Beginning at the Traveling Wall in Austin, Texas, a smaller replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, Richard Pena expresses a somber emotion for those who died in Vietnam seeing a woman's tears. He knew her pain would never cease. Pena was on the last plane out of Vietnam after spending a tour as a medic in Saigon. His photo was taken by a Viet Cong soldier when that final plane left. He recognized himself carrying his law school brief case upon returning with a delegation at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. Pena's journal entries while serving from 1972 to 1973 as an Operating Room Specialist are aided by John Hagan, author of nine books and many articles as professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University, who comments on the context of Pena's story in history with references.
Author Richard Pena pointing to himself entering the last plane out of Saigon
Pena's parents were proud of their Hispanic heritage and taught him by example. His father won a Silver Star for his service at Iwo Jima. Pena won best all-around high school athlete in San Antonio, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin when students burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam conflict. The My Lai massacre struck raw nerves his senior year. Soon at Kent State National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded more wrenching America. His low lottery number made it certain he would be drafted. He tried to fail his physical but they were taking anyone who breathed then and entered the Army, June 14, 1971 as one of the last drafted.
Pena arrived at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon during the North Vietnamese siege of An Loc when they shot down four aircraft and killed nearly all the residents a few months before Nixon's presidential election during an opportunity for peace talks to resolve the conflict. His objections to pressing for peace were politically motivated as Humphrey would have gained substantial support as a peace candidate despite his role with LBJ. Nixon's voice on tape in the oval office showed he proposed nuclear weapons to succeed but Kissinger replied he thought it would be too much. Nixon said, "I don't give a damn" about civilians killed by U.S. bombing USA Today reported February 28, 2002. While peace was possible Nixon refused to press for it and made the South Vietnamese think if he were president they would get a better deal prolonging the war needlessly and causing more than 20,000 more American deaths.
Pena called Vietnamization a catastrophe demonstrated graphically as he arrived. Young ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops threw down their weapons and fled with villagers as the North Vietnamese launched an unprecedented invasion. They expected 200 or so casualties but 2000 marched toward a 100 bed hospital 60 miles away. However many were mortared by Communists on Highway 13 and others accidentally killed by our B-52s. The Air Force accidentally missed the Communists and hit a South Vietnamese village! Pena joined a group of fifteen who worked the Operating Room confronted by death who built a strong companionship.
Soon a C-130 aircraft crashed from mechanical failure causing them to expect many casualties. Burn patients were the worst, difficult to look at, tough to treat, and many died. The first soldier's face appeared plastered red, hair and eyebrows burned away, red burns ran the length of his young body. He had a wife and young child.They smeared Sulfamylon cream over him feeling helpless. His coworker said he would soon die. A sergeant arrived with a broken ankle and numerous lacerations. These professionals knew the risks but it is for the young whom Pena felt the most sorry. The lifers have some control but not the draftees. The sergeant wanted to know how many survived but Pena couldn't tell him only three made it. Pena wondered how many were on the plane and learned there were forty five. The government released only the number fourteen. Such lies insulted Pena and the others. It added brainwashing to misinformation.
An allied Cambodian arrived by air in desperate condition and needed a transfusion from someone with B positive blood. Pena readily provided it as the only one with that type. The doctors said he couldn't survive the operation, yet he wouldn't live without one! They amputated his left leg and blood splattered all over the floor. A nineteen year-old soldier was shot in the head and died from his wound. An American asked him for a cigarette but he didn't have one, so he shot him in the back of the head at point blank range with a .38 pistol. A clean-cut man named Holley had a wife he never cheated on but once. He was found the next morning in a lover's embrace as the girl had put ground-up glass in his food, the sixth American that girl killed. Soon we understand how Pena felt an impermanence sweep over him and all his previous concerns seemed small and unimportant.
Much later Pena became President of the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. His practice started as a solo attorney for the common person, without an office using an old beat up car. He felt his experience in Vietnam gave him the courage, willpower and confidence to stand up against injustice and fight for his clients. "It was the road less traveled, but it was my road."
