Remarks from Princeton’s 2015 Veterans Day Observance

John Gore ’68, who served three years in the Army as an infantry officer, delivered the following remarks at the annual Veterans Day Observance in the University Chapel Nov. 11, 2015. Gore has an MBA from the University of Connecticut. In 1991 he joined Princeton’s Annual Giving office. Since 2001 he has been the director of alumni relations and the Lawrenceville Fund at the Lawrenceville School. John and his wife, Jane, live in Princeton; their son, Jed ’92, lives in Stamford, Conn.

Good morning. I am John Gore, Class of 1968. My dad was in the Class of 1929. My son is a member of the Class of 1992. I suspect some of you got into Princeton on your own accord. This is the greatest of honors for me to be asked to stand here with you on Veterans Day. You are allowing me to bring together two of the most important parts of my life, Princeton and my service in the United States Army.

One of the most popular books about Vietnam is a book by Tim O’Brien entitled The Things They Carried. O’Brien was in my division, the Americal Division. For those of you who have read the book, you will recall that it is a story about his tour of duty in 1969 with Alpha Company, 5 Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade. The 198th operated just north of my area of operation in Southern I Corp, the Republic of Vietnam. With apologies to the author, the title of my remarks this morning is:

“The Things I Carried”

I love Princeton. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad and Lang Makrauer ’23 p’69 standing at football games, talking with coaches and kids and their families about playing football at Princeton. We lived in Boston. If you were a good football player and could read and write, you went to Harvard; if not, you went to BC. The idea of going “south” to play football was a hard sell. Dad was also always on the phone calling his classmates for “a few bucks” for Annual Giving. I read the PAW every week. Princeton was hard-wired into me early on.

Dad was a Navy veteran. He was badly hurt in the South Pacific and spent a year in a full body cast in Australia. My mom would describe the hooks that were built into his cast so they could move him around. He convalesced at the Portsmouth, N.H., Naval Hospital and was eventually assigned to teach ROTC at Harvard. As a Princetonian, he always said the only way he would ever consider going anywhere near Harvard was if the government ordered him there. So, in addition to a dislike for Harvard, military service and sacrifice were familiar to me, too.

When I arrived on campus in 1964, Vietnam was back-page news. I am a baby boomer. We grew up in simple times. We grew up with Howdy Doody, Milton Berle, Have Gun Will Travel, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Ed Sullivan, and The Lone Ranger. You know the definition of an intellectual, don’t you? That’s someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger. 

And we also grew up on great, simple music: Elvis, Johnny Mathis, Buddy Holly, The Kingston Trio, Connie Francis, The Four Seasons, Little Richard, and the Everly Brothers. But we were also there on Nov. 22, 1963, when John Kennedy was assassinated and, as we later learned, “the music died.” I think we knew then that “the times, they really were a changin’ ” and that we were in for a fight of some sort.

And fight we did. As a generation, we fought over everything. We fought for and against change. We fought over who people were and what they could have. We fought over where people could live and eat, where they could go to school, and what they could do. We even fought over fighting. In the spring of 1968, my class actually had a generationally appropriate proxy fight – a touch football game between members of Princeton’s ROTC units and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS won, 3-2. For better or for worse, that fight continues today.

In the middle of all that, let me describe my sophomore year, spring term. Let me explain how my Princeton and my military service became forever entwined.

It’s 1966. Eddy Donovan, known as E.D., was kind enough to pick me for the baseball team; and I had bickered into Tiger Inn. Here was my day:

I would wake up about noon, scrounge lunch somewhere, usually in Commons – I was a waiter in Commons for my scholarship job – then get on down to Caldwell Fieldhouse, tape up and go out to Clarke Field, stretch out, take a little BP, some infield practice – E.D. was a magician with a fungo bat – play some pepper, warm up a pitcher or two, and run few laps in the outfield. Then back to Caldwell, shower up, and then off to TI for dinner. Grab too many beers – Schlitz was the beer of choice, Horlacher the usual offering – watch Soupy Sales and Batman and then shoot nine-ball down in the basement listening to Mary Wells sing “My Guy” until 4 in the morning. Back to Holder, up at noon, and repeat. Notice what’s missing? Classes, anyone?

Well, then-Dean of Students William D’O. “Bill” Lippincott, Class of 1941 and a Navy veteran, noticed that, too. Remember that dream we all have about walking into an exam not having gone to a class or studied and having no idea of how to answer the questions? Well, that was not a dream for me that spring; that was my reality.

So Dean Lippincott called me in, we had a talk, and he told me that he thought it was time for me to go find myself. Well, in 1966, if you were not in school, you found yourself in the U.S. Army.

I spent that summer working in a lumberyard and playing ball in the Boston Park League for Mass Envelope, a team owned by Steve Grossman ’67’s dad. I played with two other Tigers, Wally Uhle ’65 and Phil DeSantis ’67. Finally, in August, with no prospect of returning to Princeton, I pulled up in front of the Army recruiting trailer on the town green in Waltham, Mass., and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

A month later, my dad drove me to the Boston Army Base, gave me an awkward hug and a couple of $20 bills, and I boarded a sleeper train bound for Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training; then on to Fort McClellan, Ala., for Advanced Infantry Training; then off to Fort Benning, Ga., for six months of training at the Infantry Officer Candidate School, affectionately known as “The Fort Benning School for Boys.”

To give you a feel for what that training was like, here is the school “poem.” It is most descriptive and very prophetic: 

“A difficult child at best, fit neither for the cloth nor the pen, too dangerous to be unleashed upon society and too horrible to let live … but yet too brilliant and unique to destroy; He was eventually given over to The Fort Benning School For Boys to receive the proper education and be brought up right – as both a savior and destroyer of man.”

In September 1967 I was assigned to the 11th Light Infantry Brigade in Hawaii – the Jungle Warriors. By Thanksgiving I was an infantry platoon leader on LZ Carentan, in Quang Ngai Provence in the Republic of Vietnam. For 366 days – I was there during the TET Offensive and a leap year – I ran small-unit operations from one firebase or another in Southern I Corps. 

I like to think of myself as one of the first “Princeton-in-Asia” students. Recently, a young student was in my office and I asked her what she did last summer. She said she backpacked around Asia. I said, “I know that program.”

In O’Brien’s book, he describes carrying many things: M-16s, thumpers, pictures, compress bandages, canteens, ruck sacks, Claymore mines – which have this thoughtful reminder molded in the case, “Front Toward Enemy” – heat tabs, fragmentation grenades, smoke grenades, Willy Pete, maps, flashlights with red filters, dog tags, GI towels, a lensatic compass – I carried two of them – binoculars, a long list of things.

I carried all of those things, but I carried other things as well. From home, I carried my mom and dad and my life in Belmont. I carried my time at Exeter and various summer camps.

I carried Jane, the girl I met at West Point while playing lightweight football for Princeton in the fall of 1965 – 50 years ago tomorrow.

I carried friends from “back in the world” who wrote to me. I carried not writing back enough to all of them.

I carried Princeton, too. I would often think about my roommates and teammates and my interrupted life and what it would be like when I got back. I carried my times in Pyne and Holder, in Commons, TI, and on the ball fields.

But I was always guarded about talking about Princeton. Sgt. 1st Class Marshall – you always remember your first drill sergeant – always got my attention by calling me “college boy.”

I carried our honor code. I was elected to the honor code council at Fort Benning when I recited the honor code from what I identified as a small liberal-arts college in New Jersey:

“I pledge my honor as a gentleman that during this examination I have neither given nor received assistance.”

I also carried a Brownie Holiday Flash Camera. It took 127mm film, impossible to get where I was, and the side latches became so badly rusted I had to pry it open with my KA-BAR and eventually held it shut with green duct tape. I took some pictures. Once I was asked by a nice young woman at the PAW who was doing an article on Vietnam if I took any pictures and, if so, would I share them. I told her that I did, but while the memories last, they are hardly what Kodak referred to as “lasting memories.” I carry not having apologized to her for being curt.

By December 1968 I was home. And I married Jane. She waited for me. We moved to Fort Dix, where I was assigned as a company commander, and I trained two cycles of basic-training recruits. That summer, Jane drove me back to campus in my 1967 Pontiac GTO, a trophy from my time at Fort Benning, and I met with a new dean of students, Neil Rudenstine ’56, a member of Princeton ROTC and a former artillery officer. He was also a former Harvard English teacher. I don’t know if dad would have approved of that.

He was very warm and welcoming and sent me off to 1879 Hall to meet with Paul Ramsey and Gene Outka in the religion department, the department I had selected in 1966. I remembered them from my class-going days. They kindly said they remembered me. I recalled the course I took with Paul Ramsey about Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and ethicist, and books by him entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man and The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness.

This was the early ’60s, hardly 20 years after World War II and in the midst of the Cold War. Who we were and what we should be was on everyone’s mind. Niebuhr’s philosophy – his key ’cept – is summarized in his famous quote:

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

I guess I had carried that stuff, all along, too. Liberal arts and learning are hard to shake, even when you are physically and intellectually removed from Princeton. Anyway, they asked me to send them a letter, copy to Dean Rudenstine, and they would get back to me.

That was the hardest letter I have ever had to write. How do you ask for your own redemption? Well, I did, and the result was a wonderful letter from Dean Rudenstine telling me to show up for classes that began on 18 September 1969 … and I never missed a class after that!

Finally, I’m not the only veteran here this morning. We all carried things, and I know we all still carry things. Think about what you carried: ammo, cigarettes, bug juice, McIlhenney’s hot sauce, maybe a poncho and a jungle blanket, a flack vest, MREs or C-rations – love those ham and lima beans – they all seem so long ago. But we all will continue to carry forever other memories that last. Memories of brothers and sisters in arms, some still with us, and some too soon gone. The lives of those with whom and against whom we fought, and the challenges of leadership and honor that are unique to those in military service and especially to those in combat. We carry places and smells, sounds and feelings, fears and joy, instincts and reactions, regrets and prideful things. They will be carried with us all … for all time … always.

So, on this 96th Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2015, allow me to close with the universal greeting between all veterans throughout time:

“Welcome Home!”