The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
July/August 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Pilgrim's Progress
Wayne Karlin and The Vietnam War
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Some writers stumble into the subject that becomes their life’s work almost by happenstance. Others know in their hearts what they need to write about. Wayne Karlin, the former Marine who today is one of the most acclaimed Vietnam veteran writers of fiction and literary nonfiction, fits squarely in the latter category. Karlin, whose time in Vietnam included plenty of action as a helicopter door gunner, came home from the war burning to write about the impact the war had on him and on his country.

“Sometimes people spend their whole careers writing about their screwed-up childhoods,” Karlin, a professor of languages and literature at the College of Southern Maryland who has written six well-received novels, told us in a recent interview. “The war was a significant event, not only in my life but for my generation and my country. And since I did experience it, it’s an important thing to write about, and I will continue to write about it.”

The war has been at the heart of Karlin’s literary life since 1973 when he co-edited and contributed four autobiographical war-zone stories to Free Fire Zone: Short Stories from Vietnam Veterans, the first collection of its kind. Since then, his list of literary endeavors is a long and accomplished one. In his captivating novel, Lost Armies (1988), Karlin zeroed in on a Vietnam veteran’s readjustment blues. In US (1993), Karlin again confronted the legacy of Vietnam, this time in a novel set in early-nineties Thailand peopled with expatriate Vietnam veterans. In 1995, he co-edited a second breakthrough anthology, The Other Side of Heaven, a collection of short stories by Americans and Vietnamese who served in the Vietnam War.

Wayne Karlin’s literary honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, four Individual Artist Awards from the state of Maryland, a Critics’ Choice Award, and the Paterson Prize in fiction. As the American consulting editor for Curbstone Press’s Voices From Vietnam series, Karlin edits and adapts translations of Vietnamese writers.


Born in 1945 in New York City and raised there and in White Plains, New York, Karlin had a difficult childhood and adolescence. In 1963, when his high school class graduated without him, Karlin made a move that countless other directionless young men did: He joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

“The kind of neighborhood I came from everybody went into the military,” he said. “In those days for non-college-type kids it was pretty much accepted that you were going to.” After boot camp at Parris Island and infantry training at Camp Lejeune, Karlin was assigned to administrative duties at the Marine Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. From there, he was transferred to a Marine Air Control Squadron, “the same outfit,” he noted, “that Lee Harvey Oswald was assigned to.”

In the spring of 1965, the entire unit was shipped to Okinawa and went through jungle training, which, as Karlin noted, “was a bit odd for air controllers.” They arrived en masse in Danang in December. He shipped out to Chu Lai and then to a small detachment at nearby Ky Ha. “My MOS was still in admin,” Karlin said, “but I hated that idea. So I kept volunteering for stuff and also basically screwing up in the job. I had a lot of mixed feelings because I was seeing the casualties and I felt a sense of guilt that I could have a relatively safe job and a sense of boredom as well.”

Karlin got his wish. He extended his tour and became a helicopter gunner. After a few day’s training, he was shipped north of Marble Mountain to one of the first CH-46 squadrons in country. “Most of the war that I saw, the shooting part, was with that outfit,” he said. “We flew missions all around Quang Nam and Danang.” He took part in the July 1966 Operation Hastings, the month, Karlin noted, “that the North Vietnamese 324th Division came across the DMZ and the Marines were sent north to meet them. It was a very bloody time.”

His unit flew many types of missions, many of them under fire, but Karlin escaped without many scratches. “I was really lucky,” he said.

The incident that has imprinted itself the most upon Karlin’s psyche took place on his next-to-the-last day in Vietnam. “I was supposed to go out on a mission and I was called back at the last minute,” he said, “and somebody else took my place. And he was killed on that mission. His name was Jim Childers. Since then, he’s always stood for me as someone who stands for all the losses—who literally died in my place. A 19-year-old kid.” Today, at age 60, Karlin said, he still feels “a sense of grief and rage thinking of Jim, thinking of what was taken away from him. Of course, he’s not the only one.”


Coming Home
Wayne Karlin came home from Vietnam in March 1967 and put in his last days in the Marines at Quantico in a School Demonstration Troop unit. “We were basically Marines they used to run problems against the officer candidates,” he said. “We would go out and ambush them. Everybody in the unit, with one or two exceptions, was back from Vietnam and waiting to be discharged. It was a rather strange time.”

After his discharge in July 1967, Karlin decided to go to college. He also decided he had to write about what he had experienced in Vietnam. He had earned a GED in the Marine Corps, but that didn’t help him get into college. So, he worked a series of jobs in White Plains “delivering cars for Avis, driving a medical truck delivering oxygen—the usual series of strange jobs,” as he put it. That convinced him to head to California and take advantage of the all-but-free community college system. He drove cross-country and enrolled at Pierce College in Los Angeles. “College in those days in California was like everything else in California in ’68 and ’69,” he said. “We were the cusp of that young revolution. I think 20 percent of the campus was returning Vietnam veterans.”

He started writing there, mostly fiction about the war. But Karlin’s creative writing professor proved a hindrance. “The instructor just didn’t get it,” he said. “He was kind of representative of the world at that time. Nobody really was getting it.”

Writing about the war was “a thing I had to do and a thing that I think every other writer who came out of the war had to do,” he said, “to find our voices in order to communicate at an intellectual, spiritual, and emotional level what was happening there. Nobody was getting it. They were getting it only through the prism of whatever was convenient to their understanding.”

Karlin didn’t major in English; he chose journalism and became editor of the student newspaper. Then, in 1970, he was offered a full scholarship at a college in Jerusalem and jumped at the opportunity. He finished his degree in Israel and worked there until 1972 as a freelance journalist, when he returned home and snagged a job as a reporter for the Gannett newspapers in New York.

Karlin also had written some short stories that he’d sent to Basil Paquet and Jan Barry, two Vietnam veterans who founded First Casualty Press in Connecticut with the goal of putting together an anthology of Vietnam War stories by Vietnam veterans. Soon after that, Karlin found himself the third equal partner running the operation, along with Paquet and Larry Rottmann. “I went up to Connecticut to see them, and they used my stories in the anthology. Then one thing led to another, and I ended up being asked to come in as an editor,” he said. “I felt strongly about doing that. I quit my job and went to live with them in this big house in Connecticut.”

It was a bare-bones, non-profit endeavor with the three men living off the advance they’d received from their publisher, McGraw Hill, for an anthology called Winning Hearts and Minds. “It was an amazing project,” Karlin said. “It was a time when nobody was publishing anything coming out of the war. Free Fire Zone came out in ’72. Some of the guys who contributed went on to become good writers.” That list included George Davis, Lloyd Little, William Pelfrey, and David Huddle.

The operation broke up in 1973, and Karlin went back to the Middle East to work as a freelance writer. He met and married his wife, Ohnman, there, came home again, took another series of odd jobs, and began working on his first novel, Crossover, which was set in Europe and the Middle East, and had nothing to do with the Vietnam War. That novel was not published until 1984. In the meanwhile, Karlin earned a Master’s degree from Goddard College in Vermont. His son, Adam, was born in 1980.

Two years later, Wayne Karlin was diagnosed with a type of lymphatic cancer. “That made me reassess my life, as those things are wont to do,” he said. Luckily, the doctors caught the cancer, and he recovered completely. During that time he quit his day job and started working part time teaching English at Montgomery College in Maryland. He looked around for other jobs and in 1984 was offered a professorship at the College of Southern Maryland, which he took. He has been there ever since.

Meeting some of Vietnam’s top writers at the William Joiner Center at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts has “opened up a whole world for me,” Karlin said. “It’s defined my life since that time.” He first met writers from Vietnam in 1988, “but it really started significantly in ’93, Karlin said, “when I met Le Minh Khue.” Karlin and Khue collaborated on editing The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers, which was published to wide acclaim in 1995. The royalties from the sale of that book, some $10,000, have been donated to a hospital in Hue.


Since 1995, Karlin has gone back to Vietnam many times, forging close bonds with Vietnamese writers, many of them veterans of what they call the American War. Karlin’s latest trip to Vietnam this spring was among his most memorable. Members of his former squadron are building a school in Quang Tri Province, where Operation Hastings was fought, and Karlin visited the site where the school will be built. “It’s within sight of the mountains we used to fly over—and sometimes into,” he said.

“What I found heartening was that here are these guys who, on their own, are working hard to fund this thing and get a school built,” he said. “It’s a very poor area. The school they have now is shoddy and serves not enough people. So many of these things are coming from veterans going over there and doing projects on their own, all non-government stuff. The fact that it’s coming from American veterans is really significant, and I’m really moved by it.”

A second aspect of that trip to Vietnam also has made an indelible impression. Karlin delivered a package of materials and a letter written by Vietnam veteran Homer Steedly to the family of an NVA soldier whose remains had not been recovered. Karlin learned of the materials—a notebook and certificates—from a friend of Steedly’s who asked him to try to locate the soldier’s family. Through a remarkable series of events, in which a Vietnamese friend of Karlin’s, Phan Thanh Hoa, wrote a newspaper article about Steedly and the documents, the family was found in northern Vietnam.

Hoa, Vietnamese writer Y Ban, Karlin, and former Army medic George Evans and his wife, Daisy Zamora, went to the family’s village deep in the countryside south of Haiphong. Some three hundred young soldiers from that village had died in the war. “As we came into the village, I was stunned to see that the street was lined with people, hundreds of them, the entire village, most of whom were wearing white headbands, and many of whom were weeping and keening.” The Americans were escorted to the village’s community center where an altar was set up in homage to their young, long-dead NVA soldier. “We were surrounded by people who just wanted to touch us and the documents,” Karlin said. “There was no hostility or sense of blame—it was literally as if we had carried his soul back, which, in the Vietnamese belief system, we had.”

After the ceremonies, the group met with the family for about an hour. “For me, it was both excruciating and profoundly moving,” he said, “and left me, as it did them, with a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.”

   

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