Jeff Sharlet was my younger brother. I’m writing a memoir about his short but interesting life. He was the founding editor of Vietnam GI (VGI) and a leader of the GI protest movement against the Vietnam War. VGI was the first GI-edited antiwar paper addressed to Vietnam GIs, a term meant to include soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Growing GI opposition ultimately contributed mightily to America’s withdrawal from the war.
David Cortright, a major chronicler of Vietnam GI antiwar protest, wrote:
Vietnam GI, surfaced at the end of 1967,
distributed to tens of thousands of GIs,
many in Vietnam, closed down after the
death of founder Jeff Sharlet in June, 1969.
Jeff was eulogized
throughout the country in the underground antiwar movement, published a long remembrance of Jeff in his magazine Liberation; an underground GI paper in Heidelberg, Germany was dedicated to him; and the dedication of Fred Gardner’s definitive account of the Presidio 27 mutiny read “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at 27."
In recent years, the most dramatic tribute to Jeff and VGI has been the award-winning documentary, Sir! No Sir!, the first film on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement. Screened nationally and run on Sundance Channel, the film was dedicated to Jeff for, as the director David Zeiger put it to me, “starting it all.”
To read more about Jeff Sharlet and Vietnam GI, see
The present Yola site had previously long been used as a
means of searching for unaccounted for friends of Jeff. However, at
this point in the process we have found and interviewed many dozens
of people who knew him, so it is time to re-purpose our Yola site. We
have appropriately retitled it, Finding Jeff – Quest’s End.
The revised site also succeeds the blog Searching for Jeff,
which we recently closed after five years, 125 posts, and tens of
thousands of readers in over 100 countries. The time is needed to
devote full attention to finishing the memoir.
Apropos, I will now be using this site to periodically add
segments and excerpts from the voluminous interview files – material
being incorporated into the memoir – for those readers interested in
following the progress of the book.
Each of the subsequent sections of Finding Jeff – Quest’s
End represents a
phase of the final decade of Jeff’s life from prep
school to the end of his days. Readers will find a prologue to each
section that briefly tracks Jeff at that time followed by a few posts
from Searching for Jeff illuminating the period.
As I place new material on Finding Jeff – Quest’s End, we will
indicate on this page in which section of the site it is to be found, so
please look back often.
Thank you for your interest, Bob Sharlet
on the occasion of the acceptance of the
Albany Academy Distinguished Alumni Award
on behalf of Jeff Sharlet, AA’60, May 21, 2010
Many thanks to the Class of ’60’s Fiftieth Reunion Committee for nominating Jeff as well as to the alumni who confer this honor on him posthumously.
Jeff Sharlet, my younger brother, was the accidental hero of his own life. He certainly didn’t set out to go to Vietnam, or to become a leader of GI protest.
At the beginning of his senior year he had pretty much the same aspirations as the rest of the class – go off to college, ideally a good school in the East, learn a few things, have some fun.
And he’d probably have done so but for a financial crisis in the family that changed the course of his life.
After graduation Jeff went off into the world and in a fairly short time changed from a carefree kid to a committed young man. The Distinguished Alumni Award citation you’ve just heard covered Jeff’s subsequent accomplishments in life, so I’ll just briefly dwell on him as the light-hearted guy his classmates will remember.
Jeff joined the Army, and very soon things started going awry. They promised him a year’s study of a Slavic language which would have entailed assignment to Europe.
He looked forward to a great time on the Continent. But as soon as he arrived at the Army Language School, they bumped him into Vietnamese.
Jeff went to the Company headquarters’ office and asked the NCO in charge:
“Sarge, what would happen if someone flunked out of Vietnamese?”
A good ol’ boy from Texas, sarge replied,
“Sonny, nobody flunks out of Vietnamese.”
So Jeff made the best of it with the help of Keith Willis, AA’58, who arrived in the Vietnamese program. The two guys bought a motorcycle, a used British Indian model.
They’d ride down the coast to Jeff’s favorite hangout at Big Sur where the Russian headwaiter always greeted him, “Trotsky from the Bronx.”Other times they’d roar up Highway 101 to the Bay Area, Jeff driving, Keith hanging on for dear life. They’d head for the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill where Jeff casually dismounted, handing the bike off to the doorman to park – a fellow in livery more accustomed to the likes of a Jag or a Mercedes. Not a bad life.
There was much drinking in nearby Angeles City, beach parties, lazy days at the racetrack in Manila, and side trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong. Tough duty.
But aside from work at a secret base on the western outskirts of Saigon, there was ample time for the city’s night life. In fact, I was told that Jeff became the outfit’s self-appointed guide to the Saigon club scene for new guys joining the unit.
Later, he was sent up to a place called Phu Bai just below the North Vietnamese border. Working side by side with a Marine unit, he translated North Vietnamese Army messages and liaised with commandos being slipped across the border.
Still, there were lighter moments as well. Borrowing a jeep, Jeff and a buddy would cruise down Highway 1, Bernard Fall’s ‘Street without Joy’, scouting the South China Sea coastline for an ideal location for the gambling casino they dreamed of opening after the war. Imagine your old pal Jeff decked out in black tie, keeping a watchful eye on his croupiers and Blackjack dealers.
A final tale from the lighter side of those dark times:
In Vietnam, Jeff forgot one essential thing, he forgot to write his mother. Her letters to the Philippines started bouncing back marked, “Address Unknown.”
Predictably, she went bananas and called her Congressman, “Where’s my son?” He contacted the Pentagon, and down through the chain of command to Southeast Asia, they soon located Jeff.
He was ordered to write home immediately. Among other things, he wrote:
Look, my lieutenant’s also required to write you -- saying how happy I am in Vietnam. Please don’t reply but if you do, for god’s sake don’t ask him to go easy on me or grant me any favors. Mom, this is the Army, not the Albany Academy.
Thank you for remembering my brother on this grand occasion.
I first conceived the idea of a memoir on my brother within weeks of his premature death. That was long ago. Life and circumstances intervened, and the writing project got deferred until my retirement from academe.
A Typical Child of the Middle Class
When my younger brother Jeff died the summer of ’69 at the ungodly age of 27, I vowed I would write a memoir of his short but interesting life. He had been a Vietnam GI well before the war became front page news. He came home and helped create what became the GI antiwar movement. What occurred in the interim was a compelling story of a typical child of the middle class in the turbulent ‘60s.
Though there were seven years between us and I was away for much of his growing up, I thought I knew Jeff pretty well. What I didn’t know about him I figured I could fill in from the small archive of letters and documents he left behind.
It seems I was under an illusion – as it turned out I really didn’t know my kid brother that well. He had grown up and experienced things I had no idea of, and, generally unbeknownst to me, Jeff had carved out an important niche in the history of his times. But much of that I only learned decades later.