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The VVA Veteran Reviews Prelude

Prelude was recently reviewed by David Wilson, a reviewer from the site “Books in Review II.” Wilson's review eloquently chronicles his reaction to the novel alongside his own experience in Vietnam. "I highly recommend this novel, both as a good read and as a glimpse into the lives of...

SD Sawyer

Read an Excerpt

EXCERPT from Part I,  On Post

Crowds upwards of 20,000 people gathered in D.C. after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Within hours, events spun out of control.  Looters threw objects at firemen attempting to extinguish the many fires rioters had started.   Troops from the National Guard, Marines, and the Army’s 3rd Infantry were called upon to assist the District police force.   At 1600 hours, the Army convoy exited Fort Myer onto Arlington Blvd., across the Potomac River and onto Constitution Ave. and piled out of the back of the trucks in front of the Capitol.

*    *    *    *

The young PFC stared toward the downtown area. It was too soon to see plumes of smoke, but a rotting smell of damp wood had begun winding its way up city streets to where he stood. “What the hell do we do if rioters show up here?  We can’t just shoot ‘em.  I mean . . .  can we?”  His eyes wide, startled as he looked to his platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Tom Barrington, for answers.

“Don’t know if rioters will be coming into this area or not,” Tom replied.  Realizing the enormity of the situation, he added, “Don’t know how they’ll react when they see us either. We’re under orders to protect the government and its buildings.”

By early evening, arson and looting had increased.  Tension rose with the distant smoke. Marines and local police helped secure areas around the Capitol and White House.

“Lieutenant Barrington,” his CO called over to Tom, “we’re relocating you and your men downtown.  You’re to clear from 1st to 14th Street.  Head up to New York Avenue.  That area’s bein’ looted and vandalized—  everything’s goin’ up in flames.”

As Tom and his men arrived in the new location, a small group of looters raced past, smashing store glass, screaming obscenities.  When they looked over and saw the army truck had stopped and soldiers were jumping into the street—  they quickly dispersed.

“Firemen can’t get to that building,” Tom yelled, pointing to what could have been an office building above several small stores.  He and his men raced over to clear rioters back, all the while being pelted with bottles, rocks, bricks, whatever the rioters could throw.

“Hey, Lieutenant, they’re throwing Molotov cocktails a block over,” one of Tom’s soldiers yelled, choking from smoke.

“Gotta clear ‘em outta here first.  Let the firemen in to do their job.  Then we’ll head over.”

As night wore on, large groups of black youth raced through smoke-filled streets, looting whatever they could carry.  Tom and his men constantly watched each other’s backs, shouting to confirm areas they cleared of rioters.

“Look at those two haulin’ off a television set,” a soldier laughed.  “Holy shit—  so damn big they can’t hardly carry it.  Sure as hell aren’t about to drop it though!”

“A free for all!  Ain’t nothin’ but a free for all!”  Sarge yelled over to Tom.  “What are we supposed to do?  Just let ‘em rob these places?”    Crowds passed by, arms loaded with clothing, shoes, cameras, radios, small appliances, boxes of liquor, anything they could manage to carry.

Tom repeated the answer, “Orders are to move the looters out so firemen can get the fires under control.  If we can’t make that happen,  the whole damn city’s gonna go up in flames.”

*    *    *    *    *

*    *    *    *    *

Stench from smoldering fires that first Sunday could be smelled miles away.  Smoke was visible as far out in Maryland as Silver Spring.  About 900 mostly black-owned businesses were looted, burned down, and destroyed.  There had been more than 800 fires started, more than 1,000 people injured.  Twelve people trapped in burning buildings were killed.  There had been 6,100 arrests made.  Nearly 14,000 troops had been called in to occupy the District.   Amazingly, no one was shot during all this violence.

The 3rd Infantry convoy rumbled over the bridge and back to Fort Myer ten days later.  Troops were as quiet as they had been upon first entering DC.  This, however, was a different quiet.  Fear of entering a burning, rioting city was gone, but seeing the remains of so many blocks of the Nation’s Capital looking like a bombed out war zone was sobering. What would happen to those good residents left behind, the ones who’d taken care of the soldiers with food and kindness?  Where would they shop for groceries and clothing now?  Those who owned businesses or had jobs in the stores that would never reopen, where would they find employment?  The troops knew they had secured their Nation’s Capital . . . .  but nothing about it felt like a victory.


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