All 30 of the boys listed on the Vietnam-era Selective Service ledger were born in the spring of 1948, during America’s most prolific era of mass procreation, the end of World War II.
At 18 years old, the thing first and foremost on our minds was to find a way to commit the same act that begat us. And the second thing on some of our minds was to avoid being drafted to fight and possibly die in Vietnam.
We all lived in or near Independence. We couldn’t vote, and we couldn’t drink, legally at least, for another three years. Except just across the state line, where we would stumble around on the sticky dance floor at One Block West, one of the crowded, sweaty clubs in Kansas City, Kansas, that served “three-two” beer.
The ledger was sent to me by the National Archives in St. Louis as part of my research for this story, timed to the release of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s upcoming PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which airs Sept. 17 on KCPT.
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Of the 30 on the ledger sheet containing my name, exactly half served during the Vietnam era. Of the 15 who served, 11 enlisted and four were inducted.
None died in Vietnam. But 10 have died since the war, three of them veterans.
Of the 26 million draft-age boys and men during the Vietnam era, the majority, 16 million, were never called and never volunteered.
Thanks, at least in part, to student deferments, I was one of them.
But given my atrocious scholastic record early in college (my first semester grade point average was .285 — that is not a typo) and the fact that I passed the armed services physical, it always seemed strange that I wasn’t called up. Was it a bureaucratic SNAFU or just plain luck?
I never considered enlisting. I was and remain personally opposed to the war, but that’s been the perfect refuge. This veneer of moral opposition allowed me to ignore all the residual issues, including how I would have reacted under fire.
The ledger, however, forced me to take another, deeper look at my 18-year-old self.
But when the documents arrived, they had an added bonus. I didn’t just get my record; there were also the records of those 29 other boys on the same ledger sheet, many of whom had been classmates at Van Horn High School.
In fact, the last name on the list was John David Musgrave, a Marine Corps enlistee who plays a pivotal role in Burns’ upcoming film, appearing in eight episodes.
All these additional names offered a great opportunity to focus on a tiny slice of Vietnam history. How did my classmates fare under the much maligned Selective Service System? Who went, who didn’t, and why?
Guilt, heroism, anger
The first name on the ledger is Robert Ben (R.B.) Kramer, one of the coolest guys in my graduating class of 1966.
He was a standout athlete and musically talented. Sergeant-at-arms of the literary society, student council, president of the Latin Club, lettered in basketball, football and track, spring music festival, concert choir.
You get the picture.
The son of a preacher, Kramer paid his own way through college and never protested the war.
“It was not a bad war, just an exercise in futility,” he told me recently. He never vilified the draft board. “It was the law of the land.”
The ledger tells the rest.
Right after graduation, in June of 1966, Kramer was classified 1-A (available for service). After he entered college that fall he was reclassified 2-S (student deferment). That was about the time U.S. troop strength in Vietnam surged to about 385,000.
But because he wasn’t carrying enough college credits, he was reclassified 1-A just before Christmas in 1968, a few months after the Paris peace talks began. “I pretty much spent my sophomore year playing bridge,” he said.
In the end, a potentially debilitating neck problem convinced the doctors to classify him 1-Y (available for service, but only in the event of a declared war, which Vietnam wasn’t). Sudden trauma to his neck, they said, could have left him partially paralyzed.
Three years later, he was designated 4-F (unqualified for any military service).
A few months after failing his physical, Kramer and his musical group, The North Door Singers, spent 60 days touring the Far East for the USO, including a performance at the U.S. Army Hospital at Camp Zama, just outside Tokyo, where they performed for wounded American soldiers.
“I saw the aftermath,” he said.
Even though he was legitimately deferred, Kramer, like many others who never went, carries around some guilt even now, as he approaches his 70th birthday.
Perhaps one reason Kramer and I — and many others — feel that way is because of men like John Musgrave.
His is the last name on the ledger, No. 30, another Van Horn classmate. Thespian Society, a member of the proud Falcons’ high school band, speech contests, spring play, spring musical, fall play.
Musgrave didn’t worry much about the draft board because he enlisted in the Marine Corps just after his 17th birthday.
In fact, he volunteered for duty in Vietnam, and is credited with three Purple Hearts.
Kramer and Musgrave went through grade school, Boy Scouts and high school together, and Kramer and others remember that Musgrave, son of a World War II pilot, was always fascinated with the military.
“I remember Johnny used to take the bus downtown and go to these used bookstores where he’d search for diaries of soldiers and officers who had served in combat.”
After boot camp, he was sent to Camp Pendleton in California and left for Vietnam in January 1967 as part of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, which sustained the highest casualty rate in Marine Corps history in Vietnam, earning it the nickname “The Walking Dead.”
He spent 11 months and 17 days in Vietnam, some of it in Con Thien — a Marine combat base near the demilitarized zone where, according to a recent story in The New York Times, “The Marines … were the human equivalent of a tripwire, there to block North Vietnamese ground incursions.”
Musgrave was wounded by shrapnel and later shot multiple times in the chest and jaw during an ambush.
Even after all that, he was mightily pissed at the Marine Corps for medically discharging him on March 25, 1969.
Not long after that, he showed up at a Waid’s restaurant where Kramer and his friends were hanging around late at night. “Johnny limps in and sits down and starts talking about his experiences,” Kramer said.
