The Phoenix at sea under full sail. (Seven Stories Press/George Lakey)
  • Excerpt

How activists sailed into a war zone and helped build the mass movement against the Vietnam War

At a time when Americans had little interest in the Vietnam War, a small peace group decided to stir people to action by sailing past the military to deliver needed medicines.
The Phoenix at sea under full sail. (Seven Stories Press/George Lakey)

This story is an adapted excerpt from George Lakey’s new memoir “Dancing with History.”

A navy warship was waiting for us when our sailing ship Phoenix came close to Da Nang, South Vietnam. It was October 1967, during a recently-escalated hot war in Vietnam. The 50-foot ketch-rigged Phoenix was loaded with medical supplies for civilians wounded by the U.S. war. I’d already been to the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, in order to negotiate this trip with the government.

We weren’t surprised that warships would be looking out for us. The surprise was the word from Vietnamese officials when they came up next to us. “Turn around and go back to Hong Kong,” they said. “Your visas are no longer valid; your mission is denied.”

I quickly convened a meeting of our crew to decide what to do. I’d already told them what I’d found in a South Vietnamese hospital I’d visited: a place so overwhelmed with casualties and lacking in medicines that a doctor told me the patients with maggots in their wounds were lucky — the maggots at least kept the wounds clean.

The crew agreed to refuse to leave, but even as we concluded our meeting, a second Vietnamese warship was arriving. The confrontation was on.

What led us to go to such lengths?

The previous year the U.S. peace movement realized it was up against a determined U.S. government that was violating international law. A Geneva Conference had earlier decided that the people in France’s former colony should vote in 1956 how it should be governed. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower realized that a democratic Vietnamese vote would choose Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. So he stepped in, created an artificial “South Vietnam,” and installed Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese who’d been living in New Jersey, as a pliable dictator aligned with U.S. interests.

The bulk of the Vietnamese people were not pleased, and more and more of them resisted Diem. His army had little will to fight, so the U.S. sent tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers plus planes and gunships to keep the puppet in his Saigon palace.

We antiwar activists in the mid-60s faced a major obstacle to building a mass movement. Most of our fellow Americans didn’t know where Vietnam was on the map, much less what its history was. The majority swallowed governmental lies promoted in the mainstream media, and when we tried to tell the truth through dialogue, our fellow citizens had little interest. It was like the response of most people to climate activists some decades later.

Most people didn’t see how much the war would get in the way of racial and working-class justice. I believed the fierce nationalist feeling of the Vietnamese would require an increasingly expensive U.S. military commitment, blocking a just response to the demands for economic justice from the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. saw it; he said that every bomb dropped in Vietnam also exploded in American cities.

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Can direct action dispel the cloud of ignorance?

Horace Champney, a Quaker from Yellow Springs, Ohio, came to meet a dozen organizers in my Philadelphia living room. Horace reminded us of a resource that activists too often overlook: American mainstream culture includes a generosity of feeling that responds with aid to hurricanes, mass starvation and other calamities. Horace proposed we connect with that generosity to pierce governmental lies. We could do that, he said, by taking medical supplies to the Vietnamese civilians wounded by U.S. bombs, and use a sailboat to transport the supplies through a U.S. Naval blockade that lined the coast of Vietnam.

“Risking our lives to aid suffering people,” Horace said, “would get through the fog created by racism and patriotism. More Americans would turn against the war.”

I noted the nods of agreement in the room. “But wait,” someone said. “A voyage like that wouldn’t be seen as humanitarian if its aid is taken only to the North Vietnamese with its government headed by Ho Chi Minh. That would be attacked as one-sided, like our hearts are only on the side of the Communists.”

The group wrestled intensely before finding an answer: There could be a voyage to the South as well as one to the North. Medical aid would be given to the Red Cross of each side. Further, in the trip to the South we could include medical supplies for the antiwar Unified Buddhist Church; Buddhist monks were hosting clinics at their pagodas.

The first voyage would be the more dramatic — and dangerous — because it required getting through the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Was that even possible? Horace volunteered to join the crew for the first voyage, staking his life on his belief. After searching discussion and prayer, the people in the living room agreed to ask A Quaker Action Group, or AQAG, to take on the project. We’d just started that group to specialize in direct action, as part of a broader division of labor among Quaker organizations.

