True Story: Twenty years ago I was invited to a Christmas party given by a King Drew pharmacist who graduated from Crenshaw High School in the 1980s. The house was filled with medical professionals, as well as former alumni of Crenshaw and Dorsey. As one of the Crenshaw alumni who invited me introduced me to one of her former classmates, she jokingly pointed to me and said, “He went to Jeff.”
The room fell silent. Blindsided by connotations, my response was “yeah, I went to Jeff, the best school in the U.S.A.” One Crenshaw alumni responsed “yes, for guerrilla warfare.”
I walked away without smacking him. I thought if I smacked him, I would have validated his association of Jefferson High and guerrilla warfare. However, as I researched this article, little did I know that Jefferson High graduating classes from the 1960s really did have an association with guerrilla warfare (not on campus but the jungles of Southeast Asia that I can only describe as “pawns of the Cold War.”
Cold War politics, dirty secrets, and expendable Democrats
In 1965 on the campus of Thomas Jefferson High School, it was life as usual—going to class, attempting to pass classes, after-school sports, and listening to Motown. However, unbeknownst to the student body at the school, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were brainstorming on how to fight a war in Southeast Asia without angering the Soviet Union, China, and the United States Senate. At the time, the Soviet Union and China were allies of the North Vietnamese, while America was backing South Vietnam.
In 1984, the United States War College released a report titled “The Army Reserve and Vietnam” (ADA531975), and in that report, it was determined that:
The United States did not want to make threatening moves toward the Chinese or the Russians by calling up reserves in large numbers. They believed this action might cause both communist countries to enter the war. Using reserve forces also would have sent a message to the Senate and the American public that Vietnam was indeed a full-fledged war. Additionally, any mobilization would have been picked up by satellites.
Prior to 1968, the Army Reserve was a haven for rich kids like George W. Bush, or White individuals attempting to avoid Vietnam. Entrance exams to get into the reserve were often too difficult for youth from ghetto neighborhoods, according to the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.
Johnson’s and McNamara’s final solution to the personnel problem in Southeast Asia would ultimately impact both Jefferson and Jordan high schools more severely than any other high school in Southern California, said Mary Kline of the Vietname War Museum.
Secretary McNamara was described by the New York Times in 2009 as the “forceful and cerebral” defense secretary. One article in the paper described how McNamara applied statistical analysis and was more concerned with killing North Vietnamese and ways to measures the effectiveness of the American troops fighting the war. He then switched to using enemy body counts instead of territory or land-based objectives to measure America’s success in the war.
During that time, a former student from Jefferson High, Johnny Sullivan (c. 1965) remembers going out at night solo, killing North Vietnamese soldiers with stealth and accuracy. Sullivan was a member of Tiger Force, a squad of long-range reconnaissance patrols that hunted and killed North Vietnamese fighters. Sullivan measured his sucess by the number of severed ears he took to his commanders as proof that he indeed was producing numbers for McNamara’s body count.
After returning home, some who observed him, said Sullivan spent days at South Park in silence. Many friends believed that the solo night missions mentally destroyed him. They also conjectured that bringing home individuals like Sullivan further destabilized the mental health situation in South Los Angeles.
As individuals like Sullivan trolled in the dense jungles in what was then an undeclared war, President Johnson was further involving the United States in a land war in Southeast Asia. Yet, he disguised his every move. President Johnson’s and Secretary McNamara’s fear of using the Army Reserve created a manpower problem that needed solving.
Calling up the reserve components, according to one study of this period, would not have been consistent with Johnson’s attempts to portray Vietnam as “a limited war of short duration” which could be fought with little domestic dislocation and without interfering with his administration’s war on poverty.
War comes to 90011
Students at Jefferson High were called Democrats. However, the local draft board referred to them as 90011, according to Kline.
Kline explains how McNamara and Johnson’s failure to use the Army Reserve created a manpower problem, which was solved in 1966 with a plan that would utilize young men from the 90011 zip code and other impoverished ghettos throughout the country.
“In 1966, the Department of Defense under the direction of Secretary McNamara implemented a program called ‘Project 100,000.’ It was designed to induct 100,000 men per year into the military; men previously unqualified because of mental and physical reasons. A ‘War on Poverty’ program, and part of President Johnson’s Great Society, the goals of Project 100,000 were to give men jobs, provide skills training, and to inculcate a sense of obligation to country. From 1966 to 1972, nearly 400,000 ‘New Standards Men’ were drafted into the military under Project 100,000.”
The majority came from the nation’s ghettos.
The way the program worked was that the military lowered the standard requirements for military service. Instead of requiring potential recruits to answer and pass a battery of questions to score 35 percent correct, the entrance requirements were changed so that those who could sign their first and last names were accepted.
