Last in a series
Al Gore felt as though he had been blindfolded and spun around for 13 hours and then set down, staggering, in a strange land. He would never forget the moment his feet hit the airstrip tarmac after the endless flight across the ocean to a war that he hated. It was "a split-second," he said later, "that I had known was coming for a long time." The first hot blast of air was overpowering, the scent bitter, fetid, smoky. He passed a ragged band of soldiers heading the other way, back to the States, who looked "faded and dusty and their hair was long . . . they were grizzled . . . their boots weren't new." Local mamasans casually hawked cartons of marijuana cigarettes on the street along with other black market staples.
Such was the young private's welcome to the intoxicating chaos of Vietnam in January 1971. And during his first week at Bien Hoa, after being issued stiff metal-plated boots, the strait-laced Gore went AWOL. At least that was the loose term he used in a letter to a friend back home to describe those first few days of free and easy movement. He was in no hurry to begin his public affairs job at the small Army installation on the edge of the massive air base. He wanted to soak in all he could of this besieged land, a place he found "interesting as hell." He hopped in the back of a truck and hitched a ride across the base to a hooch where he partied with some guys he had known at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Then he traveled to Saigon, where he joked that he would write "a feature on wine, women and Tet."
But it did not take long on the new job before he acquired the typically sardonic voice of the disillusioned GI. He had read Joseph Heller's classic "Catch-22," and now he echoed Yossarian's absurdist ennui. "Well, here I am," Gore wrote in the letter. "They put me in an Engineer Brigade, in a public information office in Bien Hoa. It's the most incredibly bull-shit operation I've ever seen in my life." During his first two weeks in the headquarters company of the 20th Engineer Brigade, he said, he did absolutely nothing--the same as everyone around him. "Basically the army has decided that the best public relations policy at this stage of this sordid crusade is to produce no stories at all," he wrote. "You know, maybe they'll forget about it."
The empty routine made him jumpy. "If I stay in this one small room with 10 people staring at each other, doing nothing, telling 'funny' stories back and forth 10 hours a day, I'll go stark raving mad," he wrote. So he took the advice of a new colleague, who told him in the jeep one day that he would have "a much better experience" if he left the compound whenever possible. From then on he traveled as often as he could in search of stories for the brigade newspaper and magazine, using travel passes given to Army reporters that allowed them to go wherever they wanted.
There was in Gore at age 22 a long-held cynicism about the war, but he tried to prevent that cynicism from devolving into mind-numbing detachment, a condition he saw in other soldiers. "You just wouldn't believe how outrageous some of these people are. They're stoned continuously. I mean, all the time. . . . It's just unbelievable. Actually, I suppose it's just a measure of how spiritually debilitating this experience is for a lot of people," he wrote. As for himself, he said: "I've been bombarded with sensory patterns from all sides since I got here. All I can say is it's astounding. . . . One reason I started traveling right away was to try to put the experience in some kind of perspective. For the same reason, I've decided not to smoke [marijuana]. Maybe once or twice, socially, but that's all."
Gore ended up spending five months in Vietnam, less than half the normal tour. He asked for and received an "early out" that May at a time when the 20th Engineers were standing down as part of a gradual U.S. troop reduction. Even as he was bombarded with "sensory patterns" during his many trips around the country, his experiences were circumscribed by the nature of his job and his skill at working the military system. He was a reporter, not an infantryman, and while he was never fully out of harm's way, neither did he face situations where he had to kill or be killed, and he was spared the sight of seeing any buddies die.
He had an M-16 rifle assigned to him, and photographs that surfaced during his later political campaigns showed him toting that weapon, though he carried it only on those few occasions when he drew perimeter guard duty. The rest of the time, the M-16 was checked in the armory while he moved about armed with his notebook and pen. Though he once told The Washington Post that he was "shot at" and the Baltimore Sun that he "walked through the elephant grass and . . . was fired upon," those war stories seemed enhanced in the retelling. He did not face direct enemy fire. He did arrive at a few combat scenes after the action, and several times base sirens warned of possible mortar attacks and he and his comrades scrambled for cover.
