Oleo Strut History

Under The Hood is being launched in the spirit of its predecessor coffeehouse, The Oleo Strut. Below is a vivid history of The Oleo Strut, written by someone who was there. The Oleo Strut Coffeehouse And The G.I. Antiwar Movement By: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver Oleo Strut PremarchWriting in the June, 1971, Armed Forces Journal, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. stated: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state of approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous… Word of the death of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units. In one such division, the morale-plagued Americal, fraggings during 1971 have been running about one a week…. As early as mid-1969 an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused — on CBS TV — to advance down a dangerous trail… Combat refusal has been precipitated again on the frontier of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry’s mass refusal to recapture their captain’s command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders… ” Shortly after this article appeared, President Nixon announced the new policy of “Vietnamization” and direct American combat operations came to an end within a year. In 1971, desertion rates were soaring, re-enlistment rates plummeting, and the United States Army was not considered reliable enough to enter major combat. Today, the G.I. Antiwar movement that accomplished this is little-known, but it was the threat of soldiers not being willing to fight and die that stopped that war. Soldiers refusing to fight is the most upsetting image to all of those who claim to rule, since the monopoly of armed force is their ultimate weapon to retain their power. Much of what they have promoted in the 37 years since Heinl wrote that article — the all-volunteer Army, the Rambo version of Vietnam, the resurgence of patriotism that crested with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 –has been in direct response to the specter of GIs deciding a war wasn’t worth it. The war against the war within the American military began almost as soon as America became directly involved in Vietnam, which can be dated to the so-called “Tonkin Gulf Incident,” the excuse for direct American combat. Oleo StrutBy 1966, veterans like my old friend, former Army intelligence specialist the late Jeff Sharlet – who would later found “Vietnam GI,” the major GI antiwar newspaper – had returned from their tour of duty and were trying to tell those back in America who they met at college what the real truth was about the war they had served in. Many in the campus antiwar movement did not respond to we veterans, with some purists telling us we were part of the crime for our participation. Somehow we were neither fish nor fowl to many. The result was that veterans began searching each other out. Eventually, in early 1967, Vietnam Veterans Against the War was founded in New York City and took part as an organization in the spring mobilization against the war. No one was more surprised than the veterans at the positive response they got from bystanders as they marched together as opponents of the war they had fought. By 1967, Fred Gardner, a former editor of the harvard Crimson who had served as an officer in Southeast Asia, had returned to civilian life.By September, Fred had raised enough money to start the organization he had been thinking about for two years: an group that would bring the antiwar movement to the GIs still in the Army who opposed the war. In September 1967, Gardner and a group of friends arrived in Columbia, South Carolina, home of Fort Jackson. Jokingly known as the “UFO,” a play on the military support organization USO, the coffeehouse quickly became the only integrated place in the city (this was the old South of the 1960s). The regulars soon consisted not just of black and white GIs, but also students from the local university. A few months later, Gardner returned to San Francisco where he established Summer Of Support (later called “Support Our Soldiers”) which was to coordinate the spread of similar coffeehouses to other Army bases. The first two were to be outside Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and outside Fort Polk in Louisiana. The Missouri coffeehouse managed to open, while the organizers sent to Louisiana were run out of town before they could even obtain a site for a coffeehouse. Fort Hood was chosen to replace the Fort Polk operation. At the time, no one knew what a momentous decision this would be. Oleo StrutIn August, 1967, riots broke out in Detroit, and the 101st Airborne Division was sent to stop it. This was the first time active Army troops had been used to quell a civil disturbance in the United States since the Civil War. In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots spread across the country. In response, the Army was called on to establish an organization for suppression of riots that were feared that summer as the time got closer and closer to the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Chicago that August. Fort Hood in 1968 was the main base where Vietnam veterans who had six months or less left on their enlistments were sent upon completion of their tour of duty in the war. Somehow, the Army thought that these combat veterans would be perfect for use in suppressing the war at home. The Army brass weren’t the only ones who didn’t know the mood of the troops. Neither did we. These were men who had experienced the Tet Offensive, men who had known the truth before Tet – that America was not winning the Vietnam War. They were turned off from their experience and unwilling to participate in a new war, a war against their fellow citizens. Killeen at the time was a typical “old South” garrison town. The town lived off the soldiers, but hated them at the same time. Soldiers at Fort Hood were seen by the businessmen in town as being there strictly for the picking. Avenue D was a collection of loan sharks (borrow $30 and pay back $42 – the payday loan industry’s been around a long time), pin ball palaces, sharp clothing stores – one had $100 alligator shoes, a brilliant green Nehru jacket in the window with 12 feet of racks stacked with cossack shirts in satin colors – insurance brokers, and overpriced jewelry stores. If a soldier walked into one of these establishments and didn’t pull out his billfold within ten minutes, he’d be asked to leave. Local toughs – known by the derogatory Texan term “goat ropers” – carried on their own war against the GIs, who they would try and catch alone at night and with assault and robbery on their minds. The local police generally sided with the “good old boys” against the “outsider” GIs. Oleo StrutThe town was as segregated as any in the South; there was an active Klavern of the KKK to enforce segregation. Killeen had grown from a population of 500 in 1940 (when Fort Hood was established to train Patton’s coming armored corps) to around 35,000 by 1968. It was not a place that was going to welcome “outside agitators” from California and Massachusetts, as we were. I remember an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who visited that September and told me he considered Killeen more dangerous than Sunflower County, Mississippi. The Oleo Strut opened on July 4, 1968, with a public picnic in the local park. GIs had been checking the place out over the previous month as the staff worked to set it up, and there was a large enough crowd that a reporter from