For the Class of 1968, bittersweet memories Academy alumni recall era of chaos


It was a year of assassination and riot, a year that the Vietnamese Communists took advantage of the lunar New Year holiday to launch what became known as the Tet offensive.

The scores of men clustered Saturday under a long white tent at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium were young officers 25 years ago, leaving the cloistered world of the U.S. Naval Academy for the chaos of events outside.

"In a lot of ways we were removed from the rest of the world," said Richard D'Anna of Baltimore, a member of the academy's Class of 1968, who recalls little discussion about the war that was raging in Southeast Asia. But he remembers a graduation marred by a shocking announcement: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot.

"They tried to keep the news of the war away from us," said tTC Ralph Gemelli, a Bethesda psychiatrist. "We didn't know squat. I don't remember anybody having thought we shouldn't be there."

The class is known not only for the tumultuous year of its graduation, but for two controversial graduates: Oliver L. North, an Iran-contra figure, and James H. Webb Jr., a former Navy secretary and author who criticized the decision to admit women to the academy in 1976.

They were not in attendance Saturday afternoon. But another celebrated classmate was: Charlie Bolden, of Columbia, S.C., an astronaut scheduled to command the shuttle Discovery when it lifts off in January.

Just before the Navy football team took on Bowling Green, members of the class talked about the academy, Vietnam and the perspective that 25 years brings. Nearly all are 47 years old.

Some recalled the rigid discipline and tradition of the academy and said they were convinced it had helped them in their nonmilitary careers. Others rebelled against it. Still others said the academy forged unusually strong bonds.

"I think it gave you a sense of achievement," said Jack Holly, a burly Marine colonel serving with the Pacific Fleet who disagrees with recent attempts to loosen the strict standards at the academy. "You have to create a stressful environment so you can see whether a person can perform under pressure."

"I find myself wondering why these four years were so special," said Bill Sullivan, a psychiatrist from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, his bushy red hair topped with a cap.

The difficulty of the academy experience brought the classmates closer together, he said, adding that returning to Annapolis with his classmates, "I feel connected. It's like life is real."

Johnny Milner of Chattanooga, Tenn., said he felt part of something "bigger."

The academy helped instill "impeccable integrity," said Phil Gallery, a writer from Augusta, W. Va., who wondered whether those words mean anything in today's world.

Many are still troubled and divided by the Vietnam War, although it rarely comes up unless sparked by a question. They do not dwell on the subject. They mention what they did, or where they were stationed, then move on to another subject.

Five of their classmates were killed in action, including Mr. Gallery's friend, Lt. David Thompson, a pilot downed in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1972.

"I was in there because I was a Navy pilot," Mr. Milner said. "We should have . . . taken names. Either pave it and make it a parking lot for China or get out."

Mr. Gallery was a Navy diver. Mr. D'Anna served on destroyers, picking up downed pilots. Mr. Sullivan was an officer aboard the USS Vancouver off Vietnam.

"The war affected me more than the Naval Academy. I didn't like the war," said Mr. Sullivan, who said he finally realized that U.S. troops were "outsiders" trying to bolster a "corrupt" government in South Vietnam.

"I work in a veterans hospital," he said. "We're still hearing about [Vietnam]. About half the people I see hated the war and are angry with the government. The other half hated the hippies."

Mike Sullivan of Sante Fe, N.M., stood out from this middle-aged crowd, mostly clad in windbreakers, Navy colors and caps.

He sported a gray ponytail and wore a cotton pullover Indian shirt. "As you can see, I sort of resisted the program," he said with a smile.

His roommate never recovered from his time in Vietnam, Mr. Sullivan said, returning home profoundly depressed and committing suicide a couple of years ago.

It was that tragedy that helped bring Mr. Sullivan back to the academy for the first time since his service days.

"The guys I went through with, you'd do anything for them," said Ken "Kinger" King of Canton, Mass., who pointed to the class motto: "Every man a man."

"It means you stand alone," he said, "but you stand for everyone."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad