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On Watch: My Intersections with the Vietnam War

Francis Henry Morrison


  • Francis recounts his experiences with the military draft during the Vietnam War, highlighting the personal and familial influences that shaped his decision to join the Navy.
  • He explores the complexities of the draft application process, including academic testing, medical examinations, and interviews, revealing his navigation through potential roadblocks.
  • The story delves into Francis's internal struggle with the possibility of avoiding military service through a medical disqualification, showcasing his commitment to fulfilling his obligation and preserving family honor.
On Watch: My Intersections with the Vietnam War

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In September 1968, Local Board 2 in Hartford, Connecticut, sent me a notice of my 1-A draft classification for induction into the armed forces of the United States. I would be permitted to finish my senior year of college, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I needn’t worry about those law school applications. Many others in my generation had gotten the same draft board “greetings.” Notwithstanding the May 1968 Paris Peace Talks with Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 17,000 Americans would be killed in Vietnam in 1969. The war was no political abstraction—for me it was up-close and personal and had my full attention since I received my draft notice.

The service of my forebears now intruded in my thoughts. Their service, if not their words, bore into my being. My great, great grandfather, Orin Francis Morrison was a Baptist preacher who served in the Vermont Regiment during the Civil War. He lies at rest in Groton, Vermont. My grandfather, Francis Henry Morrison Sr., served as a Navy medic in World War I in Europe, and my father, Francis Henry Morrison Jr., served as an engineering officer during World War II in the USS Alexander J. Luke, DE577, a Buckley-class destroyer escort in the North Atlantic.

If I was going to serve, and I knew I was, I would try to have some control over my path of service—perhaps a naïve idea. My choice was to try to get admitted to Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island. I embarked on the application process.

Some Speed Bumps and Possible Off-Ramps to Service

This process included academic testing, medical examinations, recommendations, and a personal interview. Recommendations came from college professors who knew me well. The materials included a long list of controversial organizations, e.g., the left-wing student activist group, Students for a Democratic Society. The application form sought information regarding my membership or interest in those organizations. One of my professors placed a huge X on the page and wrote a statement to the effect that the list and related questions violated the First Amendment and need not be answered. My expectations for the process sank—but, to my surprise, there was no reaction from the Navy—i.e., no one said, “You have failed to provide a full response to Form X.” It was probably not the first time that had happened.

My in-person interview at Government Center in Boston with a naval officer was more substantive—and actually what I would call today some pretty good cross examination. My undergraduate school, College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, had a longstanding NROTC program. The officer’s question was essentially, “You say that you are interested in a naval officer program, so why didn’t you join the NROTC program at Holy Cross?” In 1969, with the Vietnam War still raging, Naval officer programs were oversubscribed, and in-country combat duty was less-common than Army or Marine in-country duty. As I would learn, that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

My father, the World War II North Atlantic destroyer officer, advised that if I got that question, I should not go sideways, but just admit the error of my ways and say that I was interested in sea duty as a line officer. I did exactly that—my reply was met with a firm handshake. (Is there any other kind?)

Sleepwalking to a 4F Draft Classification? A Path Not Taken.

Then came an unanticipated possibility of avoiding military service altogether. In the medical history section of the application, I checked the “yes” box in response to the question, “Have you ever walked in your sleep?” The Navy categorized sleepwalking as “other designated physical or mental condition that results in significant impairment of member’s duties.”

I was sent to a neuropsychiatrist in Worcester for evaluation. When he finished, he reported that he could find no objective sign of neurologic impairment or disability. He explained that his report could recommend either that the condition be waived or there be a permanent disqualification for military service, i.e., a 4F classification. He said that he could justify either result in my case. I asked him if the permanent disqualification rating would spell out that it was based on the presence of a mental disease or defect, and he said, “Yes.”

Of course, my plan had been to start law school and have no interruption in my formal education. I had no idea about the life-altering education that was to come. And, while I was not particularly altruistic about military service, I thought a lot about my great, great grandfather the Baptist preacher who fought with the Vermont Regiment. Maybe it was false hubris, but I was not interested in a record that said, “mental disease or defect.” So, I took the waiver letter and was accepted at Navy OCS very shortly thereafter.

Another Possible Exit from Active Duty: The December 1969 National Draft Lottery

On December 1, 1969, a national draft lottery took place. Many at Navy OCS in Newport listened to the numbers as all the birthdays of the year were drawn in random fashion—including February 29. I had pretty much decided that I wasn’t going anywhere no matter where my birthday fell.

And my life had changed. I had invested treasure, if not blood, in Newport since my summer admission. I had managed the intense academic, military, and physical program. The curriculum was heavily oriented toward naval engineering, tactics (maneuvering board), ship organization, competitive athletics, leadership, and marching. Celestial navigation, the most common denouement for liberal arts majors, was the last serious chance to be returned to one’s draft board for further disposition. (One failure of the course, taught by a Master Chief Quartermaster Petty Officer, was permitted, but one had to pass the retake or be thrown out of Navy OCS). 

