How I became a conscientious objector

May 5, 2020 • 10:00 am

Today I’ll take a break from travel stories as I have two stories connected with my Wanderhalbjahr in Europe. Today’s (at the request of a reader) tells how I became a conscientious objector, worked in a hospital, found out I’d been drafted illegally, and got the government to release me and many other men from service. The other, for another day, is how, after my post-release jaunt through Europe, I came to be admitted to Harvard though I’d been accepted to graduate school at the University of Chicago.

I’ll tell the first one today, and the other one some other day. It’s easy to write this because the ducklings are about to hatch, I’m quite nervous, and it’s easier to tell stories about the past than to ruminate on or analyze current events (there aren’t any that intrigue me, anyway). Some of the details of this account are hazy, but I’ll do my best.

On December 1, 1969, the first draft lottery during the Vietnam War was held; this would assign numbers to every eligible man’s birthday, with the number specifying the order in which you’d be drafted. “1”, for example, would be the first person called for service, “2” the second, and so on to 365, the last person called to service. It was clear that they wouldn’t go through the entire year, which would have meant drafting everyone born between between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1950, the class subject to the lottery.

That included everyone in my college class. (I was born on December 30, 1949). The draft was explicitly meant for service in Vietnam, and we all knew what that meant.  If you had a low number, that meant that the government would begin processing you in 1970 for military service, which in my case meant that the service would begin after I graduated from The College of William & Mary in June, 1971.

The government put one day of the year on each of 365 slips of paper (as you see below, there were Feb. 29 births too), and those slips were put in plastic capsules, mixed up in a barrel and picked out sequentially. All of us watched the television drawing in the dorm, nervously awaiting our numbers. A low number meant that, barring a medical deferment or conscientious objection, you would go into the Army and probably to Vietnam.  If you were assigned to a combat platoon, you had a high risk of dying.

The general feeling, as Roger Mudd notes in the short documentary of the drawing below, was that if you were in the lowest third of the numbers (1-about 120), you’d be sure to be inducted, in the middle third it was a toss-up, and in the lowest third you’d be safe from conscription forever.

Here, from HistoryNet, are the results of that drawing. My birthday is circled:

As you see, December 30 was assigned #3. That’s the third worst possible number, and guaranteed that I would be drafted. While my dorm-mates who got high numbers celebrated, I had to think hard.

All of us, being Leftist hippies, were opposed to the Vietnam War, and many of us, including me, had gone to Washington several times to demonstrate against it. We saw no point in fighting the Viet Cong, many of whom were South Vietnamese. We saw no point in having our bodies used as targets in a war that had no bearing on national security, and I, personally, saw it as an unjust war on the part of the U.S.

As a peacenik, I had a record of opposing war, but can’t remember exactly when that began, or the time frame during which my antiwar activities occurred relative to the lottery. I know that I’d written a long term paper for my Ethics class (taught by Alan Fuchs, a student of John Rawls), trying to come to grips with the question, “Is there any war that one would consider just?” (I can’t remember my answer save that the vast majority of wars were unjust, and didn’t warrant conscripting and killing soldiers.

What I did realize is that I would try to seek conscientious-objector status based on my views, and if I didn’t get that 1-O deferment, I was prepared to go to jail instead of serving in the Army. Some of my friends saw that stand as impure, thinking that being a CO was a coward’s way out since you were still acting at the behest of the government, and that going to jail or fleeing to Canada were better alternatives. David Malament, one of my fellow students at Rockefeller University (where I started grad school) felt this way, and wound up spending time in jail. Malament later became a well-known philosopher of science and in fact spent a quarter of a century teaching at the University of Chicago. I always meant to look him up, but didn’t get around to it.

I spent the rest of my junior year and most of my senior year engaged in various antiwar activities, which included demonstrating and working for the Quakers as a draft counselor, a period that, as you’ll see, was pivotal in my later history. I also compiled a dossier of my writings and activities that I would need to submit to the draft board supporting a request for 1-O status.

At the time, the only valid objection to war that draft boards would consider was a religious one: you had to have a sincere and religiously-based opposition to war. That applied to Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not to me, as I was already an atheist. But there were ways in which a profound moral objection to war could be considered, and that’s what I worked on. I’d already written a term paper on the issue, and I went to talk to various rabbis, priests, and ministers, telling them that I was an atheist but detailing my objections to war. To their credit, they all wrote me letters of support averring that my objections were profound, moral, and, I suppose, “spiritual”, though I no longer have a copy of my dossier.

On top of that, my father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, offered to write me a letter of support, as did one of his Army friends. I remember part of what my dad said, which was something like “I believe that every able-bodied man should serve his country in the military, but I also know that my son has a sincere moral objection to war, and should not be required to serve.” In the end, I think that that letter, and the one from the other Army guy, were pivotal in getting me my 1-O.