Documents made available through the “Freedom of Information Act,” show that during the Vietnam war, President Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, siphoned dollars from the War on Poverty and sent it to the Department of Defense. Following procedures put in place during World War II that were designed to produce troops who were “better men,” the Johnson administration created Project 100,000 designed to prepare draftees, increase the United States military manpower in Vietnam, and if they were lucky give the young recruits job skills.
Based on rumors she heard, Kline believes Jefferson High may have contributed at least 100 inductees between October and December 1966. However, not all of these recruits were from the class of 1966. But, all had attended Jefferson High at one time. The age range for those fighting in Vietnam was 18 to 26 years old. The number of recruits from the South L.A. secondary school were high compared to other schools like Garfield High, which between February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975 contributed 582 alumni total to the Vietnam War effort.
The recruiting was so aggressive in nearby Watts (Jordan High), that some residents believed the drive for recruits was sanctioned by the government as a response to the Watts Riots. It was very common, according to recruit Andy Newman, that many individuals found themselves given an alternative, if they got in trouble with the law—be incarcerated or serve in Vietnam.
Ron E. Key was Specialist 4th Class U.S. Army, who participated in the U.S. Army Vietnam Oral History Project initiated in 1999. He was a draftee of Project 100,000. In an interview, he described how he moved to California and was working at a post office during the 1965 riots in Watts. Referring to the Watts Riot and the draft, he says:
“After that (civil unrest), they had cleaned out the whole Watts area and drafted just about everybody,” he says. Ron was drafted too in 1966.
War is coming
Despite the skepticism of the military leadership and objections from some of McNamara’s own advisers, the first New Standards Men began entering service in October 1966. By the time of the Tet offensive in 1968, approximately 150,000 had been inducted into the military, according to draft records.
Judge Mablean Ephriam talked about her family’s experience in a phone interview. She recounted how suddenly a large number of draftees in 1966 were taken from the neighborhood, around Jefferson. Ephriam remembers, “yes they took a lot of people; they took my brother David in 1966.”
Former Democrat David Burnell Ephriam from Los Angeles had the rank of Private First Class in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a machine gunner fighting in the city of Quang Nam. Military records show his day of process was 09/01/66; and he was killed in action 09/09/66 from small arms fire. He shares the wall with 82 fellow Democrats killed in action. The total overall number of individuals killed in action from Los Angeles was 539 according to the Department of Defense.
The Vietnam aftermath
South Central Los Angeles suffered from significant numbers of Vietnam veterans returning from the war with drug addictions. The war returned African American males to an environment that did not have the mental health infrastructure to support their needs.
Rep. Augustus Hawkins, (D-Los Angeles) addressed the Jefferson High graduating class of 1967, and his talk was laced with references to Vietnam.
According to archived newspapers, Rep. Hawkins was very upset about Project 100,000, because he knew it had decimated his neighborhood.
“It is a great pleasure to return to Jefferson High School today and to address the graduates of the summer class of 1967.
“As a graduate of this same great school, I believe I can share with you the feelings you have—the thoughts on your minds—on this memorable occasion in your lives. There’s a little bit of sadness as your paths separate; a sense of achievement after hours of studies; mixed feelings about teachers whom you have rated over and over (good, bad, swell, lousy), and great anxieties about the future . . . then at last the realization that you are facing what is for most of you, your first great decision in life—I have graduated, what’s next?
“You will graduate into a world, which because of rapidly changing conditions is filled with unlimited opportunities but also deadly tensions, conflicts, and problems. It is an age for achievement but only for those who have courage and “stickability.”
—Address, before the Thomas Jefferson High School graduating class of 1967, Augustus F. Hawkins.
Don Rice, a Vietnam medic (c. 67) remembers that speech. He had a chance to interact with Hawkins, and they discussed the world’s hot spots, Vietnam, Congo, and Angola. In the conversation, Hawkins told him he is a Democrat and a product of a great school. If you have stickability, you will survive whatever you encounter, Rice remembers. Hawkins also said he had voiced his unhappiness with the war to President Johnson. But what Rice would not do is reminisce about his two years in Vietnam. However, he re-enlisted to get the $900 bonus to help his family purchase their first home.
A few other former Democrats were willing to elaborate on their experiences in Vietnam.
Andy Newman’s (c. 63) tour started in 1969, in Quinh Lar. “In Vietnam, everybody had guns and used them (to survive).” I refuse to talk about Vietnam because we all had guns. Most of us came back with messed up heads because of what we saw or did. Anxiety and fear (not to mention the chaos and disorganization had you watching everything, because you were young and plopped into an unreal world. Bombs exploding, and constantly being shot at were unnatural.”
Charles Quarles (c. 1963 ), was drafted in 1966. The former Democrat received two years of medical training prior going to Vietnam as a medic. His job was to medically stabilize injured soldiers at the Phu Loi Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). After receiving two years of medical training, he was deployed to Phu Loi during the Tet offensive.
