have courage. take heart. bear witness.
On December 1, 1969, if you were a male civilian in the United States between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, as Fred Towne was, your thoughts might well have been on 366 blue plastic capsules. Or, rather, on the order in which they would be drawn from a large glass container—one capsule for each possible birth date, January 1 through December 31, plus February 29.
This lottery, the first of four that the Selective Service System held from 1969 to 1972, was the method by which soldiers were drafted to augment the all-volunteer US military, which was waging an undeclared war in Viet Nam.
Maybe you would be lucky enough to be granted an exemption, a medical disqualification, or a deferment, as were 60% of the 27 million draft-aged men. If not, you were one of the 850,000 who faced great uncertainty, and you were likely fraught with anxiety.
Fred's birthday came up number 108, putting him among the top third—those certain to be drafted into the Army, which suffered more than 65% of combat deaths in the course of the war.
To avoid this danger, many chose another course of action: approximately 9 million enlisted in branches of service other than the Army; at least 250,000 young men refused to register with the Selective Service System (some estimates range as high as 2 million), the overwhelming majority of whom were not prosecuted; 172,000 were classified as conscientious objectors (about half the number that applied for that status); an estimated 70,000 left the United States, mostly for Canada or Sweden; some didn't show up for their physical exam or deliberately tried to fail it; and many thousands, like Fred, refused induction.
Yet, even though as many as 570,000 men apparently violated draft laws—believed to be the largest number in US history—no more than 210,000 were formally charged. Of these, around 25,000 were indicted and about 9,000 were convicted. As it turned out, Fred was one of only 3,250 who were actually imprisoned—just over one-half of one percent of those alleged to have broken the law.
Days before he entered a federal correctional facility in Arizona, he and his girlfriend, Cindy, got married so she would be able to visit him. She interviews him here.
Recorded in Corvallis, Oregon, December 2008.
"I knew it didn't really matter whether I was going to refuse induction or not, the future was already set. The future was something other than going on with a career. You're drafted and you go in the Army, or you're drafted and you go in prison, or you go off to Canada."
"And so I refused to do it. I remember feeling strongly committed to that. And I remember feeling really apprehensive about what it might mean, 'cause, you know, five years in prison, $100,000 fine, or whatever it was. I mean, those were the possibilities that you could have been facing."
"About a week before I got out of there, there was a riot, a full-blown riot. And people are throwing things and beating the crap out of each other. And this guy in front of me picks up this chair and swings it at me, and I stop, to avoid being hit by this chair, and this boulder hits me in the back of the head and knocks me to the ground. So I just took off running, as fast as I could, just streaking for this door, and on my way, I got hit again, in the side of the head, in the ear, and in the back of the arm, and finally made it into this door."
"I got this job [in Toledo, Oregon] as a rodman/chainman. After about three years there, I became a city engineer and, over the years, have worked my way to senior planner and, now, to the manager of the planning division in the city of Corvallis. I was trained by the federal prison, and I'm doing the job ultimately, that I was trained for."
"I see them on the streets
These veterans of war
My homeless brothers
Their stories never told
With every battlefield
Nations create more
Once, just nineteen-year-old kids
Too young to be so old."
(a page from the journal of Donald Towne, Fred's father)
"We just received sketchy, flagrantly boastful news of the new atomic bomb. The superlatives used in describing it seem, when we think about the little we know of its nature, to be either inadequate as anachronisms or typically boastfully exaggerated. If the former, I am terrified. Man needs to break the bonds of his soul and release its power long before he should be permitted to break the atom and exploit its power. They say the power can be creatively used, but I fear its original, destructive use might be prophetic. Tyrants, oppressors have had their Cossacks, police, Gestapo. Now what have they got? Incidentally, I wonder what will become of the soul of the hero when his body, instead of rotting or burning, is vaporized in death. The question would trouble the Egyptians more than the capitalists."