|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Candids for the Family Album
"You take any kind of snapshot like this, just as the time passes by, it is going to be worth a lot, lot more."
I grew up in a period of time when the United States feared the Cold War. We didn't know what the future would hold. I was born on November 22, 1949 in Providence Rhode Island. I am the second generation American born of Armenian descent in my family. I spent my early childhood in an all-Armenian neighborhood. I then moved to the East Side of Providence where I grew up in a different kind of community. There were no Armenians there at all. It was a nicer community as far as the houses were concerned, but it was there that I began to become what I call, "Americanized."
When I was in the seventh grade at Nathan Bishop [school] they held a career day. I thought that it was inevitable that there was going to be a nuclear war and that as a profession, I should learn how to do something in the aftermath of it. I thought I should learn how to crawl out of our bunkers or holes in the ground and see if the world was safe to go out in.
I entered the Sixties from the Cold War days as the one who wanted to do the best for his country, the radiological monitor who crawls out of the ground after a nuclear blast to make sure that it was safe for everybody else to come out.
I came to the University of Rhode Island in 1967 to study engineering. I hadn't been planning on going to college. It wasn't a big thing to go to college back in the sixties. It seems the most compelling [reason] to go to college back in those days was the deferment. In college, I got more into the social environment. I started to waste my parents' money.
I ran for college president in 1967 or '68 at URI. I wanted to change things. I didn't want curfews for women on campus. We had to be in our dorms by 10:00 p.m.. We had to wear jackets and ties just to go to dinner -- that's the way it was in 1967 and 1968. They said, "Kapreilian's crazy! Those things will never change." My opponent beat me in that election.
I was in ROTC at URI. I was in the Persian Rifles Drill Team. I was very into the military at the time. I had been a Junior Naval Cadet when I was a little kid and had wanted to go to the Naval Academy.
I was stationed in Newport [as an enlisted man], when the word came that they were sending a man from Annapolis, and they wanted me to go to the United States Naval Academy. I said no because, at that time, I was starting to question everything I believed in, because of a little incident at Kent State Ohio. I didn't stay in Newport. I decided it was time for me to go someplace else. The next thing you know, there were orders for me to go to a Visual Communications school. I remember, they asked for volunteers who would go to Vietnam, and I don't think many hands went up, and I certainly wasn't one of them at that time. Then when the classes were done, there were only one or two of the whole class getting orders for Vietnam, and I was one of them. When I asked why, one reason was, "You did very well, and you are going to be sent on something experimental." The technology on this patrol boat was very special, but it was definitely, the worst kind of duty to get in Vietnam.
When I left home for college, it was a different thing than when I left home for the service. Every time I went home for a weekend, I would get in a big fight with my parents. We argued at times with our folks. I remember, though when I finally had to leave for the service, I started really appreciating everything my parents had ever done for me, because I found that all that time, they didn't hate me, they loved me. Then, I went away to boot camp in 1969.
Woodstock was really neat. I had no idea what Woodstock was, all I knew was that my brother was in a rock band and he and his friends asked me if I wanted to go with them. I was on leave from boot camp, my hair was cut very short. I packed in to the back of a U-Haul truck with about 50 others and headed to Bethel, New York. I did not know it until I arrived, but my brother and his friends had decided not to go.
We were down the road and people in the truck were taking their clothes off because it was so hot. We got within 20 miles and the truck's water pump broke. We all climbed out, stuck out our thumbs, and the cars lined up to pick us up. We made it another 10 miles. We had to hike the last ten miles because there was no way anyone was going to get any closer by car. When I finally arrived, I did not know anybody. The one guy that I had briefly met, had disappeared. I didn't know who any of the bands were. All that I knew was that I was at Woodstock, I was tired, and that there were naked people washing clothes in the river. I lay down and closed my eyes at dusk while Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, and the Who were busting up their instruments on stage. Not realizing it, I slept straight through 'til dawn. The light had not changed so I thought that I had just rested my eyes. I realized that I had slept all night when Gracie Slick and Jefferson Airplane were on stage saying, "Good morning people," and it started to get light. I did not know how I was going to get back to Providence, but it was just jump on anything and work your way back.
I didn't do any drugs at all. I wasn't into any of that stuff. I must have looked really strange because I had this crew cut and was walking around with a bunch of long-haired hippies. I was moved by how many people were so kind. There wasn't a voice raised, there wasn't a fight. People from every different background were peaceful towards one another. The police and Hell's Angels worked side by side, helping out. It was just a wonderful utopian community of people.
