Faraway Places with Strange-Sounding Names:
How the Vietnam War Changed America
By Tim Flaherty
We are now nearly 50 years beyond the end of the Vietnam War and continue to celebrate the lives of young soldiers who gave their lives and to those who returned to Medfield. This story calls attention to those brave patriots who served honorably in the military.
Sadly, some of Medfield’s soldiers died on the battlefield and returned home and are publicly honored on every Memorial Day.
There were also young men from Medfield who dutifully reported to the Boston Army Base but unexpectedly failed the physical. Some of those individuals served their country other. They may have worked either in the industrial complex that manufactured military equipment in such place like M&M Castings in Medfield. Others may have served in domestic programs like Vista, Upward Bound, Head Start and the Job Corps. Together those programs gave many the opportunity to make positive contributions.
For these men, their experiences during the Vietnam era were unique and adventurous, and in some cases dangerous. Some journeys took them on a road of potentially deadly combat in exotic countries of the Far East. Others remained stateside working in the anti-war movement that overtook America from the early sixties to the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam. We have sympathized as some suffered heartbreaking loss and defeat, while mourning the deaths of fellow soldiers who became their friends. These are the sentiments of their experiences set forth in this story.
In September, 1967, three young men from Medfield who were not yet 21 years of age were summoned to the Boston Army Base for their draft physicals, and all three turned out to have disabilities that caused them to fail. Oddly, all three enjoyed good health and played on the same high school sports team.
Lee DeSorgher was exempt because he was partially deaf in one ear. Ronnie Kerr was color blind. I failed because I had had asthma since I was very young. Lee and Ronnie were given the draft board classification of 4-F, while I was classified 1-Y, meaning I would be required to serve if there was a national emergency. This co-occurrence was the making of friendship, higher education, love of country, family and even life itself. Some of the other men noted in this story experienced combat in Vietnam. Up to this present day, those who returned have enjoyed individual success in life. Their allegiance remains deeply sincere and honest.
Many classmates from Medfield High in 1965 kept in touch after graduation. Time passed quickly, and before we realized it, it was 1967.
Lee DeSorgher was clever, cool, amiable and good natured about most everything that came his way, always riding the wave. He enjoyed playing football and wished he could have had more game time. He was also a fast skater, a good hockey player, and a good student. He graduated with honors from Emerson College in the spring of 1973.
Ronnie Kerr played both offense and defensive tackle for his four years on the Medfield High School football team. He was very strong and was at times just about impossible to get through. His pass blocking was exceptional and overwhelming. Ronnie went to college and joined the Medfield Police Force until he retired. At the time of his physical Ronnie looked to be in good health and we were surprised when he was classified as 4-F.
I failed the army physical because I had asthma for my first 25 years. The draft board then classified me as 1-Y, which meant that I could be called up for active duty if the United States was invaded by a foreign government. Dr. A Richey Stagg treated me with asthma medication and allergy shots from my early teen years and throughout my mid-twenties. When I played football for Medfield High, I continued to have sports related asthma for all four years.
Medfield football was a good experience for me, somewhat of a basic training. After graduating from Emerson College, I entered the Peace Corps in 1974. The Oath of Enlistment for the Peace Corps was the same as the military oath. Given that oath, we affirmed we would protect and represent America for two years, serving and living in Guatemala, Central America. After the Peace Corps, I joined other peace activists in and around Massachusetts in advocating for diplomacy and peace.
While living in Latin America, I quickly became aware of the interest and curiosity that people who lived near the equator had about life in the United States, in particular the Vietnam War and Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Many nevertheless hoped to one day move to the United States to better their lives in a free and democratic society.
The United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia was on everyone’s mind. America first entered Vietnam with Green Beret advisors during the Kennedy administration because of unrest in countries situated close to Russia and China. Nevertheless, President Kennedy told reporter Walter Cronkite that the Vietnamese people were ultimately responsible for committing and sending their troops to fight in that civil war.
However, after Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson began sending more troops to Vietnam, a number that would steadily grow right up to the final years of the war before the South Vietnamese Allies finally took over their role in combat against the North Vietnamese.
