After a prodigious and triumphal effort, at the U.S. Naval Academy, David Walter Robinson was commissioned an ensign in 1965 and eventually was dispatched to Indochina to become a military adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy. One steamy evening on the outskirts of Da Nang, after getting a gracious invitation to dine at the home of a local village chief, the North Carolina boy found himself staring at a roasted dog.
Although Robinson had been forced to reform many an unusual task during his apprenticeship as a midshipman at the academy, never had he eaten dog. A companion at the feast, another American adviser, took one look at the unfamiliar delicacy and rudely declined to eat it. Robinson, though, was an academy man, trained to be poised, trained to be a leader of men.
"I looked at it," he recalled, "and I saw the wishful looks on the faces of my hosts. I said to myself, "This'll probably be the only chance I'll ever have to eat dog,' so I decided to take advantage of it. It was just another challenge, so I took it, as best I could."
In a way, the moral of that tale typifies the more extraordinary adventures Robinson and his mates in the top 50 of the class of 1965 encountered in war, and in the havoc it wrought at home, after they left the insular boy/man world of Annapolis.
That moral was: If you elect to be trained as an officer in the naval service, you accept hardship as a way of life, even if it means eating dog.
So it wasn't unusual, really, that John Chubb, after serving as a swift-boat commander in Vietnam, was seen trying to keep cool and avoid the tomatoes hurled his way when he trooped off to college campuses in the Northwest as a Navy recruiter.
It wasn't unusual that attack plane pilot Thomas Blake Humphreys, after seeing tracer bullets fly by his cockpit one night like streaks of molten lava while he was bombing an enemy outpost in Laos, banked his A7 jet a bit too steeply, put too many Gs on the craft and found himself out of control in the pitch-black sky, flying backward at 450 knots.
Nor was it unusual that marine Donald Edward Bonsper, the unlucky 18th leader of a platoon that had lost 12 previous leaders in combat, found himself hopping from foxhole to foxhole near Con Thien, enduring 10 days of constant enemy shelling, and trying somehow to pry his charges loose from fetal positions and to stop their cries of pain.
It was hardship and challenge, after all, and as midshipmen of the naval service they were trained to take it. To paraphrase Robinson, how many opportunities do you get to go to war?
There was, however, a world of difference between the hardships they were trained to endure as boys at Annapolis and those they faced as men, stationed stateside during the antiwar movement and in that ravaged country across the Pacific.
For one thing, there was the peculiar nature of this war. As boys they learned to obey authority first, whether it meant clamping on in the mess hall or sweating pennies to the bulkhead at Annapolis, for that was the military way. But in Vietnam, where the personal stakes were much higher, authority -- and what it was and was not doing in this far corner of the world -- came under question for the first time.
They still obeyed authority, of course, but gradually they began to change. Robinson's perception of the war, as one of might, right, justice and honor, changed forever when he saw an Army master sergeant take a machine gun one afternoon and rip up two innocent Vietnamese fishermen who accidentally strayed too close to the sergeant's turf.
On the other hand, fighter pilot Judd Halenza, who itched so to take on a few MiGs that he and several buddies used to fly their F4's miles out of the way through flak over Hanoi just to lure a few up, became disillusioned with the way the war was fought, and the military itself, while serving aboard the Kitty Hawk.
"By the time I got to my second tour, in 1971, the war was getting ridiculous," Halenza said. "Every time we went out for an Alpha-Strike [a massive carrier-launched bombing attack], the admiral would come on the radio and say, "Hold up, the White House is on the line. Awaiting target direction.' Here were men of flag rank, admirals for gosh sake, having to wait for Kissinger or Nixon to tell them what to do. It was humiliating."
These men of Annapolis, the most promising officers of their class, soon found that Vietnam wasn't the kind of war of which heroes and legends were made. At the academy, where war glory was as old as John Paul Jones, who is buried there, World War II honors and legends were practically everywhere, from cornerstones and statues to the officers old enough to remember the war and who kept it alive by spinning tall and salty tales about it to the youngsters who enrolled each year. It was a warrior's war in which a Nimitz or a Halsey was free to seek and obtain glory.
