An End of Innocence
By Jamie Reno
As one of America’s eminent spots for military training, San Diego often represents a sort of calm before the storm. As tough as prewar military preparation here can be, physically and mentally, the beauty of the area can have an almost-tranquilizing effect on soon-to-be servicemen and women. For many who go straight from here to war, San Diego becomes an end of innocence.
Such was the case for young John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator now on the brink of a Democratic nomination for president. Kerry not only trained here for his second tour of duty in Vietnam—the tour he says changed him and his views on that war forever—he also fell in love with San Diego. Today, at 60, he returns here frequently and talks about it often.
An idealistic Yale graduate and Navy officer when he arrived here in the summer of 1968, Kerry had been to San Diego, briefly, before his first tour of duty in Vietnam. This time, he trained for several months in the summer and fall of 1968 at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado. He was preparing for an eventual command of a Swift boat—a 50-foot aluminum gunboat—in the so-called Brown Water Navy, which patrolled Vietnam’s rivers and inland waterways.
Instead of military housing, Kerry chose to live in an apartment in north Mission Beach. Already an avid surfer and water man—as well as a risk-taker who embraced what are now referred to as “extreme” sports—he took in all that local beach life had to offer.
In an interview with San Diego Magazine, Kerry recalls those San Diego days and shares why this city still means so much to him, more than 35 years later.
“My best memory of living in San Diego was surfing, without a doubt,” says Kerry, whose favorite surf spot was Windansea Beach in La Jolla. “There was such a dichotomy between what we were preparing for—combat—and what we were able to do in this beautiful place in between. We used to just surf until we dropped. We were already tired from survival training in the mountains. We’d finish the day drinking the best beer I’ve ever tasted.”
Kerry also fondly recalls flying airplanes with his buddies at Brown Field. Admitting he was a bit of a thrill-seeker in those days, he says he specifically enjoyed “herding cows” from his plane in the sky above.
“That’s the single best memory of flying in San Diego: me and my friend David Thorne coming out of the clouds in this little plane, flying right over the fields and herding the cows, sending the cows running,” he says. “We really had a good time being foolish sometimes. It was such a great way to just lose focus and put away the real world for a while.”
Putting away the real world was indeed a priority for Kerry during his San Diego idyll. The late summer and fall of 1968 were heady times in America. Shows such as Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour were bringing edgy political content to prime-time television; civil rights battles continued on inner-city streets as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a sign of black unity during their medal ceremony at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City; the My Lai massacre had already occurred; the Paris peace talks were dragging on; and a presidential race—with Richard Nixon on the comeback trail—was heating up.
So were the anti-war protests. From California to Florida to New York, demonstrations against the war were growing louder, angrier and more violent. In August, the same month Kerry began his Swift boat training in Coronado, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago degenerated into a battlefield, pitting Mayor Richard Daley’s police force against raging anti-war protesters, including the infamous Chicago Seven.
Even in San Diego, where the general sentiment was that Vietnam was still a winnable conflict, the anti-war movement was becoming increasingly active. Protests were becoming more frequent. As noted in historian Douglas Brinkley’s new book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, a San Diego– based pro-military organization called the Military Order of World Wars was publicly demanding the University of California, San Diego fire philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse for his Marxist teachings.
Kerry was well aware of what was going on around the nation. He was already harboring mixed emotions about the war and his role in it. Even in his Yale graduation speech in 1966, he had expressed mild criticism of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies. But he wasn’t yet ready to join the anti-war chorus. Kerry, whose father had served in World War II, grew up believing in his father and President John Kennedy’s shared philosophy that nothing was of more importance than service.
The country was in conflict about the war, and so was Kerry. He had already been to Vietnam, but things were changing, both there and at home. Things were also changing in Kerry’s heart and mind. “It came after that difficult summer of ’68, a time when the country was so divided,” he recalls. “It was really hard. I’d had one of my closest friends killed at Tet while I was serving my first tour of duty, so I had very conflicted feelings. Things just didn’t feel like they did when I’d signed up for the Navy coming out of college.”
Kerry says he was able to shut out the world, to some degree, while in San Diego by making friendships and just having fun. One of the more enduring friendships he developed was with Giles Whitcomb, who went on to become a Navy intelligence officer in Vietnam and then worked for several decades with the United Nations. Whitcomb often accompanied Kerry on their bicycles as they raced from Kerry’s Mission Beach apartment to Coronado, crossing San Diego Bay on a ferry, before there was a bridge.
“It was a great ride,” Kerry says. “I remember those beautiful mornings. We’d start the day with some very sore, tight legs. But it was fun. People are spoiled to see that San Diego beach first thing each morning, I tell you.”
When they weren’t training in Coronado or in the mountains east of here, Kerry and Whitcomb just lived in the moment. They were particularly fond of cerveza—Corona, mostly, with a lime twist.
“Giles was one of those people you meet who you just know will be a friend for a lifetime,” Kerry says. “We had these great times just horsing around, both making it through survival training, both of us born to the water and very good fits with the Swift boats, going off to bars, up at the crack of dawn riding our bikes to training—all of this in spite of the fact that he was a Harvard guy,” says Yale graduate Kerry.
