W. John McNally, III
Dartmouth College Oral History Program
Dartmouth Vietnam Project
October 19, 2016
Transcribed by Karen Navarro
HARRIS: Hi, this is Sara Harris (’18), with John McNally. It is around 1:30 pm on Wednesday, October 19th, 2016. We are in Rauner [Special Collections] Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, and this interview is for the Dartmouth Vietnam Project. So, just to start off, I want to ask a couple biographical questions. Where and when were you born?
McNALLY: I was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on July 24, 1944.
HARRIS: And what did your parents do?
McNALLY: Well, at the time I was born, my mother was an Army nurse, although I think by that time she had left the Army Nurse Corps. My father was an Army officer on active duty during World War II.
HARRIS: What did he do in the Army?
McNALLY: He was an infantry officer, and he was in the fighting in Europe at that time.
HARRIS: So was he gone a lot when you were growing up?
McNALLY: Well, I didn’t actually really meet him until I was about a year-and-a-half old.
HARRIS: Wow. How did growing up during—or like, how did World War II affect your childhood?
McNALLY: Well, that’s a big question. I’m not sure how. It affected the environment that I grew up in, which was one where a lot of family members were in the Armed Forces, and just, the men were not around, so it was a lot of at that point women who were staying home and minding family and kids and that sort of thing. My sense is that the war had a very broad impact on an awful lot of people of my generation because it affected their fathers, in particular, and their mothers, but particularly their fathers. And caused a lot of problems for people. I don’t think at that point that PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] was really defined, but it was certainly evident among the men of that generation, I think, who were in service.
HARRIS: Do you remember talking about politics or the international situation with your family growing up?
McNALLY: Well, yeah, sure, not when I was young, of course, but over time. I mean, the politics came up randomly, I think, at different times. And since given my generation I grew up with a more liberal viewpoint than my father had. He started out as a Democrat because his family were Irish Catholic working class people from New York, and at some point migrated to becoming a Nixon supporter, which is I think not an uncommon progression.
HARRIS: Yeah. Do you remember like through the 1950s growing up experiencing events of the Cold War like the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, I guess that was 1962. But, just the Cold War in general, the Korean War?
McNALLY: Well, sure. I mean, I think it just was part of the environment. It affected the culture broadly, I think. My father got out of the Army after World War II, and decided to go back into the Army and make it a career, and then was sent to Korea, so he fought in the Korean War, as well. So in that sense it definitely affected our family because he was gone and he actually was in one of the really famous, terrible battles in the Korean War, and ended up getting his leg frozen, and was in hospital for quite a long time and lost part of his foot as a result of that. So it had a direct impact in that sense.
HARRIS: What did you think of American policy during that time when your father was getting injured or…
McNALLY: Well, at that point I was probably six years old or something. I didn’t think much about American policy at all. It was just a given environment that I grew up in. I grew up as an Army brat basically, and that is a certain culture.
HARRIS: In what way?
McNALLY: Well, military families have the same kind of experience, I think, which is of moving around a lot from place to place, which creates stresses, I think, for anybody. You live in a place, you make friends, and then suddenly you’re uprooted and you go to a different place, and then you go to a different place. So that’s—I’m not sure this answers your question, but that was a dominant characteristic of growing up in that way.
HARRIS: Did you feel like you had a stronger maybe patriotic sense or respect for the military growing up than the average American?
McNALLY: I think it was so much a part of my environment when I was younger, it just seemed normal. But gradually my politics deviated quite a bit from that, and so… It was something to be opposed to after a certain point.
HARRIS: Did you move around a lot growing up from Virginia?
McNALLY: Yeah. I grew up actually on my grandfather’s farm, my mother’s father’s farm, in Virginia until I was about five, and then by that time my dad had gone back in the military and we got sent to Japan, where we lived, on the northern island of Hokkaido. And there was a US Army base there, a small one, and we lived on the base, which was next to the city of Hokkaido—no, no, actually next to the city of Sapporo on Hokkaido. And moved from there back to Fort Myer, Virginia, which is in northern Virginia. And it was at that point that my father was in Walter Reed Army Hospital for quite a while.
Then, after he went through a lot of physical rehabilitation, he stayed in the Army, but he couldn’t act as an infantry officer anymore, because he had lost a part of his right foot. So, he ended up staying in the Army, though, and making it a career, but doing public relations work as an officer, and he just stayed in doing that. He went from Fort Myer to a little Army organization near Phoenix, Arizona, where we lived for three years. Then went from there to Hawaii, where we lived for three years, then back to northern Virginia, where I went to high school. And after that my family, when I graduated from high school, my family moved to Taiwan, and I went to college there.
HARRIS: So, what years were you in Japan?
McNALLY: It was about two years, I think, and it was approximately 1950 to ’51, thereabouts.
HARRIS: What was—so you talked a little about how your childhood was kind of unstable. Do you generally feel like it was a happy time? What was your childhood like?
McNALLY: Well, I don’t have much else to compare it to, so it was, you know, every family is different. Every family has different dynamics and pressures and difficulties and so forth, and, you know, mine had its own. I don’t think it had any particular tone because of being an Army family, except that we were part of that culture of just moving around, and that was a very distinctive culture. And still is, I expect,
HARRIS: Did you have siblings?