Vietnam would be remembered differently.The only memorial at Annapolis commemorating the academy's participation in that war is a stone marker in the cemetery that lists the 118 names of the midshipmen from the class of 1949 through the class of 1969 who were killed or remain missing in action. Five members of the class of 1965 are among these. The only member of the top 50 of that class who was killed on active duty was a pilot, Richard Linnell Pierson, whose F4 jet crashed into Mount Fuji in Japan in 1973.
No, Vietnam was not World War II. It was a bizarre conflict of ideals and convictions in which the military mystique itself underwent as unprecedented tarnishment in various segments of American society. It was a hard time to be a Navy man. As number one graduate George Kent put it, "The uniform caused problems we never foresaw."
First there was the war itself.
In 1965 there was still plenty of room for optimism about the war. About a third of the top 50 of the academy's class of 1965 took part in the conflict, serving in the "gunline" of destroyers off the coast, as swift boat commanders inland, as attack and fighter piolts, advisers and Seabees.
But in the peculiar world of war there was only one class of pure practitioners. Just as science has its pure scientists and art its pure artists, war has its Marines.
"We were told about the domino theory and we belived it. Our job was to contain, to make sure it didn't happen. We failed, but through no fault of our own," said Donald Edward Bonsper, a tall, square-jawed, sandy-haired man, the only top-50 graduate to become a marine.
While the men of Annapolis who were planning to enter Navy Air partied and boozed on weekends, like the bravest of risk takers, and the "nukie-poos," the intellects who planned to tinker with atomic gadgets after graduation, concentrated on their studies, the future marines plotted war strategy in their Bancroft Hall quarters with large maps of the terrain in Mekong and the DMZ.
They were very serious people, and Bonsper was a very serious man. After spending a year on a Fulbright scholarship traveling through South America, Bonsper went through basic training at Quantico in 1967 and reported to Vietnam eight months later. "I was very brash and optimistic," he said. "I was afraid for Southeast Asia because I believed every evil thing I was ever told about Russia and China. I was going to go to combat to see how well I stood up under fire."
It didn't take long for him to find out. Bonsper reported to a hamlet in the DMZ where he became, he said, the 13th leader of a 40-man platoon that had lost its previous leader the day before. Even before he was able to introduce himself to the men he commanded, the platoon got orders to march toward a hill known as 179. The enemy held the hill, from which they had a bird's-eye view of Cam Lo Valley and, aided by high-powered telescopes, were directing mortar and rocket fire for the NVA.
Bonsper's platoon arrived at 5 a.m. and began to trudge up the hill through tall grass. Machine-gun fire soon opened up from three bunkers atop the hill, and two Americans were hit.
"Finally, about noon, we got orders to retreat. We made our way slowly back down. Meantime, the bombers came and totally flattened the hill. It was unbelievable, the power. Stone, dirt, wood was flying all around us. The hill was just a hole, now. I took three casualities from the debris the bombers made.
"I didn't speak much to the men in my platoon. But after that, after I led them back up the hill, then out on the retreat, I think they knew they had a new leader," Bonsper said.
In one form or another, everyone who went to Vietnam met up with crisis. For Bonsper it was the constant shelling the platoon endured 10 days straight on a hill near Con Thien. For John Chubb, it was the terror of the Tet Offensive when as a swift-boat commander, he dodged ambushes for days on end.
But as any Annapolis graduate will tell you, it's not the crisis, or Robinsons's dog, for instance, that matters, it's how you respond.
Sir, yes, sir! I'll find out, sir!"
So if it's 1966 and you're assigned as an air controller to the destroyer USS Joseph Strauss in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the first voices you hear over your headset are A7 piolts screaming that they're on fire and are going down, you try to stay cool.
"The Strauss," said Joseph (Jette) Browne, "was basically a search and rescue ship. We controlled fighter aircraft when they went out on Alphastrikes. The first guy I was controlling, trying to navigate him back to his carrier, was shot down by a SAM. The guy just competely disappeared off the scope. It took a while for me to adjust mentally to stuff like that, listening to guys dying. I was just a young ensign."
But there were enough examples of poise under duress to sustain even the most pressured youthful souls. There was the F8 Crusader pilot whose plane, outbound from Haiphong one afternoon, suffered considerable damage from gound fire.
"I was on watch," Browne said, "and the guy was drawling on the radio that he had holes in his wings and was losing a lot of fuel. He wanted a tanker plane to refuel him so he could make it back to the carrier.
"Well, we managed to get him a successful rendezvous with the tanker, but on the way in his engines flamed out. As he was flaming out, he says, calm as a cucumber, almost directly over us now, 'Well boys, sorry I couldn't hack it, but I'm going down. Why don't you get your cameras out?"
"So I ran out on deck," Browne said, "and sure enough, there he was coming down in his parachute. He'd hardly gotten wet by the time we got over there to pick him up."
Perhaps the finest example of Anapolis calm happened one night during a routine bombing run over Laos, when Thomas Humphreys was piloting an A7. While bombarding an enemy outpost, Humphreys encountered severe ground fire. Tracer bullets steaked by his cockpit. Trying to retreat, he banked the plane too sharply.
"I ended up putting too much pressure on the plane. Now it's total blackness over Laos, and I'm crusing at about 450 knots. What happened is similar to what happens to an ice skater who all of a sudden after going forwad goes backward.
"We were told over and over in flight training that if an occasion like that comes up, the best and only thing you can do is relax and take your hand off the controls. If you try to force the plane to right itself, it more than likely goes into a spin and that's it. Best you can do is let the plane right itself."
So there he was, 4,000 feet over Laos, Humphreys said, flying backward with his hands at his sides trying like the devil to keep contro of himself and not go grabbing at every control in sight. Moments later the plane righted itself, and Humphreys got away.
But it wasn't until he got back to the carrier, and went over maps of the terrain he had flown over, that Humphreys appreciated the majesty of that moment. "The plane came to at 4,000 feet," he said. "Turns out, I was flying in a valley at the time, surrounded by 10,000-foot mountains."
Among Judd Halenza's experiences as a fighter pilot the most unusual occurred stateside, in 1971, when he flew home after an 18-month tour of duty in Vietnam. "I never felt so isolated in my life," he said. "One day Im up in the air fighting for my life, the next I'm on a plane, watching businessmen booze it up and flirt with stewardesses. It was as if there wasn't any war at all. I felt like grabbing people on the street and shouting, 'Look! Yesterday I was flying a jet fighter and people were trying to shoot me out of the sky! Don't you care? Don't you understand?"
But he didn't buttonhole people and he didn't shout. And neither did David Walter Robinson, the Annnaplis problem plebe, who witnessed the killings of two Vietnamese fishermen. "It was my conviction," he said, "that if you took the government's money you had to stifle your own views about the involvement in the war, not to say you condone such atrocities, but that the time to answer questions is when you put on a civilian suit.
"It was too late to have second thoughts. Although I had strong views about a lot of things that differed with the military's, I knew the military, by definition, was not supposed to be on the cutting edge of social change."
While some members of the class wrestled with their conscience, calmed their charges, and righted their aircraft in Asia, others found themselves caught stateside in the middle of an era in which opposing ideals clashed head-on.
Although he die for these warriors had been cast long ago when they first said their oaths of office and began to live as naval officers, the antiwar and vivil rights movements came, producing domestic strife and social change of the sort Robinson had said the military was supposed to have no part of.
But in this case, and at this time, the military mystique itself was at issue. Symbolism was all. In a war that came home there were, at opposite ends of the domestic battleground, the character of the military and the character of the peace movement.
"At the academy, I remembered reading about the demonstrations, the free-speech movement at Berkely," said Walter Bayless, who became a Navy pilot. "The ironic thing was that all of us there were young and idealistic, just as young people at other schools were. It was just fate that we ended up with different ideals. I got a scholarship to go to Berkeley, but turned it down to go to Annapolis. . . .As idealistic as I was, I could very easily have seen myself at the head of the picket lines at Berkeley, if I had gone there."