“He had partial use of his arm, which he had to lift up onto the table. He was shot up in the legs and had other wounds. He was a physical mess, literally. But he was angry that the Marines had kicked him out. This was the only war we had at the time, and he was upset.”
Like many others who went, however, Musgrave eventually turned against the war. He became an activist and eloquent speaker and wrote poetry about his experiences.
Filmmaker Burns was so enamored of him that he told Vanity Fair in a recent article about the documentary that he “had a recurring thought that, if some evil genie took away all our interviews but one, the one we would keep would be John Musgrave, and we’d make a different film and call it ‘The Education of John Musgrave.’”
Part of Musgrave’s education was his realization that the Selective Service system was a farce.
“It was rigged against the working class and the poor,” he wrote in the survey we sent him and the other 29 listed on the ledger. “For every year a college deferment was granted, a member of these two groups was drafted in a student’s place.
“Many of my buddies who were killed had joined the Corps because they knew they were going to be drafted.”
History proves him right, of course.
According to the 1978 book “Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, The War and the Vietnam Generation,” of the 2.1 million Americans who served in Vietnam, about three-quarters came from working-class and low-income families.
Independence, Missouri, in the 1960s was a place where patriotism was proudly displayed. Thousands of World War II veterans had settled there in tight-knit little neighborhoods of brand-new houses that went for about $12,000.
Harry Truman, who fought in France near the end of World War I and who ended World War II by being the first and only president to drop an atomic bomb, was still greeting townsfolk during his daily walks around his home near the town square.
It seemed like every man in town had served in the war, and the ones who didn’t never mentioned it.
Even years later in 2008, when Barack Obama’s patriotism was questioned during the presidential campaign, he came to Independence to give a speech aimed at reclaiming it.
I don’t remember thinking much about the war or the draft, until I got mail from the Selective Service Board.
I never burned my draft card or ran off to Canada, although I thought about joining the National Guard to avoid the draft. And I briefly toyed with visiting a local doctor who, all of us knew, would write you a medical deferment.
But despite my convenient opposition to it, I never protested the war either.
Just after high school I started taking classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
While R.B. Kramer was playing bridge, I spent my first semester playing pool in the student union. The “pouch,” they called it, because, after all, we were the Kangaroos.
Given the hours I spent there, you’d think I’d be a better pool player.
By September 1966, student deferments nationwide had grown by 900 percent. Mine came through in October.
I had signed up for a light load of easy courses. Apparently oblivious to the fact that my student deferment could just as easily be taken away, I ended the semester by withdrawing from one course and failing three others. I earned a “D” in freshman English.
College grades were referred to at the time as “A, B, C, D, and ’Nam.” I had just gotten three ’Nams. Hence my first semester grade point average of 0.285.
The folks at the draft board were apparently pretty plugged in because on Nov. 18, less than a month after getting a student deferment, I was declared 1-A — ready to go.
More than 6,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed that year alone and all of a sudden, school seemed like something I should get serious about. The next semester I carried 18.5 hours, earning Cs and Bs, bringing my GPA to 1.557.
By February 1967, I was on academic probation, and that same month I was called in for a physical and passed. It seems they should have put my ass on a bus to basic training right then and there.
But they didn’t.
I got married the following December — for love, we’re still married today — not to avoid the draft. That same month the first draft lotteries were held. My number was 340. I would never go.
I had worried for a time that my WWII vet father, despite his being a hawk on Vietnam, may have intervened on my behalf with someone he knew, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of that.
An archivist in St. Louis, where my records are housed, reviewed my deferments at my request.
“You were deferred for study multiple times. I am not sure if there was a certain GPA you had to maintain to avoid being drafted, but you have legitimate deferments.
“I don’t want to make any assumptions, but it appears that school and luck kept you out of the military.”
In their book “Chance and Circumstance,” about the Vietnam-era draft, authors Lawrence Baskir (he joined the Reserves) and William Strauss (student deferments and a high lottery number) wax eloquently on the whole guilt thing among those who never served.
“On the part of those who were spared, there is residual guilt, often so deeply buried that it surfaces only in unnaturally vehement denials that there is anything to feel guilty about.”
There were certainly millions of men and boys who avoided service because they were deeply, morally opposed to the war — some of whom felt so strongly about it they were willing to go to prison.
But whatever we felt about the war, there can be little question among those who never served that the system that was deferring us was biased toward the privileged and, at times, downright corrupt.
The numbers tell it all.
Of the 26.8 million men who came of age during the Vietnam era, 11 million were drafted or enlisted, more than 58,000 died in service (based on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website) and 153,000 more were wounded, including my classmate John Musgrave.
Many of the remaining nearly 16 million of us emerged with a little latent, whiny guilt.
This story is part of Flatland and KCPT’s local engagement and reporting around the broadcast of a new, 18-hour documentary series on the Vietnam War from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premiering on KCPT on Sept. 17. Join KCPT for an exclusive evening when Burns and Novick come to Kansas City for a special screening and panel discussion at 7 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 8 at The Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland. Tickets available here.
Ryan Hennessy contributed to this story.
Friday, Sept. 8
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will host a special screening and panel discussion on their documentary, “The Vietnam War.” 7 p.m. $35-$80. The Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland. www.midlandkc.com
Where to watch
“The Vietnam War” airs Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. on PBS.