Mr. Keith Smith heard about our project from his classmate Ed Rigney, WHS ’61. He was kind enough to respond to our questions online and below recounts his experiences coming of age in Wayland in the early 60’s and later joining the Navy during the Vietnam era.
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Smith: Keith R. Smith
Q: When were you born?
Mr. Smith: August 13, 1943
Q: Could you describe where you grew up? What was your childhood like? Siblings? What did your parents do for work? Was your father in W.W.II?
Mr. Smith: I was born in Boston and lived in Newtonville until the 3rd grade when I moved to Wayland. Wayland was a changing community in those days. It was growing fast and transitioning from a rural community into a suburban one. I enjoyed what I would describe as a very normal, happy childhood. My family would probably be characterized in socio-economic terms as middle class. My father was a manager for an insurance company and my mother was a stay at home mom (typical for that era). My parents were divorced when I was in my sophomore year of high school. Although it was a shock to my younger sister and I, our parents remained very supportive and involved with us after the divorce. It necessitated that my mother enter the work force and I also started working part time after school. My father served in the US Maritime Service during World War II.
Q: When were you in high school? What were those days like?
Mr. Smith: I was in high school from 1957 to 1961. I have always looked on those days as very happy days. I had known most of my classmates and their families since the 3rd grade. We had a very good relationship with the faculty, and had the advantage of a new and progressive school during our senior year. I enjoyed and participated in the high school football and baseball programs.
Q: As a teenager, how aware were you of world events?
Mr. Smith: Yes, history and civics were two of my favorite subjects.
Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War? Did you fear/dislike communists?
Mr. Smith: I experienced the effects of the cold war and communism as early as the 3rd grade. We held frequent atomic bomb attack drills in school and one of our elementary school teachers was dismissed because it was discovered that she was a member of the communist party. There was a lot of dialogue and discussion about these subjects at that time and it continued throughout the remainder of my schooling.
Q: What do you recall about the general state of the country as you came of age?
Mr. Smith: Generally the country experienced tremendous growth during the period after World War II. Our parents were a product of the great depression and the war. My generation was a product of the age of consumerism, higher education opportunities, higher standard of living, and growing leisure time.
Q: What if anything do you remember about the Korean War? President Eisenhower?
Mr. Smith: I had a close friend whose brother was fighting in Korea and I followed the war quite closely because of it. In school, we studied the 1952 campaign between Eisenhower and Stevenson. The conventions were televised (television was becoming very popular) that summer and I followed them with much interest.
Q: How did you view John F. Kennedy?
Mr. Smith: Although my parents were Republicans, as a teenager, about to graduate from high school, I was a big fan of then Senator Kennedy and was very happy with his election as President in 1960. I was seeking an appointment to West Point and had an opportunity to meet him when he was my Senator (I was selected as his third alternate for that year’s selection).
Q: What were your plans upon graduating from high school?
Mr. Smith: I wanted to attend West Point but I could not get an appointment. I applied to and was accepted to the Citadel (The Military College of South Carolina).
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam? Did you worry about how it might impact your future? Why/why not?
Mr. Smith: I became familiar with Vietnam after I enlisted in the US Navy in 1962. I was interested because I was serving in the military and knew that sooner or later it would probably involve me. However, I wasn’t too concerned too concerned because I was serving in the submarine force and felt that there was little chance that I would be sent to Vietnam.
Q: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave LBJ war powers to dramatically escalate troop levels. When did you learn about the controversy regarding the truthful nature of the attack on the USS Maddox? How did this impact you?
Mr. Smith: I was stationed at the Submarine Base in New London, Ct. at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident. All I knew at the time was what I read in the newspapers. I was not aware at the time of the controversy surrounding the second attack.
Q: How did you get involved in the service? What was your experience like joining the armed forces? Were you drafted or did you volunteer? When was this?
Mr. Smith: I attended military college (The Citadel) for one year after high school. I had intended to graduate and receive a commission in the US Marine Corps. However, I had trouble maintaining my academic grade average and realized that I was going to have to repeat a portion of my freshman year if I remained in school. I had always desired a military career. So I decided not to return to The Citadel and enlist in the service. I chose the US Navy for three reasons: (1) adventure (2) skill training – I was chosen for the nuclear engineering program and thought it would enhance civilian career opportunities if I ever decided to leave the Navy. (3) My family has always had a history of naval or sea experiences. I served in the US Navy from 1962 to 1968.
