Soul session in Vietnam

From United Press International, April 24, 1971

By STEWART KELLERMAN

CAMP HOLLOWAY, Vietnam, April 25, 1971 (UPI) — Brother Bill flipped on the  music. Brother Rob lit up a joint and passed it around. Brother Larry opened the  beers and handed them out.

The music of Charles Earland’s Black Talk filled the hooch, or barracks, and a group of  Camp Holloway brothers began a night soul session of rap and sounds.

“Man, the Army’s the most racist pig organization you ever seen,” Spec. 4  Robert l. McCarthy, 21, of Newark, N.J., said. “It’s set up by dudes for dudes.  Nothing for the brothers except trouble.”

McCarthy fingered his power band, a bracelet made of black bootlaces and worn  over the right wrist. He ran a hand through his thick Afro hair.

“Yeh, man,” Spec. 4 William Toliver, 24, of Los Angles broke in. “That’s the  way to tell it, you dig. You tell me I should be a good soldier. Man, what do  you want? I’m getting the same gooks as the rabbits. But all I get is troubles from the pigs.”

Thousands of black soldiers have rejected traditional Army life, set up their  own counterculture on bases throughout Vietnam and have been waging a sort of  psychological (and sometimes physical) guerilla war with military  authorities.

White army officers questioned said the movement has spread to only a  minority of the black GIs in Vietnam. Black officers and enlisted men  questioned, however, estimated 85 to 90 percent of black soldiers in Vietnam  have taken on at least the outward trappings of black militancy.

It’s hard to find a black GI in the country without an Afro haircut and a  bootlace power band, despite frequent attempts by company commanders to outlaw  them. The dap, the black power handshake, is de rigeur when brothers meet.

Many a brother claims he has gone to the LBJ (Long Binh Jail) for refusing to  give up the symbols of black power. Others say they have managed to cow white  commanders by threatening to frag them—that is, toss live grenades at them.

When things get too hot on the bases, some blacks just drop out and live as  deserters on Soul Alley near Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. Black officers say  at least 100 militant brothers, many with Vietnamese families, are hiding out  there.

Small groups of MPs are attacked when they enter Soul Alley, the major source  of drugs in the Saigon area. Large raids tip off the runaway GIs and result in  only a few arrests.

There were 15 brothers in the wooden hooch at Camp Holloway that  night, drinking and smoking grass and rapping with each other. They said there  were hundreds more meeting in the other Holloway hooches and thousands of others  getting together on bases throughout Vietnam. The 15 may be more militant than  the average black GI, but perhaps not much so.

A cardboard sign was taped to one of the walls of the darkened barracks:

Off limits

No rabbits allowed

This area for blacks and blacks only

This was a special night, however. A white newsman had been allowed to attend  one of the soul sessions, listen to the brothers rap and ask questions.

The blacks arrived in groups of two or three during the night. When each got  there he went around the hooch doing the dap (from “dep,” the Vietnamese word  for beautiful) with all the others. The intricate dap is made up of dozens of  steps ranging from tapping fists to slapping chests.

Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express  brotherhood. However, some of the most commonly used gestures (the dap varies  from region to region) are symbols for cutting the throats of MPs and shooting  them in the head.

Spec. 4 Gary Terrell, 23, of Birmingham, Ala., said his superiors have tried  to get him to cut his hair, take off his power band and stop dapping with the  brothers.

“I tell them no,” he said. “You ain’t gonna take my soul away from me, you  dig. So what happens? I got every rotten job the rabbits can think of.”

The super-sensitivity of the new black soldier often gets him into hot water  with his superiors. McCarthy, for example, tells about how a platoon sergeant  once whistled for him to halt. “I just don’t pay attention to him,” he said.  “Nobody’s gonna whistle at me like I’m a dog. I’m a man, a black man, and I’m  proud of it.”

Pfc. Charles Allen, 21, of Los Angeles, claimed his first sergeant tried to  keep him from hanging around with other blacks.

“Man, when I first got here they told me not to participate with too many  blacks,” he said. “But, man, I couldn’t dig the rabbit. They don’t got nothing  for me, no soul. I want to be with my brothers. That’s the way things were  before I left the world (America).”

Just about every militant has a story about how a Communist soldier either  spared his life or showed some sign of friendship. White officers say most of  the stories are figments of the blacks’ imaginations.

Pvt. Tommy Gladney, 21, of Chicago, told how he and another black were in a  Montagnard village when it was attacked by Communists. “Man, we figured we were  in for it,” he said. They jumped us and there was nothing we could do.  But  then, man, it was fantastic, Charlie just sits down and has supper with us. We  smoke some good stuff and then they let us go.”

“The black man ain’t gonna fight for the rabbit,” McCarthy said. “We don’t  got nothing against Charlie. Man, he ain’t white either. If the white man wants  to kill Charlie, he can do it himself.”

The brothers claim they get picked on by their superiors for minor  infractions. They say the vast majority of the prisoners in the LBJ are  blacks.

Gladney said he has spent two terms at the LBJ, one for pushing an NCO and  the other for going AWOL for three days. He denied both charges and said he was  framed because he wore the symbols of black power.

“The pig army picks on us blacks more than anyone else,” he said. “A white  guy goes out and kills 13 gook babies and gets away with it. I bet that Calley  guy gets off. A brother doesn’t shine his boots one day and he gets nine  months.”

[Lt. William Calley was convicted for his role in the My Lai Massacre. A court-marital convicted him of premeditated murder of 22 civilians and in 1971  he was sentenced to life in prison. The sentence was commuted to 10 years’  confinement. He was released in 1974.]

The brothers ended their meeting with a power check. They formed a circle and  thrust out their arms, grasping each other’s hands.

“This is to the black brothers and sisters back in the world,” one brother  intoned. “Down with the pigs. Everybody blackenized. Rise everybody. Stand up  and be recognized.”

All the brothers then raised their hands upward and snapped their fingers.  They then turned to the white visitor and each one did the dap with him and said  goodbye.

How does a successful black soldier feel about the black power movement in  the service?

Capt. Alfred Thomas, 24, of Freeport, N.Y., a helicopter pilot, said, “I’m  just as proud of the movement as anyone else. But I feel the Army is really  trying to help the blacks.  Both the blacks and whites have to bend a little and  things can work out.”

(Listen to an April 22, 2011, UPI interview with Stewart Kellerman about his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam.)