As I was finally unpacking a box of household items I had moved during downsizing I came across six beautiful Austrian crystal wine glasses, neatly wrapped. They were always “too good to be used” for our normal dining and I don’t think they were ever used. As I looked at them, I remembered where I got them. It brought back some strange memories from the early 1970s and my brief encounter with the war in Vietnam.
When Richard Nixon got elected in 1968 things changed dramatically in Washington, D.C., where I was living. Large numbers of right-wing Republicans took over many of the jobs in the Administration. These officials and appointees were no friends of the UAW or any centre or centre-left organisation. This opposition grew even stronger as the paranoia and scuffles of Watergate came to light, showing the tolerance of political skulduggery of the Nixon Republicans. This was an active and open interference in our personal lives. We were overjoyed to hear the testimony of John Dean as it proved to us and our friends that we were not just paranoid.
Our mail was opened; our telephones tapped; we were followed in the streets. It was unnerving. There were ‘blacklists’ of people who were not invited to official meetings and party invitations not made. I was not important, but the UAW was, so we were all targets. The final straw came when my wife and I were invited to our new neighbours (we lived on Capitol Hill) for dinner. My new neighbour was the new head of the LEA (Law Enforcement Administration) and the party was to welcome his new assistants who were coming to work on the program. As we walked back home next door my wife was in a state of fury. I asked why and she said that the person next to her at dinner introduced himself as the new head of Civil Rights Law Enforcement for a five-state region in the South. When my wife asked him what his plans were, he vouchsafed to her that he would buy tickets for the “N---rs” to go back to Africa. That was it. We had to go. There was only grief for us in D.C.
My good friend and mentor, Guy T. Nunn, a famous nationwide radio broadcaster for the UAW in his evening talk show on labour issues had left our department in Washington to join the University of Hawaii. He had set up the Centre for Labour-Management there. It was an important time for Hawaii as the State had just passed legislation allowing for the recognition of public sector unions and public sector collective bargaining. We were charged with developing a plan for this and co-ordinating with the Governor, the Legislature, and the Hawaiian unions. It seemed interesting so my wife and I (and our new son) prepared to go to Hawaii. We put our house on the market, only to find that in those days “Republicans rent, Democrats buy”. The Republicans had been frozen out of D.C. for years before Nixon so were wary of buying. Our house stood nine months on the market before Sen. Gary Hart bought it.
When I arrived in Honolulu, we were busy preparing for and setting up the structure of collective bargaining for the public sector. It was interesting and useful work. I was given a grant by the Federal Government to examine the role of the supervisor in the public sector bargaining unit. We started teaching classes, during the day for students, and at night for unionists on collective bargaining, grievance procedures and labour legislation. We helped shape many of the unions as functioning professional bodies and worked with the Legislature on developing rules and procedures.
The state Public Broadcasting Service was located at the University at Manoa and broadcast to all the islands as HPTV (Hawaiian Public Television). Guy and I set up a weekly television show of half an hour “Rice and Roses” on HPTV which had a lot of labour history and descriptions of available labour services. Guy was the first host on the program but left to concentrate on other matters. I became the host and Executive Producer of the show. There were three thirteen-week periods each year in which we broadcast.
As the Hawaiian public employment system was falling into place and the methods and rules introduced, we were contacted by the Federal Government to see if we could use our expertise to assist the Government of Guam in its effort to promote public sector collective bargaining. I was made an advisor to the Governor of Guam to set up a similar program to the one in Hawaii.
Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States governed under the Organic Act of Guam, passed by the U.S. Congress, and approved by the president on August 1, 1950. The Organic Act made all Chamorros (local name for Guam inhabitants) U.S. citizens. Although they do not have the right to vote in national elections, voters do caucus during the presidential primary season and send delegates to the Democratic and Republican national party conventions. A 1968 amendment to the Organic Act provided for the popular election of a governor and lieutenant governor to four-year terms. Guam also elects a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for a term of two years; that delegate has limited voting rights that exclude the ability to vote on the final passage of legislation.