Last year, when Whitcomb died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Kerry attended his old friend’s service in Boston and assisted Whitcomb’s widow, Susan, in obtaining full veteran’s benefits. In a letter written shortly after Whitcomb’s death, Senator Kerry came to the aid of his San Diego buddy’s family. “I commanded a PCF 94 in the Mekong Delta,” he wrote. “I personally observed the spraying of Agent Orange for the purpose of defoliation on many river banks in the area. ... I hereby testify with absolute certainty that Lieutenant Giles Whitcomb and anyone else in that area of operations was definitely exposed to Agent Orange.”
Kerry, a leader in the fight for Agent Orange legislation, also was heavily exposed to the toxic herbicide while operating Swift boats in the delta. He had successful prostate cancer surgery last year. Although several studies suggest a link between prostate cancer and exposure to Agent Orange, Kerry, who says he’s in perfect health, doesn’t believe his cancer came from exposure to Agent Orange but because his father had prostate cancer.
Kerry’s life changed another way while he was in San Diego. In October 1968, while in the parking lot of the San Diego Zoo, his then-girlfriend, Julia Thorne, asked him to marry her. According to historian and author Brinkley, the zoo’s pair of giant Komodo dragons made Julia think of jungles, which made her sad knowing Kerry would soon be heading to Vietnam.
And so, she sat down on the hood of a random white Chevrolet sedan in the zoo’s parking lot and proposed, Brinkley says. Kerry was quiet at first and then said yes. But the couple agreed to wait until Kerry returned from Vietnam to publicly announce their engagement. They married on his return. (Kerry is now remarried, to Teresa Heinz Kerry.)
These days, Kerry, a naturalist who still loves visiting the zoos and animal sanctuaries around the world, returns to San Diego as often as he can. Sometimes, he’ll come on a moment’s notice and without even telling his staff. He typically stays with attorney Wade Sanders, a Vietnam-era buddy, or at Hotel del Coronado.
“John once thought seriously of making his permanent home here. He just loves the place,” says Sanders. “Every time he comes, John insists on revisiting his old haunts. We’ve spent several hours in the last few years walking the streets of Mission Beach, trying to find the apartment where he lived. I keep telling him, ‘John, I think they tore that old apartment building down,’ but he’s still determined to find it.”
In 1999, Sanders recalls, Kerry decided he wanted to visit the Amphibious Base in Coronado where he trained for his command. “We just showed up at the base’s front gate one day, unannounced,” Sanders recalls. “Here was a United States senator, showing up at a military base on a Sunday morning. Everyone there got kind of nervous, wondering what the hell he was doing there. Within 30 minutes, every admiral within 100 miles was awake. But John was totally oblivious; he just wanted to look at the boats, visit the men and see his old stomping grounds.”
Kerry’s most recent San Diego visit came just before Christmas last year. “It was a great trip,” Kerry says. “I went back to Coronado and placed a wreath before one of those [Swift] boats. It was on Pearl Harbor Day. It was a very misty San Diego morning, and it made me think about those who had served there with me and those Swifties we’ve lost. Those of us who were on our way to becoming Swifties really bonded. We were, most of us, back from a tour of duty and had a lot to talk about.” As much as he enjoyed San Diego in the early days, it’s the people he met here that have been most indelibly etched in Kerry’s memory.
“I just remember the great camaraderie we had,” he says. “In San Diego, you’re thrown in with so many people from all across the country, and there’s so much to do. We used to go out and have these great late nights in town, just drinking, eating ... other weekends renting small planes and flying. We were young and stupid. And it was such a military city, so it was easy for us. We had the shared experience with the young Marines just trying to survive basic training, and in the bars and restaurants you always ran into military retirees who loved the city and had settled there.”
After surfing Windansea one last time in 1968, John Kerry left San Diego for Vietnam just before Halloween. As he packed his duffel bag, he wasn’t sure he would ever make it back alive, let alone return to San Diego.
After he came home from Vietnam, but before he ever held elective office, Kerry became nationally known as an anti-war activist and outspoken critic of the Nixon administration, appearing on 60 Minutes, with TV’s Dick Cavett and in a fierce debate with William F. Buckley. For speaking out against the war while many of his buddies were still fighting it, for throwing another veteran’s medals (instead of his own—he was awarded three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star) over a fence in front of the Capitol during a 1971 Vietnam War protest and for participating in the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation during which his fellow protesters accused his fellow veterans of atrocities, Kerry has been harshly criticized.
But his supporters believe he cares deeply about helping Vietnam veterans. A war hero who was conflicted during and after the Vietnam War, Kerry has no such conflicted feelings for San Diego, insisting he’ll return as often as he can, even if he finds a new home in the White House next year. “I’ve been back many times, for political events, to catch up with old friends, to support local Democrats,” he says. “But San Diego will always be a place with a much deeper meaning for me. It was the place where I spent those last days before I ended up going off to a very different war than the one I’d known during my first tour of duty.”