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How ‘Bloods’ Brought the Stories of Black Vietnam Veterans Out of the Darkness

Journalist Wallace Terry’s landmark oral history from 1984 set the stage for films like ‘Dead Presidents’ and Spike Lee’s latest

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

Wallace Terry first came to Vietnam in the spring of 1967 as a writer for Time. Earlier that year he authored a cover story on Edward Brooke III, the first African American popularly elected to the Senate, and the newsmagazine had previously assigned him to the White House. Terry spent his 29th birthday overseas, reporting for six weeks on an article about the Black soldiers fighting in the war. The subject was particularly salient because Vietnam marked the first time during a major conflict that the U.S. armed forces’ battalions were racially integrated. The final article, another cover story, was titled “Democracy in the Foxhole.” After it was published, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested that Terry personally debrief him on what he saw.

Toward the end of 1967, Terry returned to Vietnam to serve as correspondent for Time before becoming the Saigon deputy bureau chief. He was the only African American journalist on permanent assignment in the country. He spent almost two years there, covering the war and the soldiers, often venturing out with them on combat missions, while many reporters remained in the capital city. At the time, the United States was in the midst of crises both at home and abroad. In his book Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America, posthumously published in 2007, Terry wrote, “For many reasons, 1968 was not a good time for me. Eight years into my profession, I had seen too much death, covering the civil rights movement and the urban riots. Close friends like NAACP leader Medgar Evers and a white minister, Jim Reeb, had been murdered in the South. Dr. Martin Luther King, my son’s godfather, would be next.”

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

Near the end of his time in Vietnam, Terry took a two-month leave of absence to travel the country in the summer of 1969 and interview Black soldiers without the constraints or expectations of his employer. The outlook among the men had changed over a relatively short period. During his first time in Vietnam, the Black soldiers had enlisted in the military. Many believed the anti-communist rationale that the leadership gave for them being, and remaining, there. When he left, the Black soldiers were often draftees, or they had been forced by judges to choose between going to prison or the Army. They were pulled from neighborhoods and communities whose people were fighting for equal rights in a country that had increasingly turned against the war. When back in the United States, Terry used a portion of his audio interviews for Guess Who’s Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam, a 1972 album put out by Black Forum, a short-lived subsidiary of Motown that also released recordings of activists like Stokely Carmichael and Elaine Brown.

But Terry always envisioned that his interviews would be at the center of an even larger project. He had quit Time in 1971, frustrated by the magazine’s hawkish stance on the war, and focused on turning his reporting into a book. He said his proposals were turned down 120 times by publishers, leading to more than a decade of anger and frustration. Eventually his idea transformed into an oral history of 20 Black veterans discussing their lives before, during, and after their service in Vietnam. Released by Random House in the summer of 1984, Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans was immediately recognized as a landmark work and soon became a best-seller.

“Up until then, a lot of the books’ and movies’ representations of Vietnam veterans did not represent African American voices, particularly with any nuance, complexity, or depth,” says Lynn Novick, the documentarian who codirected 2017’s The Vietnam War series with Ken Burns. “[Bloods] was a revelation of authentic voices that really hadn’t been heard. It was unforgettable.”

With the film Da 5 Bloods, available on Netflix Friday, director Spike Lee has once again brought the experiences of Black Vietnam War veterans to the forefront. It’s the story of four African American former soldiers who return to the country’s jungles to find the remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars they left behind. Like Terry’s book, it’s about men who remain conflicted about what they did and who feel abandoned by a country they thought they were fighting, and dying, for. But beyond partially inspiring Da 5 Bloods, Terry’ life and work provided a crucial examination of what Black soldiers must endure within the American military and how our society so often fails them when they return to civilian life.

Terry grew up in New York City and Indianapolis, Indiana. He proved himself to be an adept journalist before turning 20. While attending Brown University and editing The Brown Daily Herald in 1957, he discovered Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a segregationist who refused to integrate his state’s schools, was staying in Providence for a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower. Terry managed to score an interview with Faubus, and a story about their encounter appeared in The New York Times and the New York Daily News. The notoriety helped him land a job at The Washington Post at the age of 21.

At a party in 1960, he met his future wife, Janice, who was in school to become a teacher. After he introduced himself and she said she recognized his name from his byline, he was instantly smitten. “When he would say to prospective brides that he worked at The Post, they didn’t know that he meant The Post newspaper, because no Black people worked there,” says Janice during an interview in late May. “They thought he meant the post office, and for educated women in Washington, that wasn’t good enough. But The Washington Post was cool with me.” Recalling their encounter during a 1986 profile on him in his former paper, Terry added, “It also helped that she’s gorgeous.” The pair were married for 40 years until his death in 2003.

