The Forgotten History Of A Prison Uprising In Vietnam : Code Switch Long Binh Jail was a prison for American soldiers on the outskirts of Saigon with notoriously harsh conditions. In 1968, a group of black inmates were fed up with their treatment and the war.
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The Forgotten History Of A Prison Uprising In Vietnam

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The Forgotten History Of A Prison Uprising In Vietnam

The Forgotten History Of A Prison Uprising In Vietnam

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to take some time to hear accounts of a nearly forgotten moment - an American prison riot that happened halfway around the world at the peak of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was 1968. There were half a million American troops in Vietnam, a quarter of them drafted to fight. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular both at home and among those fighting there. Discipline started to fray among the troops. More and more soldiers were going AWOL, and military stockades were filling up.

SHAPIRO: The Army's largest stockade located on the outskirts of Saigon was called Long Binh Jail, LBJ for short. It was originally built to house 400 inmates. But eventually it held more than 700 men, more than half of them African-American.

CHANG: With so much bad news that year, the uprising at LBJ on August 29, 1968, didn't make many headlines. Fifty years later, Radio Diaries brings us the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIAN CRONAUER: Good morning, Vietnam. Here we go with Armed Forces Radio.

RICHARD PERDOMO: My name is Richard Perdomo. I was with the 19th combat engineer unit. I didn't even know there was a jail in Vietnam. I was guilty of refusing a direct order. I refused to fix a flat tire on a dump truck that I did not drive. They gave me six months for that. That's how I ended up at the stockade.

SCOTT RILEY: My name is Scott Riley. I served with the 1st Air Cav. I was young, thought I was a bit of a badass, ended up going AWOL, got busted with a bunch of - a whole lot of marijuana.

JIMMIE CHILDRESS JR.: My name is Jimmie Childress Jr. I was stealing from the military - M16s, grenade launchers. I even stole a couple jeeps.

RILEY: In any war, there is always booty and money to be made. There is always criminal activities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO RUN")

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) I'll never be, no. Each night...

PERDOMO: When I first got to the prison, I saw the gates and stuff. And I said to myself, hey, look; I'm going to be safer inside this chain-link fence with guards and guard towers than I would be out there in the field. And I thought, man, this is going to be all right, going to be a good six months, you know? But lo and behold, it didn't take maybe just a few days to realize that danger was within that barbed wire fence.

RILEY: Long Binh was the kind of place that from the moment you walked in, you were trying to figure out a way to get out. Here you are sitting in a war zone, in a jail, just at their mercy.

PERDOMO: The whole prison was not much bigger than one square city block. And it was just full of tents. Each tent would hold maybe 10, 15 people.

CHILDRESS: In the mornings, they would take you out into this big, open yard to fill sandbags all day. We were out in 115 degree heat each and every day.

PERDOMO: Each three-man team had to fill 500 sandbags a day. But you were filling them with hard-packed clay which had to be dug up with a pick and shovel.

CHILDRESS: The guards at LBJ - they treated you bad, bad, bad. You were being humiliated in that stockade. You were being kicked around.

PERDOMO: I remember one day something popped me in the back of the head. And I was ready to fight. But when I turned around, Major Jackson (ph) was standing there. And he was more or less in charge of the prison. He took me to the maximum-security area, which we just called the box, throwed me in that thing and just walked off.

CHILDRESS: I don't know if you know what a CONEX box is, but it's a steel box the Army used to keep supplies in. They had them in the stockade for us to lock us up in. That was their way of making you submissive.

RILEY: The temperature inside the box was a hundred-plus degrees. The light was constantly on, 24 hours a day. And you were in there naked.

CHILDRESS: And you're like, this is the U.S. military, and you're treating your own soldiers this way?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is AFVN serving the American fighting man 24 hours a day from the Delta to the DMZ.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE ROOM")

CREAM: (Singing) Black-roof country, no gold...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was the deputy commander at the stockade in Long Binh, Vietnam. When I first got there, I could see there was a problem. Guards were reluctant to go to certain areas, especially at night. It wasn't safe.

LARRY J KIMBROUGH: My name is Larry J. Kimbrough. I served as a guard at the stockade. I hated to go in having to deal with insubordination, name calling, profanities. The racial breakdown was there was more blacks than there were whites that were housed in the stockade. So they'd be dissing and dapping. Dissing and dapping was a show of solidarity between black prisoners. This would be a clenched fist or a bump. It's kind of hard to describe when you're white, but the - it was a soul brother thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BRIGHAM: Hey, hey, hey, hey. I'm your specialist James Brigham, and I'll be your host for two hours of the power of soul Saigon-style. Check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YOU GONNA GET RESPECT (WHEN YOU HAVEN'T CUT YOUR PROCESS YET)")

HANK BALLARD: (Singing) You're black and you're beautiful, this I know, just being your natural self.

CHILDRESS: Black and white being in Vietnam was no different from black and white being in America. It was no different. You have racial tensions.

PERDOMO: From the very first day I got to the prison, the blacks all hung together. The whites that were there - we kind of all stuck to our one side. We weren't segregated through the military. We were separated by the want to be separated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As an officer, let me give you my perception. There's always tension between races in a prison. You can control this with adequate staff. When you have control, the tension becomes dormant. Without control, what could you do? We needed more people. None came.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: NBC interrupts its regular program schedule to bring you the following special report.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn. As he stood alone on the...

CHILDRESS: When Martin Luther King was killed, that was definitely a turning point. They tried to keep the news from us black soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Police made periodic sweeps up and down...

CHILDRESS: But we had heard that almost every major city in the United States had rioted.

RILEY: A new burst of anger was afoot in the prison.