But that was to come. In the meantime I had to go to Richmond, Virginia to take the Army my physical and mental tests. I passed both, though they found my hearing substandard (it still is). I remember standing naked in two rows and being asked to bend over for the fundament check.  I was given “draftable” status, so I continued to pursue my 1-O.

The normal procedure for requesting exemption was to appear in person before the draft board to answer tough questions, and they’d decide your status. They rarely granted exemptions.  I was preparing for such a grilling, which would also take place in Newport News, Virginia, a notoriously stringent draft board known to almost never grant exemptions. (The city is, of course, home to a huge Navy base and has a huge military population.) But it turned out I didn’t need to. I remember my mother running into my room in the early summer, waving a letter from the draft board. She’d already opened it, and inside was my draft card with the prized “1-O” designation. I was a CO! I was particularly proud that they awarded me my status based on my dossier, and saw no need to put me through the usual in-person grilling.

After I graduated in June, 1971, I immediately went to Rockefeller University for the required summer biochemistry course for all biology grad students. (I’d been admitted to pursue a Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics under Theodosius Dobzhansky). At the end of the summer, #3 was called up for service, and I was required to find my own CO job. The stipulations were that it had to be some kind of public service, and that you’d be paid the same amount as an Army private, regardless of what the normal salary for the job was. (As I recall, I made about $5500 a year.) And of course you didn’t get free food, housing, or medical care like the regular draftees did.

Eventually I found a job as a lab technician working on neurochemistry at Cornell University Medical School in Manhattan, right across the street from Rockefeller University. Rockefeller was kind enough to allow me to live in the dorms and to continue having subsidized food and medical care, as if I was a regular graduate student. They expected me to return after my CO stint, which is what I intended, too. (I worked in the lab of Dr. Michael Gershon, who apparently still works at Cornell. Gershon was a nice guy and was glad to take a CO on board.)

My stint as a technician was easy work compared to some COs, who had to wash bedpans and work as orderlies in hospitals. But it lasted 13 months rather than the regular two years (equivalent to a stint in the Army).

Why the truncated period of service? Well, one day I found that I’d been called up for service illegally. I was reading the New York Times at breakfast, and read on the front page an article that from the first draft lottery, nobody would be inducted into the Army. The war was winding down, and they didn’t need more cannon fodder. Having worked for the Quakers as a draft counselor, I knew that this wasn’t legal: the law required anybody with a given “inductable” draft number be called to service at the same time, regardless of whether he was going into the Army or into service as a conscientious objector. What the Selective Service had done was to draft a lot of COs (about 2500, as I recall), but nobody into the regular army.

I immediately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and told them my plight, and they agreed to help me. As I recall, they found five other COs like me and put together a class action suit against the government for violating its Selective Service regulations. I said yesterday that the suit was Coyne et al. v. Nixon et al., but it could have been Coyne et al. v. Curtis Tarr et al. (Tarr was head of the Selective Service). I do know that Nixon was named in the suit as a defendant, along with other government officials like Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense.

After a short while, we had a hearing in Federal court in New York City. I recall that  it lasted only about 30 minutes, as the government basically admitted it had violated its own rules. Soon after that, the ruling came down: we got a letter from the ACLU saying that we five—and the 2000-odd other COs who fell into the plaintiff class—were released. I was free!

But it was winter, too early to go back to graduate school, and at any rate Dobzhansky had retired and left Rockefeller for the University of California at Davis. I left my job at Cornell, and had to find some place to go to grad school for the fall of 1973. Fortunately, I’d earlier been admitted to the University of Chicago to work under Dick Lewontin, so I went off to Europe for my Wanderhalbjahr expecting to study at Chicago when I returned. (As I recall, I’d rejected Chicago’s offer in favor of Rockefeller’s, but they told me they’d take me if I changed my mind.)

Little did I know that Lewontin had taken a job at Harvard for the fall of 1973, and had forgotten that I had been accepted to work with him. I didn’t know this until I returned from EuropeI called Lewontin, who told me that he couldn’t help me: he’d already bargained to take his five Chicago grad students to Harvard, and I wasn’t one of them.

That meant that I had to wangle my way into Harvard on my own, and I had about two weeks to do it. And that is the next story in this odyssey: How I Got Into Harvard In One Day with the Help of E. O. Wilson.

Stay tuned.

Time to check the ducks. . . . (they’re still on their nests).


97 thoughts on “How I became a conscientious objector

  1. Interesting story, thanks much.

    My experience with large federal bureaucracies leads me to believe that inducting COs while not drafting people with the same number into the army was likely an example of Hanlon’s razor.

    It was also nice to read that the government admitted it and conceded the case. I can’t imagine the current administration behaving so rationally towards one of it’s own snafus.

  2. At least one clutch of ducklings is in the pond.

    Hopefully you can video the other clutch jumping.

    Looks like you have a thunderstorm to contend with though.

      1. I saw ducklings a few minutes ago. They swam past with their mom. Not sure where they are right now, though.

  3. A very interesting post indeed. In the late 60’s I was given numerous deferments being a graduate teaching assistant at UT in Austin, Texas. But finally in 1970 they called me up for a preinduction physical and off a bunch of us went to San Antonio. When they found out that I was a “red” they didn’t bother me again since they didn’t want agitators infiltrating the rank and file. It was not too long after this that Nixon capitulated for peace talks and the draft came to an end. This was truly a horrible period for the country to go through.

  4. As a high school student, I went to draft counselors at Swarthmore in preparation for trying to register as a conscientious objector. Didn’t amount to anything. I turned 18 in 1972. Don’t even remember if they had a lottery for us. If they did, I had a high number. I do remember discomfort with the expectation that one’s convictions would be religious.

    1. Actually, my recollection was that you were included in the lottery in the year in which you turned 19. I turned 19 in 1972 (born in 1953) and I recall skipping classes and being glued to the radio in February of that year as they drew each birth date and the corresponding lottery number. All the 19-year-olds on the floor of my dorm had chipped in a dollar (we raised about $20), with the understanding that the low number would get the money as a going-away present (19-year-old boys can be so cruel). About halfway through the lottery, the nerdy engineering student in the room next door to mine drew number 1 (I drew 135). He came walking out of his room ashen-faced mumbling “I won’t go – I won’t go – I’ll go to Canada,” as we handed him his $20. My understanding in that no one from my “class” of 19-year-olds was actually drafted.

    2. The last year to have a draft lottery was 1956 – my birth year. My birth date came up 46. The top 90 got 1A draft cards.

      You had to register for the lottery within 3 months (either way) of your 18th birthday. The actual draft ended in January 1973. So here I was in July of 1974, having just graduated from high school. I was not planning on registering but then I got some papers that said I had to register or my financial aid would be withdrawn. So I did.

      The actual lottery was in March 1975. Just before finals. And i get 46. A little nervous. The spring quarter starts. Saigon falls on April 30, 1975. Followed by the Mayaguez incident.

      During all this, my 1A draft card arrived. I still have it. I began looking into transferring to McGill University.

  5. I was in the same boat at about the same time. Interestingly, I had, as a oceanography student, applied for college ROTC in high school after a recruiter at a school assembly told me that the Navy was major locus of oceanographic research, and would fund my education.

    I went through the process all the way to an induction examination and interview, where I learned that I would have to serve on a ship of the line in the war. I told them that I was a pacifist studying oceanography to be in service to humanity and could not participate in warfare. I was told “we respect your views but there is no place for you in the Navy” and was rejected.

    I attempted to use this statement in my CO application but it too was rejected.

    1. Sounds like something from Catch 22 -the Navy rejects you on the grounds of your conscientious objection, but the draft board won’t accept that as evidence that you’re a CO.

  6. I agree. Thanks for sharing your stories with us. This is the first place I go every morning with my cup of green tea. A decent way to start the day.

  7. Thanks for your story. My dad was an evolutionary biologist (San Diego State, University of Houston) working on frogs, primarily. In 1963 he was on sabbatical at the American Museum of Natural History and I got to meet Theodosius Dobzhansky at Rockerfeller University. One of my dad’s master’s students later got a PhD under Dobzhansky. After we returned to San Diego, Dobzhansky came to collect fruit flies. My dad, Dobzhansky, a few grad students, and I went to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park to trap fruit flies with traps containing mashed bananas. In those days, I collected butterflies and in high school I did a mark-release-recapture study on the Western Pigmy Blue. I had a collection of local butterflies and some other insects, including beetles. I thought I had a fair number of local beetles (I was rather uninformed), and recall Dobzhansky gently explaining to me how unlikely that was. I wish I could recall whether he quoted Haldane’s (apocryphal?) statement about “God’s inordinate fondness for beetles”, but I can’t.
    I was drafted with 92 and had to consider options, but they ended the draft before I could be called up. Given that I was in Austin and had been on the Rag staff (early underground newspaper), there was no way I was going to do anything but CO.

  8. Like you I was prepared to do anything necessary to stay out of Vietnam. Several of my friends had already been there. Without exception they told me to go to any extreme to avoid it. (At least 3 of my high school classmates suicided within 10 years of returning.) I was in college and 20 years old at the time of the lottery. I was fortunate to draw a high number.

    Thank you for posting the table with the birthdays and lottery numbers. I am pleased to see that my 50-year old memory of my number is accurate. It was clearly significant to me.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to tell your story of the draft. I would add Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren to the Quakers and JW’s with a peace church tradition. Most young men in those churches were counseled to register as a CO when they turned 18. Draft boards seemed to differentiate between those who registered CO at 18 and those who registered when the war was escalating. Nearly all of us who graduated from college in 1968 were drafted and ended up serving two years, from Vietnam to the local VA Hospital.

  10. I was in that same lottery. I’d been on a student deferment. But I drew a pretty high number, 263. I waited for the end of the year to get close and once it was clear they would not actually call me I gave up my deferment. I knew I was safe from the draft at that point. Had I been called I likely would have gone to Canada. One of my friends had already done that and so I had a connection in Toronto if I needed it.

