Cart 0

The Class of the Gulf of Tonkin

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 2008 by John T. Reed

My West Point class of ’68 created a book of memories called Both Sides of the Wall: Reflections of the West Point Class of 1968. (The “Wall” is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial In DC.) They urged each of us to write at least one article. I was not going to, but they also said they needed someone in the class with expertise on book publishing. I said I had such expertise and next thing I knew I was working on getting the book formatted and printed. So I figured I would write an article for the thing because guys who are working on it need to set an example. Below is the article.

The Class of the Gulf of Tonkin

by Jack Reed

In this book and at West Point in September, 2008, we commemorate our graduation 40 years ago. We do, indeed, have thousands of shared memories from the common experience of being cadets. But in a spiritual sense, we are probably more united today by another day four years earlier than our graduation. On July 1st, 1964, we did a magnificent and noble thing. We entered West Point.

On that day, we all had the same goals: to be the best cadets and career Army officers we could be. But since that date, including during our cadet days, our goals diverged more and more over time. As cadets, many of us decided that we would get out of the Army when our commitment was up. Others apparently had misgivings about the Vietnam War, as evidenced by their subsequent refusal to serve in it. Still others apparently went into the Army unsure about whether they would stay for a career. Our unity of spirit was at its peak on July 1st, 1964 and it is our mind set on that day that still unites us most.

Most of us had been sent off as heroes by our families and schools for having won an appointment to USMA. It was a different era. World War II had still been going on 19 years before. Our fathers won it. We grew up admiring old snapshots of them in their military uniforms and watching John Wayne in Saturday matinee war movies. The military was well known to Americans. Virtually every family had at least one member who had served during World War II or Korea.

[My mom told me I was born nine months to the day after my father returned from his draftee sergeant service in Europe. The vast majority of our class probably was born with the same, or very similar, timing. We were the point men of the Baby Boom generation.]

We thought West Point was going to be the hardest thing we ever did, and it was far harder than we thought. We thought it was the most challenging college in America and, generally, that was correct. When we reported to the old gym on July 1st, 1964, our civilian peers were lazing at the beach, or the lake, contemplating starting college in September along with the accompanying socializing with co-eds, consuming large quantities of on-campus alcohol, joining fraternities, and occasionally pulling all-nighters to write papers or prepare for exams.

Why did we choose this route? We thought it would make us better men. So did our civilian peers. They were not opposed to becoming better men; they simply did not want to pay such a price to do it.

Truth to tell, we were also patriotic and adventurous and attracted by the Honor Code and Knights of the Round Table ethos of the place, although we rarely talked about that at the time. We also saw it as a test of whether we could hack it, an opportunity to prove ourselves as men to an extraordinary level.

To a large extent, our unity of spirit on July 1st, 1964 stemmed from a shared naïveté and ignorance of who we were as individuals and of what the future held for us. Forty-four years later, those two qualities are gone. But the memory of our teenage idealism, hopes, and dreams still unites us.

To be sure, we saw some other benefits: lifelong respect and career advantage both in the Army and afterward, and the uniforms. Those uniforms and our physical fitness got us collectively ranked number one in the “Best-Looking” category in a guide to the men at various colleges published by Barnard College women while we were cadets.

We were also drawn to the Long Gray Line of men, many famous, who had entered West Point in 162 previous July’s. Three years before, a West Point graduate had just stepped down after two terms as President of the United States.

Army football

We were also drawn to Army football. Year in and year out, absent an occasional, accidental pairing of number 1 and number 2 like the Notre Dame-Michigan State game in 1966, the biggest football game in America was the Army–Navy game. The Super Bowl was little noted until after Joe Namath’s AFL team won it in 1969.

In terms of attendance, the 60’s were the Golden Age of Army–Navy football with an average of over 100,000 seeing the game each year in Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia, an attendance level never seen before or since.

President John F. Kennedy attended the game every year, ceremoniously switching sides at halftime, until he was assassinated just before the Army–Navy game during what was, for most of us, our senior year in high school. Thus did we always attend the Army–Navy Game in John F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

The Army–Navy Game featured a Heisman Trophy winner four times during our junior high, high school, and cadet days: Dawkins of Army in 1958, Bellino of Navy in 1960, and Staubach, who won it as a junior in 1963 and played in the game again in 1964.

At one point during our days as cadets, Army ranked 20th in the nation. Our coach, Tom Cahill, won NCAA Division I-A Coach of the Year. Against Navy, our teams managed to win two, tie one, and lose one, not the greatest record, but certainly better than recent years.