As for America’s participation, it has been said that the real heroes of the war were the men who died there, the 19-20 year old soldiers who fought in battle. They didn’t have many of the opportunities that richer elite young men had. It was truly a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. That inequity continued until the military implemented a draft lottery, which drew recruits from all backgrounds. Although those young men were serving the USA, they were defending Vietnam, a country that they and the American public didn’t know very much about.
However, it wouldn’t take long for Americans to understand what was taking place politically. Vietnam was at one time under French colonial rule and wanted to one day become independent and live under their own banner. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Vietnam and used Vietnam’s natural resources to serve Japan’s war effort, a condition that the Vietnamese despised.
After the war ended with Japan’s surrender, the French tried to re-establish colonial rule, but Vietnam wanted the freedom to establish their own government. The Vietnamese detested French occupation and used guerrilla hit-and-run tactics to defeat and expel the French army from Vietnam in 1954.
From that point on, Ho Chi Minh established himself as the patriarch of Vietnam. After returning to Vietnam from exile after many years, Ho Chi Minh initially welcomed the advice and support from the United States whom he admired for their democracy and way of life. He had lived in various countries and believed that America was exemplary of liberty and ideology.
However, the Vietnamese soon realized that the United States wanted to stop the threat of Communism in their part of the world. Granted, what America didn’t fully realize was that Ho Chi Minh was a Communist and admired Marxist socialism. Consequently, the American government was misguided while Vietnam wanted to establish their own self-determination and government without foreign intervention.
After the United States realized and considered that, the U.S. military wanted to break with Vietnam due to that regime’s open and aggressive hostility toward any American engagement and involvement. The U.S. became cautious about any further military involvement in that part of the world. However, soon afterward, it was determined that stopping the spread of Communism would become the deciding factor and justification for any future American military participation in Vietnam and other neighboring Asian countries.
From that point on American soldiers encountered an enemy that suffered many casualties but returned soon afterward with large numbers of replacements. This was a valiant enemy who retrieved their dead during the night and disappeared into the jungle.
During those years, there were young men in our town who would become distinguished, enlisted soldiers. Stephen Hinkley was one of the most pleasant individuals one could ever meet. With his scruffy black hair combed to one side and thin build and his good humor, Stephen almost always had a cheerful smile on his face and offered a friendly greeting. He was a hard, diligent worker. He was a popular local kid who would help a friend in need.
Stephen was sent to Vietnam where he was a chaplain’s assistant. While helping to distribute Holy Communion, Stephen was killed by an enemy sniper. Not long afterward the Medfield Town Swim Pond was named after Stephen.
There were other young men from our town who served in Vietnam. Some of those soldiers who were memorialized were Peter Kristof, Michael Horgan, Philip Minneart, and Jimmy McNickel. Two soldiers who returned to rejoin their families are Frank Iafolla and Al Manganello.
There was my brother, Todd Flaherty, who decided to enlist in the United States Army. He was qualified to serve in the infantry and thought he’d be sent to Vietnam but instead ended up serving his three years in Stuttgart, Germany.
Todd was assigned a clerical desk job that often required a 12-hour work day. During his final months in Germany, Todd married his long-time girlfriend, Ann Marie, from Norwood. When he returned to Medfield, he found life to be tedious at times. Before he enlisted, Todd was studying accounting at Bentley College. But after returning to Medfield he lost interest in accounting. He liked working with his hands and decided to take up leather crafting at a shop in Wellesley, which he found very satisfying and enjoyable…as had his Italian immigrant shoe maker grandfather.
During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the war escalated dramatically. The American people were disillusioned with most everything about that war, and many participated in organized protests.
While the war raged on there were veterans who returned to the states who voiced their opinions. Movements toward racial equality and civil rights, the environment, the role of women, and the counterculture with the peace movement all gained steam.
Because of that agenda countrywide, returning veterans declared they didn’t know how America could have existed today in the aftermath without the Vietnam experience. Many veterans thought the nation was better off for addressing those inequities. Those matters turned up the volume on those aspects that represented what the soldiers had been trying to defend.
In 1973 Americans finally left Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Soon afterward the North Vietnam Army defeated the South Vietnamese. But all was not quite over until Vietnam rid themselves of further foreign aggression. Today Vietnam remains communist and but has established trade and tourism with the United States. Thus the peaceful will of the people has prevailed. Ultimately, with perspective comes understanding.