    1. I was too young for the draft; but I was in the first cohort of 18-year-old men who had to start registering again when it was reinstated (1980) after registration was stopped in 1975.

      That was a sobering experience to me, since I’d grown up with the Vietnam War and knew about all the protests against it, etc. Al I could thin was: If they choose, the military can own my ass. I did not like that thought.

  11. We were spared the draft in the UK (and involvement in the Vietnam war) but I do remember fondly Country Joe and the Fish and Alice’s Restaurant among other protest songs.

    1. Alice’s Restaurant is a brilliant example of using humo(u)r and music to make a serious point.

  12. Jerry is at the pond with some food (12:55pm Chicago time). Talking to a couple walking by (from an acceptable distance). I think he was pointing out the ducklings. There is a hen with five or so ducklings on the pond. Also a drake – maybe Wingman.

      1. Another drake on the scene. The two are swimming very rapidly in formation but keeping their distance from the ducklings.

          1. Jerry posted a comment on the youtube feed and identified the hen as Dorothy.

            rick longworth
            ​Trouble in River City. Drakes are chasing the duck.

            Jerry Coyne
            ​I’m doing the best I can. They have to work it out on their own. Dorothy has already taught one drake a lesson; it’s the other one who’s bothering her.

      1. Yep. That’s out duck farmer trying. I think he’s trying to keep the drakes from pestering the ducklings.

        1. Four drakes on the pond now – all four just swam under the bridge to the smaller part. The hen swam into the picture from the lower right corner. It appears she has seven ducklings. Hard to get a good count.

          Jerry is out there doing the pond equivalent of “get off my lawn you damn punks”.

          1. Not sure they would want us on campus but maybe WEIT readers in the Chicago area can head down to Hyde Park to give Jerry a break. Requirements: Accuracy with a squirt gun and a real “get off my lawn” old man attitude.

      2. Please don’t broadcast the ducklings too far; it was a rough day with the drakes bothering Dorothy’s new ducklings (there are ten) and my nerves are completely shot.

        Given the fracas there, I’m trying to keep people from disturbing the ducklings until they get a few days’ respite and some food. Also, I suspect we’ll have Honey’s ducklings there tomorrow–Thursday at the latest.

  13. Really seems nuts that they drafted all those guys, including you with no intention of putting anyone into the army. Someone must have been pissed at COs.

    Although I am nearly the same age as you, about 3 months younger, I missed out on that first lottery draft because I was already in the service. As you know, there were many ways to avoid the draft besides old feet spurs Trump. You could join the national guard and lots of guys did that. It turned the guard into a joke but they were full. You could also join other military organizations and I went to the Air Force. Maybe by luck, but it ended up being a good thing for me. I was not ready to get into college at the time and was not interested in jail or Canada either. My entire 4 years of Air Force service less the basic training and tech school was spent in Europe. As a crew chief on F-100 jet aircraft at RAF Lakenheath, England. I spent several months in Italy, Spain, Turkey and Denmark but home base was England. My three years plus over there was a good time but I was glad to get out too.

    1. I was in my sophomore year in college in 1969 and my number came up 10. I probably would have been drafted. I came from a very small town in New Mexico, there we about 10 boys in my graduating class, and nearly all of them went into service, all enlisted, I think. I was opposed to the war, but not all wars, and I could never make a convincing argument to myself that I was a genuine CO, and I had no one to counsel me. I would not go to jail, nor would I go into exile, so I did what you did Mr. Schenck, I joined a “safe” service, the Navy. Not so safe for everyone, as it turns out, my high school best friend joined the Navy and he ended up in swift boats in the Mekong Delta. Literally got his ass shot too. Out of the 10 boys in my graduating class, all served, one died, and two got shot up. 30% casualty rate. New Mexico has always lost a lot of men in US wars disproportionate to it’s size. Think Bataan death march.
      I was very lucky myself, The Navy made me an air traffic controller and stationed me at US Naval Air Station Agana, Guam, which was both the commercial airport and a logistics base for typhoon trackers, sub hunters, and supply flights. Guam was like a mini Hawaii. I made rank quickly, got an honorable discharge and veterans benefits that I enjoy to this day.
      I don’t claim that there’s any justice in my story. I don’t think it was pure luck either that things worked out well for me. I think it was mainly that I scored high on the intelligence tests. Maybe being white had something to do with it, but I saw now obvious evidence of that.

      1. You are correct about that Navy thing. Friend of mine joined, ended up a medic and guess what – Vietnam with the marines.
        Your time in Guam is interesting to me as I made it to Guam 3 or 4 times in the 80s. I worked for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) for about 27 years. Anderson Air Force Base Guam was usually where I stayed but also saw the Navy Base as well. Maybe a 24 mile drive from Anderson to the Navy. I also remember the Waikiki of Guam where all the Japanese hotels were built. There is not a hotter place to go than Guam, other than maybe the Philippines.

