As opposition to the Vietnam War reached a fever pitch stateside, a group of 43 Black soldiers from Fort Hood refused to deploy to Chicago in 1968.
FORT HOOD, Texas — There isn’t much room to move inside the home office of Alan Pogue, a photographer and Vietnam veteran who has stacks of black and white photos dating back decades. The photos are time stamps of history and tell of a time when opposition was growing stateside from soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
“You can see that soldiers and their supporters on the sidewalk,” Pogue said, holding and pointing to one photo he took in the early 1970’s. “There, right there, that’s the police.”
Pogue, who speaks softly, still recalls and remembers those days of unrest, pushback and anger in Killeen to what was happening in Vietnam.
“A lot of the soldiers didn’t support this war either and so it wasn’t clear-cut, Pogue said. “It wasn’t this way or that way. It was very, there’s lot of shades of grey and lots of other opinions that weren’t always being accepted.”
David Zeiger, who wrote and directed the 2005 documentary “Sir, No Sir!” said the movie is the real story of the Vietnam war and documents the mission of the Americans, which he called unjust.
“I was on the staff at the Oleo Strut during that time,” Zeiger said, referring to the GI Coffeehouse located just off Fort Hood where soldiers came to get away from the organized chaos of war.
“This was not a war to be proud of, this was not a righteous war,” Zeiger said. “This was a war in which the United States was trying to spread its empire at the cost of the Vietnamese people,” acknowledging that he was giving his opinion but that it was shared by so many others as well.
Zeiger said some of the growing tension and opposition to the Vietnam War came from the active duty soldiers who spent time there and from those who heard the heinous stories of how the Vietnamese were treated.
“The Vietnam War concentrated for a lot of soldiers the oppression they were fighting against in the U.S.,” Zeiger explained.
The growing unrest in the United States was highlighted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where protesters were beaten by the Chicago police. It was something that played out on television screens across the country and an assignment that weeks earlier had been refused by 43 Black soldiers stationed on Fort Hood.
As Zeiger captured in his documentary, Elder Halim Gullahbemi, told how he and others were treated and abused by Fort Hood’s Military Police, following a peaceful sit-in to protest against being sent to Chicago.
“We were making it clear that it was a genocidal thing that was going to go on and how could I go and commit genocide on my people, shoot my people,” Gullahbemi explained to Zeiger at the time. “There were hundreds of Black GI’s out on this parade field. Brothers came out and started really pouring it on about, you know, discrimination and unfair treatment.”
Gullahbemi said Black soldiers complained of not making rank they felt they had worked for and spent some time griping about the war in general and their feelings towards it.
“Sir, No, Sir!” told of how the meeting stretched into the night and how Fort Hood’s Commanding General came out to talk to the Black soldiers and hear them out, a meeting Gullahbemi said made others feel good about their position and while some of them left, 43 of them, Gullahbemi included, stayed.
“He said, I am just a two star general, let me go and talk to my boss and I will have an answer for you in the morning,” Gullahbemi is quoted as saying in the documentary. “So, we just relaxed and went to sleep and all of a sudden, cracked upside the head and then, MP’s all around us.”
What happened next, according to Gullahbemi was brutal.
“They came at us with bayonets, I got cut, you know I got hit right here with a bayonet and then every, every now and then they open this formation up and a group of MP’s would come in and grab a brother and take him back in the back and beat the s*** out of him,” Gullahbemi explained, his eyes focused as he spoke with his hands. “You would just hear him screaming in the back and you just say, damn.”
The story of the Fort Hood 43 is a microcosm of the uprising and backlash the American government and President Richard Nixon received as active duty soldiers returned home from Vietnam.
“You really have to look at why, not just the fact that this story is not taught in school or anywhere and you just have to ask why,” Zeiger said. “You have to really look at that and what does that say about what we know about history but how that moves forward to today.”
Zeiger said what he finds interesting is that the military has learned a lot from what happened, not only at Fort Hood, but across all installations from the soldiers protesting the Vietnam War.
“Even though they deny that it happened, they changed a lot of the kind of harassment, petty stuff that existed then in the military. They know the danger, they know the risk of their own soldiers turning against what their being ordered to do,” Zeiger said
Pogue, who photographed a lot of the uprising and believed wholly in the cause after he returned from Vietnam, said while he wasn’t at Fort Hood to witness the Fort Hood 43, he knows of it and believes to this day it’s a big part of the history of the war and the military in general.
“I definitely think people should know about the Fort Hood 43 and the moral position that they took. To leave them out would be to falsify history,” Pogue said. “Not talking about the Fort Hood 43 is another attempt to control what people think because a very important part of history is being purposefully suppressed, left out.”
Pogue said it makes him angry because it only means there will be more suffering. He said he has experienced censorship as well, both in Iraq and here at home with his photos. He empathizes with the plight of the Fort Hood 43 and says the biggest lesson to be learned begins and ends with unearthing the truth for the American people.
“They saw the position they were in and they weren’t willing to accept it,” Pogue said. “They were willing to go against what was asked of them and, for that, I see them as heroes. People who risked everything for a moral principal.”
Zeiger, who spent a few years in Central Texas in the shadow of Fort Hood, said there are many lessons from the Vietnam War that still need to be learned and his hope someday is the whole truth can be talked about. Even, he says, how awful the truth is to hear.
“I think really looking at the real history of the Vietnam War and of what went on inside the military at that time is crucial,” Zeiger said.
“There are lessons there about what this country should be and there are lessons there about what, you know, what it means when the military is possibly used against American citizens,” he said. “The kind of opposition to the things that went on, especially to Black GI’s is important I believe not only for history but for looking forward too.”
While the story of the Fort Hood 43 remains largely untold and forgotten both locally and nationally, Zeiger hopes that changes. He says they are heroes and an important part of the ugly truth and history rarely talked about with the Vietnam War.
“For just about everyone that I interviewed and that I know that was a part of that movement, this was both the worst and the best time of their lives,” Zeiger said. “The actions that they took, um, still hold a tremendous amount of pride and sense that they did the right thing in a time when it was extremely difficult and in a situation where it was extremely difficult to do the right thing. They did it and that’s a very powerful thing to carry with you all your life.”
Written by Bary Roy