Japan-based American anthropologist Earle Reynolds volunteered his 50-foot sailing ship Phoenix for the missions; he would captain the voyage to the North. Horace joined a crew of volunteers in the project’s base port, Hong Kong.

As the Phoenix sailed into the South China Sea in the spring of 1967, AQAG activists back home held our breath. Would U.S. forces fire on our ship? After all, they could make the small ship disappear in the vast sea — then shrug their shoulders when asked where it was.

We were not the only ones in suspense; the Phoenix story appeared on nightly TV news and morning newspapers.

Our ship did arrive safely in Haiphong. The crew was warmly welcomed by government officials and medicines were received by the Red Cross.

Later I learned, during an antiwar cross-country speaking tour, just how close the Phoenix came to being blown out of the water by a U.S. Navy jet plane. A still-angry Navy jet pilot confronted me outside the campus chapel where I was about to speak about the voyage.

“I was a navy pilot on a carrier in the Seventh Fleet when your ship was sailing toward North Vietnam!” the veteran said loudly, his red face only inches away.

“We were scheduled for a flight training exercise when you were near us — so we were laying bets on which of us would sink you. But when we got into our planes, the commander got on the loudspeaker and said the exercise was cancelled!” The man looked about to hit me. I invited him into the chapel and assured him I’d give him a chance to share his point of view. He wavered, then stalked away.

The second voyage gets stuck near Da Nang in South Vietnam

In the Philly AQAG office, we began organizing for the second voyage — destination South Vietnam — reading applications for positions on the crew. The Phoenix would sail from Hong Kong with medical supplies for the South Vietnamese Red Cross, as well as for the clinics at the pagodas of the Unified Buddhist Church.

I’d been contentedly fundraising for the project while co-leading AQAG, teaching activism at Crozer Theological Seminary’s Martin Luther King School, and being a new parent with my wife Berit. Surprising myself, I felt compelled to offer myself for the next voyage. It wasn’t a conscious change of mind but rather a sudden inner calling that was unusually clear. God was tapping me on the shoulder.

AQAG decided to put me on the crew, naming me project director for that voyage to South Vietnam. Bob Eaton would be skipper, responsible for navigation and ship safety.

Phoenix crew from left to right: First Mate Beryl Nelson, college student John Braxton, Skipper Bob Eaton and Kyoko Koda, representing the Japanese movement against the Vietnam war. (WNV/George Willoughby)

And so, in October 1967, we’d gotten within reach of Da Nang harbor when we were blocked by two South Vietnamese warships. We decided to refuse to leave without an explanation of the reversal. Once we knew what the government’s problem was, we could decide what to do about leaving.

Bob pointed out that a warship could simply tow the Phoenix out beyond their three-mile boundary and patrol us until we left for Hong Kong. We developed a plan: if their crew came aboard the Phoenix to tie a towing line, we would begin to jump overboard to swim to land. Whoever made it to land could walk into Da Nang to confront Gen. Lam, head of the province. He could tell us what was behind this reversal.

We were in no mood to weigh the risks of our plan — it was a relief even to have one. Bob maneuvered the Phoenix close enough to the warship 602 to talk to its captain. The captain appeared, and they talked across the water, with Bob explaining our intention.

“That is a terrible idea!” the captain said. “There are sea snakes in the waters here, and you will be bitten and die.” Bob replied. “We will take that risk. Do not put your crew on our deck.”

The captain reported to Gen. Lam and a stalemate began. John Braxton got out his guitar, and we sang favorite movement songs, improvising new verses. I remember one of them, for the civil rights song “Hold On”:

“To the crew of 602,
Don’t you know that we love you,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on.”

An advantage of the stalemate was it gave me more time to describe to the crew the antiwar Unified Buddhist Church, whose pagodas would receive half the medicines we had on board. While in Saigon I’d met with its leader, Thich Tri Quang, whose nonviolent strategic brilliance rivaled Gandhi’s. He’d already led a Buddhist nonviolent campaign that overthrew a U.S.-backed ruler of South Vietnam.