Q: Describe what it was like in basic training. Where was it and what did you do there? Describe the transformation from civilian to soldier.
Mr. Smith: I attended basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base, in Illinois. It was a pretty easy transition as I went from military school to Navy basic training. The military college experience really helped me. I was selected as the company commander of my basic training company. It was like being a senior cadet at the military college.
Q: What was it like saying goodbye to friends and loved ones?
Mr. Smith: I really had no trouble saying goodbye. I left Wayland right after graduation. I got a summer job, my mother moved to Vermont, My father remarried, and I found myself pretty much on my own form that time on. I went on to college, then the Navy and never returned to live at home. After graduation, I lost contact with most of my friends. We all went away to colleges throughout the country,
Q: Describe what it was like leaving the United States; where did you go and how? What do your recall going through your mind?
Mr. Smith: I spent my first two years in the Navy attending various schools throughout the US. I was in a very specialized field, Nuclear Engineering. After boot camp, I went to electrician’s mate school, then basic submarine school, next was basic nuclear power school, then advanced nuclear prototype training, then special nuclear reactor training at the Westinghouse Atomic Energy Center, and finally I was sent to Electric Boat Shipbuilding Yard to serve aboard a new Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine (USS George Bancroft) which was then under construction. Upon completion of Submarine School I served aboard the Fast Attach submarine USS Snook for a very brief pacific patrol. That was my first experience outside of the country. We visited Guam and Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Viet Nam war was just starting to escalate from a limited advisor role to one of large scale troop involvement. I was assigned as a mess cook in the ship’s galley at that time and was not permitted to go ashore.
Q: What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam? Where were you and how did you make the transition to what must have been a strange new place?
Mr. Smith: Fortunately, I was never sent to Vietnam. Submarine operations were very limited in that area.
Q: Did you believe in the “domino theory”, that once one nation falls to communism the neighboring ones will as well? Why did/didn’t you believe in this?
Mr. Smith: Yes I did, historically communism had been spreading quickly since the annexation of the “Iron Curtain Countries” at end of WWII. Then we had the invasion of South Korea, the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, North Vietnam, and Cuba. It seemed only logical that if we didn’t step in South Vietnam would fall, then perhaps Cambodia, Thailand, etc.
Q: The NVA and VC fought hard against the US forces. Did you see them primarily as communists seeking to spread their political system or nationalists seeking to get rid of a foreign presence? Explain.
Mr. Smith: I viewed it pretty much as a continuing effort to spread of their political system which had started shortly after WW II.
Q: For interviewees who saw combat:
Mr. Smith: I never experienced combat. My Vietnam era military experience was spent on a nuclear Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine. My last three years were spent acting as a deterrent to nuclear attack conducting submerged three month patrols covering selected targets.
Q: How was the morale of the troops when you were there?
Mr. Smith: On board ship, morale was very high. Most men had a “hawkish” attitude about the war, especially up to 1968.
Q: During Johnson’s term (1963-1968) he greatly escalated American troop levels to 520,000 by 1967/8. Did you think we were doing enough to win the war? To your average soldier, what would winning the war look like?
Mr. Smith: There was some frustration in that many thought that politics was being substituted for military action. In other words we should fight the war to win and use whatever military options were available. i.e. expanding the war to Cambodia, attacking North Vietnamese fighters on the ground, attacking SAM missile sites, bombing and blockading Hyphong harbor. The fear at the time was that these actions would possibly kill Russian/Chinese military advisors and perhaps widen the war.
Q: The Civil Rights Movement was front-page news at home. As far as you could tell, how did racial differences play out among the troops? Was there any tension? Why/why not?
Mr. Smith: There was no problem on board ship that I was aware of. The crew of a submarine is a very ”tight” group. Everyone is dependent upon the other for survival. It’s like a big family. I still have a lot of contact with many of my former shipmates from forty years ago.
Q: As of 1967 opposition to the war increased reaching its height by 1969/1970. How did you perceive anti-war protesters? How did they impact the troops?
Mr. Smith: While in the Navy I had limited information about them and their activities. However, Jane Fonda’s activities in North Vietnam were reported extensively. Her activities were viewed as “stepping over the line” and were a major disappointment. She was viewed as a traitor to the military men who were risking their lives.
Q: What did you make of the famous Tet Offensive in 1968?
Mr. Smith: I felt at that point that the execution of the war had been a failure. I think the war strategy from that time on was one of trying to find a way to get out.