At The Washington Post, Terry authored a three-part series about the nation’s growing Black Muslim population, drove his unreliable Simca down South to cover the front lines of the civil rights movement, and followed the civil unrest in Northeastern cities. “He got injured in New York, a brick got thrown off a roof and into his chest,” says Janice. “It wasn’t directed at him, he just happened to be in the way of the brick being thrown off the roof.”

But Terry knew that the Vietnam War was the decade’s most important story, and after joining Time in 1963 he pushed to get assigned there. When he won the assignment, Janice relocated to Singapore along with their three children and visited him in Vietnam 18 times. “I was very eager for the adventure,” she says.

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

As the U.S. entrenched itself deeper into a war that its leaders realized they couldn’t win, the military also provided a microcosm of American race relations. Laws and directives ordered that all soldiers were to be treated equally, but Black soldiers were rarely put in authority positions, were less likely to get commendations, and would receive harsher discipline. Slurs were common from white soldiers, and Confederate flags were often flown back at base camps (it wasn’t until just last week that the Marines banned all displays of the racist flag). The African American soldiers began calling white soldiers “the beast.” As the war went on, there were more reported cases of physical fights between white and Black troops. In 1968, hundreds of Black American soldiers being held at Long Binh Jail, a U.S. military stockade outside of Saigon, overthrew the guards and destroyed much of the buildings as they protested the overcrowded conditions and often cruel treatment.

“The community of Marines reflected what society was,” says Preston A. Whitmore II, a filmmaker who served as a Marine in the early 1980s. “Essentially when you go into the military, they strip you of all your identity and they want to make you one color, which is green. But you still can’t ignore the fact that there were light-green Marines and there were dark-green Marines. There was the same sort of treatment in boot camp or in [the armed services] as there was in the regular society. Just because I went into the Marine Corps, I didn’t suddenly become equal to everybody else.”

Facing bigotry and with their lives in constant danger, the Black soldiers in Vietnam turned to each other for support. They called each other “blood” because they considered each other family. “You were looking after them like you would your brother,” says Ari Merretazon, a former recon soldier whom Terry later interviewed for Bloods. “You would rather see the other blood get out of the field before you get out of the field.”

While Terry hoped to continue writing about what was happening to Black soldiers for Time, that wasn’t the priority. “Time has a format, it has its parameters, and you can’t say everything,” says David Terry, the writer’s youngest son. “‘Systemic racism’ wasn’t even a term back then, so you couldn’t even necessarily talk about [the fact] that the Black soldiers had been killed in extremely disproportionate numbers because of the way staff sergeants were sending them to go out on point and sending them into the most dangerous areas. It’s basically extermination. They’re not gonna touch that back then, no way.”

After the hardships they endured and the horrors they witnessed while in Vietnam, many of the veterans found themselves emotionally isolated once they returned to the United States. “People didn’t support the war, and there’s a lot of shame anyway,” says Yvonne Latty, a professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the author of We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, From World War II to the War in Iraq. “How do you even describe what you did? It wasn’t like you come home and you sit down with your family and you say, ‘This is when I killed someone.’ They want to forget about it, or they try to. They try to.”

Wayne F. Smith spent 18 months in Vietnam as a combat medic. When he came back to the U.S. he “crashed and burned,” and spent time in jail for his involvement in an accidental shooting. He then became a psychotherapist and started working with veterans in 1976, and eventually befriended Terry. Many opponents of the war considered the former soldiers murderers, while its backers thought they were failures—representatives of the country’s first military loss. “Our return was met with hostility, and in a way that was even worse, it was met with indifference,” says Smith. “That’s why there was a paucity of literature, of books, of stories.”

“We veterans realized we couldn’t rely on the VA,” he continues. “The government didn’t give a shit. Our families loved us, but were confused and a bit frightened. So we relied on one another to bond, to heal, to literally survive, because many guys were dying and killing themselves. It was really just awful.”

Even psychological concepts about the mental effects of war that now seem fundamental were unclassified and seen as fringe ideas back then. “There was no ‘PTSD’ in those days,” says Smith. “What we called it was ‘post-Vietnam syndrome.’”

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

After Terry returned to Washington D.C., and left Time, he was consumed with publishing his 650-page manuscript of his discussions among the Black soldiers in Vietnam, but there was no interest from the book industry. Even as the U.S. involvement in the war wound down in the early 1970s and the country became consumed with the Watergate scandal, Terry remained steadfast in trying to help the war’s veterans. “He wanted to pull Black soldiers out of the darkness and have their voices heard in every way possible,” says Janice. “It didn’t have to be heroic. It could just be an everyday anger. But it was certainly men in war expressing their frustration with the politics in the States and politics in Vietnam.”