Published 2014 by Story Merchant Books, 9601 Wilshire Blvd. # 1202, Beverly Hills, Ca 90210
Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences:
Soon the weather changed and snow covered the Duke University Campus. Snowball fights at Duke could turn dangerous. The snow fell on the campus in January leaving an opportunity to engage in snowball fights. Some fraternity brothers from KA were harassing freshmen and assaulting them with snow balls.
A huge football player, and future All-American, caught my attention as I had thrown passes to him as a freshman QB practicing with the varsity. 6' 9" tall and two hundred and forty pounds, he was also a vicious defensive end.
At the fourth floor freshman dorm bathroom with a good view of the quad beneath, I decided to alter the unfair bully-confrontation. From snow that had collected on window sills, I scooped enough to fill half a trashcan and made a pile of baseball-sized snowballs. As the beast attacked a small freshman, and tossed snow down his back, the boy’s books fell in wet mud and snow. My first throw hit the side of the monster’s face and had to sting.
“I’m coming to get you, you son-of-a-bitch,” he screamed enraged at my assault. He terrified me. Immediately, with just one throw, I had become the target of a dangerous muscular giant. But, he had to run up four floors to find me. He raced to the second floor raging like a wild bull. In seconds, he would appear on my floor. Streaking to my room, farthest from the stairway, luckily on the left, I hid under my bed listening to the damage he did room by room. He threatened mayhem and falsely accused many. I felt pity for those innocent ones caught in his tirade. He swung open my door, but did not notice me huddled under my bed with a blanket over me.
He slammed the door on his rampage. Every dorm freshmen feared his retaliation. While exposing my classmates to a fierce attack, I had made another narrow escape by using my intelligence, natural athletic ability, courage, and sense of justice that diverted a bully from further harming a helpless freshman.
After I resigned my military commission as a naval officer because I lost motivation from the Vietnam War, I wondered what I could do for my future to make my life worthwhile. My best high school friend was in town as a civil rights lawyer and asked if I wanted to watch him argue a case for Cesar Chavez’s fledgling union against wine growers’ attorneys.
(Civil rights lawyer Jerry Cohen addresses UFW crowd with an inspirational speech)
(Cesar Chavez and his two German Shepherds)
His arguments demolished the private property claims of the ten slick business attorneys for the wine industry who tried to paint the farm workers as law-breaking scum. I was convinced I could never do anything so challenging. He convinced me that with determination and a subject that inspired me, I could do anything I set my mind on. Since I was motivated by the concept of justice, watching him win against his formidable opponents provided the spark I needed. Before long I too was a civil rights lawyer pursuing justice for the powerless. My life had been transformed into meaningful work every day.
(Dan, Joan, and Aleksey at the Gallo March during the Boycott; photo from fellow Hastings College of Law friend and classmate, Howard Watkins of Fresno)
I had a similar challenge when beginning to write my memoir, which took great determination, study, and practice at word art from authors and professors of creative writing. It appeared such a daunting task with a life of so many unconnected lively experiences, how could I create a book that would accomplish my purpose of sharing my inspiration? With their encouragement I developed my craft and in six years a book.
How does what you do connect you to your greatness or your potential? Gaining confidence from a friend who knows your potential is a great asset. My father, on the other hand, discouraged me from the practice of law and said I could never pass the bar exam. Having had the opportunity to argue civil rights cases for the poor and powerless was an opportunity to achieve greatness for a righteous cause. Others said I did great work and had been transformed from the friend they knew before as an athlete, but not an advocate for the poor that made a difference in so many lives. That made me gain confidence as did my friend’s coaching and that of my professors and writing coaches when I retired and wrote my book.
(Dan reads from his memoir, All the Difference, at a book signing locally)
What wisdom or guidance can I share for others? Don’t always follow your father’s advice, or that of anyone else who does not know your motivation, passion, and determination. If you have a passion to do something some people don’t believe possible, you should not be discouraged. You can do anything you set your mind to accomplish with undying determination, a reasonable goal, and the necessary training. You can always improve yourself and your future with tenacity, resilience, and the right motivation. Seek out positive people if others discourage your dream. Even if no one sees you as you want to become, you should follow your heart, but don’t forget to carry your mind with you on your journey.
