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My 1968 Story
By Albert Penta
January 1968 found me on a destroyer at Pearl Harbor. I was a petty officer first-class (E-6) and had over 9 years in the US Navy. A few months earlier, I had filed as a Conscientious Objector at my previous duty station, the University of Washington. The Navy had selected me for a special program, paying for my education to get a degree in oceanography and become an officer. I started as a freshman at the UW in 1964 right after the Tonkin Gulf "incident." I learned a lot of things at college, but mostly I learned what Vietnam and the burgeoning war there was all about. That was the basis of filing to leave military "service."
In mid-January, the answer came back from Washington, DC. My division officer informed me: "Penta, your request for CO was denied. You'll be sailing with the ship when we leave for WestPac next week." Well, the ship left to cross the Pacific, but I wasn't on it. I jumped ship and flew back to Seattle. I was AWOL for a month and finally turned myself in at Pier 91 Naval Base, Seattle.
A crusty old World War II warrant officer was on duty and I told him my situation. He became really pissed, calling me an unpatriotic commie: "I'd throw you into the brig, but I don't want you to contaminate the younger enlisted men." So, I got locked up for 32 days in a rather comfortable solitary confinement building that was a former officer's quarters.
In early April at my court-martial, I was charged with 30 days AWOL and the more serious charge of missing the ship's movement. I had a great Quaker lawyer, Bill Hanson, who had helped me the previous year in filing as a CO. The court-martial board was open and sympathetic. Though I was fined and busted in rank, they told me to re-file as a CO and I would be given a temporary job on base. I was free for every night liberty. While celebrating at home that afternoon with Bill and my family, we got the sad news—it was April 4th, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been shot and killed.
The next day I went to get my job assignment from that same old warrant officer. He was really seriously pissed this time: "I can't believe they let you off! You should have been sent to Leavenworth if not sent to the firing squad." He ruminated for a minute and slowly said that he would give me "the most demeaning job possible to shame me in front of everyone." I figured that meant that I'd be scrubbing toilets. But no, he gave the job of "bicycle messenger boy." Wow, what a good gig that turned out to be. For the rest of 1968, I rode a bike all over the base, met other military miscreants—gays, tokers, brawlers, and other assorted trouble-makers. We formed an informal peace group, distributed leaflets, put up stickers, and did general mischief around the base. The Navy never did recognize me as a CO. At the end of 1968, they decided that they would discharge me "at the convenience of the government."
As a veteran, I continued organizing against the war in Vietnam. Fifty years later, I continue my lifelong commitment to anti-war work, for the past twelve years with Veterans For Peace.
Albert Penta, 77, is a US Navy veteran who served from 1958-1968. He is a long-time peace and justice activist in the Seattle area.