Podcast (VN-E01): Keith Mather, Presidio 27 “Mutiny” 50 years later
Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 1:
50th anniversary events at the former Presidio Army Base to commemorate the “mutiny” on October 13 & 14, 2018
VN-E01: Keith Mather
“This was for real. We laid it down, and the response by the commanding general changed our lives,” recalls Keith Mather, Presidio “mutineer” who escaped to Canada before his trial came up and lived there for 11 years, only to be arrested upon his return to the United States. Mather is currently a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Veterans for Peace.
50th Anniversary Events
Saturday, October 13, 7 to 9 pm
Presidio Officers’ Club
50 Moraga Ave, San Francisco
(free ticket registration)
ON SITE COMMEMORATION
Sunday, October 14, 1 to 3 pm
Fort Scott Stockade
1213 Ralston (near Storey), San Francisco
The events are sponsored by the Presidio Land Trust in collaboration with Veterans For Peace Chapter 69-San Francisco with support from Courage to Resist.
Eric Klein: This is the Courage To Resist podcast, my name is Eric Klein. Our guest today is Keith Mather, who is working with Courage To Resist to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the Presidio Mutiny, a historic protest at a military stockade in San Francisco, California against the Vietnam War.
Keith Mather: I have my own way of seeing it. I have my own memories of the spirit in which we did things, and that’s what I’m trying to perverse. At least at some … You know, to try to display and perverse. We didn’t know what was gonna happen, we didn’t know where this was all gonna go, but we knew what we were doing. We did. We knew we were gonna get deep shit, we’d just cast it aside because this was too big. They’re killing us, man. Who’s next kind of deal.
It was a very trying time, I can’t imagine, or can’t think of any other time in my life where I’ve ever had the levels of stress that I had prior to going to Canada. Even in exile there was a fair amount of stress there. I mean, you look at the underground time I spent in Canada, a couple of years, and then underground here for almost four years. So, it’s kind of like … These experiences have taught me a few things. It’s really good to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep. ‘Cause the stress, stress [inaudible 00:02:16].
It’s like, Marine Corps, I wasn’t a marine, but they got a great slogan. Something’s bad, screwed up, you’ve gotta unfuck it. I just can’t do it to this, I just can’t figure it out enough to put it away. So it just, it always comes back. It’s kind of like, I don’t know if you write or not, but you start a story, and you get stuck. You hit a plateau, or you put it down and forget about it, or whatever. Then it’ll bug you, and then you’ll know when it’s done. Or you think you do. It’s like, when I’m writing, if it doesn’t bother me anymore, I think I’m done. That’s kind of the way I look at it.
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: But, yeah.
Eric Klein: And you’re saying this still bothers you?
Keith Mather: Yeah, it still bothers me, and I think things are undone. That’s the way it’s always felt, whatever that means. It’s kind of like, trying to right wrongs, or trying to … I guess trying to just really kind of, what I’m trying to do on this 50th, I’m trying to pat all these guys I was with on the back. I’m trying to give them their props. I mean, I’ve gotten mine already, I don’t need it, I really don’t. But the rest of ’em, [inaudible 00:03:54], and Randy Rowland, he’s had a lot of it too, but these other guys who were there, they didn’t get in the press. They’re not in the film.
They’re there because they were there, but they’re just like … I don’t even know if they’d appreciate it that much. I think they will. Some of these guys went and pulled jail in other places. So, it’s not all just a bunch of anti-war guys, these were working class guys that had issues, maybe, who knows?
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: So, as the guards were the same socio-economically, and educationally. I was brought into the stockade after a demonstration. Nine GIs banded together in a church in San Francisco, took sanctuary, called a press conference, resigned from the military. Eventually were transferred to Marin County to another church, ’cause we had a bomb scare at the Presbyterian church on Oak Street in San Francisco. We got to Marin city, went into that church, we were there for, overall from the time when our press conference took place to the time we were picked up the respective military police and sheriff’s departments, it took them three days. We weren’t hiding, that’s for sure.
So, it was pretty interesting. It was called the Nine for Peace, and we were all arrested. Some got released quickly, some had court Marshalls and went on to do time in Leavenworth. As for me, one of the nine, I was not offered a pre-trial agreement as the others were because I was the local hometown boy, I was a San Francisco boy, and I think that may’ve been the reason. So, I was in jail, not knowing what was coming. In October, early in October, they were taking us all on our work details except for a few of us that were maximum security.
This gentleman Richard Budge came in, he was a 19 year old kid, we all were, who was, I think, a little fried. His brain was a little fried from either drugs or paranoia, from being AWOL, and drugs, and who knows. Anyway, he was not mentally fit. He had medication and everything like that from the hospital and stuff, but the guards messed with him. They wouldn’t give it to him and just, things like that do go on. Initially he went out on a work detail with several other prisoners, soldier prisoners, and decided he was gonna just walk away from the work detail. He was kind of not in his head.
Anyway, he got shot and killed. Shot in the back as he was walking away from a work detail, maybe 30 paces away. He died on the spot, and the guys that were left behind there in that work detail were screamed at, told to get on the ground. They were scared to death, these guys just shot one of them. Then they brought them back to the stockade, and they [inaudible 00:07:36] to us, who were inside. Reverberation went through the jail that day. There was a small riot. We broke some windows and pulled some wiring out of the walls that connected the speakers, and plugged all the locks with paper, wet paper. We just messed, we just were pissed.
We decided to do something. We said, “Well, what are we gonna do?” Randy Rowland had just come in from a demonstration on the 12th at the gates, they were AWOL soldiers demonstrating against the war, walking right up to the gate and then turning themselves in. He comes running to the stockade, and he was an anti-war guy, a little bit more sophisticated at that point, and had come in with information from the movement, the left. With a few names of lawyers, and this and that and the other thing. We were already getting lawyers for people, by getting their name, and getting the lawyer’s name, because how do you get one otherwise?
So, along with him, and the fact that everybody else was furious and afraid and didn’t wanna work no more at all, so we devised a plan that what we would do is we would go out and get in formation in the morning for roll call, fall back into chow, everybody gets to go to chow, use the bathrooms, whatever you gotta do, get ready to fall out for work detail. Then, when we fall out for work detail, we get in formation, the first name to be called is the signal for everybody to break ranks and go over the grass and sit down.
We had a list of grievances that Walter Poloski stood up, after the officers came around us and everything, and to read to them, and did. Read our demands. We wanted an investigation on the murder, we felt, and we still feel, Richard Bunch, and also the psychological confidence of the guards, are they trained? Where are they trained to do this job? Also, we wanted to have the same kind of thing, psychological evaluations for all the prisoners, too. This was ahead of our time, because we didn’t see what else to do. We wanted a reduction in solitary confinement, we wanted to eliminate the rabbit chow they’d feed us if we were in disciplinary. They just give you a slice of bread, a glass of water, and a quarter head of iceberg lettuce, and say, “Goodnight.”
So, things like that. We had five big ones. The war was number one, and then Richard. We got that out, and then they started to read to us the Mutiny Act of USCMG. So, we started singing so we could not hear them, or at least that was what we’re trying to do. We sang, the first song we sang was America The Beautiful, interestingly enough. Then we sang, [inaudible 00:11:03], we didn’t know the fucking words, we sang We Shall Overcame. Pretty simple, you can just keep singing that and you’ve got it.
We sang that, and we continued to sing that off and on throughout the period of time we were out there. The fire department was called up by the captain, he wanted them to come up, and they came up, and he said, “I want you to hose those guys down, blast them out of their …” They said, [inaudible 00:11:31], “No, we’re not doing that.” He marches back in, and he calls up the whole platoon of MPs. There’s a whole platoon of MPs outside the fence now looking at us, with full helmets, clubs, no guns. They’re gonna come in, and we know they’re gonna come in, and we’re not moving. We’re not gonna just jump up, we’re sitting down here for a reason. We figured, too, the press might get there. We put the word out we were gonna do it, the plan, and what time it was gonna be. We tried to get it out there, they never showed up. Our lawyer did shortly, a lawyer did shortly after that.
We were all picked up, carried in if we didn’t walk. Stripped searched. I was thrown in solitary confinement immediately, as was Walter, ’cause I was the first one to break ranks and move. I don’t know who else was, I think most of the aggressors were still put in the general population, and then put their clothes back, and everybody was trying to just go, “What do we do now?” Terrence Hallinan was our attorney. He was a young attorney at the time in San Francisco, and he took all of us as his defendants, the defendants. Took our case, along with others. There were four or five others, Howard Denike. And we had military lawyers, as I pointed out earlier, Brendan Sullivan being one of them. I think we had about five or six attorneys at the table during most of what was going on in Article 32 board meetings, and the trial.
I also, when I first got there, and I’m kind of gonna backtrack because it’s an isolated thing, okay? When I first got in to the stockade, I figured, well, if I’m gonna work, then I’m helping the work effort. Really, if I do anything at all for the military I’m perpetuating what they’re doing. So, I’m gonna do non-co-operation, that’s what my goal was when I went in. When I went in and they started messing me I just went upstairs and I stood on the deck upstairs, and took off my uniform. A sergeant came over to me, and screamed at me, and told me to put it back on, and gave me a lawful order. I said, “No.” They called over an officer, gave me a direct order, put my uniform back on. I said, “Sir, no sir, I’m not doing it.” Put me in solitary confinement.
Eric Klein: Yeah. What kind of work were they having you do?
Keith Mather: Splitting firewood, mowing the general’s lawn, busy work down at the hospital, laundry. Just dumb stuff. Nothing creative. But it wasn’t safe, because of the shotgun guards. Anyway, I spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, and I decided to put my uniform back on based on the fact that I wanted to try to escape, and it was kind of hard to do otherwise. Plus, they wouldn’t try me. They wouldn’t try me, I could never go to trial on my refusing a direct order or AWOL until I put my uniform back on. They wouldn’t try me. So, all those things said, that took me into my uniform, and then all this came down. Okay?
Eric Klein: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:15:35].
Keith Mather: [crosstalk 00:15:35], and everything else came down. Yeah, yeah, right. So, there we were. Guys are looking at a long time, and got, in their trial, a long time. I didn’t go to trial. Myself and Walter Poloski, the man who read our grievances and was my partner when we left the stockade and went to Canada, we escaped on Christmas Eve, 1968. We’re in Vancouver New Years Day.
Eric Klein: Can I ask you how you escaped?
Keith Mather: 1969. Sure, absolutely. We were both working as kind of carpenters. We were doing paneling inside the captain’s office, we’re replacing a door, doing some work wherever they needed it. But we just took it on, ’cause it was like, who doesn’t, when you’re in jail, doesn’t wanna carry around a hacksaw and wire cutters, and a hammer?
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: You know, I mean. Sorry, but we got to walk around with these tools all the time, and we go to hide things. We got to make holes and stuff, hide stuff, and get into supply offices and steal stuff. We were moving, trying to get ready to go.
Eric Klein: Yeah, you and Walter.
Keith Mather: Yeah. And the word was out that anybody who could escape should, of the 27, absolutely. Just to take something away from them. ‘Cause we knew they were gonna screw us good, we knew that, but we still had to do something. We couldn’t let Richard’s death just go by. That was a pivotal point in a lot of people’s lives. So, where we were then, or where I was then, was the idea of escape. Slowly got … The best good opportunity is what we had to take, we couldn’t really plan too tightly anything. We tried to get a car waiting for us if we did get out on the days we were trying to try, through visits and things like that, we’d pass that information.
The day we did get out the gate, they let us out to go put the tools away, Chris and Steve, nobody was around. ‘Cause we had these hacksaws and stuff, it was real easy to say, “Hey, look, they don’t want us keeping them inside, we’ve gotta take them out.” The guy goes, “Oh, yeah, right.” And he let us out and let us go into the shed. I said, “Hey, I gotta build a little shelf to keep this out of the water.” ‘Cause it was raining, and we went out the window. Had hats underneath our shirts, because you can’t, give you caps, you have to have a hard hat, helmet liner.
