Playing Chess during the Vietnam War

2906cFinally, there it was: “Pawn to Queen’s Knight Four.” I raced into my bedroom to my chess set and made the move. Staring at the pieces I smiled and immediately thought of my next move. But then I had time to think: it would be months until his next move. They call it the Game of Kings but to me it was a connection to my father during the Vietnam war. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s my father was mostly overseas defending our country in Vietnam. His combat and command tours read like a chronology of the war:

  • Lemoore, California: USS Bon Homme Richard, 1963-65
  • San Diego, California: USS Constellation, 1966-68
  • McLean, Virginia: Pentagon, 1968-69
  • San Diego, California: USS Thomason, 1970-71
  • Alameda, California: USS Enterprise, 1971-1974

So for most of my childhood years staying in touch wasn’t easy and it was mostly through the FPO (Fleet Post Office). These were tumultuous and difficult times for our country and they were particularly difficult for members of the military and their families. My father was a naval aviator and as the war escalated in the mid-1960s, so did the number of pilots being shot down, either being killed or ending up as POWs or MIAs. The nightmare was seeing the official Navy car with a Chaplain in the back seat drive down your street, wondering where it would stop to deliver the bad news. As my Dad was in command positions, first the leader of an Attack Squadron, then CAG (Commander, Air Group), then the CO (commanding officer) of the USS Enterprise my Mom often went to comfort the wives during these moments. This daily possibility took quite a toll on my mother over the years, especially during 1967 when we lost so many pilots as the air war escalated in North Vietnam. To give you an idea of what people were dealing with, one of our close family Friends, Capt. Pete Sherman, was shot down in June 1967 but not declared MIA until October 1973. His body was eventually recovered from North Vietnam in 1991.

Sherman Wall

Capt. Sherman’s name on the Vietnam Memorial

We dealt with the war mostly by not talking about it and instead looked forward to receiving an audio tape in the mail via the FPO from my Dad. Every month or so my mother, brother and I would sit around a reel-to-reel tape player and listen to messages my Dad sent. He would talk about how he was doing and then talk to each one of us in turn. This is where the chess came in and I waited anxiously to hear his next move. Finally, “Hi Brian, Knight to Queen’s Bishop Three.” We each had a metal chess board with magnetic pieces, me in my room and him aboard ship in Vietnam. It was a great way to stay engaged and not think about the war and all its realities.

UniversumUNAM47z

One of the worse moments for us was Sept.1972 when the USS Enterprise was deploying to Vietnam out of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Berkeley and the People’s Blockage was out in force protesting the war and supporting the SOS (Stop Our Ships) movement to get members of the crew to leave the ship and prevent further deployments to Vietnam. Earlier that year the USS Ranger had been sabotaged by a Navy Fireman who dropped a paint scraper into a gear box, destroying one of the engines, so tensions were very high. In addition to protesters at the main gate at Alameda there were people in a small flotilla of boats trying to stop the ship from leaving port. When the Enterprise finally left Alameda she had an 18 vessel Coast Guard escort to the Golden Gate Bridge. As the ship passed under the Bridge all traffic was at a standstill with protesters waving signs and screaming angry words at the ship below. Believe me, we didn’t want our father to leave either but he was doing what his country asked of him. To add insult to injury, a moment I will never forget, when we pulled up to the main gate a protester saw the commander “eagle” on my Mom’s car and spit in her face. In contrast to today’s troops, Vietnam veterans and their families were welcomed with scorn and contempt, not esteem. These were sad times for our country.

SOS-coffin-better-replacement

Stop Our Ships Demonstration in San Francisco, 1973. Photo: Steve Rees

“Bishop to King’s Knight Five,” and so the game went on. Using derivative chess notation (it’s mostly algebraic now) we sent our moves back and forth, California to Vietnam. A few weeks or a month later, Vietnam to California. It was fun and went on for years. As the months and years passed we slowly worked on our game. Although I don’t recall if we every finished the game looking back it was mostly to have something special between us, just him and I, a way to connect across the vast distances in all the chaos and hate, something to focus on besides the possibility that he might not come back. Looking back on those trying times this is what I remember the most.

BonHommeRichard66-27

My Dad’s plane, 1964. Off the USS Bon Homme Richard.

After the war my Dad went on to make Rear Admiral and was Commander Carrier Group Five/Task Force 77 out of Subic Bay before retiring from the Navy in 1981 after 36 years, He worked for Northrop International until 1991 and is now retired in the Monterey, California area. He’s very proud of his military career, as am I. For more information see his Wikipedia entry. I still occasionally play chess with my Dad and enjoy playing with both my kids.

  3 comments for “Playing Chess during the Vietnam War

  1. Charlotte mcdaniel
    October 4, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Brian, my late husband was skipper of a sqdn during Vietnam war. I had to go with the chaplain to notify the wife of one of the young pilots. . Our daughters were in junior high. Couldn’t mention where our husband, father, were. We felt so isolated. That was a wretched period in the life of a military person and family. I think it was the oriskany that lost most of the air wing in a ship board fire. Charlotte mcd

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