McNALLY: Yes, I had four.
HARRIS: Older or younger?
McNALLY: I’m the oldest.
HARRIS: Were you close with them?
McNALLY: Yeah. Yeah. My youngest sister was 14 years younger, so by that time she was like a cousin in the sense that we were so different in age.
HARRIS: So, what years were you in high school?
McNALLY: 1958 to ’62. And when I graduated, I went to Duke University [Durham, NC] on a Navy ROTC scholarship, which paid for my whole education. But in return I had to take one so-called naval science course every semester, which was on various subjects: history, navigation, often technical subjects. And I spent six weeks each summer doing something having something to do with the Navy, whether going on a ship one summer, flying airplanes in Texas one summer, and then going on a ship the next summer, and then graduating, at which point in June of 1966, I graduated and got commissioned as what’s called an ensign in the Navy, which is the Navy’s equivalent to a 2nd lieutenant. It’s an entry level officer position. And, because of being in the scholarship situation, I got what’s called a regular Navy commission, which is like the same commission as an [Naval Academy] Annapolis graduate gets, as opposed to a reserve officer commission. And the idea behind this program was that the Navy wanted to bring in different viewpoints from people who went to civilian colleges to supplement the viewpoints of people who went to the Naval Academy. And there were about, I don’t know, 28 colleges. All the Ivy League colleges, Duke, Stanford [University], and a number of other places—I don’t know about Dartmouth—had Naval ROTC programs that were all similar.
HARRIS: Just to go back a little bit to your college experience, what made you decide to be in the ROTC?
McNALLY: It was an easy decision, in the sense that my father didn’t have any money to send me to college. He had five kids, [laughter] and there wasn’t a lot of extra money. I was under some pressure from him to go to one of the military academies. And I did get an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but I didn’t really want to go, and this seemed like a good compromise. I wanted to go to a good civilian university, and this enabled me to do that, and get my way paid. So…
HARRIS: So, during your college years, do you remember thinking about what was going on in the world at the time, or politics at the time?
HARRIS: Maybe JFK’s assassination in 1963?
McNALLY: Say that again, please?
HARRIS: [President] John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Do you remember…
McNALLY: I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, yeah. Yeah, it was, we weren’t insulated from the world any more than anybody in college is insulated from the world. And at some point in this time that I was in college, it became obvious we were getting really involved in Vietnam. So, you know, that was in the back of my mind, sometimes in the front of my mind. I’m not sure if this answered your question, but…
HARRIS: Yeah. Did you feel like you had strong political viewpoints at that time during college?
McNALLY: I think I had sort of conventional sort of liberal college student opinions. I’m sure I thought I was really smart and astute. But, I wasn’t highly political in college. Probably I was somewhat constrained by being in this Navy program, knowing I was going on active duty. And it was a force, hard to say how it operated, but it was a force, I’m sure.
HARRIS: What was the campus reaction, like treatment of the Navy ROTC program? Was it very integrated?
McNALLY: Yeah, I mean, we were all in… We weren’t living in a separate place. I mean, I was in a fraternity, and everybody just was doing whatever they would otherwise do. We would just have to take one course each semester, and also go off during the summer. Occasionally we had to march around. I couldn’t grow my hair long, which was one thing I wanted to do. But, I couldn’t do that.
HARRIS: During college were you excited to go on active duty after college? Were you looking forward…
McNALLY: No. [laughter] I knew that it was something that I had to do. I certainly knew enough about the military at that point to realize I really didn’t want to make it my career. And I just saw it as an obligation that I had, and I wanted to make the best of it, so… I was assigned to an amphibious ship when I graduated that was based in Little Creek, Virginia, which is right next to Norfolk, Virginia. And I stayed aboard ship for a little over a year, became the gunnery officer on the ship, which was the officer in charge of the crew members who operated the guns of the ship. And you had to get training, additional training to do that, which I did.
HARRIS: Was that in 1966?
McNALLY: It would have been in ’66, ’67, yeah. ’66, ’67.
HARRIS: And what was the goal of that ship or that base?
McNALLY: The ship was called a landing ship dock; that was its type. It was a big ship, and basically it carried a crew of Marines and landing craft in the back part of the ship, which would sink down to the water as it needed to, and the landing craft would go out full of Marines and then land on the beach. I mean, it’s an archaic kind of ship, because that was the kind of thing that happened in World War II, but after that it didn’t really happen. I mean, the military’s often criticized for fighting the last war, which is a common criticism of the military in every country, I think. But, in any case that was a big part of the Navy that consisted of various kinds of amphibious ships, which this is one of them.
And then, after about a year being aboard that ship… the ship was deployed to northern Europe. We went to deliver something—I can’t remember what it was—to Germany, a port in Germany. I think it may have been a kind of a submersible, small submarine kind of thing. And from there we went to England, where we were all looking forward to that. And when we pulled into, it was Southampton, I think was the big English port, and our ship pulled in, and I was looking forward to going into London, which I had never seen at that point, with one of my friends aboard ship, and we were going to go the next day. And I walked into what’s called the wardroom of the ship, which is where the officers eat, you know, not thinking about anything in particular, and everybody stood up and started clapping. And I thought, Oh, oh, what does this mean? [laughter] And it turns out that I had my orders to Vietnam had just come in by radio that night. And the orders actually were to Vietnamese language school in California, and what’s called counterinsurgency training, which is basically Marine training, for about seven months, and then I was to go to Vietnam for a year to be an advisor; in other words, to live on a Vietnamese base, work with the Vietnamese little navy unit, speak Vietnamese, and be there for a year.