So, we put those on, lost our boots real quickly so we looked right, and jogged toward the golf course. In step, just like we’re drilling, and climbed over a proverbial 13 foot wall, or however tall it was, and called a cab to a safe house. We were provided a ride to Canada, we got this ride from a Franciscan priest who chose Sontag who drove us north in a vehicle that was loaned to us by a high school principal and her husband, who was a San Francisco police officer. Gave us their car, an old red Rambler station wagon. We went to Priest River, Idaho, where we picked up Joe’s sister, and then we all drove up together. We figured that would be a good enough smokescreen.
We got across the border into Grand Forks, B.C., and then took a bus to Vancouver, and got there New Years Day. Yippee, there we were. ‘Bout four inches of snow, and there we are. Got a hotel room and hung out, looking around for what’s next.
The Canadian experience, I met a woman, a French Canadian woman who became my wife and the mother of my two children. We divorced after about nine years, and I had custody of the children, or I took custody of the children and brought them to California during that period of time, and I was underground because I needed help with my children. I didn’t see a way for me to be able to do it by myself.
Eric Klein: What year was this?
Keith Mather: 1980. So I was not really hiding. I was just back home. Many years after the war, [inaudible 00:20:47] was thinking about that, and although I had a lot of friends who knew the deal. Stayed with my parents for a year and a half, and then a girlfriend and I rented a place over in Half Moon Bay, we moved over there. Lived there for, you know, my kids are in school, everything’s fine, and dropped my driver’s license in a gas station paying with a credit card.
They picked it up and handed it off to the next sheriff guy that came through, and the sheriff guy sent it over to San Bruno, the town I was living in, my old hometown. They gave me a call, said, “Hey, why don’t you come get your driver’s license?” I went, “Oh, shit.” The jig is up, so to speak. I told my mother, I said, “Look, I think I’ve just gotta go and do this. I don’t think I can evade this anymore.” I’ve got two kids in there, I’m 38 years old, I’ve just gotta get this done.
Eric Klein: It’d been 21 years, 22 years since you’d escaped from the army jail?
Keith Mather: Yeah, yeah. I’d like to get this done. So, I went down there, they arrested me and called the army. The army came to get me, and they took me to the Presidio, where I spent a night, not in the stockade, but in the, it was closed then, but it was a jail, their little holding cell. So, I spent the night there. Then two guys, I was in handcuffs the next morning, they put me in a van, and drove me to Fort Ord.
Eric Klein: When you were at the Presidio again, 1980, is such a vastly time in my mind from 1968. Did it feel different? I mean, ’cause the guards are a new generation of guards, the people who are working with you is a new generation of people, or was it the same?
Keith Mather: I could’ve been their father. Some of these guys were so young, I could’ve been their dad even under 40.
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: That’s the way I felt. Actually, among the prisoners, and among the people that I contacted after that, very few of them were my age. They were almost all younger. When I got to Fort Ord and they put me inside, not the stockade, but just the barracks. I’m like, “Shit, this is okay, I guess.” So I spent some time there until my 201 file came in. Once they saw my 201 file and realized what the fuck I had done they’d put me in solitary confinement up in their stockade, even though I had had weekend passes, had gone home at Thanksgiving and Christmas, or Christmas and New Years. The army. Anyway, in solitary confinement, and I had 18 months to do. Oh, shit. And that was after the appeal had gone through, [inaudible 00:24:05]. My lawyer was all over it, they pulled me out of Fort Ord after I was, I fell down the stairs, fell down the stairs, and woke up in the hospital a couple of days later.
Eric Klein: What do you mean?
Keith Mather: With my wife.
Eric Klein: Why did you put air quotes around fell?
Keith Mather: Well, because I’m sure I got pushed down the stairs, I’m sure I did.
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: But, you know, I fell down the stairs. Never looks good for them when they say that, anyway.
Eric Klein: And you have no memory of the incident, is that what you’re saying? Because of your head injury?