I had also been told that I had been chosen to be Company Commander for the turn home to graduation in early February. My girlfriend, whom I met on a blind date in Boston, and I had agreed that we would marry after she graduated in June 1970. My expressed preferences for duty station were: destroyer, cruiser, carrier; homeport Newport, Rhode Island.

Before the lottery numbers were announced on that December day, my father weighed in with, “You made a promise to serve, you took a seat in a very competitive program and have done very well, stay the course and finish—I don’t care how unpopular the war is.” He added, “If you walk away from Navy OCS, don’t come home.”

When the numbers went up, I already knew my answer. July 3, my birthday, was drawn 115th, and birthdays that were among the first 195 drawn were drafted, The lottery results didn’t matter—I was staying to be home-ported in Newport —just what my stated preference had been. 

"If Possible, Junior Line Officers are to Serve a Tour In-Country in Vietnam”

I more than survived celestial navigation—thanks to the 10 days of holiday break I spent at our kitchen table with my engineer-father, doing celestial navigation “p-works.” I graduated and got orders to USS Grand Canyon (AD-28), home-ported in Newport, Rhode Island. 

My assignment to the weapons department led to completion of a Naval Special Weapons School in Orlando, Florida, after undergoing a TSBI (top secret background investigation) and receiving a Top Secret clearance. I collected a passel of typical collateral duties on the ship including those of Legal Officer, Crypto Officer, Mess Treasurer, Honor Guard Officer, Officer of the Deck Underway and Command Duty Officer. Almost before I realized it, I had reached the halfway point of my three-year commitment. My one-and-only wife and I were looking forward to enjoying wedded bliss—wherever it would take place.

Then I got a call from my personnel detailer in Washington, DC, who informed me that he needed my “preference” for Vietnam duty in-country. He explained that Admiral Elmo Zumwalt (the Chief of Naval Operations whose Navy-wide messages were called “Z-grams”) had ordered that junior line officers were to serve assignments in-country if at all possible. “Call me back next week with your choice—if I don’t hear from you, we’ll pick one for you,” my detailer said.

I immediately shared the proffered orders with my Captain (aka “the old man”) who sat me down in his cabin, closed the door, and gave me the following life advice: (1) go home today and discuss it with your wife; (2) if you have any thought of a Navy career, you should do this; (3) you have been a good officer on my ship—someone I could rely on, so if you were to ask, I would recommend that the Navy retour you here for the rest of your commitment. Doubting Thomas said, in effect, can you really make that happen? Ignoring the implicit lack of faith, he said, “There is absolutely no dishonor if you choose to end your service meeting your commitment on this ship.”

And that is what happened. The orders were cancelled, and I settled down to finish my commitment under his command. 

My Lessons with Principles of Command in My Remaining Active Duty Time

I will never forget the first and only time my father and my Captain met. I was showing my father the engineering spaces when the Captain, having heard that my father was aboard, came to find us. Wearing his working khaki uniform, he introduced himself, “Mr. Morrison, I’m Jim Hayes,” and shook my father’s hand. There was no Al Haig-like braggadocio, no “I’m in charge here,” not even “I am the Captain of this ship.” But to meet him was to instantly know all those things.

In the spring of 1970, my Captain invited me, a very green Ensign, to accompany him to Providence, Rhode Island, to have lunch at a very high-end eatery with his friend—another Navy Captain, who was the outgoing commanding officer of the NROTC unit at a local Ivy League university. My Captain told me that “the uniform is to be service dress blues” and I was to drive him to the airport after lunch in the ship’s Navy sedan. 

This was just after the Kent State shootings, and things had already been very tense between the Navy and colleges where NROTC units were located. As the two of us walked across this particular campus, some windows opened, and vile language was directed at us and our uniforms. The old man, who had served in World War II as a merchant cadet on the perilous run to Murmansk above the Arctic Circle and was aboard two ships that were sunk under him, suddenly turned and faced the open windows and said in his voice, “Young man, come down here and say that to our faces.” The windows closed and no one came down.

Observing the Exercise of Command When it Mattered 

A year later the ship was entering Bermuda—a beautiful place with azure waters and some narrow channels with coral close to both sides of the ship. As required, we had embarked a local pilot at Five Fathom Hole. The Captain, pilot and I (as Officer of the Deck for Sea and Anchor Detail—restricted waters) were on the flying bridge.

The pilot, who was conning the ship (giving engine and rudder orders) was being extremely careful, proceeding slowly and using large rudder changes. We were very close to the north shore of Bermuda. Rudders on ships are like wings and rudders on airplanes—in order to maintain steerage, water had to pass around the ship’s rudder with sufficient velocity. Our ship had a characteristic not unlike a stick shaker in an airplane that was about to stall if sufficient speed was not maintained. The ship’s wheel in the pilot house below would vibrate.

