This interview with Veterans For Peace member Susan Schnall about her 1968 war resistance while on active duty as a Navy nurse was first published in the Winter 2018 edition of the VFP Newsletter.
Veterans For Peace: When you joined up with the Navy, where were you at in terms of consciousness?
Susan Schnall: I was already against U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, but I thought that I would be taking care of the guys who were wounded, get them better and back to their lives. It took only a short time for me to realize that once I was in the Navy, I was a part of the military machine causing death and destruction. I had become part of that killing force that enabled the U.S. to continue the war.
VFP: How many years were you in?
SS: Two years active duty. I was enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Stanford University when I joined. After graduation I went to Officers’ Indoctrination School in Newport, Rhode Island, for new nurses who were going to be serving in the Navy. It was a very frightening experience for me. I realized then that the military had complete control over my life. While I was there, Naval Intelligence interrogated me about my activism. Apparently a classmate had told the Navy that I was going to peace demonstrations. I told them that I was against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. They sent a letter back to Naval Intelligence in Washington, saying, We’ve interviewed her, she’s not a threat to the U.S. military. They sent me on to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, in Oakland, California.
VFP: And then you became more active, obviously, leading up to this event, when you decided to—was that your idea, to do that leafletting?
SS: It was. I was at a meeting for the Medical Committee for Human Rights in San Francisco. There were two men in uniform who were organizing for the GI and Veterans March for Peace in San Francisco. I thought this event was something I’d like to get involved with. A group of us from Oak Knoll handed out flyers for the demonstration on the hospital base. We put up posters that were torn down almost immediately. Oak Knoll was an old hospital, built during WWII for the marines wounded in the Pacific. The hospital units were composed of long, wooden barracks, built up on stilts because of the hilly land. I knew we had to do something else to get out information about the demonstration to active-duty personnel. At that time, the U.S. was dropping flyers on the Vietnamese, telling them to go to “protective hamlets” to ensure their safety. I thought, if the U.S. could do this in Southeast Asia, why couldn’t we drop peace flyers on the U.S. military? I had a friend who had a pilot’s license. We filled a plane with the flyers about the march, and dropped them on five military installations in the San Francisco Bay Area: Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island, the Presidio, and on the deck of the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier that was docked at Alameda Naval Air Station. At the court martial there was testimony from a serviceman from Oak Knoll who said that he saw the plane, and that we were headed in the direction of Alameda Naval Air Station. He called to warn them. And the guys from Alameda said, “Oh no, nobody would dare enter our air space.” A few minutes later, we were there.
VFP: Do you feel lucky that you weren’t shot down?
SS: Oh absolutely, yes. When we were flying into Alameda Air Station, the pilot, my friend Bill Gray, asked me to look out the window on my side and let him know whether there were any fighter jets coming at us. My response: “Bill, by the time I see them, we’re dead.” We were very lucky, yes.
VFP: And very ballsy, I have to say…. I’m curious about what happened on the ground. Has anyone ever come up to you and said, I was on this or that base, and I got one of those flyers…?
VFP: But the march was well attended?
SS: The march was well attended. It was October, 1968. I had been very concerned about the antiwar organizations I would work with. I didn’t want to be used as a member of the military, and I was impressed with the two airmen who spoke at the MCHR meeting. Second Lt. Hugh Smith and Airman First Class Michael Locks were articulate and passionate about their opposition to the United States war in Southeast Asia. Hugh walked in the demonstration and spoke; Michael and I wore our uniforms and spoke.
VFP: So you were charged for that, and also for dropping the leaflets from the plane?
SS: I faced two charges: (1) Violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 133, Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, for dropping flyers on military bases that were designed to promote disloyalty and disaffection among members of the Armed Forces; and (2) Disobeying a Navy Regulation (ALNAV 53) by wearing my uniform when speaking out publicly and participating in a demonstration that was in the furtherance of political views. This regulation was issued by the commanding officer of Oak Knoll on October 11, the day after we distributed the flyers from the plane. At the court martial I stated that, in fact, these acts raised morale among the troops who felt that they were not alone in their opposition to the war and could act, even when a member of the military. I had raised morale. I also said that when our government is committing genocide, we have a responsibility to speak out.
VFP: That’s the Nuremberg principles.
SS: Exactly. But the judge at the court martial said he was not qualified to judge it, and so he sent this issue on to the appeal process.
VFP: What finally happened? Did you actually serve time?
SS: I was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to “forfeiture of pay and allowances for six months, six months confinement at hard labor, and dismissal from the Navy.” But at the time there was a general Navy regulation that said if a woman received a sentence under a year, she didn’t necessarily have to serve it. So they sent me back to work.
VFP: And that was because—
SS: The government didn’t want a martyr. We thought that the court martial decision actually came from Washington to give the appearance of a sentence as a warning to other active duty military personnel.
VFP: It seems to me going against the first amendment that a member of the military can’t speak out.
SS: Yes, but as a member of the the military you are held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not civilian justice or rights. You can give your life for your country, but not speak out.