HARRIS: So, how does that process take place? Did the upper level of the Navy, they can just send you those orders?
McNALLY: They can do anything... That’s I’d say generally true of the military, within some limitations. But, I found out subsequently that for some reason, the Navy senior officers had decided that gunnery officers on amphibious ships would be suitable to be trained this way and sent to Vietnam to advise little Vietnamese bases. Now, why that was exactly wasn’t clear to me, but that’s what they decided, and I was among various people who got those kinds of orders.
HARRIS: Sorry, could you clarify what an amphibious ship is?
McNALLY: An amphibious ship is a ship that’s in some way involved in amphibious landings. In other words, you’ve seen movies of World War II, for example, where the ships gather at a beach and the enemy’s on the beach, and then the landing ships, the small landing craft go out from the ships onto the land, and then the Marines or the Army people go ashore and fight, and there’s all sorts of battling going on in the meantime. And that’s what an amphibious ship is. It’s a ship that’s involved somehow in that process.
HARRIS: So, how did you feel in Europe when you found out that you were going to Vietnam?
McNALLY: It felt surreal. I mean, I can’t say that I was totally surprised, but I certainly knew it wasn’t something I was expecting. I’m not sure what I expected, but I certainly—it wasn’t something that I was expecting to happen. So, I left the ship that day, and got on a plane out of Heathrow [Airport], went into London and went out to Heathrow, flew to New York, and flew back to Little Creek, Virginia, which is where—I mean, I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any kids, I didn’t have any furniture. But I had a car which I had just bought which was a fancy English sports car that I was very attached to, and it was my car, so I stopped there and got the car, and drove from there to Georgia, where my mother and some of my siblings were living at that point. My father was in Vietnam at the time on active duty as an Army public affairs officer. So, that was interesting.
HARRIS: When did your dad go to Vietnam?
McNALLY: I don’t remember exactly. He was there when I got there. I mean, we were not in the same place, although we did encounter each other. But, he had been there for a while, and he left shortly after I got there.
HARRIS: Was he in support of the Vietnam War?
McNALLY: No, he was part of the US Army operation. He dealt with reporters and TV crews and that sort of people, and came to Vietnam to report on the war. That was his job.
HARRIS: You said that the people on your ship were clapping when they found out you were going to Vietnam. Was it considered an honor?
McNALLY: Well, it was just a recognition of a major event. And, you know, I got along with them. You know, they—it seemed appropriate, just as a recognition of here is your shipmate leaving to go to war, I mean directly. So, anyway, as I said, I left that afternoon.
HARRIS: Were you scared about the Vietnam War after hearing things on the news or…
McNALLY: Well, there was a certain level of dread about it. I think nobody in their right mind contemplates going into a war zone without some sense that it could be dangerous. Yeah. At that point, this was in 1967, and the politics of the Vietnam War were evolving. And, so in any case—let’s see, I’m trying to remember exactly. I know it was seven months in California when I was stationed near San Diego at the language school there, and then from there we went off and did various kinds of Marine training. But, well, I mean, nobody talked about being scared, but everybody was a little apprehensive, I’m sure.
But, it was an interesting time in history, because it was 1967, it was California, I was getting ready to go to Vietnam. I had resumed a relationship with a woman I knew in college who was living in the Bay Area. And this was the Summer of Love, you know, ’67, ’68. It was what you would imagine. And I was in a strange position of going to the Fillmore Auditorium to see the Doors play, but knowing in a couple of months I was headed to Vietnam. So, it was interesting.
HARRIS: What did you feel about, or how did you feel about that maybe counterculture anti-war sentiments?
McNALLY: I wasn’t pro-war, let me put it that way. I mean, I knew I was going to go there and I had to do my job. But, I wasn’t an enthusiastic proponent of the war. I basically… Most people in the military try to stay somewhat apolitical, because you sort of have to. I mean, you’re there to carry out policy, not to make it, and it gets complicated, and I’ll get to that in a little bit. Well, I certainly was affected by what was happening in the culture at that time, and at that point I had rationalized that I wasn’t in favor of the war. I could recite the arguments in favor of our being there that you would read in a Time Magazine or Newsweek or something, why we had to stop the Communist advance, and all this foolishness. But I didn’t feel strongly about it. And basically I felt that even though I wasn’t enthusiastic about the war at all, but that I had an obligation to go where I was ordered. That’s the deal. They paid my way through college. I wasn’t going to desert the Navy and go to Canada. I’m not built that way, and I didn’t feel that strongly at that point anyway. So, I just figured I would go and do my job.
HARRIS: What was the language and counterinsurgency training like?
