John “Al” Churchill – Vietnam War

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Conducting a propaganda mission as part of a combat loudspeaker team in Vietnam is John "Al" Churchill in 1970. (Photo courtesy Al Churchill)

By Lura Jackson

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects surrounding the Vietnam War was the way in which it sparked the largest anti-war protests to have ever occurred in the United States. Despite the unpopularity of the war, millions of men were drafted to serve, whether they wanted to or not. John “Al” Churchill of Robbinston was among those who were sent to fight despite his misgivings about the effort. 

Churchill was born and raised in Calais, graduating from Calais Memorial High School in 1965. “At the time, the war in Vietnam had been going on for a number of years,” Churchill said. “Most people didn’t know where Vietnam was, much less what the situation was.” 

As was required, Churchill registered for the draft at 18. He had previously applied to and been accepted at the University of Maine in Orono, and, as such, he was granted a deferment. He would graduate three and a half years later with a degree in economics. “During that time, the Vietnam war had really heated up,” Churchill recalls. As many as 35,000 men per month were being drafted and sent overseas. “I knew I’d be drafted as soon as I graduated.” 

Campuses across the country were engaged in increasingly intensifying protests, and Churchill took it upon himself to research the conflict and learn what the issues were. Upon doing so, he concluded that “the war itself was being sold to us in a very bogus fashion.” Rather than one country invading another country – which was the premise of the United States involvement in Vietnam – it was a civil war within the country. Churchill developed an anti-war stance, though it did not save him from being drafted.

Approximately 30,000 young men immigrated to Canada to avoid going to war, while another 200,000 were imprisoned for refusing to participate. “I never really considered either of those options,” Churchill said, describing how his father had been in World War 2 at the Battle of the Bulge, and his brother was in the Navy. “I had kind of a military background.”

Within a month after graduating from the University of Maine, Churchill found himself in Fort Dix, New Jersey, at basic training. Two months later, he was sent to intelligence training in D.C., and from there to Vietnamese language school. Churchill was fine with the additional training, thinking that it just meant a longer delay. At the time, the United States government was assuring its citizens that the war would be over at any moment. “The government knew it wasn’t true,” Churchill said. “The government understood that we were in a losing battle and that we were not going to win the war. They were essentially sacrificing my generation for political cover for those who didn’t want to withdraw and lose face.”

Churchill was sent to Vietnam on a plane after gaining the basics of the Vietnamese language. While flying in to land at Bien Hoa Airport near Saigon, he distinctly remembers seeing small dots flying below them with little white puffs of smoke coming off them and occasional flashes in the jungle. He was told they were gunships firing into the jungle to suppress fire from the Viet Cong who were attempting to shoot the plane down. “That was the first time it really set in to me that this was really a war. It was really serious business.”

Stepping off the plane produced another unshakable memory. “I’ll never forget how hot and humid it was. It took your breath away.” Churchill was soon given orders to move further north, though he was not assigned to any particular unit. The further north he got, the further north he was sent. “At that point, I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing.” When he got as far north as he could go, he was assigned to the psychological warfare unit supporting the 101st Airborne Division.

He was told he was the team leader of Combat Loudspeaker Team. His job was to support the division in missions in the field, all the while broadcasting propaganda to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces to try to convince them to surrender as part of the Open Arms program. Churchill’s team included himself, another American soldier, and a Vietnamese counterpart. The team traveled to villages all throughout the province in a ¾-ton truck laden with speakers. In each village, they would attempt to buy arms and ammunition from the locals, with the thinking being that if they purchased the munitions then they would be depriving the Viet Cong of them.

Churchill’s team never had a single Viet Cong come in to surrender during their broadcasts. He reasons that it would have been very difficult for them to do so in daylight without their comrades seeing them. “The Viet Cong were good soldiers and they were incredibly dedicated to their cause,” Churchill added. He said that they did not trust the Americans and likely thought that if they did surrender they would be turned over to the South Vietnamese and tortured. 

While Churchill was in Vietnam, the protests in the United States were continuing to intensify. Many of the soldiers serving alongside him shared his anti-war stance. Churchill’s team would occasionally opt to broadcast anti-war songs, particularly Country Joe and the Fish’s Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag. “Infantry guys patrolling out along the road would come out and laugh,” Churchill said. “It was clearly unauthorized, but the troops enjoyed it.”

As he neared the end of his tour, Churchill applied to law school at the University of Maine, and was accepted. He left the service in October of 1971. Once he arrived back in the states, he was somewhat stunned at the vehemence that had developed toward Vietnam veterans. “It was a little disconcerting to me,” he said. “I didn’t ever admit that I had been in Vietnam, because you never knew what the response would be.”

He entered law school in 1972, meeting his future wife Jane Eaton in his senior year when he was assigned to be a writing instructor for the freshmen. They would later have three children. He graduated in 1975 and became a diligent supporter of indigent clients, meaning those that were unable to pay for a personal attorney. Though he enjoyed working in the courts and handling the various cases, there were some that were especially difficult. “The hardest work of any indigent cases were the child welfare cases where he had to represent parents that had their children taken from them. These were parents who desperately loved their children – they loved their children as much as I loved my children – but they were not functioning for whatever reason.” He worked as an attorney for close to 40 years. 

 

“[Vietnam] was an experience that I don’t regret in a lot of ways,” Churchill summarized. “I got to be very familiar and friendly with a lot of Vietnamese people, and I got to understand how they felt about the war and how it affected them.” Being able to travel to such exotic locales profoundly influenced Churchill from that point forward, and he continues to travel when given the opportunity.