In all events, Gore was like most other Vietnam veterans in that his time there profoundly influenced the rest of his life. In his case the experience had a reverberating and contradictory effect. He had left for Vietnam disillusioned over his father's loss in the 1970 Senate race, the persistence of a war that he detested, and a general sense that the country had taken a wrong turn. He came back feeling the same way, even more so, determined once again to follow a career path outside politics, as a writer. Yet every decision he made during that difficult era--opposing the war, opting to serve anyway, and then finally shipping off to Vietnam--in the end did not irrevocably turn him away from the political life, but rather paved the way for his eventual return.
Gore In Country
Even before Gore arrived in Vietnam, word of his coming had reached Long Binh, headquarters for U.S. Army forces. Barry Ancona, a radio producer who had been stationed with Gore at Fort Rucker, was approached by his boss, a sergeant major, and told that the former senator's son was on his way. "Do you know him?" the officer asked Ancona, who had been working in the information office at Army headquarters since the previous summer. "Yeah, he's a nice guy," Ancona replied.
Gore touched down at Cam Ranh Bay on Jan. 2, 1971, then flew to Bien Hoa Air Base, where he took a short bus ride to an Army replacement station at Long Binh for processing. Ancona took a jeep over to the station to meet Gore.
"What the hell are you doing here? You're too short!" Ancona said, using military jargon to express surprise that someone with less than a year to go in the service would nonetheless be sent to Vietnam.
"Yeah, well, that's what I thought," said Gore.
Ancona took Gore to meet his boss, but there were no openings in the information office at headquarters. It was then, Gore wrote to a friend, that "Major Ladue's letter went to work, and I was sent out here to the 20th Engineer Brigade"--at the public information office at Bien Hoa. Maj. Wade Ladue was his former boss at Fort Rucker. The letter on behalf of Gore was an apparent act of military courtesy written by an officer who had served in Vietnam for a soldier who impressed him. Officers routinely performed such favors for soldiers they liked, according to Army historians, helping them negotiate the fickle processing system, steering them to preferred assignments.
The 20th Engineers was considered a relatively comfortable posting. "Compared to what other people were doing in Vietnam, it was like being on a college campus," said Mike O'Hara, who worked on the newspaper. Ivin N. Marks, the chaplain, wrote a letter to parents of incoming soldiers offering them reassurance: "You will be pleased to learn that our location is generally regarded as a safe area." Bien Hoa was in the country's south, near Saigon, far from most of the combat, and the troops had a name for soldiers posted in such safe havens: REMF, or Rear Echelon Mother F's. At Bien Hoa, the men had warm meals and hot showers. Mamasans streamed in every morning to clean hooches and shine shoes. Each hooch housed 10 men, two to a room, some recomfitted for privacy and refrigerators. An outdoor movie theater showed films twice a week. "Woodstock," the documentary of the 1969 counterculture music festival, was the favorite.
The air base was a mile away, close enough to hear fighters, bombers and helicopters taking off in shifts 24 hours a day, but separated by its own gates from the smaller Army base. Gore and his fellow public information officers worked in the personnel building--drab Army green all the way, green linoleum, green walls, relieved only by gray metal desks with rotary phones and manual typewriters. They wrote releases for hometown papers, along with articles about the combat engineers.
The routine was broken only by the slithering of a pet python named Moonbeam--which was kept in a window cage at night but let loose to roam under the desks all day--and by the daily mimicking of certain officers after they left the room. No one was better at aping their mannerisms than Spec. 4 Al Gore, whose earnest exterior masked a sarcastic humor that came out in his dead-on impersonations of old characters in Carthage, parents of St. Albans boys, professors at Harvard, and now brass in Vietnam.
Was Gore mocking the hand that protected him? There is no evidence that he sought special treatment in Vietnam. One longtime friend said, in fact, that Gore was so concerned about being singled out as the son of a senator that this friend asked Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the Army chief of staff, for advice as to how someone in Gore's position could avoid the spotlight. The answer, which the general provided without being told Gore's name: Be yourself and people will grade you on your output. But Westmoreland also said, according to Gore's friend, that from "Day One" it would "be known to all elements of personnel" who he was.