George standing near the South Vietnamese officials aboard the Phoenix, telling them to leave. (Seven Stories Press/John Braxton)

It was dusk when, after three long days of waiting, the captain finally got his orders and closed the distance to put a couple of crew members on our ship.

Harrison Butterworth dived in. He was the oldest among us; we hoped Vietnamese would see him as “venerable.” The warship’s partner gunboat switched on floodlights and moved between us and the shore to block him. Harry tried swimming around the bow of the gunboat, but the captain moved the ship to nose him out. Harry then reasoned that if he tried to get around the stern of their ship they might hesitate to back up, lest they mangle him in their propellers.

He was a good swimmer, and it worked. Instead of backing up, the captain ordered three crew members to dive into the water and capture Harry. The last we saw of Harry in the penumbra of the floodlight was him heading toward shore, with South Vietnamese sailors swimming in hot pursuit.

“It’s your turn,” cried my crew-mates, and I jumped in. I began to swim toward shore but was quickly surrounded by four Vietnamese sailors who’d dived at the same time as me. One of them held a line. “Take this,” he said, “and you will be pulled to the deck.” He motioned with his head toward the gunboat deck high above us.

“No,” I said, “I want to go to Da Nang.” After a pause I continued, “But I won’t try to hurt you — I’m nonviolent.”

I’m guessing the others didn’t know English, but they began to smile also, and I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye a floodlit picture of us from above, treading water and smiling and nodding to each other as if we were at a party.

The sailor with the line swam to me and tied it securely around my waist, saying, “Excuse me,” and signaled to the gunboat crew on deck to haul me up.

George Lakey aboard the Phoenix in Hong Kong in 1967. (Seven Stories Press/John Braxton)

On the deck, I stood watching the gunboat maneuver closer to the Phoenix. The Vietnamese first mate came over to me to say that I was lucky to be saved because on the shore were soldiers of the National Liberation Front (or, in the slang expression, “Viet Cong”). He added, “The VCs do not like Americans.”

“I don’t want to be ‘saved,’” I said. “I want to be on land, to go to Da Nang!”

By then the gunboat’s deck was looking down on that of the Phoenix. I was lifted by strong arms and handed down to our crew members, who gave me a big hug. I was confused — where was Harry?

“He’s on shore!” they told me. “He got to the beach first, and their sailors were afraid to pursue him because it’s a free-fire zone and NLF guerrilla soldiers might be there.”

Later we learned what happened next: Harry found the dirt road we’d glimpsed that paralleled the shore and walked toward Da Nang. As we’d agreed ahead of time in our planning for whoever made it to shore, he kept on his bright orange life jacket, walked in the middle of the road, and sang and whistled as he walked. Our idea was that if there were NLF soldiers in the area, the sight of such a spectacle would be so curious that they would hold their fire until they found out more, and that would be our margin of safety.

A mile or so down the road, Harry ran into a couple of U.S. Marine sentries in their jeep, who had been told to be on the lookout for “a couple of drunken sailors who’d jumped off the SS Phoenix.”

The Marines offered to put him up in their post overnight, and Harry accepted the offer. He kept them up most of the night arguing about what they were doing in Vietnam, and in the morning, they actually agreed to drive him to Gen. Lam’s office in Da Nang. It couldn’t have worked out better.

Because Harry jumped out of a U.S. Marine vehicle, no one stopped him as he entered the building. He strode confidently through the outer offices and found Gen. Lam, who gave him an explanation for why our mission was rejected at the last minute: The strength of the peace movement led by the Unified Buddhist Church was growing again in Hue and Da Nang. The South Vietnamese government didn’t want the Buddhists to get even the small amount of support and recognition our aid would provide.

Soldiers were ordered to put Harry back on our ship. Our own sources had also indicated changes in Buddhist strength that might make Saigon the better destination, now that Da Nang seemed closed. We told the captain of Number 602 that there was no reason to tow us away; we would sail on our own to the Saigon area. There we would vigil at the three-mile-line denoting their boundary. We said we’d wait there for a reasonable length of time — three days — awaiting permission to proceed into Saigon to offload our medicines.