McNALLY: Well, the language training was all in Vietnamese, and it was part of the—the military has a very sophisticated language school mostly based in Monterey, California, but they have other facilities, one of which is in Coronado, California. And it’s all conversational, mostly conversational, and it was very intense. So we would go to classes and we’d listen to, you know, it would be listening on headphones and talking and being tested and so forth for a long time. And at some point briefly I was sort of fluent, as fluent as you can be without living in a country. And Vietnamese, as you may know, is a total language similar to a lot of Asian languages, so it’s very difficult for someone, an English speaking person, to get used to. And I’m pretty good with languages and I did pick it up.
The counterinsurgency training was basically variations of the kind of training that Marines get in combat, land combat. And I had been trained for naval combat. This was land based combat. And that went on off and on during the seven months that I was there.
HARRIS: So, when did you head to Vietnam?
McNALLY: I flew into… Let me back up just a minute. I had my orders at some point when I was in language school to go to a specific place. It was a base up near the border of North Vietnam, and it was a small Vietnamese Navy base. And by navy base, I mean they had a couple of little junks for their fleet. All these bases were like that. They didn’t have any big ships to speak of. They had a couple, but they were just a few. And about a month before I was due to go, the news came in that the base had been overrun and everyone in it was killed.
HARRIS: What was the name of the base?
McNALLY: Oh, it had a number. It was called “Coastal Group such and such.” I don’t remember the number. And this was in December or so of 1967. So, given that development, I got orders to a different base, because that base clearly wasn’t there anymore. And I was, you know, fortunate for me, I wasn’t there. So, anyway, I got orders to a different base in it’s called Binh Dinh province (B-i-n-h D-i-n-h, I believe is the spelling), on the coast, but near a huge bay, and near the city of Qui Nhon.
But I flew into Saigon during the Tet Offensive, which was February of 1968. It was going on over there. And that was pretty—it was surreal, I guess you’d say. We flew in, it was daytime, there was plumes of smoke coming up over the city. And up to this point people in Tan Son Nhat Airport [Air Base], which was the main military airport that we were going to, felt very secure. But, when we landed, we were greeted by an Air Force enlisted woman who was wearing a flak jacket and had grenades on and all this kind of foolish stuff, inappropriate for her job, but everybody was freaked out. So, that was interesting to see what was going on. And at some point after we landed, the advisors who had flown over as a group, this small group of Navy advisors, was taken to a little barracks of some kind. It was some kind of Vietnamese villa that had been designated for that purpose.
And then the next morning we met with the senior naval advisor, whose name escapes me, who was a captain in the Navy. He was the head of all US Navy advisors who were in country. And this was, as I said, during the Tet Offensive, which was a big deal politically; huge, big deal. And the gist of what happened was pretty obvious. The North Vietnamese, suffered tremendous casualties in that campaign, but they won a tremendous political and psychological victory at the time.
HARRIS: What was your perception of the Tet Offensive at the time? Were you optimistic about America’s…
McNALLY: I was saying, hmmm, this doesn’t look good. I mean, it was sort of obvious, at some point it became more and more obvious that this was crazy, or ill-advised, but at that point I was sort of on the conveyor belt to go there, and I wasn’t going to jump off and run to Canada or whatever. But, when we got into the offices of the senior naval advisor, he treated us to a briefing, which was very reminiscent of the mindset of senior military people at the time, which was influenced by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, in his use of statistics to “demonstrate” what was going on, quote-unquote, “demonstrate.” And so, we were treated to this charts and flow charts and graphs, and a speech by this guy. He said, “This is a terrific victory for the US.” You know, “There’s X, Y, Z number of North Vietnamese killed,” and blah, blah, blah. And we were looking around kind of thinking, hmmm. I think—I certainly felt skepticism. I think some of my colleagues did. We all were going to different place, so we wouldn’t see each other ever again at that point, different places in the country. And, from there I was flown somehow—I’d never been in a helicopter or a plane—to the base where I was stationed.
HARRIS: So, what was your role as a military advisor there?
McNALLY: Well, in fact, it really wasn’t giving advice. That’s what we were called. It was more acting as a liaison between the US forces and this particular Vietnamese Navy group that I was living with. I mean, they had been at war for a long time. I mean, there wasn’t a lot I could tell them about how to operate their fleet of Chinese junks, or fighting, for that matter. They’d been in a lot of fighting, and so… There were five US Navy advisors on this little base. A senior advisor, who was one grade above me, whose name escapes me, but he was there when I arrived, and he was an interesting guy. Interestingly, he looked a lot like Steve McQueen, which made him extremely popular generally. [laughter] And he was a really good guy, too, and I liked him. We got along well. And he had a sense of humor. He had good judgment. And there was two enlisted men who were also advisors. One of them was a—I forget what their specialties were. Enlisted people in the Navy tend to have specialties. One was an older guy, and then there was a very young guy who was a Hispanic guy.
And there was also a psychological warfare officer, whose name I’m not going to mention in this narrative, because of what I’m about to say. He was in charge of, you know, dropping leaflets, or coming up with ideas to psych out the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. And a completely futile job, as far as I could tell. But he spent a lot of his time sort of swapping stuff out with Army sergeants on another base. I mean, we would swap a Jeep for a freezer for our little hut, you know, that kind of stuff, the kind of stuff you see on comedies. It really does happen, and it did happen. And this is not to say he didn’t do his psychological warfare job, but that was a futile operation as far as I was concerned.
