MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — As the civil rights movement caught traction, the United States began fighting a war in Vietnam.
According to the University of Michigan, the nation drafted 2.2 million men from an eligible pool of 27 million. Between 1957 and 1975, a total of 2.7 million Americans were sent to serve in Vietnam.
“One thing was sure, if you were 18 and you were Black, you were going to be drafted no matter what your draft status was,” Vietnam veteran William Anderson remembered.
Anderson, who was in the U.S. Air Force, was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He says he voluntarily enlisted after military men showed up to his house about joining. But at the time, he said, many Black people did not want to serve.
“My mother wanted me not to go. She said, ‘Too many young Blacks are dying and why don’t you just don’t go and do your six months in Leavenworth prison (after going AWOL), get out and you’ll be OK for the rest of your life.’ And I thought, ‘No, I can’t,'” Anderson said.
The Vietnam war was controversial. Protests erupted, calling on the U.S. to end its involvement. On top of the war’s overall unpopularity, several prominent people, like Muhamad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr., spoke out against Black people being drafted and asked to fight for a country that did not treat them equally.
Larry Allen was among those who were drafted into the U.S. Army.
“Most people were nervous about going and they didn’t want to go. Why should we go fight over in Vietnam when we got a war going on right here in Muskegon?” Allen, who served from 1970 to 1972, recalled the conversations of the day.
He spent his time in Vietnam as a military police officer. He says despite a distance of several thousand miles, racism followed troops of color to Vietnam.
“Being in Vietnam and seeing the Confederate flag on people’s walls and stuff. That was like, ‘What?!’ That’s just how it was,” Allen said.
Allen said of the nearly a dozen white soldiers who served alongside him as a military police officers, few befriended him or the other Black soldier in their group.
“Some of (the white military police officers) had never even been around Black guys,” Allen said.
The Vietnam war marked the first American war with a fully integrated military, but Black soldiers reported unequal treatment.
According to Onondaga (New York) Community College professor Dr. Gerald Goodwin, Black people made up 11% of the population at the time but represented about 23% of all combat troops in Vietnam.
Anderson and Allen also say Black troops were disciplined at higher rates, passed over for promotions and more likely to do the harder, more dangerous jobs.
They say the mistreatment resulted in Black troops forming organizations and staging protests while serving abroad. Anderson was a part of a group called Black Unity Conference.
“The treatment that we were receiving as military personnel, as GIs, and in a war zone was even worse from our superiors than it was when we were in the states and the cancellation to that was we have to get closer together, we have to stick together,” he said.
Anderson said that when Black troops returned back to the states, they had two targets on their backs: one as veterans of a widely maligned war and another as Black men in America.
“I went over there and fought for my country but I had to come back here and fight for my life and I had to do it every day and I had to do it as long as I’m Black and as long as I’m alive,” Anderson said.
He said he and others carried that weight daily while also dealing with the trauma of war.
“It was crazy when I think about it but by the help of God, he protected me and got me through all this craziness,” an emotional Allen said. “You know, coming back here and dealing with all this little stuff, it’s nothing compared to what I been through in Vietnam and what I saw.”
Through it all, Black troops persevered. More than 50 years later, they say they finally feel regarded as American heroes.
“I’ve had more people thank me (for my service) in the last five years than the previous 45,” Anderson said. “There are people now that realize how important what we did in Vietnam.”
Last year, the Muskegon County Veteran’s Center honored both Allen and Anderson, formally thanking them for their service.