On Jan. 31, 1968, some 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year holiday called Tet). This was a coordinated series of fierce attacks in the city as opposed to their typical fighting location in the jungle and in more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. This reinforced the reality that Vietnam was actually a full-fledged war.
Quarles landed in Phu Loi in the middle of the Tet Offensive, and found himself under fire from mortar rounds crashing around him as he attempted to save lives.
In addition to working in the MASH, he had to get into a Medevac helicopter, fly into a hot zone to pick up wounded soldiers (sometimes as many as 12 simultaneously, and attempt to stablize them as they flew back to the MASH unit sometimes under fire. During Tet, he constantly feared being shot down and prayed continuously.
Quarles’ worst memory was running up to a helicopter filled with American soldiers who were wounded as the result of friendly fire. “What bothered me is that we had inflicted so many injuries on our own personnel.”
Quarles also found out that there was a 98 percent survival rate for soldiers who were evacuated within the first hour of being wounded.
Additionally, Vietnam was the first time medics were specifically targeted which caused them to carry weapons and grenades into combat. It also forced the army to discontinue wearing red crosses on helmets and arm bands.
Charles Henry Meeks Jr. (c. 63), a communications technician, died at 23 in Vietnam. On April 11, 1969, he was conducting a routine flight when without warning his helicopter broke up in mid air and crashed. The military believed the helicopter had sustained ground fire during a previous mission. After the wreckage was recovered and examined, it was determined that the cause was a catastrophic blade failure—one of the three forward rotor blades failed due to metal fatigue. Meeks lived around the corner from Quarles and the two often walked to school together from elementary to high school. Quarles remembers Meeks as an intelligent person who could have been anything he wanted.
Alfred Lee Johnson (c. 1961 ). Radio operator, Johnson was a member of Hawkins’ shortwave radio club at Jefferson High. He believes that was why he was assigned as a communications specialist in Vietnam. He said he was constantly under enemy sniper attack, and once had to signal a helicopter with his red underwear due to radio failure and an inablity to “pop smoke” (a hand-sized canister that emitted a smoke signal). The most bizarre incident he experienced was when he was accompanying a group of his fellow African American soldiers and encountered what appeared to be South Vietnamese friendlies. They identified themselves saying “hey soul brother” and gave the Black power sign and continued to travel. However, within minutes they ambushed a detachment of Australian soldiers. Then they disappeared. This was an example of the racial tensions that actually worked in favor of Black soldiers.
Elmo Gaspon (c. 1971) was a marine in the United States Embassy in Saigon. He participated in Operation Frequent Wind, the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians, “at-risk” South Vietnamese and remaining military personnel from Saigon, prior to the takeover of the city by the North Vietnamese.
Just as the first Jefferson Democrat entered Vietnam in the early 1960s, Gaspon was one of the last to fly out as the American flag was lowered and ended a tradition of service many Democrats signed up for or were drafted into as a result of Project 100,000.
Thomas Jefferson High School (TJHS) Centennial Celebration is a milestone event that will reunite graduates from the last 100 years. This year, community members and all graduates are invited to take part in a historic celebration September 9-11. To maintain the schools’ exceptional legacy, all banquet proceeds ($75 per ticket) will go to the Jefferson High School Alumni Association scholarship fund and academic support for students at Jefferson.
To kick off the three-day celebration, members of various classes will gather Sept. 9 at The Quiet Cannon Conference and Event Center in Montebello from 6 p.m. to midnight. Charles “Chuck” Quarles, CEO of The Bedford Group, will be the keynote speaker. For many, it will be the first time in years since they have seen one another. It will be an opportunity for graduates to share Jefferson High School’s rich history with more recent classes and community members.
“For the last 100 years this small school in South Central has impacted politics, sports, entertainment, culture and academia. Jeff High has always been one of the smallest schools in L.A., but our alumni’s impact is worldwide,” said Kweli Umoja, president of the Alumni Association. “From Etta James, Barry White, Dorothy Dandridge, and Stanley Crouch to Brad Pye Jr. we have hundreds of notable alumni. We are excited to honor notables, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ralph Bunch, as well as journalists, politicians, scientists and countless entertainers.”
The Centennial Banquet and Celebration’s music will be provided by the TJHS student jazz combo band and the alumni band and will feature legendary drummer Carl Burnett (C. 1958). The performance will honor Jefferson High graduates from 1916-2016. On Sept. 10, graduates will fellowship for the annual Gathering of the Demos at El Dorado Park in Long Beach. The weekend will culminate with the non-denominational worship service and brunch on Sunday Sept. 11 at 10am on the TJHS campus.
“The event brings into focus the utter lifetime value of our Jefferson High education. It helped us realize that in the three, now four years at Jeff, we were building the first step in the ongoing strategy of careers and lives well served,” Umoja said.