The two superiors who worked most closely with Gore at Bien Hoa recalled nothing out of the ordinary about his arrival or their response to it. "I had just come back from R&R and someone told me, the word got around that a new guy was coming in and he was a senator's son," said Joseph Colla, then master sergeant in the public information office and editor of the headquarters newspaper. "It wasn't a big deal. He came up to me and introduced himself as Spec. 4 Al Gore. I didn't say anything. He was just another soldier." Clayton Ryce, a lieutenant with a journalism degree who ran the public information office, said that when he heard that Gore was coming to work there he recognized the name, but nothing more. "I . . . knew who his dad was, but didn't know he had children," Ryce said, adding that Gore "did not throw his weight around."
If Ryce and Colla were not briefed on Gore, the sergeant major in the information office back at Long Binh certainly was, according to Barry Ancona. "There is something which is colloquially called the watch list, a list of sensitive people," Ancona recalled. "I knew that Al was on the watch list even after his father lost the election, because the sergeant major, when [Gore]) came over, knew he was on the watch list. These are presumably children of people who are in some way prominent. . . . It was people that you watched."
Another soldier at Long Binh said the brass's concern about Gore extended even beyond a watch list, though his story is disputed by Gore and not remembered in the same way by others. H. Alan Leo was a photojournalist who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam and knew his way around the country. By his account, a few days before Gore arrived, Brig. Gen. Kenneth B. Cooper, the brigade commander, called Leo into his office and told him that a senator's son was joining the unit. While the general did not use the precise words, Leo took his message to mean: This isn't an order, but keep an eye out for him. Leo said he was "elated" because the general trusted him with the assignment. "But I was also kind of pissed off at that point because somebody was getting special treatment," he said. If in fact it was special treatment, it was not sought by Gore. Cooper today says that he does not remember the exchange. "It may or may not be true," he said. The main point about Gore, he added, was that "he went" to Vietnam, while "other people were trying to get their sons out of it entirely."
When asked about Leo's claim, Gore said that he knew Leo but rarely traveled with him in Vietnam. He certainly never felt that he was being protected or watched over by Leo, Gore said. And he bristled at the suggestion. "As, uh, as the Vietnamese frequently said, 'Nev-ah hap-pen, GI!' "
A Regular Guy
Occasionally, being the son of Albert Gore made him the target of resentment by others who, like Leo, felt he received special treatment or who disliked his father's ideology.
One night a soldier from Tennessee lit into Gore about his father's position on school prayer, an issue the Republicans had manipulated to help defeat Senior in the 1970 election. "He went on screaming a sermon about it," recalled Mike O'Hara, who became Gore's best friend in Vietnam and went on to a career as a sportswriter in Detroit. Gore sat quietly, listening, then got up and left, saying that his father had been "crucified" for his position by conservatives who did not believe in the separation of church and state. "Boy," said another soldier, "there've gotta be times when Al just wishes he was somebody else."
But he never lashed out. Along with his impersonations, he also took part in a few practical jokes, including once when he and his buddy O'Hara locked Lt. Ryce in a dark room and would not let him out until he apologized to O'Hara for something, using O'Hara's nickname: "I'm sorry, Mr. Moose. Sorry, Mr. Moose." Rare acts of that sort belied his utterly polite nature, which he discussed now and then in rambling philosophical reflections with O'Hara. Gore once told him that his politeness was not just a matter of good breeding, but also of family dynamics, his way of surviving. He said that the only way he could get attention as a boy was not by acting up, but by being polite. "He said one time, 'I was a real little politician,' " O'Hara recalled. "He said it as sort of self-analysis."
If he had once been a little politician, he told his Vietnam friends, he had no desire to become a big one. Michael J. Roche, editor of the Army engineer newspaper in Vietnam, the Castle Courier, remembered Gore talking to him about his early life in Washington and how he was not cut out for public service or government. "My dad, fine. But not me," Roche remembered him saying.
Gore had what Lt. Ryce called "a presence," and also a touch of public shyness, but he tried to be a regular guy. He seemed to open up especially around O'Hara, a street-smart city kid who called his new friend Buck. They knocked around the country together, Moose and Buck, hitchhiking on jeeps and helicopters. They wrote stories, shot pictures, goofed around--once venturing up near the DMZ, where they spent a night sleeping in the open, Gore building a makeshift bunker for himself out of huge scraps of metal from a nearby runway construction site, other times relaxing in the South China Sea, where Gore once pulled his buddy from a dangerous riptide.