It was a stressful, difficult decade for his family, as Terry mostly worked as a journalism professor at Howard University. “It always felt like there was some sort of chaos going on or some sort of action,” says David. “I remember these evenings vividly where these traumatized, shell-shocked veterans would come over in the middle of the night, because they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t adjust. My father was also a news commentator for CBS, and his commentaries were not liked by some conservatives, so he’d have death threats.”

The specter of the Vietnam War remained a constant presence in their house. “He never censored anything, never hid anything from us,” David says of his father. “We knew everything that was going on. We knew all the challenges, all the difficulties, what pain the soldiers went through.” David is now a visual artist and remembers that when he was 5 years old he made his first sculpture—it was of a soldier, which he gave to his father. He also says that he’s so familiar with many of the photographs that his dad shot during the war, some capturing the gory results of battle, that he could still draw them from memory.

In 1982, Terry finally found a receptive publisher in Random House, but the company said his existing manuscript had limited commercial appeal. He teamed with editor Erroll McDonald, who came up with the idea of telling it as an oral history. Terry found and conducted new, extensive interviews with 20 Black Vietnam veterans. Some were career officers, like Sergeant Major Edgar A. Huff, who enlisted in the Marines during World War II. Some were men like Specialist Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant, a combat engineer who lost his faith in God after serving a single, terrifying tour of duty. There was a pioneering fighter pilot, a sympathetic interpreter, and a track star in the U.S. Amputee Athletic Association, all bound by a common history.

Bloods can be almost poetic in its directness, like when Captain Norman Alexander McDaniel describes his thoughts before he was captured and spent nearly seven years in prison camps outside of Hanoi: “It was July 20, 1966. Just seven days short of my 29th birthday. I had come a half world away from Fayetteville, North Carolina—the son of sharecroppers—to die in North Vietnam at the hands of peasants.”

Others, like Specialist Charles Strong, spoke openly about the dehumanizing brutalities of combat, telling Terry, “Can you imagine walking around policing up somebody’s body? Picking them up and putting them in a plastic bag? Maybe you find his arm here, his leg over there. Maybe you have to dig up somebody’s grave. Maybe he has been there a couple of days, and it will start stinking and shit. You dig graves. You open graves. You are an animal. You be out there so long until you begin to like to kill.”

Bloods is unflinching. It does not shy away from the anger many of these men felt, the injustices they endured, or the violence they saw and sometimes inflicted. “Those are some hard stories to tell,” says Novick. “Getting people to tell them took him many years, and I think it shows in the book.”

“Wallace was almost like a combat veteran,” says Merretazon. “He was out in the field with us.”

A large part of Bloods’ power is that there is no contextualizing or analysis. “It’s not a third-person narrative,” says Janice. “It’s straight from their mouth and straight from their heart, straight from their brain, straight from their experience, which hadn’t changed in 10 years. It was a cathartic experience for each of them. It was sort of like talking to your therapist. They knew Wally and they trusted him, and that’s how they opened up so easily for him.”

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

By the late 1970s, stories about the Vietnam War and white veterans started to appear in books like Michael Herr’s Dispatches and films including The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. The apex of Hollywood’s interest in Vietnam arrived in the mid-’80s with Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. While both of those films featured African American characters, they were supporting roles with little complexity.

Platoon won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but Terry took issue with how it portrayed Black soldiers. During a 1987 interview with People, he explained his problems with the film:

“Nowhere do you see blacks in any kind of heroic or leadership situation. … What you do see is a black soldier fall asleep while on watch and later spray his feet with a chemical to escape combat; another, after surviving a firefight, stabs himself so he won’t have to fight again. Another flees his bunker, runs smack into a booby trap and dies from the explosion. Platoon captures the horror, terror, and trauma of the war like no other Vietnam film, but sadly it still barely rises above the age-old Hollywood stereotypes of blacks as celluloid savages and coons who do silly things.”

Later in the interview, when asked what the response to Platoon has been from Black veterans, Terry replied, “They’re furious. I’ve been all around the country since its release and everywhere they say, ‘We still haven’t had our story told.’” The opportunity to do so wouldn’t come to the movies until almost a decade later, and even then, it remained a blip.

In the 1990s, Preston A. Whitmore II had already sold several scripts before he began writing what became the film The Walking Dead, which was inspired by stories he heard about Vietnam while in the Marines and from veterans who came to his hometown of Detroit looking for jobs after the war. The film follows a group of Black soldiers who fly into North Vietnam to liberate a POW camp, but then their mission goes to hell. Whitmore says that after his script was sent out, he received seven offers on it, including ones from Spike Lee and Arsenio Hall. He instead went with the production company owned by George Jackson and Doug McHenry, the team behind films including New Jack City and Jason’s Lyric, because they’d let him direct it.

Though The Walking Dead disappointed at the box office when it was released in February 1995, it has developed a following through home rentals and cable showings. “I still get emails or DMs from people who want me to tell more Vietnam stories,” says Whitmore. “I don’t think there’s an absence of people who want to talk about it. There may be an absence of people who want to make those pictures now.”