    2. Randall – “Someone must have been pissed at COs” is certainly an understatement for our [red] neck of the woods in the 1960’s. At that time most folks considered CO’s to be traitors, chicken-shits, and so on. A lot of folks would rather have seen their sons die in Vietnam as a patriot fighting the commies than being an anti-American draft dodger.

  14. I’ve just read the Wikipedia link that PCC(E) linked to about the draft lottery. The method used was horribly flawed – dates were put into the drum sequentially, starting with 1 January and finishing with 31 December, and then not mixed properly. The chances of being called up if your birthday was in December (or November) were significantly higher than chance:

  15. I had a broken bone in one ankle [obvious on my X-rays] that caused severe pain if I walked downhill for any length of time. The medical examiner said in effect, yes, you are unfit for combat, but with your education, you will never see combat, so 1-A you are. [I guess I should have hired Trump’s doctor.] The appeals took a couple of months, but my claim was rejected, of course. I really did not want to shoot Vietnamese patriots who believed they were only trying to defend their country from foreign domination, so I applied for CO status. If you had to be against all wars to be against the Viet Nam war, then I sincerely was. That claim was rejected, too. The best part was when my local draft board said, “We are not rejecting your claim because you are an atheist, it’s just that since you don’t fear the wrath of God if you lie, we can’t believe anything you say.” The appeals again took a coupe of months, and again were rejected. But I turned 26 while all this was going on, and I guess the military figured anyone that old would be a bad influence on morale [i.e., badmouthing the war] and better to keep them out of the army.

  16. I was in the last age cohort to be eligible for the draft while the US conscription laws were still in force. I was opposed to the war, thought it was immoral, misbegotten, and senseless. I also had a lot of time to think about what I would do. In the end, despite all my misgivings, I decided that I’d go serve, if called. (I’ll add that the Vietnam War had been the central issue in the life of the nation for as long as I could remember. I gotta admit that, while I sure-as-shit didn’t want to go kill or maim any Vietnamese boys, much less have them kill or maim me, a part of me wanted to go over and have a look at the place, find out what smelled and sounded and felt like. I’d heard a lot of stories from older guys in the neighborhood had done a tour there and lived to tell the tale.)

    I pulled a low lottery number in the fall of 1971, shortly after starting my freshman year at college. (My age cohort was also the first one to be ineligible for any type of college deferment — which was fine by me, since I thought it immoral that rich kids could avoid the draft by going to college, while the working-class kids in my neighborhood got sucked into Uncle Sam’s Southeast Asia meat-grinder.)

    The day after the lottery, I ran into an old high-school football buddy of mine who’d drawn a similarly low draft number. The two of us talked it over a while and decided there wasn’t much point to putting off what seemed to be the inevitable, so we went down to see the recruiters, to find out about maybe joining up together under the military’s then-extant “buddy program.”

    That night, my dad (who’d spent part of WW2 as a corpsman, tending to badly butchered Marines at the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor, an experience that rendered him a pacifist and an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War) found on the steps leading to my bedroom the recruiting materials for the US Marine Corps (the branch of the service most of the guys from my neighborhood, especially those who’d played high-school football, had opted for when serving).

    The old man grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and marched me upstairs to my bedroom (so that my mother couldn’t overhear what we were talking about) and asked me was I outta my fucking mind? We sat and talked it out, and I explained my thinking. He said I was a big boy (chronologically and physically anyway) and it was my call, but he asked me would I please at least finish my freshman year and see where things stood then. This goddamn war isn’t gonna last forever, he said (Nixon’s so-called “Vietnamization” plan was underway), and maybe I wouldn’t get called up after all. He also let me know that, if and when the time came, he would drive my ass to Canada himself, if that’s the route I wanted to go. I agreed to wait.

    I got called up for my pre-induction physical with a bunch of other guys who had low lottery numbers in November 1972. (I thought it was considerate of the local draft board to schedule it for Thanksgiving week so that those of us who were away at college would likely be back in our hometown.) I went in classified 1-A, came out 1-A, too. As we filed out of the big hall in the county seat where the affair had taken place, the Sargent who’d been shepherding us around to various stations to see if we had flat-feet or pierced eardrums or a bad ticker any other condition that would warrant classifying us 4-F, gave us a look and said, “See you boys in January” — the first month of our eligibility for induction.

    Turns out, on January 27, 1973, a little over three weeks into my eligibility, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending US participation in the Vietnam War. Within two months, Nixon had removed the last combat troops from Southeast Asia. Nobody from my cohort got called up, and later that year the US conscription laws expired. My old man had been right.