Most importantly, Guam was a major U.S. military location, with Army, Navy and Air Force bases. During the Vietnam War, Guam was the Air Force base in which the giant B-52 bombers were housed. The B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew two or three missions every day. The sound of B-52 planes filled the air almost every hour. Every Tuesday and Thursday the roads north of the capital, Agana, were blocked to civilian traffic as the weekly shipments of bombs arrived in the two naval ports and were transferred to Andersen Airforce Base in the north and other bases.
Operating from bases on the island of Guam, many thousands of tons of conventional bombs were dropped on targets in North Vietnam. From Guam to the area of conflict involved a round-trip flight of nearly 5000 miles. Total mission times were in the order of 16 to 18 hours. During the Vietnam War the "Big Belly" modification of the B-52Ds to carry conventional bombs increased the internal bomb bay load from 27 to 84 bombs and added modified underwing bomb racks to carry 24 bombs, resulting in a maximum payload of 60,000 pounds of bombs -- a total of 108 bombs on each plane. With that number of bombs one can only imagine the mile-long tailbacks as the bombs were moved to the airbases. The B52 bombings of Vietnam were an important part of the war effort.
Not only were the roads clogged; the hotel space was just as clogged. The B52 pilots had “Cox and Box” occupancies. Two or more pilots shared the same beds, sequentially, and the hotels around the capital were full. We stayed at the Cliff Hotel and almost all the other guests were in uniform. They were not all Americans. There were British, Australian, and Canadian pilots at our hotel as well.
Most bizarrely, Guam had many lovely hotels in places like Tumon Bay which were off-limits to the military. These tourist hotels were full to the brink of Japanese honeymooners. Apparently, the Japanese got ten days’ vacation each year and they used that time to visit the beautiful beaches of Guam. They said it was cheaper than staying in Japan and they did not need to accommodate a large family group in their celebrations. Their sleeping arrangements were more conventional. The benefit to us is that there were several shops and stores which sold top of the line products. The Japanese liked to buy brand-name and high-quality goods and Chamorro traders took the opportunity to provide them. That was where I bought my Austrian crystal.
We did our consulting for the Governor. I made several trips from Hawaii to Guam. With the background of B52 bombers constantly flying overhead and blockages on the roads by the bombs it was a semi-tourist opportunity; a slightly surreal experience of the Vietnamese War.
The best part of the Guam experience was the travel from Honolulu to Agana. There were two ways of getting from Hawaii to Guam. One could fly directly from Honolulu to Agana with United Airlines. The best way was to take the “Island Hopper” on Air Micronesia. The Island Hopper was an airline route between Guam and Honolulu, Hawaii, via several small islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
They closed Johnston Atoll in 1969 when they used it to store the U.S. chemical and biological reserves. There were also connecting routes to Wake, Midway, Koror and Palau or north to Saipan, Tinian and Rota. We used to fly Air Micronesia to Guam and directly home with United. We had no real business on these islands, but it was a way to spend a day in Truk (‘Chuuk’).
During World War II, Japan used Truk Lagoon as one of their main naval bases, anchoring a large portion of their fleet and stationing some 40,000 men there — until Feb. 17, 1944, when the U.S. Navy commenced Operation Hailstone, a combined air and ground attack that devastated the Japanese position at Truk Lagoon. Over the course of two days, American planes sank approximately 50 Japanese ships. These sank to the lagoon floor. Later, the U.S. military took some of its spare equipment (tanks, buses, Jeeps, APCs and damaged aircraft) and dumped them into the sea in Truk. With the sunken Japanese ships, this formed, over time, into a magnificent reef in which thrived large numbers of marine species. These were protected from larger predators who were kept out by this reef, so they thrived. It was our greatest pleasure to spend a long afternoon in Truk snorkelling inside the reef. It is probably the best snorkelling site in the Pacific.
So, when I found the Austrian wine glasses it brough back that strange experience of travelling to Guam, hearing the B52s and the happy laughter of Japanese newlyweds, topped by memories of snorkelling sessions in Truk Atoll. It seems a long time ago and the closest I got to the War in Vietnam.