Gulf of Tonkin

On August 2nd, 1964, while we were in Beast [first two months of West Point in July and August of 1964], and still not allowed access to radios or newspapers, the media reported an attack by North Vietnamese boats against two American destroyers. Our not being told about it at the time notwithstanding, it changed our lives. For 20 of our number whose names are now listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Gulf of Tonkin incident started a chain of events that ended their lives.

The West Point Class of 2005 was dubbed the “Class of 9/11” by the media. By that standard—a major war-triggering event occurring just after the class entered West Point, we were the Class of the Gulf of Tonkin.

From abstract possibility to concrete reality

When we entered West Point in July, 1964, there was no war going on. We knew one was possible during our time in the Army—World War II and Korea had recently proved that. But still, war was just an abstract possibility to us. Once we got to read the papers in September of 1964 and listen to the radio in January of 1965, our war was an ever growing, concrete possibility, then probability.

When we entered West Point, active-duty military personnel got half fare on airlines and trains, but you had to wear your uniform during the trip to qualify. By the time we graduated, you only had to show your military ID. The uniform requirement had been waived to avoid subjecting us to baby killer taunts or being spit on.

A common high school hair style in 1964, the crewcut, required no change when we entered West Point. But not long afterward, hair-lengths changed dramatically and our military haircuts revealed what no longer wearing our uniforms while traveling tried to conceal.

The same civilian classmates who had sent us off to West Point as heroes began to try to talk us into quitting and demanded to know why we were not. Our dates often confessed at West Point that they had lied to their college friends about where they were going for the weekend because of the anti-war fever of the time.

Riots and assassinations

In the summer between our junior and senior years, “Negroes,” as the New York Times called them then, rioted in a number of U.S. cities.

In the spring of our senior year, the color guard for the Armed Forces Day parade practiced in Central Area [West Point cadet baracks] where I lived. Only it was a much reinforced color guard, maybe 16 guys instead of the usual eight. And they were practicing surrounding the flag to protect it from protesters. No such color guard or tactics had ever before been thought necessary.

That same spring, the Tet Offensive turned public opinion against the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated triggering race riots in Washington, DC. When Bobby Kennedy was also shot on our Graduation Day, it was less of a shock than deja vu.

In retrospect, entering West Point on July 1st, 1964 was not the greatest timing for those hoping to experience the West Point we had seen in the West Point TV series [Did you know it was written by Gene Rodenberry (Star Trek) and starred in various episodes Chuck Connors (The Rifleman), Martin Milner (Route 66), and Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek)] in 1956 or the West Point we saw in the 1955 Tyrone Power/Maureen O’Hara movie The Long Gray Line.

‘The Class the Caduceuses Fell On’

As cadets, we often heard about “The Class the Stars Fell On:” 1915, many of whose members went on to become famous generals in World War II. We wondered if ours would be another class the stars fell on.

No. We turned out to be “The Class the Caduceuses Fell On.” The caduceus is the symbol of the medical profession: a winged herald’s staff with two snakes wrapped around it. During our time in the service, the Army started a program of putting qualified officers through medical school for free. Many of our classmates took advantage of it and became doctors; hardly anyone’s plan on 7/1/64.

Actually, we are more accurately described as “The Class the Professional Degrees Fell On” with many also becoming lawyers, dentists, MBAs, professional engineers, professors, ministers, and so forth. In that, we turned out to be not much different from our Baby Boomer civilian peers. As far as stars were concerned, our class got fewer than most. We did, however, contribute one rare star at our Alma Mater itself: Dan Kaufman who became Dean of the Academic Board.

Surprisingly, we did not even make careers of the Army as a group. The Gulf of Tonkin apparently started an as-yet-unbroken string of West Point classes, including
ours, in which about 1/4 to 2/3 get out of the Army before 20 years.

The salient feature of our class’s cadet experience was that we were the last class to ENTER West Point during its Golden Age, during a time when the military was almost universally respected. According to Wikipedia, opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began slowly and in small numbers in 1964 on various college campuses in the United States.

By the time we graduated, we arguably went through the biggest public-opinion whipsaw experienced by any West Point class since the one that entered in 1860.

Today, many connect us to the Vietnam War, the military that has been banned from college and high school campuses, and Abu Ghraib. But we did not intentionally choose any such connections in 1964.

To each other, we remain, and always will be, those magnificent, noble New Cadets who walked through the United States Military Academy Sally Port on July 1, 1964 to join the Long Gray Line and the then undefeated U.S. Army.

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.