Later that same year, the Hughes Brothers released Dead Presidents, the follow-up to their breakthrough debut Menace II Society. It tells the story of a Black enlistee who spends four years in Vietnam. Once he returns, suffering from PTSD and unable to hold a job, he becomes involved with a revolutionary Black power group and robs an armored truck. Its starting point came from the chapter in Bloods about the life of Ari Merretazon, who met Terry through his wife, a student of his at Howard.

Born Haywood T. Kirkland, Merretazon did become politically engaged once he left the Army and was sent to jail for robbing a truck that brought old money to the Treasury Department to be burned, but most of the film’s details and flourishes were highly dramatized or fictionalized. “When I went to the producer’s premiere out there in California, afterwards I said, ‘Man, that’s not my story,’” Merretazon recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, we said it was going to be loosely based on it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re real loose.’”

Merretazon says that his life truly began where the film ends, when he went to prison. It was there that he started the Incarcerated Veterans Assistance Organization, the first veterans’ group inside a prison that was approved by the VA. He’s continued his work with vets over the years, including through the Pointman Soldiers Heart Ministry in Philadelphia, which now helps those who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. “The real story is how I overcame that prison experience,” Merretazon says.

By the time The Washington Post ran an article about Terry and Merretazon around the release of Dead Presidents, the film had already become a success, but the two seemed ambivalent about it. “It’s definitely a Hughes brothers movie,” Terry said. “It’s not my vision.”

When Bloods was first released, Terry discussed a film adaptation with Quincy Jones, but it never came together. He did, however, tour the country delivering a talk he developed around his book, and he put together 1986’s The Bloods of ’Nam, which was part of PBS’s long-running Frontline documentary series. After Bloods came out, he continued working for national publications including USA Today and Parade, and in the early 1990s he taught a class about the Vietnam War at Virginia’s The College of William & Mary. In that Post article from ’95, Terry said that he was still trying to get a cinematic version made. He also wanted to do another oral history that would include veterans of all races. Sadly, Terry died at the age of 65 in 2003 from granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare vascular disease, before any of those projects could be completed.

Copyright: Wallace Terry Archive

Since 2018, Janice, now 81 years old, has been living with David in Berlin. She appreciates the orderliness of Germany, but it’s the country’s relationship to its history that has impressed her the most. “What I appreciate about them, even though everywhere they’re sliding back to authoritarianism, is the way they quote-unquote own their past,” says Janice. “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an astounding statement for a country to make of its culpability and guilt in what they did. And if we, meaning Americans, could just figure out a way to say, ‘No, Robert Lee was a traitor; [Jefferson] Davis, a traitor.’ But they still have highways in Virginia named after both of them. Until we arrive at that universal awareness about our history, we’ll never come to peace with any of that.”

Since ’95, there have been other occasional pop culture portrayals of African American soldiers who’ve been in Vietnam. There was Robert Downey Jr.’s satirical depiction of Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder, but that was more of a comment of how movies present Black men in the military, and the decision to have a white actor appear in blackface (even if it was a joke about blackface) was obviously controversial in and of itself. Mahershala Ali’s police officer Wayne Hays in the third season of True Detective was a member of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol during the war, a bit of his history that causes other veterans to regard him with a sense of mystical awe—though the character was originally written by Nic Pizzolatto as a white man.

But Da 5 Bloods is by far the most high-profile project to depict the experience, and Terry’s book did have a significant influence on Lee’s film. According to a recent article in Vulture, “For research on Bloods, Lee says, he ‘read every book and watched every documentary’ he could find, but he singles out Wallace Terry’s 1984 book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, as especially helpful; it was assigned reading for the movie’s actors.” Lee didn’t reach out to the family for any advice or for any of his papers while making the movie, but one of his assistants contacted them about using some of Terry’s photos, which do appear in the film.

Like other recent movies from Lee, the tone of Da 5 Bloods swings wildly over its 155 minutes. It’s at times a violent action film, an old-guy buddy comedy, and an emotionally elevated drama about confronting your past. But it’s in the film’s flashback scenes to the war where Chadwick Boseman’s depiction of Stormin’ Norman provides all the heroism and leadership from a Black soldier in a Vietnam movie that Terry craved. Norman is not just possibly “the best damn soldier that ever lived,” he politically educates his squad and counsels them through their grief when they learn about the death of Martin Luther King.

Though he may not be alive to see the film, Terry experienced something more important off the screen before his death. The years he dedicated to telling the stories of Black veterans were critical to society’s understanding of what they went through, and they appreciated him for it. “The gratitude he received and the respect he received from the soldiers was very, very rewarding for him” says David. “I mean, he loved them.”

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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