the New York Times thought the event important enough to write a story about, that received national play. The coffeehouse was given the name “The Oleo Strut.” An oleo strut is a shock absorber, and we saw this as a metaphor for what we hoped the place would be for the soldiers we hoped to work with. We had no idea what a shock we were about to absorb. Within a week of opening, soldiers were coming in at night to tell us of riot control training they were taking part in during the day. They’d been told they were going to Chicago to “fight the hippies and the commies” who were going to show up for the Democratic Convention the next month. They were terribly upset at the thought of having to possibly open fire on Americans who they agreed with about the war and the need for change here in America. Soldiers were talking about deserting, about running away to Mexico, about “doing something.” Our response was a little yellow sticker, two inches by two inches. On it was a white hand flashing the “peace sign,” backed by a black fist. We printed up 1,000 of them and passed them out. GIs said they would put these on their helmets if they were called into the streets, to identify themselves to the protestors. At this point, the Army got very upset with us. Oleo StrutThe Monday of the convention, 5,000 troops were ordered to board the transports. They were headed for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, as backup for the Chicago Police Department. As the soldiers were preparing to board the airplanes, the bravest act of antiwar protest I ever knew of happened. 43 Black soldiers, all combat veterans, refused to board the airplanes. Due to the self-separation of the races on the base, we had no idea this was going to happen. The Black troops had organized themselves. They knew what they were going to get for this. The minimum qualification to be one of those who would refuse was the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, so the Army wouldn’t be able to call them cowards. As this was happening on the base, we were on the way from our house to the Oleo Strut, when we were stopped by the Killeen Police. A search of the car found drugs – we knew immediately we were set up, since we were completely drug-free. We also knew immediately what a terrible threat this was, since at that time the possession of a joint could get one a sentence of 20 years in Huntsville Prison, as had recently happened to an SNCC organizer in Houston who’d had marijuana planted on him by an undercover officer. We were scared. In the end, only Josh Gould was held, since he had been identified as our “leader.” He would stay in the Bell County Jail for six weeks until the Bell County Grand Jury would vote a “no bill” on the indictment, thanks to the tireless efforts of local attorney Davis Bragg. The world knows what happened in Chicago. A government cannot put soldiers on the street without the prior knowledge that if they are ordered to crack heads, they all will. No one knew how many of the GIs would carry out their threat of resistance if put in the streets, so all were held back. Deprived of their military backup, the Chicago Police Department staged their historic “police riot.” The GI antiwar movement had inflicted its first major blow against the government. In the months following, the antiwar movement took hold at the Oleo Strut. Soldiers started publication of “The Fatigue Press,” an underground newspaper we ran off down in Austin on a mimeograph the local SDS chapter found for us on the UT campus. In November, 1968, GIs from Fort Hood staged an antiwar teach-in at UT, despite the best efforts of the Army to close the base and prevent their participation. We also endured the daily reports of the court-martials of the 43 Black GIs, each of whom received several years in Leavenworth and a Dishonorable Discharge for their courageous act. Perhaps most importantly, a GI named Dave Cline walked through the front door that September. Wounded in action with the 25th Infantry Division the year before, Dave was only now out of an extended tour of Army hospitals to deal with his wounds. He was completely dedicated to the cause of opposition to the war, and became the center of the GIs who were involved in anti-war activities on-base. He became the editor of Fatigue Press. In later years, the rest of the country and the world would come to know Dave Cline, who spent all his life until his death on September 15, 2006, from the wounds he received in Vietnam, fighting for peace and justice as the President of Veterans for Peace. He fought the Veterans Administration for proper care and benefits for all Vietnam vets, fought for both American and Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange; he fought against America’s intervention against the Central American revolutions in the 80s; he stood up against the attack on Panama, the Gulf War, and intervention in Somalia in the early 90s; he opposed the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 and traveled to Vieques to show solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico in their fight to stop the U.S. military using it as a practice range; he organized against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and as his last act organized a Veterans for Peace caravan to bring relief to New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and neglect by every level of government. A GI Dave knew in the 25th Infantry Division was so impressed by him that in 1986, that GI – Oliver Stone – memorialized him as the main character of “Platoon.” Things weren’t all heavy politicking. Then as now, Austin had an active music scene and I was able to find bands willing to make the trek up I-35 to entertain the GIs. The most popular of these bands that fall of 1968 was a new blues band fronted by a great young singer who was only 16. Given they couldn’t play in the Austin bars due to his age, they were happy to come up and play for the peanuts I could offer. The place would be packed whenever they appeared. 18 years later, in 1986, when I was at the United States Film Festival in Dallas, Stevie Ray Vaughn recognized me and thanked me for being the first guy to ever give him a break. Over the years between 1968 and 1972, when the Oleo Strut finally closed, many name musicians came and entertained the troops. Among them were Pete Seeger, who played to a packed house in 1971, s followed by Country Joe McDonald and Phil Ochs. By 1970, there were some 20 coffeehouses – not all part of Support Our Soldiers – to be found in the vicinity of Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy bases across the country. Their most important role was giving soldiers who had come to understand how wrong the Vietnam war was the knowledge they were not alone. Eventually, this dissent within the military spread to the front lines in Vietnam, as reported by Colonel Heinl. Of the three original SOS coffee houses, the UFO was closed in 1970 by a court order declaring it a “public nuisance.” The coffeehouse outside Fort Leonard Wood succumbed to harassment and threats in 1969. The Oleo Strut stayed open till the war ended in 1972. Today, the site of the coffeehouse on the corner of 4th and Avenue D (101 Avenue D) is an office complex. One can still, however, find the red paint in the cracks of the sidewalk that was thrown on the door and windows weekly, back 40 years ago. Above photographs are soldiers hanging out at the Oleo Strut, from 1968 – 1972. Used with permission from Sir! No Sir! photo galleries.