The Captain and I heard the wheel vibrate at the same time—and there was not a moment’s hesitation. “This is the Captain, I have the conn,” he announced, essentially taking over conning the ship. Of course, it all had to be reported in Bermuda and up the chain of command. After we anchored in Great Sound, he said to me, “I have absolute responsibility for this ship and all who are in her—I wasn’t waiting until we ran aground and spewed all of our black NSFO (Navy special fuel oil) all over the coral.”

While I never achieved command-at-sea, my Captain qualified me to serve as a Command Duty Officer (CDO) when he and the Executive Officer were off the ship in port. The CDO represented the Captain and held command and control authority over the ship while the Captain was ashore. During the time period when one had the CDO watch, you were not subordinate to higher-ranking officers onboard the ship. For example, in the ship’s wardroom, the CDO sat at the head of the table, received all reports and was served first. No one sat until the CDO sat. And all those Commanders, Lieutenant Commanders, and full Lieutenants sat below the CDO at the head of the table. With the Captain’s authority came serious responsibility.

In my last six months of active duty, we had two serious incidents with which I had to deal as CDO when the ship was in the yards in Boston for overhaul. 

During overhauls, when crew spaces were subject to overhauls, the crew was transferred to a “barracks barge” alongside the dry dock. One fine Saturday afternoon, the barge started leaking a bright, Kelly green liquid. As the CDO, I worked with duty engineers and yard to determine the cause and cleanup. We had to report it to the First Naval District and the EPA. I got to call the Captain and ended up having to deal with officers much senior to me (I was a lieutenant junior grade (an 02), and I was dealing with several captains (06s)). Ultimately the barge had to be replaced.

The second incident, which occurred less than one week before my scheduled release from active duty to start law school, was potentially much more serious. We were in dry dock for overhaul, which meant the ship was totally dependent upon the yard’s fire and flushing mains. Some overheated construction materials caught fire at night, and it took the ship’s damage control and firefighting teams and yard fire department some six hours to get the fire under control. Fires below decks on ships strike terror in those aboard. As the CDO, I was responsible for organizing the ship’s firefighting efforts. Thank God, no one was hurt or killed. 

Agent Orange: A Double-Edged Weapon

Agent Orange was an herbicide and chemical defoliant used by American forces in Vietnam. Because I didn’t serve in-country, to my knowledge I was not exposed to it. But it crossed my path twice, years after the end of the war in 1975, and in ways that were impactful.

In 2017, my wife and I made a side trip off a world cruise to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We travelled from the port of Phu My by bus to Ho Chi Minh City and spent a day seeing the sights, including the infamous U.S. Embassy, the post office, and Independence Palace, now known as Reunification Convention Hall. We skipped the War Remnants Museum because we had heard that it was graphic and upsetting.

On our bus ride back to Phu My, our tour guide told us that his father, a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) officer, had been exposed to Agent Orange and recently died. His emotion was heartfelt. He asked if there were any Americans on the tour—we were one of two American couples there. And then he said nothing further—his point had been made. This encounter was a stark reminder of the toll that our country had exacted on Vietnamese people.

Within weeks of our return home, a very steadfast client told me that her husband, who had served on active duty in Vietnam, had just received a grave diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer. He was a non-smoker but could document exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The prognosis was grim, and his demise came within a few months. I helped the widow with VA benefits and arranging burial of her husband’s remains at Arlington Cemetery. And I thought about the tour guide’s NVA father.

My 50th College Anniversary: My Latest Intersection with the Vietnam War

At my 50th college reunion in June 2019 at Holy Cross in Worcester, the divisiveness from our college days between those who served during the Vietnam War and those who did not erupted in all its ugliness. The reunion committee planned a simple ceremony to honor those who served—Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines, and there were more than 60 in attendance. We all paraded in one at a time while our names were read, and a uniformed photo went up on a big screen. The emotions and memories were palpable—it was fortunate I didn’t have to speak because I could not have done so.

When the military honor ceremony was finished, we all headed to our assigned dinner tables in the ballroom. That was when a classmate who had not served ran to the stage, grabbed the microphone and said, “What about those of us who protested …?” A classmate who had served in-country wrestled the microphone away and then repeated one of the eternal complaints about the Vietnam War: “No one ever welcomed us home.” The memory of those times when my service and those with me was denigrated, e.g., when I couldn’t wear my uniform to my wife’s college graduation in Boston, came crashing back. Some in the audience climbed on chairs and even tables and shouted, “Welcome home” and “Thank you.” Others who had opposed the war sat with their arms crossed over their chests and hard looks on their faces. It was ugly and awful. The divisiveness of the war in that ballroom bore heavily upon all of us once again. With that, my last intersection was in many ways the most painful.