Keith Mather: No, no, I just have, I have memory of carrying a mattress, and then waking up in the hospital. They were converting the stockade from army to all services, West Coast Disciplinary Barracks, and bringing in mattresses, and I was on that detail.
Eric Klein: Okay.
Keith Mather: So, anyway. I woke up, fortunately, and my wife was near me. I looked up over across the room and there were two armed MPs sitting in my room.
Eric Klein: In the hospital?
Keith Mather: And I just couldn’t believe it. Yeah.
Eric Klein: Yeah.
Keith Mather: It just shows you how skewed it was, even then. Because there was so much bad press because I had been in the hospital and all this had gone on, the commanding general of the post said, “Get him out of here.” They shipped me to Fort Riley, Kansas within days. Ordered to put on a class a uniform. Coming out of solitary confinement, okay, put your uniform on, direct order to put your uniform on. Walked me right out, put me in a car with a guard on either side of me to drive me to the airport. Put me on a plane with a guard on either side of me, and the stewardess made ’em take the handcuffs off. It was like, motherfucking Jesus, I’m just a nonviolent prisoner.
Eric Klein: Yeah. It’s really interesting-
Keith Mather: Most dangerous thing you can do.
Eric Klein: It’s really interesting to me, too, because it really, it’s like a whole new … In my mind, it would seem like it’s a whole new army dealing with the previous generation’s rebellion. The Vietnam War experience sort of changed, to my understanding, changed the military a lot. For one thing, the draft was abolished. But now you’re being punished by this new version of the post-Vietnam military for what you did during the Vietnam War. It seems very-
Keith Mather: Exactly.
Eric Klein: … it’s like an anarchism to me. How did it feel to you? And were there supporters at that time for you in the 80s, or what had-
Keith Mather: Oh, yeah.
Eric Klein: … ‘Cause, I mean, the 70s were gone, so who was around to care about what was going on for you?
Keith Mather: Well, I was fortunate to have a lot of the people that I was connected with back in the 60s, I was still in contact with to a certain degree. I know I had their support, I know I had my family’s support. I had an excellent attorney, and I had people that were going to Washington, D.C., knocking on doors, trying to get me out. Connecting with the secretary of army, whoever they needed to, to lobby for me. They went to one of the Kennedy’s offices to try to get him to lobby, and so forth and so on. So there was, we were working on it, and in the meantime I was doing time. I was in Fort Riley Stockade-
In the meantime, I was doing time. I was in Fort Iwilei Stockade for a while, and that was no fun; and eventually, I was made a carpenter again; and I fairly remember this period of time; and I was fixing stuff again for the Army, from the hinge on that’s something. Building a riser to set buckets on, so we didn’t have to bend over so far; but whatever; and I was working one day and one of the staffs/guards came over and said, “You gotta go over and see the captain. He’s got a message that’s gonna shock you.” So then, I went in, and I said, “Hey listen, I have a letter here, your substance has been overmitted.” I got a callback then, from my attorney, too, telling me, and my sentence had them been remitted, I was to be released within 72 hours, and that was that. I got to go up to my cell, grab my shit, and tell everybody, “I’m fuckin’ outta here”, and I got applause. So, They knew what I was going through. Everybody inside knew. I had been there for a long time. I had cried my eyes out solitary confinement more than once when I first got there. Like, holy shit. So, they got their own self flash, you know what I’m saying? You know? They felt that way, anyway?
So, and you know, I was released May 10, 1985. 17 years and two months after I was drafted. I got a dishonorable discharge and a $20 bill, and a suit of clothes, and a plane ticket home where I was drafted, and that’s that. That ended my relationship with the United States military; and I am bruised and battered, there is no doubt about it; but at the same time, I saw people go through worse I saw people not come home from Vietnam. I saw a lot of people really, really get screwed up; and I had just come back from Vietnam and seeing the people there that got screwed up; and so, I don’t really feel so bad, about getting screwed up. I really don’t. I may feel like I’m the one of the lucky ones.
Eric Klein: Yeah, that makes sense. Well Keith, tell me about … We are coming on the 50 year anniversary of the Presidio Mutiny. Sit down. No, what do you want people to know, for one thing, who were not alive in 1968 about what’s being recognized now five tickets later?