CHILDRESS: All black soldiers felt the same. Like, why am I even over here? I mean, you can't even go back to America and sit at a lunch counter, you know? You can't go vote. You can't live in a certain community. Then you say, who is my real enemy? And we were hot and crazy. We were fed up. So we decided we're going to tear this [expletive] down. Excuse my language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're listening to AFVN FM in Saigon. It's 11:05.

KIMBROUGH: On August 29, 1968, at approximately 11:25 p.m., I was standing in my guard shack when I began to hear a loud noise - screaming, yelling. Then I knew we had a serious situation.

CHILDRESS: We overpowered two guards. And people come from everywhere.

PERDOMO: I remember getting up out of my tent. And I walked out barefooted. I was looking around, and I saw guys just running - black guys, white guys, everybody was just going in all directions. And I thought, man, I got to get ready. So I put my boots on. I pretty much had on my underwear and my combat boots, and that was it.

RILEY: I was locked up in the box. And all of a sudden, kind of, like, out of nowhere, this black guy opens the door and says, come on out, man. And like, somebody had come over from the kitchen with a sheet pan full of flat cake. And we were just breaking hunks of this stuff off and eating it. The euphoria of being free - that moment - it was a beautiful moment, knowing all the while that this is not going to end well.

KIMBROUGH: Everything just sped up in fast motion. I saw six to eight prisoners running toward me. They threw me to the ground, started kicking and pummeled me with fists. After that, they moved on to the mess hall that was set on fire. And personally, I don't blame them 'cause the food was definitely lousy.

CHILDRESS: I can remember running past the administration building where they kept all the records of everyone. So I hollered for three or four guys to come go with me. And we kicked the door in. And I said, just start throwing records on the floor and set them afire so they would not know who anyone was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was the highest-ranking black officer at the stockade. So I just went in and - trying to get them to calm down. I was surrounded by about a hundred inmates. I think I talked to them for a good 15, 20 minutes. But then I heard two or three of them saying - yelling to kill the Uncle Tom. They stopped listening to what I was saying, so I left. They opened the gate and let me out.

PERDOMO: That's probably when it really got dangerous. They kept all the shovels and the picks in a little, bitty shed. When they got those things out, it just escalated - boom-boom-boom (ph). Everybody went to fight. And everybody - people were just knocking each other in the head, you know, starting fights and swinging shovels and picks and stuff. And it wasn't just blacks on whites. It was just everybody lashing out. That was the only time I was ever scared the whole time I was in Vietnam.

CHILDRESS: When everything started to quiet down, there were, like, six to eight guards that we had on the ground. And the military was saying release them, but I didn't want to let them go because I hadn't had enough. In fact, I walked past each one of them and busted them in the head with a stick 'cause I was really angry. I'm like, I'm going to make you pay for what you've done to me. And it took some of my comrades who had a little more sense than I did to say to me, no, man, let him go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the "CBS Evening News" with Walter Cronkite.

WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. There was a riot with racial overtones of the largest U.S. servicemen stockade in Vietnam, and 65 GIs were injured. A white prisoner was killed. He was beaten to death with a shovel.

PETER ARNETT: The media was getting so little information as the story unfolded. My name is Peter Arnett. I was a reporter for the Associated Press in Vietnam. The riot had reportedly been put down, and things are back to normal. And yet three weeks later, the military was saying, well, we still have some holdouts. Twelve soldiers still controlled a section of the LBJ stockade.

RILEY: Days went by. The military is literally throwing boxes of C-rations over the fence for us to eat. So we kind of knew that they weren't going to kill us. People started pulling out drugs from God only knows where. And we're literally laying in the yard in the hot sun getting high.

ARNETT: Turned out to be really an astonishing story. I mean, at any point the military could have overwhelmed this group of resisting black prisoners. The decisions were made not to do it. The high command realized this story could grow much bigger. And with the resistance to the war growing, they just didn't want to start drawing even greater attention to this whole racial issue in Vietnam. So the military played it low key. And the riot basically lasted for most of September.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The decision was made to send in a company in a riot control formation. They used tear gas. That ended at all. After it was all over, we knew who the ringleaders were. And we took care of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

CRONKITE: U.S. military sources in Saigon said today that six Negro soldiers involved in a riot at the Long Binh stockade will be tried for conspiracy to commit murder. The charges stem...

CHILDRESS: After the riot, I felt bad about it. I have regrets. And I felt disappointed because we didn't accomplish anything other than tearing something up like a child would tear up a toy. We just blew off steam. That's all. And we only made our bed harder than what it was before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Presenting the sounds of '68 on the American Forces Vietnam Network.

PERDOMO: When I come home, I kind of left all of that behind me. It was just one of those hush-hush stories. It's not like describing a battle. It was nothing heroic about it. Families just don't like to think about their sons marching off to war, and instead of marching off to war he marches off into a stockade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME HAS COME TODAY")

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Go their way.

CHILDRESS: Today I am 69 years old. And I'm still angry about the way the military treated its own citizens. I still feel that something had to be done. I guess I was just trying to prove that I'm a human being. I'm over it now, but it took a long time. It took a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME HAS COME TODAY")

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Now the time has come, time.

CHANG: After the riot, the Long Binh Jail was rebuilt and continued to house U.S. soldiers until 1973, when it was transferred to the Vietnamese government. Today the area where it stood is now a manufacturing center.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately the military convicted one man, a black inmate, of manslaughter for the death of Edward O. Haskett in the Long Binh Jail riot. Other inmates were charged with a range of crimes from mutiny to arson, assault and more. None of the prisoners in our story were charged by the military for their participation in the uprising.

CHANG: Our story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries with Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles and was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. More stories from Radio Diaries are on their podcast available at radiodiaries.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME HAS COME TODAY")

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: (Singing) Time.

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