So anyway, when I arrived, there was this set-up. And our job, our mission, was to do—it was somewhat vague, but it involved taking these junks up and down the coastline of the area we were responsible for, and ensuring that the North Vietnamese didn’t smuggle troops and guns and ammunition further south, to check in on the villages that were along the coast, to operate in this huge bay that was next to our base, and the other side of which was the city of Qui Nhon, which was a good-sized city, and from time to time to go into the jungle and just kind of do our thing, whatever that happened to be. And so, that’s what we did.
And we were not supervised by anybody, which I liked. I mean, my so-called boss was really a colleague. And he left after a while and he was replaced by a really odious person whose name I won’t mention in this narrative, who, in my view, had terrible judgment and always wanted to do stupid things, which never seemed to come about, fortunately. And that happens. It’s like any job. You have competent people, you have incompetent people. [laughter] And, in any case, that’s the thing that we did for a year.
HARRIS: What was the relationships like between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese?
McNALLY: Well, I lived with the Vietnamese, and I knew them, and I spoke the language some, although frankly my Vietnamese language skills evaporated fairly quickly because my counterpart, the Vietnamese officer who I worked with daily, spoke fluent English, fluent French and fluent Vietnamese. And so, basically he spoke English far better than I did Vietnamese. So, my attitude toward them was fine. I liked them. I thought the culture was interesting. I knew something about the culture because that was part of the training.
HARRIS: When you say you lived with them…
McNALLY: Well, we lived in a little hut, basically, on their base, and the hut was built by US military people. You had sandbags along the walls and the usual kind of stuff. But, we lived on their base, which was right next to a little village.
HARRIS: And do you remember the name of the Vietnamese leader?
McNALLY: You mean the guy that I worked with?
McNALLY: Not his full name. Interesting, I don’t remember his full name... It might come to me, but I don’t remember it. So, in any case, and our base was right next to a tiny US Navy Swift Boat base. And so, I dealt a lot with the guys, the young Navy officers, who were in charge of these Swift Boats.
HARRIS: Did you build any close relationships with the Vietnamese, or did you see them in your free time?
McNALLY: Well, we didn’t had a lot of free time in the sense that you were always sort of kind of looking around for something bad to happen or something was about to… But, we socialized, in the sense that there wasn’t anybody else to socialize with. And I would take my counterpart over to the little officers’ club on the Swift Boat base, and then we would go into the village and have drinks and dinner, and dinner was like, you know, it was like a little shack by the water, and that sort of thing. But, yeah, no, we had a good, a friendly relationship.
HARRIS: Did you feel like you were in grave danger while you were? Were you really scared when you would go into the jungle or some of the missions?
McNALLY: At times. And sometimes we were. But, only occasionally. It wasn’t like we were in combat all of the time. A lot of the time it was just worry. I mean, that’s true for a lot of cops would say the same thing, firemen, or lots of military people. A lot of it was nothing was happening. You were waiting for something bad to happen. But, only occasionally were we in combat, and during those times it was… I think it was– you always had the feeling that there was some danger out there. And, in fact, there was. But it wasn't like an acute feeling. And when you were, at least from my experience when I was in some sort of firefight or something like that, it was, I keep using this word “surreal,” but it’s appropriate. It was. [pause] I was somewhat detached in the sense like, I’m watching this thing happen to this person here. What is this that’s going on? [pause] But, I mostly got very scared, if I did, it was afterwards.
And one time we were working with a group of Navy Seals, and we got ambushed by a friendly force of people who were supposed to be guarding the village, and it turns out later, the lieutenant in charge of this military group turned out to be insane, and he set up an ambush as we were trying to leave the village on our little junk. And a number of the Seals were killed on the boat, and it was a very, very bad scene. And I had the experience at that time, while that was going on I was on the boat, too, of watching time slow down that you hear about, and yeah, people have had this experience, and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion for a while. So, that was the only really sort of dramatic, unusual thing that I remember.
HARRIS: So, when you say friendly forces, you mean South Vietnamese?
McNALLY: They were South Vietnamese. They were little like—not National Guard—little militia. Not the South Vietnamese Army. They were a ragtag group of people who had arms and a soldier to boss them around, but he turned out to be literally crazy. There was a huge big investigation because of what happened.
HARRIS: Did you have any close friends that you were with in Vietnam that passed away?
McNALLY: Yeah, I knew people who got killed, yeah. But it wasn’t—I mean, everybody that I was involved with was in some degree of combat, depending on your job, but it wasn’t constant, it wasn’t like every day at all. It was very variable.
HARRIS: You talked about how your leader changed from being someone you respected…
McNALLY: He was replaced.
HARRIS: Yeah, he was replaced. So, what was the general American sentiment towards the Vietnamese? Was there strong hatred? Was it more… towards the Vietnamese? Yeah.
McNALLY: I don’t know. I never took a survey of any kind, so whatever I say would be purely anecdotal.
McNALLY: Personally, I liked the Vietnamese that I worked with and that I knew. And some of them I didn’t like. It was like any other group of people. But generally, I liked them. I think a lot of the US military people who were not involved with them closely didn’t like them because they were afraid they were going to get killed by some Vietnamese. I mean, that’s not surprising that they would feel that way. So, I wasn’t with the main force of US Army people. I mean, I encountered them, but… So, you know, I didn’t get their sentiments very directly at all.