We thought we could sneak out at night and go to the [Vietnamese] village to meet some women. My friends had girlfriends there that they really cared about. We got some South Vietnamese to give us a ride in their boat and we went over. We asked them to pick us up the next morning. The village was off limits. By this time in 1970, a lot of things were becoming off limits. The war was turning. We walked the streets and I saw, I heard, and I felt part of their lives in that village. I remember running into an American soldier and saying to him, "What are you doing here? The War's all over for you, it's time to go. You're supposed to be going home." And he put his arm around a woman and two children, and he said, "I am home, I am home." I'll always remember that, I'll always remember that guy.
So the next morning came. We had to get back before they took muster on the boat. We woke up late, it was 7:00 a.m. We had asked the South Vietnamese to be there at 6:00 because we knew it would take an hour to get back. They were waiting for us, the same guys that brought us. We got in the boat. We said, "You guys are great, you're number one." They knew something we didn't know-- that our boat had been called into action. It had left in the middle of the night and [the crew] had looked for us before they had departed. We got onto the pontoon [dock] and we saw there was no boat at the empty pontoon. The [Vietnamese] took our guns, M-16's and held them to our head. They wanted everything we had; they wanted all of our money. Two of us were left hostage and one was to go and get more money if he could find something to get us out. Steve said to me, "Let Ron go, be cool." He jumped onto the pontoon and the boat went away, and I jumped into the water. Then this PBR, a river boat was trying to run over me. There was only one way out, and that was towards land. The boat went to cut us off at the end of the pontoon, and just then, this Jeep with Americans in it came over the hill. For any number of reason they could have been coming over, not to save us, but their presence saved us.
Anytime that my folks saw something on television or in the news that was bad, they'd tell themselves that it wasn't happening to me. I did that too. I tried not to let them know or believe that anything was happening. I always thought that it was a parent's right not to know, so I never mentioned what was really going on.
We got into the biggest, what was said to be one of the biggest battles since the Korean War. We had taken on a Chinese Communist trawler which was loaded with munitions and bringing supplies to enemy troops in South Vietnam. They had bigger guns than we had. We looked like a fishing boat. We weren't ever metal. The only thing metal were our guns.
It was 11:00 at night. We had just caught up with them. Our ship was docked and had to turn its lights on, a light with a broom handle. [The other boat] did not respond the correct way, so we fired a warning shot and then the next you know, it was turning and pointing towards us, and we didn't have that broadside shot. Then the battle commenced.
I had a machine gun on my side of the railing and there was nobody to feed the belts of ammunition. The ammunition we were using in those was left over from World War II and [it] kept on jamming up. There was a three inch gun in the front, with a 40 millimeter cannon in the back. The battle was just going on and on. Helicopters were coming in and shooting and they were chasing the helicopters off. The helicopters would keep the guns from pointing at us. The ship was hit right underneath me, depth bombs would hit and the water would splash me. We ran out of the biggest ammunition we had, and now it was only these three guns on this side of the ship. Someone's gun was jamming up, so I dropped mine and went to fix his. I got him pointed up again, and he found them. Finally the whole thing blew up. That was three in the morning. We went down below, fixed our damage, had a drink and came home. The Army and Marine guys had heard about it. One thing you do when you have a battle like that is that you hoist up brooms to sweep on your masts. The Army and Marine guys cheered. We were very lucky that nobody was injured in that battle which turned out to be a very significant battle. We were nominated for the Presidential Unit Citation, but never received it.
When I returned from Vietnam, everybody was treating us like nothing had happened. We went there alone and we came home alone. Up until then, I could have cared less who knew that I was serving in Vietnam. No one could even try to conceive of what we had been through. So everybody decided to pretend that nothing had happened.
It was not just about the guys who were wounded or killed, not just those who died from Agent Orange or post-traumatic stress. You have to include in the number of those affected by the war, the children of the victims, the parents of the survivors, the brothers, the sisters. Include in that number the people who protested against the war to try and bring the war to an end. Include a guy who is an artist today who, in '68, took a severe beating to the head with a club and hasn't been the same since. Include the pregnant librarian who was tear gassed, or [the person who] cradled someone in her arms who was leaving for Vietnam, or leaving for Canada.
I went back to college and graduated with many degrees and high honors. They would tell me how to fill out my resume. Somebody looked at mine and said, "Come here, I want you to remove anything that has any reference to Vietnam because you won't get a job." It was like there was a candid picture taken of us back then, and somehow nobody really wanted to put that in the family album, America's family album. Now, only now, the picture is finally being taken and put in the family album, where it should be.