When the world seemed on fire

A Mennonite veteran’s Vietnam story

The USS Kitty Hawk, Dave Redmon’s duty station in the South China Sea, 1967-68. — Dave Redmon The USS Kitty Hawk, Dave Redmon’s duty station in the South China Sea, 1967-68. — Dave Redmon

Like a lot of veterans, I feel uneasy when folks tell me, “Thank you for your service.” This is a story about my military experience.

I was born in California a little past the midpoint of World War II, the third of four children in a farm family native to southeast Kansas. Because a fire burned down our barn, destroying our Percheron draft horses, my dad moved his family west in 1943 to be near his sister and her husband in the Bay Area, where he took a job building ships for the Navy.

After the war, our family returned to Kansas, where we bought some rocky farmland near Galesburg and put money down on our first real tractor, a used Farmall Model M.

Not two years later, my 41-year-old father was dead, the victim of a farm accident. Three months after that, my 34-year-old mother gave birth to my sister.

We hung on until heat and drought forced a sellout in 1954. By then my mother had remarried, and my older siblings had moved away and started families, but the rest of us moved to Parsons, a railroad town of 13,000 just 23 miles north of the Oklahoma line. I was in the fifth grade.

A loner in a new place, I adopted a baby raccoon, learned to swim, went hunting and fishing, played baseball, rode my bike all over town and got a paper route. My best friend in seventh grade invited me to church.

Barely 12 years had passed since the war ended, so veterans were everywhere. Some were parents of classmates. Others were schoolteachers, coaches, church leaders or owners of grocery stores, like Bob Brewer, who ran the IGA where I worked. Some, like my one-armed math teacher Mr. Huggins, had visible wounds.

My stepfather, Frank, had served as a Navy SeaBee with the Marines at Guadalcanal, where he was gravely wounded before spending many months in a hospital bed.

I looked up to these guys, hometown heroes who helped defeat Hitler and Hirohito.

At the University of Kansas in 1968 after six years in the Navy. — Dave Redmon
At the University of Kansas in 1968 after six years in the Navy. — Dave Redmon

When we got a television set in 1953, I loved Victory at Sea, a series on KOAM-TV based on footage of World War II battles. I watched these documentaries time and again on Sunday evenings.

As I came of age, it dawned on me that I could seek adventure while doing my patriotic duty. A few weeks after high school, it surprised no one when that best buddy and I found a recruiter and joined up. We reported for Navy boot camp on Aug. 5, 1962.

I’ve forgotten most of what I learned as a Salty Dog, but I can still tie some knots, bends and hitches, and I can still swear like a sailor.

Dramatic music, a sense of loyalty and a solid supply of ignorance informed my choices then. I wanted to attend Navy flight school but flunked the physical because I stuttered. So, after graduating from Kansas State University with a history degree, I joined 5,000 men aboard the USS Independence, an aircraft carrier with dozens of sleek jets — a bristling arsenal at sea. We crossed the North Atlantic and visited several ports around the Mediterranean, departing just weeks before the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in June 1967.

In November, 260 members of our air squadron flew to San Diego to join the USS Kitty Hawk, another carrier bound for the South China Sea. There we would pound a former French colony (Vietnam), whose name I’d never heard of four years earlier when I joined up.

As part of an all-Navy Personnel Accounting Computer Installation, working as a remote mail-in correspondent on board a floating fortress, I had only a little skin in the game. But it wasn’t long before our outfit lost friends — a crew of two whose A6 attack plane was shot down over Hanoi and never heard from again.

In January 1968, the Tet Offensive shocked everyone, as did President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that the U.S. would end bombing in North Vietnam. Our carrier was temporarily out of business. Due to the sagging popularity of this undeclared war, Johnson announced he would not run for a second term.

Still cycling in 2016, then in Utah. Paddling rivers is another lifelong interest. — Dave Redmon
Still cycling in 2016, then in Utah. Paddling rivers is another lifelong interest. — Dave Redmon

I felt a growing resentment on board ship. Although cut off from mass media, except for worn copies of Time and Newsweek, we began to realize our political and military leaders had lied to us. We were sullen and heartbroken.

On leave in Tokyo in April, I heard the terrible news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.

After nearly six years of active and reserve duty, I flew home in May to a different country.

As I began graduate studies at the University of Kansas, news of another assassination rocked the nation. This time it was Robert F. Kennedy, one of several antiwar candidates running for president. Bloody demonstrations in Chicago that August marked a turning point in U.S. history. Not long after, a firebomb hit the KU Student Union. The world seemed on fire.

Before I went to work for The Kansas City Star, I’d studied the history and methods of propaganda and censorship in mass media and popular culture. Slowly it dawned on me that even though I was in the news business, I was first a consumer of mass media and thus of the incomplete news we call propaganda. I struggled to admit that I — we — had been deceived, played as suckers.

And, though it still brings tears to my eyes, I recognized that my beloved Victory at Sea was instrumental in glorifying war to further national ambitions I now rejected. It was difficult to handle my cognitive dissonance — until I learned to salute all ordinary people who suffer and serve while doing their best: guardians and rescuers, builders, custodians, nurses and caregivers, teachers, artists, musicians and missionaries. Because none of us ever knows the real score until it’s all over and we gather downriver on the other side.

Looking back, I acknowledge my role in the machinery of violence. But, despite the wounds of moral injury, I regret none of my experiences. I am not anti-military, but I am antiwar and anti-lying. I salute all those, in uniform or not, who sacrifice in love for something greater than themselves.

Upon my return to this beautiful land, I recognized the danger when people conflate God and country. No longer able to stomach the national flag displayed alongside the cross, I discovered a historic peace church, Mennonite Church USA, and that has made all the difference.

With granddaughter River Redmon in 2022. — Dave Redmon
With granddaughter River Redmon in 2022. — Dave Redmon

During this past half century, I have followed my developing star as a Trinitarian Universalist. I find that the more courage I muster to take seriously the Good News of the Christ, the more willing I am to act for peace and justice, without counting the cost.

There is great moral power in voluntarily suffering for others. Theologian Richard Rohr calls it the myth of redemptive suffering — in contrast to the myth of redemptive violence, on which almost all of history is based.

We all get to choose our myths — the stories that become our guiding light, our belief and, maybe, our propaganda. Could it be that fierce love, among many other wondrous things, is propaganda for truth and beauty? Or is it the other way around?

I have accepted the amazing grace of imperfection and resolved to do my part to make peace whenever I see an opportunity. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

Dave Redmon is a retired journalist and educator and a member of Manhattan Mennonite Church in Kansas. He holds dear his family of eight, anchored now by granddaughter River, almost 8. As a volunteer at Be Able Community Center, he listens to personal stories and records those narratives for posterity.

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