraft fire from the ridges above that he was wounded. Shells penetrated the cockpit filling it with smoke and almost severing his right thumb. Blood from a cut artery spurted up inside the cockpit and against the windshield so that it blurred his vision, but he made it back to Danang to be pulled semiconscious from the cockpit, and be brought to the hospital.
         I learned that he had graduated from the South Vietnamese Military Academy and was from a distinguished and politically connected family in South Vietnam. He, like me, was a Catholic. He spoke French, and his English was as good as mine. He was completely dedicated to the cause of his homeland and to the Americans who were there to help. Even though he outranked me, he used to say, “I should salute you for being here.” Like my students in Nigeria, he had great respect for teachers.
         Not long after we became friends, I was sent back to my unit only to be re-injured and medivaced to the Army’s 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan, the burn center of the Far East command. Three months later, just in time for Tet, in February 1968, I was in another deuce-and-a-half, only this time it was trying to make a mad dash across Saigon. There were six of us in the back of the truck and we got caught in a firefight.
         I eventually made it to my new assignment in Danang as Headquarters Clerk 37th Signal Battalion. One of my jobs was to drive the Commanding Officer’s jeep on certain errands up the long and lonely triple-canopy-jungle-sided road to our remote Signal Site on Monkey Mountain outside Danang. I feared being captured more than anything, and those trips were certainly my most serious exposure to that possible fate.
         In Danang, I made some inquiries, and was able to reconnect with Nguyen, and we met often after that.

    “The Americans will leave us”
    Nearing the end of my tour, he came over to my unit to see me. Nguyen knew I liked to fly, and I asked him if he would take me on a mission.
         “You are too short,” he said referring to my time left in country.
         I didn’t care, but he was concerned for my welfare.
         There was a look in his eyes that I had not seen before. I asked, was something worrying him.
         “It is that I worry the Americans will leave us.”
         “Why do you say that?”
         “Senator Robert Kennedy is running for President and he is against the war.”
         I replied knowingly that politicians don’t necessarily mean what they say in America, especially when they are running for office. I assured him that we would never leave until the war was over, or at least the South Vietnamese Government could defend itself.
         I felt he left me feeling only half reassured. Little did I know that he could sense what I could not. I was blind to what his keen political insight told him. Five years later, America would leave Captain Nguyen Van Hung and his comrades in the South Vietnamese armed forces to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese Army.
         I never saw or heard from him again.

      I know you’re tired of following, my elusive dreams and schemes . . .

         There would be no fire this day, I thought, as the temperature dropped and the clouds, fecund with rain, turned darker and hung lower over the forests. Maybe Jimmie would come today; it had better be soon, because the fire season was ending and I would be returning to law school.

    Ronald Wheatley served as a Legal Assistant in the International Division, Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) Executive Office of the President during the waning days of the Nixon Administration and through the Ford Administration. From there he served as a Foreign Service Reserve Officer in the Office of Communications in the Economics Bureau of the Department of State. In 1990 he retired as Regional Attorney, AT&T State Government Relations for the Northeast Region, where he was responsible for New York plus the New England States. He now serves as Counsel to the Transportation Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy, and at the same time, has a private law practice in Scituate, Massachusetts.
         He is the author of the full-length play “Trial of Phillis Wheatley” which was produced last year at Bridgewater State College as part of its Black History month celebration.

    NOTE: The song “My Elusive Dreams” was written by C. Putman and B. Sherrill.