(Dan bottom left played second base for Coronado American Legion team at 13 with mostly 15 and16 year-olds)
How could I have made the impulsive decisions that rocked my turbulent youth? What made me change from a fad-loving teenager collecting popular songs, memorizing major league batting averages, and dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player, into a solemn born-again fundamentalist? That deflected me from my own purpose. I almost claimed conscientious objector status, and then quit Duke N.R.O.T.C. to enter a pre-ministerial program, only to find the more I studied religion the less I wanted to preach it to others.
(Duke University Chapel and courtyard)
My father said he could not afford the steep tuition and said I should try for an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy despite my lack of interest in the military! Since he and my brother graduated Annapolis I did the craziest thing to afford college, and entered Columbia Prep School in Washington D.C.to study how to score high on entrance exams. After three months I took the exams and was only one of 75 people to receive a presidential appointment from Dwight Eisenhower in the United States! Dad took me to see a patriotic movie about the Battle of Midway that changed the outcome of WWII in the Pacific due to our naval power despite Pearl Harbor that did so much damage that brought determination to build a strong military to protect our freedom.
(Midshipmen at the U.S.Naval Academy march into Bancroft Hall)
After entering Annapolis much forced me to realize this journey into a naval career had many negatives from my perspective. During my plebe year an upperclassman in revenge for the way my brother treated him, ran me into the ground with harassment until I developed mononucleosis and was sent to the hospital for five weeks ending my chance to quarterback the plebe football team as my coach and I wanted. Later I had the worst varsity baseball coach ever, who wrongly believed my father "got me into Annapolis" so kept me on the bench after I had a great year leading the plebe team with a .516 batting average. After graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy I wanted to fly airplanes but my eyesight dipped slightly and I could only qualify as a navigator. My plane was called the "Flying Coffin" by aviators because more than 50% were lost in accidents, and mishaps and was an easy target in Vietnam. After three close calls in training both my pilot and I transferred into ships and I navigated 300 marines to Vietnam.
(Dan flew in the RA5C Vigilante and was Carrier Qualified)
Forced to scrutinize my journey, filled with mistakes, nearly killed by a train on a trestle at 10 hitting rocks with a bat; dodging two trains after leading high school football players into a narrow train tunnel in Japan: escaping from two thugs at a beach, having many confrontations with brutal and malicious bullies at Annapolis and one officer in the navy; surviving the “flying coffin” Mach 2 jet in Florida; I rebounded by earning a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship for two years as a community civil right lawyer after law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco. Selected as Director of the Farm Worker Project by the ACLU I won my first trial for six picketers accused of disturbing the peace; won many motions and appeals in 17 class actions and other police misconduct cases against growers, prosecutor, a sheriff and the Teamsters. I worked for one of the most effective civil rights organizations battling against some of the most powerful forces in America.
(Dan at his civil rights law office in Encino California)
From a Naval Aviator, to a Navigator of an Amphibious Ship to Vietnam with 300 marines, I eventually resigned, found my purpose and after law school when I went from a legal aid attorney to a staff attorney for the United Farm Workers and then director of the ACLU farm worker project. I had been propelled into a powerful movement that was an answer to a dream. I submerged myself into the cutting edge of civil rights and consumer litigation as a member of a team with all the energy I possessed. Meanwhile, Joan and I raised a family that fulfilled my vision coupled with my quickly learned advocacy skills that enabled me to continue a profession on a path others said would be impossible—it was one few traveled—but I met enough dedicated individuals whose life shined that I knew it was right for me. Recovering from each fiasco and having learned a lesson each time, I began to define a vision of what might occupy the rest of my life: a pursuit of social justice in whatever way I could find appropriate. The pieces fell together through hard work, determination, and a future with a woman who inspired me and calmed my wildness from swirling rapids to a deep river that refreshed and enabled me to continue against all odds. Once I found a path that consumed me with passion I aimed as high as I could. No matter what confronts the reader, my story demonstrates an ordinary person can survive major conflicts, disappointments, injuries, risk of death, and still flourish.