    Way I like to look back on it now, I figure that Lê Đức Thọ, the chief negotiator for North Vietnam, must’ve caught wind that a certain Pvt. Kukec might soon be in-country and decided to get his side out while the gettin’ was still good. 🙂

    1. I believe you are correct, they were finally doing away with the college deferment. What I remember about 1968 was, it was a bad year to be getting out of high school. Over in Vietnam it seemed like it was getting worse. One guy out of my class had already quit school, joined the marines and was dead. I was attempting to get into the Air Force and the recruiter had so many standing in line with draft notices in hand, he told me I would have to wait a while. I told him I was not going to wait long, although I had no idea what I was going to do. So I waited for about a month before he finally said go.

      1. Yeah, looking back, I can see that my dad watched that war drag on year after year (especially when boys from our neighborhood started coming home in a box) with a sense of dread that his sons would get sucked into the maw and sent over there.

  17. My Dad was drafted in 1944. He was born in 1923, so I have no idea how he wasn’t in before that.

    He had about a year of college under his belt (electrical engineering) so he went to OCS and became a navigator/bombardier in B-24s.

    In fall of 1944, he went to the east of England with the 8th Air Force (US Army Air Force). He did a full tour (35 missions at the time) in about 3-1/2 months bombing Germany and occupied France, Belgium, etc. And lived to tell the tale, including a couple of near misses (shrapnel from AA fire, having his O2 tube come disconnected a few times at altitude (waking up with one of his crew mates hunched over him after reconnecting his line), getting burnt hands from heated gloves that were from a UK buddy that didn’t match the B-24 electrical system.)

    On discharge, he stayed in the reserves, finished his EE degree and was then called up in 1950 for Korea. Since he’d done his full combat duty, he was in transportation, flying around Japan and the Philippines mainly and Korea.

    After Korea, he decided he liked the Air Force and stayed in. He went to work on various interesting research projects, including the earliest AWACS systems, and computers, etc. He was stationed at Eglin AFB in FL (being a Minnesota boy, he loved the FL weather), which he loved; and where he met my Mom.

    I remember him in the Air Force when I was small; but he retired (21 years, 1/2 pay) when I was about 8.

    He was a veteran of WWII, Korean War, and the Vietnam War Era.

    1. Do you know where in England? Probably easy to find out. My father was in the RAF – when your dad went to eastern England, my dad was sent out to India! He was away I think until after VJ Day. He reckoned if Churchill had won the 1945 election he’d have been out there a lot longer & maybe died there as Churchill was opposed to Indian independence.

      1. Reading my Dad’s notes: When his cohort arrived in Hethel, the full tour was 30 missions, with per-mission loss rate of 3.5% to 4%, making your survival chances about 50/50.

        While they were there, the mission rate changed to about 3% and the full tour went to 35 missions: Keeping the survival rate to about 50/50.


    1. Did you ever read Stephen Ambrose – The Wild Blue. It’s a pretty good one on the B-24. Your dad was one of the greatest generation. My dad tried to join the air corp but did not make it due to a hernia. He did spend a lifetime flying in civilian life and for the army national guard.

  18. I’m a tiny bit older than our host (born in 1948), and grew up in New Zealand. NZ had a draft when I was in university, but it was not for actual military service, rather for what was called Compulsory Military Training – essentially 14 weeks of basic training: the idea being that there would always be a pool of at least minimally trained men available if there were a war. I was drafted in late 1969, and appeared for the medical but was flunked out – flat feet. My first year roommate and long-time friend was also drafted and was told he’d do his service starting in September 1970. He was already accepted to start PhD study in Canada starting then, so asked if he could do it at one of the earlier intakes, and was told they were full, but he should just go to Canada anyway. It was all fairly casual.
    But at the same time, Australia was actually drafting for the Vietnam war – and the dodge there was the same as in the US, join the Citizen Military Force (something like the National Guard), and you got to stay at home.

    1. Very Interesting. The army national guard was really made a mess in the 60s because it was a draft dodger’s paradise. Prior to
      Vietnam the guard was in poor shape because it was always 2nd fiddle to the army. Then the dodgers joined up like crazy and it was full of really poor soldiers, if that is what you could call them. It is no longer that way because now the guard gets called up for everything.

    2. I was too young to be drafted in Australia (I was 3 in 1969), but played sport when I was older with a lot of returned vets. They channelled their aggression into their sport, and were either very good, or just mad and dangerous. When the war ended these guys flew back into Sydney airport, changed out of their military gear in the toilets, and walked out onto the street without any counselling or support.

      (I tried to convince a New Zealander a while ago that Australian cricketers tend to have trouble controlling their behaviour because of this influence on Aust. sporting culture, but she argued (convincingly) that no, they’re just assholes.)

    3. I was at school in NZ about the same time and once a week we had ‘Military Drill’ – an hour of pointless ‘marching’ about on the school field while some pimply youth tried to bark orders at us. Just once we had a real Army sergeant and after an hour of being collectively screamed at and insulted by this cretin with a room-temperature IQ* with no chance to answer back or walk off** I was ready to kill – the sergeant, anyway, if nobody else. That gave me a life-long anti-authoritarian streak and (combined with the Vietnam war that was still going on and on) cemented my lefty convictions.

      Luckily for my sanity Compulsory Military Service was dropped before I became eligible.

      NZ, unlike Oz, never sent conscripts to Vietnam, any NZers were volunteers and some of them are probably still upset at the lack of appreciation they got when they returned to NZ.

      * That’s Celsius, not Fahrenheit

      ** In retrospect I probably should have walked off. Blockhead wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it and I doubt any of the teachers would have been too enthusiastic about upholding such mindless charades.


      1. Oh yes, I was in the Cadet Corps in high school, all five years (1961-65). I don’t know whether schools were required to have Cadet Corps units, but all I knew did; and certainly very few boys were not in the Cadet Corps (all that was needed for an excuse was parental say-so). The officers were teachers, and many of the older ones had served during WWII – but that was true of very many men of that age, as NZ had a very high proportion of men under arms.

  19. This was a great post. I didn’t even know about this part of your life. Thank you for writing about it.

  20. My husband and I were married in 1959 when I was 18 and he was 20. We had three children: 1960, 1961, 1963. I can’t remember when he got his draft card or what category he was in, but he was not drafted due to family.
    I still have his draft card around somewhere among keepsakes. It was just as well that he wasn’t drafted, as he was finishing up a Master’s Degree and working full time.

    Roughly, around that time, my son-in-law (who is about the same age as my husband) was a conscientious objector working in a hospital pharmacy.

    I had two brothers in the military during the Viet Nam War. One was career military. One was not. One served in Viet Nam twice. One was stationed in Alaska. Both came home. The one who served in Viet Nam also had served in Korea twice and Germany. Can’t remember where else. During the Korean War, just out of high school, he was an ambulance driver. Most of his wartime memories could not be shared with family.

  21. Thank you so much for a fascinating post – and thanks to all the others who have posted such moving memories of their own experiences.

    National Service in the UK was abolished in 1960; the last conscript was discharged in 1963. I turned 18 in ’68, and I don’t regret not having to face being drafted.

    My dad’s father was conscripted into the Northamptonshire Regiment in 1916, and was gassed at Passchendaele. My father and his brother were determined to avoid the Army come what may, so in 1938, when war was clearly on the cards, they signed up for the RAF Reserve. Both were posted overseas, survived the war, and lived into their 90s. Their father died in 1946. I never met him.

    Sometimes war is unavoidable. Mostly it isn’t. Kudos to Jerry and the rest of you for knowing the difference, and acting accordingly.

  22. My dad, 89 later this month, was a conscript in the so-called Malayan Emergency which is probably the UK’s nearest equivalent to the Vietnam War (though there are significant differences). He spent the best part of two years in the jungle – his very small unit seems to have been worryingly autonomous and some members came extremely close to murdering their commanding officer. Given their remote location, they might well have got away with it.

    On the whole, dad enjoyed the experience – it was a world away from anything a working-class kid growing up in the industrial midlands would ever have dreamed of, and at least on his jungle postings the fighting wasn’t intense. He spent a lot of time socialising with the Malay cooks and 50-odd years later still tries to order in Malaysian in any vaguely southeast Asian restaurant.

    1. I traveled by bicycle in Malaysia (rode up the entire east coast of peninsular Malaysia from Singapore to the Thai border) in a couple of weeks. I loved Malaysia.

      Beautiful country, wonderful, friendly people, and great food.

      The heat and humidity made riding a challenge. I typically drank 10 liters of water a day and we had to stop riding by 11 am (we were up well before dawn).

  23. Dear Dr. Coyne. Thank you for sharing this personal history. Like you the Vietnam war certainly impacted my history. My parents, being Mennonite, were brought up and into the CO/pacifist view. In 66/67 they decided to leave options like college deferment, or my father being the oldest son claiming hegemony of running the family farm and to pursue a possible program of national, but CO service. Building upon the CCC of WWII the Mennonite church and I think a consortium of other pacifist churches like the Friends (Quakers) had a W1 program of alternative service. My folks went to Denver; my father worked as an hospital orderly and my mom as a lab tech. My father still had to go before the board when his lotto number was called up, but it was his belief that the alternative service combined with his moral (and Mennonite religious) beliefs aided in combatant deferment. Anyway, long story short it was during their alternative service in Denver that they adopted me from what I can tell were socioeconomically challenged birth parents. Anyway,long story short my parents received an atheist but pacifist son, and I received good nonjudgmental parents.

    1. Michael – it’s always interesting to find out who is out there in WEIT land! My CO story is similar to your dad’s. Raised in a Mennonite family, I and others were counseled regarding registering as a CO and to request Civilian Public Service rather than entering the service as a non-combatant. The latter was considered to be enabling the war machine. I too ended up in Denver working in a pathology lab for two years. Worked out well because I continued in the path department’s graduate program. My CO journey is way too long to take up space here, but can be found if you click on my name.

  24. First of all, I’d love to thank you for this long, yet really valuable article. I must say, this article covers lots of tips that I was not aware of.
    Truly this article is worth reading. Thanks a lot for the share.

