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"I don't feel scarred, but I feel shaped in a lot of ways." (Video Interview, 1:02:10)

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   Peter Robert Young
Image of Peter Robert Young
Peter Young receiving the Soldier of the Quarter certificate [10/17/1969]
War: Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Branch: Army
Unit: Base Camp, Special Services, 25th Infantry Division
Service Location: Fort Holabird, Maryland; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Dix, New Jersey; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Fort Ord, California; Alaska; Guam (Northern Mariana Islands); Cu Chi, Vietnam
Rank: Specialist Five
Place of Birth: DC
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Peter Young was a librarian when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. He considered deserting the Army for life in Canada but remembered why his immigrant father had come to the U.S. from China in the 1930s and, with the reassurance of fellow soldiers who had served in Vietnam, decided to stay on. He was fortunate to be assigned to a library on a base camp in Cu Chi, though he wasn't totally out of harm's way. Young's reflections on his service--its positive influence on his character and its negative object lesson in the futility of many wars--are thoughtfully expressed in this 2009 interview at the Library of Congress, where he was Chief of the Asian Division.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (12 clips)
»Complete Interview  (66 min.)
»Photo Album (1 photo)
 Other Materials
»View List (2 items)
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 Video (Interview Excerpts) (12 items)
In graduate school at Columbia University in spring 1968 when grad school deferments were dropped; went to his dean to ask if he could be drafted with a library degree; at Columbia, student protesters closed down the campus for a time; came to Washington that spring for his draft physical and took train back to New York in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination, when cities were burning. (01:54) Description of the student takeover of Columbia; he and two fellow librarians played archivists to the events, collecting all the literature, attending all the meetings; after all the tumult, the university canceled the graduation ceremony and mailed everyone his or her diploma. (02:45) Was against the war; participated in antiwar demonstrations before his induction; after he joined the Army, he was part of a group of soldiers who published a newspaper at Fort Sam Houston called "Your Military Left." (01:15)
He trained with a lot of 3-year enlisted or National Guard; drill sergeants focused on the draftees because they knew these recruits were going to Vietnam and they needed to learn skills for survival; left for Vietnam in 1969 from Ft. Ord; everyone on the plane was extremely quiet; first impression in country was blast of heat and smell of diesel oil; into a bus with wire mesh instead of windows; knew this was going to be year "in which I was going to have to be invisible." (02:46) Reported to duty station and a first lieutenant who had graduated from Yale in the ROTC program; he actually gave Young a job running a library, his real-life specialty; library was a double-wide trailer with two air-conditioning units, so it was a place where people congregated and slept; had about 5,000 books, hometown newspapers, paperbacks to take out in the field; recorded music to play in their hooches and in the field; how he got his Bronze Stars. (06:14) Though he was not in combat, he was not out of danger; on bunker guard duty, learning about the difference between outgoing and incoming; years later learning of the tunnels of Cu Chi that were likely under his base camp; war stories were what people heard rather than experienced; was frightened for half his year, then angry. (04:16)
Formed close friendships in Vietnam but has kept up with only one person; friendships lasted only as long as you were in country; was fascinated with the rituals of black soldiers; objects as talismans of the experience and how his insect repellent-soaked flak jacket seemed to symbolize his experience there. (06:10) Importance of mail; clinging to creature comforts like showering and shaving; trying hard not to stick out while he was in country, to be cool; how his ethnicity affected his service in Vietnam; he was half-Chinese and knew none of the language; mistaken for Mexican; in his post at the Library of Congress coming to understand better the culture of Vietnam in America. (06:46) Leaving Vietnam; talked into bringing home a captured 9mm Chinese pistol for a buddy who could carry only one; getting stares in the airport because he was wearing his uniform; seeing the effect of service on his comrades; advising to capture impressions of veterans when they are fresh; reacting to loud noises by hitting the ground; senses you never forget; anger he feels toward those who could have but didn't serve; Army gave him two traits: the ability to concentrate in chaotic situations (uses his reaction to the events on 9/11 as an example) and a sense of discipline to accomplish many task daily, as his father-in-law did. (07:28)
Two weeks before he was to ship out to Vietnam, he almost deserted, had a job lined up in Canada; realized that his father had come to the U.S. in the 1930s from China as an immigrant with hope for more opportunity and he should not give up so easily on that ideal; has not talked about his experiences to many people before this interview; is interested in the general idea of sharing personal experience and preserving it. (04:03) Interviewing for a federal librarian post in the late 1980s, he was asked if he knew how to take orders; his reply was to cite his military service; his father had worked in the Library of Congress in the 1930s in the same division Young is now chief of; has not been back to Vietnam but many colleagues have been helpful in supplying him with information about the country; has been to many other countries in Asia. (04:36) Coming to grips with what happened to the U.S. in Vietnam; mitigating the poison of violence with libraries; reads from a Bob Herbert column about Robert McNamara, the Vietnam era Secretary of Defense who died recently; racial prejudice at the heart of training for going to war; cried when U.S. invaded Iraq, seeing the same mistakes being made as in Vietnam; believes in devoting his time to peaceful resolutions of conflicts on all levels. (06:12)
 Other Materials (2 items)
Biographical sketch of Peter R. Young Interviewer's notes 
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  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
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