On June 8, 1967, an American naval vessel, the USS Liberty, was sailing in the Mediterranean, when Israel's military purposely attacked it.
The American flag aboard at the time was in plain sight when this dastardly attack by three unmarked Israeli planes occurred. Three torpedo boats joined the savagery starting with rockets and then napalmed our troops used in Vietnam that caused many to protest because of its effect on burning skin. As if this was not brutal enough, American soldiers aboard the Liberty were pelted with machine-guns while they attempted to put out the fires these attackers started and three torpedo attacks finished the assault for good measure! Moreover, the Israelis shot all of the life rafts on the American ship, which was a war crime for a ship in extreme distress.
President Lyndon Johnson thought these attacks must have come from Egyptians and prepared our forces nearby for retaliation, but called it off when informed our ally, Israel's forces, were the culprits. The American newscasters reported this deliberate attack as a mistake. An investigation under Admiral John S. McCain's direction stated it was a case of mistaken identity! McCain's shielding Israel's massacre of American sailors created a distinctive union with Israel and continued with his Arizona Senator son. All the sailors were sent to different locations and told to consider it an "accident." One must believe the Israelis would blame the Arabs for this deliberate attack on our troops.
Why would the Israelis want to destroy the Liberty? She was an intelligence gathering vessel, a spy ship, that knew Israel sought to accelerate the 1967 Six-Day War to increase territory by attacking Arab territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and possibly Syria as well. One report asserted a conspiracy existed between Israel and the CIA and theorized the attack on the Liberty would arouse suspicion against the Arabs and inflame a passion for revenge against them to Israel's delight.
In 1983 a high level report called the claim a lie that this was a mistaken identity attack by the Israeli's. Moreover, the Israelis had asserted falsely that the Liberty traveled at a high speed near thirty knots when the truth was more like five and refused to reveal itself despite its conspicuous flag! The truth is that twenty five sailors were dead when Israel's forces first signaled to US forces and lied that no flag was flying to identify the Liberty after they shot down the flag to hide their infamy our sailors asserted. No one could have mistaken the Liberty's identity also because the name "Liberty" and its identifying numbers clearly were displayed next to its name. Even more damning is the fact that Israeli planes circled the ship thirteen times while sailors waved to our "Ally" according to eye-witness accounts shortly before they were slaughtered. Most disturbing is that one of the Israeli torpedo boats used in the attack is now in an Israeli museum as a trophy!
For documentation of this disastrous attack a DVD Documents 'Best Ally's' Treachery in Deliberate Attack on USS Liberty along with a video documentary, 'Loss of Liberty: Attack on the USS Liberty." It was premiered in Washington, D.C. at the Third International Barnes Review Conference on Authentic History and the First Amendment during June 14-16 that showed Israels' forces attacked the Liberty on June 8, 1967, and killed 34 American sailors and wounded 171 more. Tito Howard, a documentary film-maker, produced the video, and was the guest on a May 26 broadcast of Radio Free America, the weekly call-in talk forum sponsored by American Free Press with host Tom Valentine.
The USS Liberty remains the most decorated ship in the history of the United States Navy. A medal of honor went to Captain McGonagle, and two Navy crosses, 11 silver stars, 23 bronze stars-most of them with a "V" for valor-and a presidential unit citation for the remainder handed out by President Johnson. The Israelis made a phony contention that Egyptian armor and infantry had crossed into the Negev, which is part of Israel and that they were responding to this assault when on June 5, 1967 they destroyed 80 percent of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. And the next day they claimed they destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan because they wanted the Golan Heights and control over the West Bank and the Sinai. The USS Liberty was in the way of this plan.
It is the great hope of the makers of the film that people who see it will urge others to see the film, particularly friends and family and neighbors who have been in the military. The military people are the ones who have the experience and understand it best and they are the people who want to do more about it to right this wrong. The survivors and their supporters want a complete investigation into the attack. Everyone concerned deserves to have a complete resolution of this tragedy even after all these years. Author of Body of Secrets, James Bamford, included in his book an extensive account in his chapter on the Liberty, and it is featured in this film. Additional articles on the tragedy of the Liberty may be found below: