One story that is told in the new book about the International Voluntary Services (IVS), The Fortunate Few IVS Volunteers: From Asia to the Andes, is from William Seraile (Ethiopia 1963-65). Here is a slightly edited version of what Bill had to say.
Seraile had been a social science teacher in Mekelle, Ethiopia and he says “that experience had whetted my appetite for overseas adventures which is the reason I went to Vietnam.”
He was 26 when he arrived in Can Tho and taught English at Phan Than Gian high school with a schedule that resembled a college professor’s light teaching load. The school had 3,000 students and was formerly a French fort and a World War II Japanese barracks. As the only American on the faculty, he recalls, his classes were very large.
Before the Tet Offense, however, he had become disillusioned teaching English and thought he could better serve the country by working in a refugee camp. “These feelings were so strong that I informed IVS in Saigon that it wasn’t right for me to teach students who were using their acquired language skill to quit school and work for the U.S. military or for USAID. My threats to resign at the end of the school year unless I was given a transfer went unanswered.”
The Tet Offensive beginning on January 31, 1968 did curtail his teaching as the school became a refugee center. Seraile volunteered to assist overwhelmed American Air Force doctors and nurses in the local hospital. He was trained as a scrubber in the operating ward where he cleaned wounds prior to surgery. As he recalls, “I witnessed surgeries of all types including amputations.”
In this book on the IVS, Seraile goes onto say, “After all these years, I harbor some regrets for leaving Vietnam before completing my assignment. But there were mitigating factors. David Gitelson, whom I met once in Can Tho, was murdered on January 26, 1968. He was well known in the Mekong Delta for his saintly demeanor and the Viet Cong had no reason to kill him.
“I believe he was killed because he had information for Senator Ted Kennedy relating to civilian deaths committed by the Vietnamese military. A meeting with Senator Kennedy, scheduled for January 12, 1968, with a group of us, but it was abruptly cancelled when a Jeep was blown up.
We all rushed out to jump into our Land Rover to take injured Vietnamese to the hospital but quickly jumped out when a Vietnamese shouted, “NO!”
“A dog then walked too close to the right front tire and the vehicle was blown up by a mine. I had sat on the Land Rover’s passenger seat 30 minutes earlier. To this day, I don’t know how mines or explosives were placed by the vehicle. A few days later, an explosive was discovered outside my school.
“After Vietnam, I earned a PhD in American History and taught African American history at Lehman College, City University of New York from 1971-2007. Sometimes, when I think of Vietnam, I visit New York’s Chinatown to capture again the smells and sounds of Asia.”