  25. Dear PCCE,

    is „Wanderhalbjahr“ a common term in English, or did it come from your own familiarity with the German language?

    I’m asking because as a German, I’m used to German words in English like Autobahn, Kindergarten or Gesundheit, but I never stumbled upon Wanderhalbjahr in this context. That said, it does describe a rather uncommon event.

    Reading it here just made me curious. 🙂

    1. I think Jerry coined it on the model of “winterhalbjahr”. I’ve never seen “wanderhalbjahr” in English before; “wanderjahr” is not common, but is well established in English.


  26. I was born in Australia in late 1956, and conscription for the Vietnam war cast somewhat of a frightening shadow over my early teen years. There was a clear current of opposition to both the war and conscription; we even had an anti-war demonstration at our local high school in the very early 1970’s. I was very relieved when conscription ended in December 1972, just after I had turned 16. I got fired up about social causes, enough to study law with a view to trying to effect social good of some sort, but it didn’t stick. Now I’m a professor in ancient and medieval Japanese music history!

  27. What an excellent story – even more interesting than I imagined. Thanks very much for sharing it.

  28. A day later, I was #100. Among the letters supporting my I-O application was one from the AF Col down the street who I hobknobbed with over old cars. (He collected Chrysler Airflows). I didn’t learn until his funeral several decades later that he was with the Joint Chiefs, attached to the staff of Curtis LeMay.

    After one or maybe two other classifications – I remember that one was a I-Y, some sort of modest physical category, I got my I-O without having to appear before a board, ca. 1973.

  29. Fascinating reminiscences from our host and all the other posters. Many thanks to all.

    I, a shade older than Rowena Kitchen, was technically draft eligible during what the Vietnamese correctly term “The American War”, although past 26 during the hottest parts of the war. I was moderately active in the protest movement, and was, mysteriously, ordered by my draft board to take the draft physical exam after age 26. Fortunately, I was able to flunk the intelligence test, and have continued to do so ever since.

    1. I am glad that you mentioned “The American War”. I would wager that many have not heard this reference, but for anyone who has actually been in Vietnam, it becomes quite clear. Vietnam still has some very moving museums that recount the American war that took the lives of approximately 3 million Vietnamese.

    2. This also reminded me of an arcane tidbit about the draft at the height of the war: I had a good friend that did his 2 years after college, went to medical school, and in his senior year of med school was informed that as a physician, he would again be eligible for the draft.

  30. I have not heard many sympathetic stories from that perspective. Thank you very much for sharing this.
    When your story was taking place, My Mom and I were living on our own in Japan while Dad was stationed in Thailand, flying fighter missions over Vietnam.
    Of course for those guys, fighting the war was just part of the cost of getting to fly the best planes, and most of them seem to have already been in when the war started.

    The requirement was 100 combat missions over North Vietnam, but something like 60% of pilots were killed or captured before meeting that goal. It is just beyond my comprehension how they were able to come back from those missions, debrief and go for a run, get some sleep and then get back into the cockpit. Plus, they had absurd and dangerous rules of engagement. Dad tells a story of one mission where he bombed a target near Hanoi. After his first run on what I think was a factory, he rolled out for a second run. As he was upside down, he saw that directly below him was a NV airfield with lines and lines of Migs, some being armed or fueled in preparation for taking off and engaging the Americans. He could easily have taken them out, but would have been prosecuted for doing so. Enemy aircraft must be allowed to take off before they could be engaged. Insanity.

    But I really appreciate Dr. Coyne’s story, and the detailed reasoning presented.

  31. In his memoir, PCC(e) introduces the serious question: “Is there any war that one would consider just?”. It’s a hard one, all right.
    I would certainly put WWII at the top of the list, along with the Spanish Republic’s armed resistance to the mutiny of Franco and his Nationalists. Otherwise, when one considers the mixed results of the English and American Civil Wars, the lousy result of the Russian,
    it is hard to think of other cases in which one or another side in a war is justifiable.

  32. I had 3 American cousins around your age, also with the surname Coyne, who were each, in turn, drafted though they lived in Canada. Much to my Canadian family’s disbelief, the oldest two were gun ho, so off to Viet Nam they went. Thankfully they both survived the war and the horrors they lived through. The youngest Coyne was going to college at the time his draft notice came and he was successful at getting conscientious objector status with the help of a letter from his professors.

  33. I’ve been streaming the NBC series “This Is Us.” There’s an episode in which the main character’s brother was eligible for the draft. The brother’s birthday was October 18, and he was dismayed to learn that his draft number was 005.

    The table you posted confirmed that at least that part of the drama was historically correct!

    I’m glad you didn’t have to serve in that horrible war.

  34. Thank you very much for writing of this fraught time in your life. I underwent a similar experience here in Australia, but, luckily for me, my number did not come up. (It’s been my experience ever since, in all kinds of contexts, like lotteries, ‘spin-the-bottle’, and so on.)

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