How a Vietnam Soldier Becomes a Vietnam Protester: The Barry Romo Story (Part II of II)
On the last installment of Rediscovered Radio, we heard from Barry Romo, who spoke at Antioch College in 1973 as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But Romo wasn’t always against the war. He volunteered for the Army out of high school, became an officer, led men in battle, and earned a Bronze Star for valor. In short, Romo was a model solider, so when he spoke out against the war, people paid attention.
This is the story of Romo’s second wartime trip to Vietnam, when he went back as a civilian.
Going Back to Vietnam
In October of 1972, it looked like the Vietnam War might finally come to an end. America and North Vietnam had agreed to a tentative cease-fire, and at a White House press conference, Henry Kissinger famously said, “Peace is at hand.”
As talks continued, the North Vietnamese invited a small group of Americans to Hanoi, which was behind enemy lines, to visit U.S. POWs for Christmas.
Barry Romo, who had served in Vietnam just a few years before, went on that trip. When he returned to the U.S., Romo spoke at Antioch College, and WYSO was there to record him.
“The first two days were spent meeting government officials, seeing some general tourist sites, and even going to mass,” Romo said. “But on the third day, things started to change. That was the day Nixon began the bombing of Vietnam, and the bombing continued for the next 10 days until we left Vietnam.”
The American attack on Hanoi became known as “The Christmas Bombings,” and they were large scale carpet bombings. According the U.S. Air Force Historical Support Division, there were “700 nighttime sorties flown by B-52s and 650 daytime strikes” in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas.
During the bombings, Romo was in Hanoi with three other Americans: Retired Brigadier General Telford Taylor, Reverend Michael Allen of Yale’s Divinity School, and folk singer Joan Baez, who recorded their time in Hanoi.
Baez’s field recordings include the sounds of air raid sirens, gun fire, and explosions, as well as quieter moments in bomb shelters and traveling the city. Baez released those recordings on her 1973 album, Where Are You Now, My Son? And in his speech at Antioch, just three weeks after the Hanoi bombings, Barry Romo explained what that city looked like.
“You’d walk down the streets,” he said. “And there’d be no damage. And all of a sudden you’d come across a wasteland. There’d be three, four, five square blocks completely destroyed.”
Romo’s group did visit American POWs. They spent Christmas together at a prison camp on the outskirts of Hanoi.
“When we got there,” Romo said. “We were in for a shock, and that was because there were holes in the roofs and there was shrapnel everywhere.”
Romo recalled one POW who “kept pointing at the sky and asking us, ‘What’s happening here? I was told the war was supposed to have ended in October’” and “‘Would you go back and tell them to stop?’”
When Romo and the others left the POWs, they saw homes around the city that had been bombed and people digging for survivors. At one point, they saw a woman digging through the rubble of a home, trying to find her only son. That image and sound stuck with Romo and with Baez. It’s a story that appears on both her album and in his speech.
On their last night in Hanoi, Romo and Baez didn’t go to the bomb shelter when the siren went off. Instead, they went out on a balcony that looked over the city and Baez sang as the bombs exploded.
Romo said there was “scattered applause” after her first song, and “every time she sang a song, there’d be more applause… And once the lights came back on and the all clear sounded, Vietnamese came from all over, and they were under the balcony, clapping for her songs.”
The group would return to America safely, but the war, which was rumored to have been coming to end, would last two more years. Neither peace talks nor bombings could bring it to a quick end.
The Post-War Story
Romo’s Vietnam story resonates with many Americans, because it mirrors how many Americans felt about Vietnam. He supported the war early on, but turned against it after he saw combat and lost friends and family in Vietnam. And as the war came to a close, he worried most about men and women like himself—the ones who served.
Romo has worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) for over forty years, fighting for veterans on a number of fronts. Perhaps most notably, in regard to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Originally,” Romo says, “PTSD was called Post-Vietnam Syndrome because we didn’t even know how broad it was. But we had 30,000 members, and we were looking around and seeing the amount of drugs people were taking, people who were waking up screaming, people who were O.D.-ing, people who were going to jail…”
Romo still remembers the call he received when PTSD was acknowledged.
“We all hoped,” he says, “but none of us, in our hearts, actually believed we could win it. Then I get this call, and one of our guys says, ‘Not only did we get it, but we’re going to get 120 Vet centers as well.’”
In addition to PTSD and Veterans Centers, VVAW has fought for Veterans benefits and played a central role in exposing the devastating effects of Agent Orange. And they’re still fighting today, long after the war.
In that regard, perhaps Romo is still the model soldier.
Rediscovered Radio is made by possible by generous support from Ohio Humanities.