Monday, December 1, 2014

The Road Not Taken - Part 3 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

On board the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) at San Diego, California, July 1966 (I am third from the left).  Standing where a Japanese kamikaze plane struck in January 1945.
This is the third in a series of postings entitled “Memories from the Left Edge of America.”   Parts 1 and 2 were posted on October 20 and 22. 

The traveler in Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has arrived at an important, perhaps even a providential juncture on the road being traveled, or perhaps   an important crossroads in a life already lived, or one yet to be lived. But one will never know what life has in store until one of two pathways is chosen and followed.

            Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
            And sorry I could not travel both
            And be one traveler, long I stood
            And looked down one as far as I could
            To where it bent in the undergrowth;

            Then took the other, as just as fair,
            And having perhaps the better claim,
            Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
            Though as for that the passing there
            Had worn them really about the same,

            And both that morning equally lay
            In leaves no step had trodden black.
            Oh, I kept the first for another day!
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.   *

Two separate paths lie open and the traveler is sorry only one can be taken.  Both appear essentially the same, the only difference being where each will eventually lead.  Once down one path or the other, there is no going back, no do overs.  I arrived at just such a juncture in my own life during the summer of 1966, not long after I turned 15 years old.  Now you might think this is a very early age to arrive at such a momentous decision.  But I did.  I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I can see it plainly now.

Ever since I was a young boy I have always been interested in history, especially military history.  Maybe this was a result of listening to my dad’s exploits while serving in General Patton’s Third Army as it advanced from the beachheads of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and across Germany to the eastern Czechoslovakia during the final year of World War II.  I thought I might be a soldier one day myself.  A lot of young boys do.  Mind you, Dad never glorified war or his role in it, nor did I realize or understand when I was young that there were so many terrible things he never told me about.  That would all come much later, when I better understood the history of that bitter conflict.  War would come to mean something completely different to a young boy who early on only saw the adventure and glory to be won.  But Dad did talk fondly about his comrades-in-arms, that band of brothers that faced death and adversity together, Some of them were lucky enough to survive to see the end of the war and to return home to their families and the lives they would lead after a victory won at such a terrible price. 

My own generation’s war had been brewing in French Indo-China since the early 1950s when American military advisors were sent to support the French, and later the government of an independent South Vietnam, in their efforts to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia.  Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964 during which North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attacked US Navy vessels, the US launched dozens of sorties against North Vietnamese bases and oil storage facilities.  It was not long before the United States began to ramp up its engagement in Vietnam.  It launched a large-scale bombing campaign, and began to commit regular combat troops in early 1965.  Over a quarter million ground troops were in country by the end of that year.  News from war zones became a constant diet on the evening news as American casualties began to mount.  Still, the war seemed far away and the idea of some sort of military service had not lost its appeal.  I joined the cadet program of the Wisconsin Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a US Air Force Auxiliary, in 1964 and began to entertain thoughts of eventually attending the Air Force Academy so I could fly jets.  I did not really think about the likelihood that I would end up flying them over Southeast Asia.

I spent the summer of 1966 in San Diego where I was active in a local CAP squadron as part of the California Wing.  The Vietnam War suddenly seemed much closer during my time on the West Coast.   San Diego was full of military personnel on their way to, or returning from the war zone.  The skies were full of military aircraft operating out of Miramar Naval Air Station and other bases scattered across southern California.  Naval ships moved in and out of the harbor on a regular basis.  While I was in San Diego that summer I had an opportunity to tour the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) with a group of visiting Royal New Zealand Air Force cadets.  One of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II, it served in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning five battle stars during the last two years of the war and suffering severe damage as a result of a kamikaze assault in January 1945.  She was recommissioned shortly after the Korean War, and later earned several Naval Unit Commendations and 12 battle stars while operating off the coast of Vietnam.

When I boarded her at the North Island Naval Air Station, the Ticonderoga had recently returned home from her first six-month combat tour in the South China Sea and was being repaired and refitted for another tour.  We learned how the ship operated in combat, her air squadrons conducting bombing and reconnaissance sorties over Vietnam.  During its first deployment off Vietnam her air squadrons conducted over 10,000 combat sorties, with a loss of 16 planes, and five pilots.   We also learned it was aircraft from this carrier that engaged the North Vietnamese patrol boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and along with aircraft from the USS Constellation, participated in the retaliatory raids on the North Vietnamese bases a few days later, receiving the first of its Naval Unit Commendations.  While walking on the busy flight deck we stood where the Japanese kamikaze plane struck and badly crippled the ship toward the end of World War II.  Shortly after my tour the USS Ticonderoga would put to sea in early July for training operations off the California coast.  It would return to Vietnam that October for the next of two more combat deployments until 1968 and the end of its active combat deployment.   It would subsequently recover the Apollo 16 and 17 moon mission capsules and astronauts in 1972, and the Skylab 2 astronauts near San Diego a year later.  The Ticonderoga was decommissioned in 1973 and sold for scrap in 1975).

Suddenly the war did not seem that far away.  It was all around me.  For the very first time I took a hard look at what a military career might mean and I had to ask myself whether I was committed to it.  By now I had my doubts.  With over a half million men and women deployed to Vietnam, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia through my remaining years in high school.   I witnessed the anti-war protests along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968.  The war was going badly after the Tet Offensive earlier that year and the conflict was spreading throughout Southeast Asia.  The US began a secret bombing campaign over Cambodia and more than 11,000 US troops would be killed in action in 1969, the year I graduated.  By then I had scrapped any thoughts of attending a service academy or enlisting.  If the army wanted me they were going to have to come and get me.  That was a road I had no desire to take.
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.


I registered with the Selective Service in 1969 when I turned 18.  It began a draft lottery in December 1969, and a second lottery drawing was held in July 1970 to determine the order in which men like me who were born in 1951 were to be called to report for induction into the military.  My birthday came up number 246.  The highest lottery number called for this group was 125.  All men assigned that lottery number or any lower number, and who were classified 1-A or 1-A-O (available for military service), were called to report for possible induction.  I was literally saved by the luck of the draw.  Lucky, too, that I had already been granted a temporary student deferment which would end either on my completion of a four-year degree or my 24th birthday in 1975, whichever came first.  Student deferments ended in 1971, yet the annual draft inductions never reached my high lottery number.  So many young men were called to serve.  I never was.

Although I was never seriously threatened by the draft, I attended Florida Southern College, a small liberal arts college which required two years of mandatory ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) education.  One could then opt out or sign up for an additional two years after which one would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army and required to serve at least two years of active service followed by a stint in the reserves.  I opted out in the fall of 1971 and traveled overseas to attend university in West Germany.   I had lost any and all interest in a military career.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.

I chose a civilian career as a historian charged with investigating the darkest corners of war, in this instance war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It has been a righteous endeavor.  There are no regrets, no sighs so many years after choosing one calling over another.

*   Robert Frost. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. 1969.
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