HARRIS: How much did you stay updated on the general scope of the war while you were there? Did you have American…
McNALLY: Oh, we had radio, Armed Forces talk radio. I had a little portable transistor radio. I remember being out on one of the junks late at night on the lagoon, this big body of water, and we were doing something or another, and listening to the 1968 Democratic Convention and what was going on in Chicago. It was a memorable situation, being in this strange place and listening to what was all that commotion that was going on in 1968, the Democratic Convention.
HARRIS: What did you think of all those protests?
McNALLY: Well, at that point I was more and more sympathetic with the anti-war sentiment. I mean, there was nothing I could do about it while I was there.
HARRIS: Did you stay in contact with your dad when you were both in Vietnam?
McNALLY: I did go down to see him once. We were not close. But I did go down to see him once before he left.
HARRIS: And was he more supportive of the war than you?
McNALLY: He at that point, his politics had turned right. [laughter] And yeah, our politics were pretty different at that point.
HARRIS: So you were in that Binh Dinh province throughout 1968?
McNALLY: ’68 and into the beginning of ’69. I left the end of January in ’69, I guess.
HARRIS: Do you remember when Robert Kennedy or MLK were assassinated? Did you hear about those events in 1968?
McNALLY: I don’t think Martin Luther King was assassinated in ’68. I could well be wrong. But, I don’t think I was in Vietnam when…
HARRIS: I think it was April, 1968.
McNALLY: Well, then I was in Vietnam. But, again, I don’t have a chronology in mind. And I don’t remember where I was when Robert Kennedy got shot.
HARRIS: So, when did you find out that your time at the Navy unit was over? Did you always know it was going to be a year?
McNALLY: We knew that we were assigned there for a year. And, so I knew when it would be over.
HARRIS: Were you looking forward to it ending?
McNALLY: Yeah, I was hoping that everything would stay okay and that I would leave in one piece, which I did.
HARRIS: Did you get the sense that the other Americans you were with were also just looking forward to leaving? Or did they seem more invested?
McNALLY: There were some people that liked that life and who re-enlisted, particularly a lot of the enlisted men, because they sort of liked the culture, they weren’t in direct combat positions, they liked—they were attracted to Asian women, and, you know, they liked that scene. And I knew a number of people who went back repeatedly. But these tended to be people who were in support positions, not people who were front line combat people.
HARRIS: So, you talked about the development of your anti-war sentiment.
McNALLY: It was gradual, over time.
HARRIS: So, did it intensify while you were there?
McNALLY: Well, it– solidified is probably the better word. It became apparent that it didn’t make sense for us to be there and to prop up what was essentially a corrupt regime, and that we had no real chance of prevailing that I could tell, and that an awful lot of people were really getting hurt badly or killed as a consequence of the war that was going on.
HARRIS: Where did you go when you left Binh Dinh?
McNALLY: We were allowed to select where we wanted to go, assuming we made it through here in Vietnam. You could express a preference about where you wanted to be stationed, and what sort of job. And I didn’t care about what job I had, because I wasn’t going to stay in the Navy. And I wanted to go back to the [Washington] DC area because that was where I went to high school and where I knew a lot of people. And so I got orders to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, which is in Arlington, Virginia, right next to the Pentagon. And I made my way back from California to DC over the space of at least a month. I had to get my car, which I had kept. [laughter] It was a rare sort of a car and I didn’t want to lose it, and so I had to get it up and running again. It had been in a garage in San Diego. [laughter] And drove that back across country. And came back and visited my mother and my brothers and sisters, and arrived in DC. At that point I was friends with a guy who was a little bit older than me who was a career Navy officer, a young guy, and we decided—and he was stationed in DC, too—and we took an apartment together on Capitol Hill, and lived there until I got out of the Navy, and he stayed there...
HARRIS: So, what year was that, or years?
McNALLY: This was in ’69, would have been in February or March of ’69, I guess.
HARRIS: What did it feel like coming back to America after having been gone?
McNALLY: I think it was more of a shock than I realized at the time. I mean, it felt good to be back. [laughter] And, you know, it was back in sort of normal life. I had a job, I went to work every day, and I had my car, I had friends, I went to parties. And I saw everything that was going on in the way of political protests, which were huge in DC in ’69. And I liked my boss in the Navy, who was a Navy pilot, named Ken Flynn. And I became friends with him and his wife. His wife was a poet, or actually a quite well-known poet now, and she was very active in the anti-war movement [laughter] even at that point. She today is still alive and runs a program from the Library of Congress called “The Poet and the Poem.” She interviews poets nationally. She’s very, very involved in all that sort of stuff. But at the time she was involved in liberal politics. And Ken was—he’s dead now, but he was a sculptor, a good sculptor, and interesting fellow.
And at some point, I mentioned this at some place to someone, I got involved in starting an anti-war group. It was at a party, which I assume where lots of things happened, but I met two young Navy officers my age who were both Vietnam veterans, and they were the intelligence briefers for the Chief of Naval Operations, the head of the Navy. They went to the Pentagon every day and briefed the head of the Navy on what was going on in the world. And they were opposed to it. And I was opposed to it. And so we said, “Let’s do something.” So we did. We started—this makes it sound very abrupt. It got started that night when we met. We decided to start an organization that would encourage active duty military officers to speak their minds about the war, and about military matters in general. And we confined our focus to officers, because there’s a complicated protocol in the military about officers trying to influence enlisted people into doing stuff, and that’s a big no-no, and we knew that. So, we confined our attention to military officers.
And long story short, we put together a newsletter, our first newsletter, and sent it around. And I forget how we got it sent. We semi-identified who we were going to send it to. I think we were very open about this. I’m not sure the two guys who briefed the Chief of Naval Operations were open, but my boss knew what I was doing. And fairly quickly, we started getting attention from the newspapers, you know, for obvious reasons, and it was I think primarily because there weren’t many things like this going on. And also, because the two guys, two of the principal guys involved in it, were briefing the head of the Navy every day on what’s going on. And this went on, this happened in, I don’t remember when our first newsletter went out, but it was sometime in 1969, probably later on in the fall or winter. Eventually, about a week before I was due to be discharged from the Navy, when my tour of duty was out, the two guys that I mentioned were on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. So, that was a big deal.
HARRIS: What was their names?
McNALLY: I can’t remember their names now, I’m sorry to say. But I could probably dig it up, but I’d have to dig it up.
HARRIS: What was the name of the organization?
McNALLY: We called it the Concerned Officers Movement, which was probably not the best choice, because the acronym was COM, and I’m sure people said, “Oh, they’re Commies.” But, you know, basically it was what I now would understand as a First Amendment sort of organization designed to have people speak their minds politically. What made it unusual was that the people who were being addressed were military people. And I don’t presume to be accurate about what the law is now on what military people can and can’t do in the way of speaking their minds, but it’s complicated. I knew that. But we didn’t care. We basically just did it. So, in hindsight, we were lucky not to get in trouble, I think. Although I don’t know how much trouble we would have gotten in. I don’t know. I’m sure that these guys… Let me just back up. I was discharged honorably from the Navy about a week after this broadcast.
HARRIS: And they were talking about the organization?
McNALLY: Yeah. And my boss knew everything I was doing. His boss, our older boss, didn’t know. And so, it was a very tense time for me. I mean, basically I just kept my head down, left. And the next day got on a plane for Europe, where I hitchhiked for the rest of the summer, before I started law school. So, I was, you know, just gone at that point.
HARRIS: Do you think the other two men faced consequences after that broadcast–?
McNALLY: You know, I’m sorry to acknowledge that I don’t know. I think once I made my escape, so to speak, I was headed in a different direction. And, I mean, we weren’t that close personally. We were certainly supportive of each other. So I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a good question.
HARRIS: Did your involvement in the organization stop when you left?
McNALLY: Yeah. I started law school. I mean, I was in Europe hitchhiking around, so I wasn’t doing anything except that. And I started law school the next September.
HARRIS: And you said that you were getting positive reactions from other officers? Like how big did it…
McNALLY: I don’t remember how many people ended up being in the organization. It got a fair amount of attention, and eventually merged with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
HARRIS: Okay. And you kind of lost touch?
McNALLY: Yeah, I was dealing with law school at that point.
HARRIS: So, you went to law school, and then became a lawyer after?
HARRIS: What kind of lawyer?
McNALLY: I went to UVA [University of Virginia] Law School [School of Law, Charlottesville, VA], and at that point I was, I wouldn’t say radicalized, but I was certainly not interested in following a conventional legal path. And I ended up running a Legal Aid office, and then started a small firm in Alexandria, Virginia, did litigation, did some work for the ACLU, and then decided to move my practice to DC, where I practiced law until I moved up here in 1989.
HARRIS: For this interview, can you define ACLU?
McNALLY: American Civil Liberties Union.
HARRIS: So, what work were you doing with them?
McNALLY: The ACLU typically has a list of lawyers in any jurisdiction in any state who are willing to volunteer their services for free for issues involving matters of interest to the ACLU, typically constitutional law issues. And the major thing I did for them was to take on a case, a lawsuit against the Fairfax County Police Department for a violation of the Fourth Amendment, if you know anything about that. It basically involved searches and seizures. And the case ended up going to the US Supreme Court, where we won. We were a companion case, not the main case. The same issue was being raised in another case out of Atlanta, and the two cases went up to the Supreme Court together, and that case is now the standard case in law school on this particular little narrow issue.
HARRIS: About searches and seizures?
McNALLY: About this one area of searches and seizures.
HARRIS: How did your involvement in politics develop during law school and after law school? Do you remember when American troops left Vietnam, and the peace…
McNALLY: Yeah, no, I kept what was going on over there in mind. Well, my politics became, you know, pretty much left, liberal, progressive, whatever you want to call them. [pause] I continued to do some pro bono work for the ACLU. But, I wasn’t—I had not been active in doing that kind of work since I left the DC area.
HARRIS: And were you involved in any Vietnam veteran organizations, or did you stay in touch with any veterans that you knew?
McNALLY: Not except, just casually. I mean, I have a number of friends here who are Vietnam veterans. But I’m not a joiner in that sense. And I don’t make the Vietnam War the centerpiece of my life.
HARRIS: How do you think it did affect your life and perspective?
McNALLY: It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like had I not gone into the Navy. I’m sure it would have been different. I just don’t know in what respect. I might have gone directly to law school, for example, and so that whole life experience of being in the Navy and being in Vietnam would not have been part of my life. I think that military service is important. I think it’s illuminating to have that kind of experience. I think that a lot of people benefit, a lot of people, like guys, benefit from being in the military, and particularly guys whose lives are messed up to the point they went in. I think the military provides a real structure for a lot of people, and a sense of responsibility and discipline and all sorts of stuff. The military also fosters certain, or right-wing leaning politics, but that’s more or less to be expected. I met a lot of liberal open-minded guys in the military, though, typically not career officers, but there are a lot of career officers who are very, very smart guys, and thoughtful.
HARRIS: Do you think your perception of the war has changed since your time in the military, maybe like learning more about it?
McNALLY: It’s not something that I dwell on. I mean, some people make that the centerpiece of their lives. I’ve met people like that. It was just something that I experienced. And I think there are more interesting things to think about, frankly. I mean, it’s a hugely important period in our country’s life, though. I know that Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, is about to release his series on the Vietnam War, and I’m definitely going to watch that because I have a lot of respect for him. In fact, a good friend of mine who lives around here is featured in that prominently. So, I want to see it for that reason if nothing else.
HARRIS: Why did you move to the Upper Valley?
McNALLY: Well, in the mid-‘80’s, my then-wife and I had two small kids, and it became apparent that DC was not a great place to raise a family, as far as we were concerned, and we were both feeling sort of burned out on the scene. Her family is from around here. She was born at Mary Hitchcock Hospital [Lebanon, NH], etc. etc. And, to make a long story short, we were looking around to move somewhere and I got an offer of a job in a small firm in Norwich [VT]. And so, our kids were three and one at that point, so we decided to make the move, and it turned out to be by and large a good move, I’d say.
HARRIS: And you’ve been in contact with veterans in the area, you said?
McNALLY: Yeah. I have a couple of very close friends who are Vietnam veterans, and my age, and I see them frequently. But that’s just part of my social group, not because they’re veterans. But we do have some experiences in common that…[pause] I’m not sure what our relationship would be like if we didn’t have these experiences in common. But, hard to say.
HARRIS: Did you have any experiences at Dartmouth? Did your family interact with the Dartmouth community or…
McNALLY: Well, you [inaudible]. And my ex-wife’s grandfather was Dartmouth Class of 1925, captain of the football team. So you’ve got a picture of what this guy might be like. He lived in Norwich and was a rabid Dartmouth alum. So, we had a lot of contact with him until he died. [laughter] And she had a brother who went to Dartmouth, so there was that connection.
HARRIS: But no interactions with the Dartmouth veteran community?
McNALLY: No. I mean, not that I’ve avoided them. I’m not that identified with military veteran groups in the sense of wanting to hang around with them at the, you know, American Legion or something like that.
HARRIS: Yeah, I guess that’s all. Any other thoughts on how the experience affected your life afterwards? You said it definitely didn’t define your life.
McNALLY: No, but I’m sure it’s… It’s hard to say what my life would have been like without it.
HARRIS: Right. Do you think it kind of shapes your perspective on American foreign relations now?
McNALLY: I can say that it made me skeptical of politicians who want to undertake military activity lightly, because one thing that became very apparent when I was there is how completely unpredictable fighting in war really is. And it’s very hard to foresee the consequences, and to plan the consequences. And this doesn’t mean I’m a pacifist, because I’m not. But, I think that…
One thing that I think is a shame is the obvious fact that very few of the congressmen who send kids to war, and even Presidential candidates, are veterans and have any direct experience with what that’s like. And they typically these days send young men who don’t have many opportunities other than the military—it’s sort of like the Roman Empire in a sense—who are fighting wars for the rest of us to live comfortably here. And then, I think the neglect of veterans is shameful. I mean, I’m talking about guys who’ve been sent over for multiple tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and have gotten really, really messed up, physically or mentally or both, and who are not treated as well as they—with anywhere as near as much care or compassion as they should be. And that’s not an original thought.
HARRIS: Did you know people that came back from the Vietnam War, like friends or acquaintances, that were really harmed from it and didn’t get the support?
McNALLY: I don’t think I knew enough about the lives and experiences of these fellows that I would encounter that I knew, to know exactly what level of support they got or not. I don’t think there’s nearly as much appreciation of what’s now called PTSD then as there is now. And even now, it seems like guys are not being cared for adequately.
HARRIS: Did you experience any psychological effects?
McNALLY: Probably, but not in any obvious way. I mean, I think that you develop coping mechanisms, you know, the usual cliché term that means almost anything. But I think that you develop a certain kind of insulated mindset to deal with the fact that, you know, you might get shot any time. And I think that has to have effects on anybody. I don’t remember any obvious effects. I don’t think I’ve experienced—certainly I haven’t experienced any traumatic effects. But I was lucky in the sense of coming home unscathed, at least physically unscathed, and probably mentally.
HARRIS: Okay. That’s all I had to ask. Thank you so much for doing this interview.
McNALLY: Thank you very much.
HARRIS: It was so interesting hearing about it.
[End of Interview.]