Instead, the top 50 acquired all the ideals of Navy and in the face of sweeping and confusing change they tried to maintain them. Back in 1961 they figured the country could only be as strong as the men who served it. But now, 10 years later, they had to find their place, as warriors, in a time when the faithful they had pledged to defend were battling over the faith itself.
Some, like George Kent, who often visited a girl at Harvard during the early days of student unrest, had seen it coming, this slow erosion of the military mystique, but as time went on it became more pronounced -- so pronounced, in fact, that some marines, on leave in San Francisco, would wear wigs over their shaved heads to hide their identity from the public, and all over the country more and more men in uniform were being spat upon and having vegetables hurled their way.
As officers, it seemed, there were two actions to take. They could rage at dissenters, as submariner John McKlveen did when he arrived in uniform at Stanford for an interview at the engineering school and found it closed by protesters -- or they could keep their rage to themselves, as the marine, Bonsper, did when, on leave in California between his tours of war duty, he happened to play softball with several acquaintances who were ardently against the war.
"It was the kind of thing I couldn't talk about with anyone," he said. "I remember being irritated by those guys . . . but compared to the war it was a dream . . . I didn't want to bring myself to acknowledge it."
But both reactions served the same end: to maintain, steady as they went, even when the turbulence took on more personal twists. George Sudikatus, a submariner based in Honolulu, returned from one long sea patrol and found his wife totally set against the war and everything military.
"The war was raising everyone's consciousness while I was away. My wife and I just grew apart. She was suddenly becoming aware of a lot of things, how the war was being fought, the role of the military. . . .
"Socially and politically," he said, "we became near opposites of each other. I came home and she was a hippie. . . . But I still had my responsibility. I stayed in the service . . . and we divorced."
The conflict of ideals was inescapable, even on the far side of the world at the University of Geneva, where Joseph Browne went to study international politics after serving in Vietnam. "A lot of times," he said, "people in class made grand pronouncements about the oppressed and suffering Vietnamese peasantry, under the thumb of American imperialism and all that. I couldn't just sit back and listen. That whole image of American militarists sending bodies flying everywhere was a bunch of baloney . . . It wasn't until I left Vietnam, and saw all the opposition and everything, that I realized we weren't going to win there after all."
Perhaps the most poignant moment during this peculiar time occurred one night in 1967, at 3 a.m., in the middle of the Atlantic, when five officers on a Navy ship sipped coffee in the wardroom and talked about the war and the protests at home. One of them was Thomas Hartley Kinder, who graduated 38th in the class of 1965 at Annapolis.
"I don't think we had the same intense moral feeling about the war as the demonstrators did, but there we were, naval officers, for gosh sake, saying we thought the best thing to do was pull out," Kinder said. "It was astounding. All five of us just sort of said it at the same time. Our reasons were very pragmatic. We had friends who were being killed over there and the country was being torn apart."
David Walter Robinson put it this way: "Although the uniform I wore was the military's, it didn't preclude me from thinking about war, before and after I served there. . . . I didn't think it was right."
But while the '60s, the war and the protests raged on, while some members of the class of 1965 fought and returned to the states to face more conflicts at home, there were other men who left Annapolis only to venture into another world as insular as the academy.
With Vietnam and the havoc it wrought only distant blips on the collective scientific mind, these men spent their years outside Annapolis cloistered in Navy bases or submerged in a strange underwater world of fluorescent electronic gadgetry and awesome atomic power where news of the world ashore came only by way of weekly telex messages from fleet headquarters.
These were the minions of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover's elite and prestigious nuclear navy, the submariners who went to sea striving as hard for dolphins as the pilots worked for wings.
They were the best and brightest of the academy's class of 1965, men fascinated by science and adept at managing the innermost workings of nuclear power plants and ballistic missiles. So brilliant were some that they were left speechless -- unsure how to inspire, how to be leaders -- when they witnessed enlisted men shooting heroin and dropping LSD right before their eyes.