The culture in the hooches and foxholes of Bien Hoa by 1971 seemed no different from the cacophonous youth culture back home, just more intense, all music and noises and colors, image and reality merging in psychedelic chaos. Day-Glo posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin hanging from the barracks walls, the fluorescent greens and oranges shimmering in black light, while in the distance tracers arc through the sky, red for the Americans, green for the Vietnamese. The boys sitting on lawn chairs bought at the PX, swigging whiskey and beer and passing around a joint. The campfire talk turning to home, the banter interrupted by the roar of a commercial jet overhead, little red lights blinking on the wingtips. "There it is," someone saying wistfully--the Freedom Bird, taking men home.
Totally Fed Up
In their trips around Vietnam, O'Hara and Gore were struck by something: The further out they went in the field, the more black troops they saw. O'Hara recalled how once they were up in Quang Tri near the DMZ and saw some soldiers playing basketball on a makeshift court near a Huey and a Cobra gunship. The contrast was stark. Gore wanted to take a picture.
One of the guys came over and said, "No pictures, man."
Gore said, "Hey, man, why not?"
The soldier: "No pictures!"
Gore to O'Hara: "Man, these guys are really angry."
Back then, O'Hara said, he and Gore shared the perception that "the further out you got in the field, the blacker you got . . . the further away from safer spots, the higher percentage of black troops." That perception was only partially accurate, according to Army historians. Minorities enlisted in proportionately greater numbers in the Army as a whole, but they were not disproportionately represented in the infantry. Nonetheless, it all went into the bundle of guilt, despair, disillusionment, thrill and boredom that Gore and his colleagues carried with them.
Three months into his tour, Gore began looking for a way to leave Vietnam. The 20th Engineers had begun standing down, soon to be deactivated as part of the gradual reduction of U.S. troops, and soldiers who were within 90 days of the end of their required service were allowed to apply for "early outs" for various reasons. Others, even if they had served in Vietnam longer, were transferred to different units within Vietnam. But Gore knew what to do to avoid that fate. He applied to graduate school at Vanderbilt in Nashville, where Tipper was living. On March 9 the university sent him a letter permitting him to enroll in June or August.
His intention was to take courses in ethics and morality at the graduate school of religious studies as a way to recover from what he had been through. He never saw the worst of war. He did not see, as several articles written decades later would imply, bodies cut in half by machine-gun fire. He never saw a buddy die, or took live fire. But he did see "men who were shaken in the aftermath of battles, people in villages who were scared"--and at the office late every afternoon he saw the daily body counts coming over the Associated Press wire. And what he saw was enough to make him realize that he might have a difficult time adjusting when he got home unless he prepared for it.
"I felt that was a turbulent period for me," he said later. "I felt that I wanted to make extra certain in the immediate aftermath of that experience that I was grounded. And that I had a chance to have a systematic exploration of structures of right and wrong. . . . I had seen people come back from Vietnam and drift and feel rootless, and I didn't want that."
Nine days after receiving the letter from Vanderbilt, Gore filed his formal request for early release, and the Army soon granted it. He was let go 75 days short of fulfilling his two-year duty.
It so happened that he and one of his Fort Rucker pals, Bob Delabar, left Vietnam on the same day, May 22. Gore flew out on a "Freedom Bird" a few hours ahead of Delabar. They both landed at Travis Air Force Base in Oakland, then took a taxi across the bay to the San Francisco airport. As they waited for their final flights home, they shared a few beers in the lounge. One year earlier, at a going-away party for Delabar in New Orleans, Gore had scrambled out to a highway median strip and crawled around on his hands and knees until he found a four-leaf clover. Delabar carried the charm in his wallet all through Vietnam until it finally disintegrated. But his luck lasted, and they were both getting out in one piece. "We were feeling good when we left, no doubt about it," Delabar said.
Tipper Gore was waiting for her husband when his flight landed in Nashville. She drove him home, where he slept 20 hours straight.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.