Navy's Class of '68 recalls year of tumult Alumni gather for 25-year reunion

September 27, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

It was a year of assassination and riot, a year that the Vietnamese Communists took advantage of the Lunar New Year holiday to launch what became known as the Tet offensive.

The scores of men clustered Saturday under a long white tent at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium were young officers 25 years ago, leaving the cloistered world of the U.S. Naval Academy for the chaos of another.

"In a lot of ways we were removed from the rest of the world," said Richard D'Anna of Baltimore, a member of the academy's class of 1968, who recalls little discussion about the war that was raging in Southeast Asia. But he remembers a graduation marred by a shocking announcement: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot.

The class is not only known for the tumultuous year of its graduation, but for two controversial graduates: Oliver North, the Iran-contra figure, and former Navy secretary and author James Webb, who criticized the decision to admit women to the academy in 1976.

They were not in attendance Saturday afternoon. But another celebrated classmate was: Charlie Bolden of Columbia, S.C., an astronaut scheduled to command the space shuttle Discovery when it lifts off in January.

Just before the Navy football team took on Bowling Green, members of the class talked about the academy, Vietnam and the perspective that 25 years brings. Nearly all are 47 years old.

Some recalled the rigid discipline and tradition of the academy, convinced it helped them in their nonmilitary careers. Others rebelled against it. Still others said the academy forged unusually strong bonds.

"I think it gave you a sense of achievement," said Jack Holly, a burly Marine colonel serving with the Pacific fleet.

Johnny Milner of Chattanooga, Tenn., said he felt part of something "bigger."

The academy helped instill "impeccable integrity," noted Phil Gallery, a writer from Augusta, W. Va., wondering whether those words mean anything in today's world.

Many are still troubled and divided by the Vietnam War, although it rarely comes up, unless prodded by a question. Others do not dwell on the subject. They mention what they did, or where they were stationed, then move on to another subject.

Five of their classmates were killed in action, including Mr. Gallery's friend, Lt. David Thompson, a pilot downed in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1972.

Mike Sullivan of Santa Fe, N.M., stood out from this middle-aged crowd, mostly clad in windbreakers, Navy colors and caps.

He sported a gray pony tail and wore an Indian cotton pullover shirt. "As you can see, I sort of resisted the program," he said with a smile.

His roommate never recovered from his time there, Mr. Sullivan said, returning home profoundly depressed. A couple of years ago he committed suicide.

It was that tragedy that helped bring Mr. Sullivan back to the academy for the first time since his service days, hoping to reconnect with his former classmates.

"The guys I went through with, you'd do anything for them," said Ken "Kinger" King of Canton, Mass., who pointed to the class motto: "Every man a man."

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