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Next Stop Is Vietnam

Dartmouth Veterans Viet Nam.jpgThe residents of Hanover’s Kendal Village assisted living center have already put out a well regarded book about their experiences in the Second World War (World War II Remembered), but they are not the only Dartmouth folks to have memories of a great conflict. Phillip Schaefer ‘64 has assembled the recollections of fifty-five Class of 1964 veterans of the war in Vietnam; these alumni have stories to tell, too.

If you were in the military in that troubled time, your story will be in the book. If you did not serve then, you will see what you missed, and what your friends and fellow alumni endured. And for younger alumni and students at the College, you will get a pretty good sense of the large hearts and good minds of the Dartmouth men who are celebrating their 50th reunion this year.

There is no greater prejudice today on campus than the skewed perception of the Old Dartmouth. Developing a kinship, at least in literary form, with older alumni will benefit more than a few undergrads; they will hear much that will be strangely familiar to them from people fifty years or so older than they are, but who are cut in many ways from the same green cloth.

One of the compilation’s moving recollections was penned by Sage Dunlap Chase, the girlfriend of philosophy major Bruce Nickerson ‘64 — the first Dartmouth man to die in Vietnam. Nickerson had been his class’ golden boy: he was the head of Paleopitus student government, a brother at Psi Upsilon, a member of the Judiciary Committee, chairman of Cutter Hall, and an active participant at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. He spoke at Dartmouth Night in 1963.

Chase quotes from letters that the much-decorated Nickerson wrote not long before his death in combat.

Nickerson Quotation1.jpg

I am a living paradox or a hypocrite, for I say one thing, and do another. I love flying, Naval Aviation and the Navy, but the part about dropping bombs fights with my heart and soul. I know I am doing what God wants me to and I am here to serve him, but to fathom the mysterious and seemingly incongruous ways he works leaves me totally perplexed.

and later:

The Navy has done an unbelievable amount of good for me so far, as I had hoped it would, and I don’t regret my decision for one minute. It has made me realize so much about myself that I never would have admitted… I now look at life much more positively than I did in June of ‘64, and I picture myself as standing in the small end of a cornucopia with all of life opening up before me, to be lived, loved and learned about. I may have just turned 24, but I feel younger and more excited about life and all that it has to offer than ever before.

I hope that today’s students would ask moral and theological questions like these, and also have a historian’s perspective on the progress of their own life.

Beyond that point, the graceful, transparent writing and firsthand recollections of the book’s authors can’t help but touch the reader. Like Nickerson, the other members of Dartmouth’s serving alumni had the social consciousness to be troubled by the justness of the war in Vietnam itself — and by the social class bias that led to some people going to Vietnam and others not, and by the disparate experiences of participants that was due due only to the fickleness of fate and fortune. To a man they reflected their excellent education and the self-awareness that the liberal arts bring to existence.

Bruce Nickerson.jpgAddendum: The book lists three Dartmouth men from the Class of 1964 who lost their lives due to the conflict: Bruce Nickerson (March 17, 1942-April 22, 1966) (right), a Navy Pilot/Navigator who was downed over South China Sea; Peter Morrison (December 29, 1942-June 9, 1967), an Air Force Pilot/Navigator, shot down over South Vietnam; and John Griffin III (January 14, 1943-November 15, 2011), an Army infantryman, who died of cancer attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange.

Addendum: The book is available directly from the University Press of New England, and also from Amazon.

Addendum: In 2011, over one hundred members of the Class of 1942 published their own accounts about the WWII years: Dartmouth at War. The Alumni page of the Dartmouth website describes the book and its creation in some detail.

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