Q: The My Lai massacre in 1968 is often seen as the classic example of the problems with the American presence and our tactics. How did you learn of this and what impact did it have on your views of the war?
Mr. Smith: I saw television coverage after my discharge. I think that it was unfortunate and inexcusable, but I think that there were atrocities on both sides. However, only our sides were being reported.
Q: When Nixon was elected in 1968 he promised “peace with honor” and to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese ARVN forces. Did this seem like a good strategy? What were your views on Nixon’s war plans?
Mr. Smith: I think that by that time the nation had had enough of the war and was eager for any strategy that would show “a light at the end of the tunnel”. It simply meant that we were seeking a diplomatic solution to the military problem.
Q: The shootings of Kent State students at a May 1970 demonstration received a great deal of press coverage. What did you make of these college kids’ actions?
Mr. Smith: That was a tough one. I was in college at the time. It was viewed as a tragic overreaction. I think it showed how polarized the nation had become.
Q: Upon their return many vets described being labeled “baby killers” and were generally disrespected for serving in Vietnam. Did you experience any of these reactions? How did you respond/cope with this?
Mr. Smith: I personally never experienced any overt disrespect. However, being a veteran had a definite stigma attached to it. You had to be careful who you were speaking with regarding your military service and political views. Most of the disrespect was very subtle. The college campus (I was at UCONN at the time) was very radical. The students vandalized the ROTC building. ROTC drill was conducted undercover for fear of demonstrations. Military recruiters were driven from the campus. Classes were cancelled on the day that four of the famous “Chicago Seven” showed up on campus for a rally. Many times demonstration marchers carried North Vietnamese flags. This really bothered the veterans, even those that sympathized with the marchers’ war views. It hurt and embittered many. Most veterans on campus tended to congregate together (there was safety in numbers). I didn’t really associate with many non-veteran students. I was a married 26 year old freshman and just wanted to complete my degree and get started on to my career. I wasn’t there for the college experience.
After the Kent State shootings the college (like most others at that time) decided to shut down for the remainder of the school year. The School of Business, however, decided to remain open and give final exams to those that wanted to take them ( If you chose not to take them you received a grade of “S” meaning you passed the course and received credit, but it did not affect you GPR). I ,like many others in the business school, wanted to take the exams because we wanted to go to graduate school and were unsure how an “S” would be treated. The liberal arts students and other sympathizers were upset that the business school was giving final exams and picketed the business school in an attempted to prevent students from entering the business classes. We had to fight our way through the lines to enter the school. I was very disappointed with the college administration for allowing this action.
Q: What was it like seeing your family and friends again? How did you relate? How much had changed since you last saw the USA?
Mr. Smith: From 1965 to 1968 I spent a lot of time at sea underwater. We were pretty isolated and received limited news. We were able to receive four 14 word “familygrams” from our spouses/family during the three month submerged patrols. This didn’t allow much opportunity for getting news. I was always amazed by how much things had changed each time I returned to the US.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall? What was that experience like?
Mr. Smith: Yes, It was a very moving experience. The name of my senior mentor at the Citadel is on the wall.
Q: How did you react to the role that Vietnam played in the presidential campaign in 2004? (Kerry and swift boats; Bush and his unaccounted time with the National Guard)
Mr. Smith: I felt that it was kind of a silly issue. I didn’t care for Kerry as a candidate, but I admired his courage and service in Vietnam. As for President Bush’s service, at least he joined and served most of his stint. I have several friends that were in National Guard and Reserve units during that time. They report that things were pretty loose and political in those units. It didn’t surprise me. At least he served enough time to become a proficient fighter pilot. He didn’t run to Canada/Sweden or ignore the draft and attend graduate school in London.
Q: As you’ve reflected on the war over the years, how do you view it differently than when you were a young man?
Mr. Smith: Hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking are always 20/20. The older you get the mellower you tend to get. Looking back, I see it as a tragic mistake and a loss of 50,000+ brave men and women. I think that the war could have been won if it had been supported and conducted properly.
Q: We are a nation at war. Do you see any parallels between what you see/read in the news and our years in Vietnam? Explain.
Mr. Smith: I think that it’s a mistake to equate Vietnam with Iraq. They are two different situations in two different eras. However, some comparisons can be made. I think that in both situations we under estimated the strength and resolve of the opposition and over estimated the support and resolve of the American people.
Q: What are the lessons the nation learned or should have learned from this conflict?
Mr. Smith: I don’t think we learned anything. I think we will continue to try to help nations that are considered “friendly” that are threatened by outside political powers.