Former MU basketball player, ROTC member recalls 13 months in Vietnam
Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011
Updated: Friday, November 11, 2011 00:11
Ken Babbs was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. Before that, he was a scholarship basketball player at Miami University, a member of Miami's Navy ROTC and a writing major under the instruction of Walter Havighurst. After Vietnam, he was a psychedelic beatnik-hippie and "Merry Prankster" who traversed the country with the likes of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Jack Kerouac's character Dean Moriarty from On The Road. He is also an author, whose first book, Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, a novel based on his experiences in Vietnam, was published earlier this year.
Babbs joined Miami's ROTC for the perks.
"I saw a sign on the board for an ROTC scholarship [which paid] room and board and books and $50 a month," Babbs said. "I took the test, and decided which school to go to."
The ROTC atmosphere was not the electric environment one might imagine, and no one was thinking about war.
"ROTC at Miami was a casual thing. There weren't all that many [people] in it," he said. "We would take classes in military history and drill in the drill field once a week. Pretty low-key. I don't think anybody was objecting much to the draft because there was no war. It was something you had to do, like a rite of passage for some men."
After three years at Miami, Havighurst encouraged Babbs to go to Stanford University and pursue writing. At the end of that year, in the spring of 1959, Babbs joined the Marine Corps.
"I took the Marine option," he said. "The Marine Corps is part of the Navy and I didn't have any desire to be aboard a ship."
At the time, there was still no threat of war, but the draft was in full swing.
"We had been in Korea, but that ended in 1954," Babbs said. "They still had the draft going, where you had to go in and do something. So I didn't mind going in [to the Marines] because I know I'd be going in as an officer and that was better than just being drafted and going through bootcamp."
He went through training and flight school and after three years, he went to Vietnam. He was 25 years old.
"It was like a bunch of frat boys going into the military and continuing to be frat boys," Babbs said. "There was a lot of drinking and running around. I went to flight school and learned to fly helicopters. I got stationed in California and we just ran around California. We would go up at night and watch the fireworks over Disneyland that they have every night. It was quite nice and wonderful and then they told us we were going to Vietnam. And it was like ‘Vietnam? Where's that? What's going on there?'"
Quickly, Babbs found himself in the air above Vietnam, far away from the beaches of California. He worked with other pilots his age. Many had just come out of flight school and were 21 or 22 years old. The majority were lieutenants between the ages of 21 and 26. Their job was to ferry the troops, carry in supplies and carry out wounded soldiers.
Babbs was in Vietnam for about 13 months, between 1962 and 1963. He was 28 when he left. The war continued to escalate and tensions in America were growing.
But the transition to life back in the states was just as jarring.
"When you're over there for that long a time, and it's not a modern country," Babbs said. "They live like they've lived for thousands of years. It's an agriculture country with their own customs and religions. You get used to it and then we just got on a jet, stopped once to refuel and got to Southern California and it was 1964."
When the pilot came back, people were actively protesting the war in Vietnam. Babbs moved to California and stayed there. Pent up in his home, he sorted through the pages of writing that he had sent back from overseas and organized it into the first draft of Who Shot the Water Buffalo? A week later, on a Saturday, Babbs opened the blinds and looked at his wife.
"It was a beautiful sunny day. I looked at my wife and said, ‘come on, we're going out.' We went to Newport, an affluent area, and I got over my culture shock, just the magnificence of it all," Babbs said. "What a transition, but I fell right back in again. It's even worse now than it ever was. [Soldiers] are coming back from an ancient country and a really brutal war experience and trying to adjust to regular life again, it's just hell."
Babbs hastened to add that he thinks the Vietnam War was a mistake.