The weather treated us well, but the three days in the Saigon area were highly stressful. None of the gunboats that greeted us got close enough to enable human contact with the captain or crew. By day, they repeatedly sailed across our path to invite a crash by us; we knew the consequences for us and the plausible deniability for them if that happened. There were some narrow misses, and Bob spent long stretches at the helm.

A South Vietnamese warship stops the Phoenix. (Seven Stories Press/John Braxton)

Their favorite tactic at night was to shoot tracer bullets parallel to our ship, waking up those trying to get some rest and reminding us that they could destroy us if they wanted to.

I was disappointed that the Quaker-style prayer meetings that we had and our brainstorming sessions didn’t generate practical tactics supporting human-to-human connection. We sang no songs to Vietnamese crew members, whose faces we couldn’t see. It was frustrating to experience repeated hostile actions and not respond with expressive, positive actions of our own.

Although disappointed that the Saigon government didn’t relent, we were also glad when our three-day commitment was done, and we could sail onward to Cambodia, a neutral country next to Vietnam and the closest safe haven. We were low on food and water, and our ship needed repair work before returning to our base in Hong Kong.

Results — expected and not

Mass media coverage of the Phoenix voyages, especially the cliff-hanger voyage to North Vietnam, was enormous: nightly news on television networks plus many newspaper stories. One reason for the extensive media coverage was the drama’s duration: day after day the question was asked, “What will happen to that peace protest boat with medicines?”

Afterward, doors sprang open across the country to hear the story. Look magazine’s long photo story was a hit. America’s best-known activist Roman Catholic priest, Daniel Berrigan, wrote that he wished he’d been on the Phoenix. Pro-war people reconsidered their views. Peace-inclined people who’d been inactive were stirred to action.

When the Phoenix arrived in Cambodia I left the crew to fly to Saigon to meet with Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang. I had no idea how the U.S. media were reporting that part of our story, but for my part I was disheartened by what felt like the failure of our mission. As I walked into his cell, he looked at me, and through me. “I see you are discouraged, my friend,” he said.

“We didn’t succeed in bringing you the medical supplies for your pagoda clinics,” I replied.

He smiled. “I see you misunderstand our situation. First, I will give you the name of a freight agent in Hong Kong. He will send your medicines to us via a regular freighter, and we will get them, no problem.”

Relieved, I smiled. We already assumed that the Buddhists had a regular channel they’d been using to obtain medicines for their pagoda clinics. The amount we could carry on our small ship would only supplement their supply. Our highly political protest peace voyage was — as with the trip to the North — intended to help build the crucial U.S. peace movement by assisting my fellow American citizens in seeing the Vietnamese as human beings under attack, rather than as “threats.” And we were intent on trying to reach all sides; no one could correctly say we were simply “aiding the enemy.” Still, I was intently curious about what Thich Tri Quang meant by their “situation.”

“It will help you to know more about my Buddhist people,” he continued. “Few of us Buddhists have a class analysis as the Marxists do.” I knew from previous negotiations with North Vietnamese government officials that they didn’t blame ordinary Americans for the war, knowing that it’s the owning class that leads our country into war.

“My South Vietnamese Buddhist people are left to invent an explanation for the war,” the monk continued. “Many therefore imagine that all Americans are devils, attacking us when we are in no way a threat to them. Your voyage contradicts the ‘devils’ belief, and that contradiction is to us a big contribution. Now, the clergy in our pagodas have begun teaching that many Americans are good and compassionate people, and to prove it they tell the story of the voyages of the Phoenix.

“The Phoenix truly is a bird that arises from the flames. It helps no one to struggle well if they believe another people are evil. Your brave voyage lifted a spiritual burden that was holding us back from self-realization, from enlightenment. It will make us stronger to tackle the tasks that are ours to do.”

I left grateful that direct action can spark not only the growth of a movement, but also spiritual understanding. Despite not knowing one day to the next what might happen, we kept faith in ourselves and our mission — and we were rewarded with impacts we never could have anticipated. Some 50-plus years later, I still find them inspiring.

George Lakey is currently touring in support of his book. See upcoming events here.



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