Keith Mather: It’s interesting to watch these 15 year anniversaries come up. It put me through my changes, okay? While in Vietnam, I was at the 50th anniversary of the mainline massacre, and listen to veterans repeat, and astounding. I don’t even know how to explain, to tell you the truth. Very moving, very moving. I met a survivor of Maywatch. So, you know, I’m just saying.
Eric Klein: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about that, so, you’ve traveled very recently to Vietnam to the village. What is there now?
Keith Mather: I was there in March. I was in a temple in the village of Maison, Marou. Okay? There’s two villages right next to each other, and now they built a temple, a memorial temple, and they also have a museum there of the event of the massacre. Also, large photos of Hugh Thompson and his history. He flew in and landed in between the Americans who are killing the Vietnamese and the women and children, old women and children, landed in between them and killed a dozen of Vietnamese out, and trained his 30 caliber machine guns on the people were shooting, told his gunners who they started shooting, you start shooting. The guy’s a real hero, a Vietnam hero. Not many people know about him. There’s a movie out [inaudible 00:33:02]. So, that was very educational, and being that there were so many Vietnamese, okay, and so few white people walking around, it’s like, I dressed in an Ansai traditional male Vietnamese outfit; along with a few others just to be respectful; and we burned on the sun and did our thing, and did long walks around the symbolic gravesites of three-year-olds and eight-year-olds, and very very real; and then also, just so many people in Vietnam just like there are here who are young who don’t remember the war at all.
In 1975, there were 28 million people in Vietnam. Now, there’s 98 million people. So, there’s about 50-60 million people, at least, didn’t know nothing about the war unless … But yet, almost every single family was affected by that war. So, it’s vastly interesting to be among them to tell you the truth, really really interesting. Captivating.
Eric Klein: Is that the first-
Keith Mather: Yes.
Eric Klein: 50th anniversary that you’ve had the occasion to attend?
Keith Mather: Well, yeah. I guess so, not too many other ones that I know of. I didn’t go to the [inaudible 00:34:52] one, and I didn’t know, really, even the year that the [Portolage Three 00:34:58] did their thing; but it was ’66. So, that’s already 50 years, so yeah. So, the Nine for Peace have been 50 years ago in July. There’s no time to do anything for them, really. So, join it into the other ones. That’s all we can do; and I don’t even know … maybe, I know where one of those guys is, so … but, I do know where five of the 27 are. So, we are contacting their lieutenant. So, that’s good to be interesting. We know that. So, I’ve seen a few of these guys often on, say, a few years, or so. The other guys, not so much. Maybe, one guy I haven’t seen in over 50 years, and another guy I haven’t seen in 10.
So come all this is going on and building up to this, and I’m telling you how it got here to this and approach this point. Once I got out of the military, once they get out, my kids teachers sent … everybody in the class signed a card saying, “Welcome home”, and things like that for me, and they knew I was a resistor and they knew … So, there were some warps and good stuff around, some healing, you know, at the same time I get death threats.
Eric Klein: I asked, Keith Mather, to tell me about how he was approaching the work that he’s doing with Courage to Resist to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Presidio Sit-down Strike.
Keith Mather: The reason the Presidio’s Arcade is a historical building is, the mutiny. That’s the most significant thing that ever happened here.
Eric Klein: But, at this time, there’s no official recognition on the site of the mutiny, nor of the murder of Richard Bunge.
Keith Mather: It should be skated over, you know? There should be a almost whole wall about Richard. I don’t know if anyone else died there, but since he died there, he’s the most significant person in history; and without being morbid, but the thing is, look at all the other lies that he shook up. I mean, look at the effects of what happened to him. Shook up and changed. I mean, lots and lots of people, parents, brothers and sisters, wives, children, people lost the kids over this. So, a lot of people get affected by this, and that’s a fallout of anything like this, I think; and so, with respect to all that, it’s an ongoing thing. I think maybe the damage is done, but the healing takes a lifetime because you gotta go through all the steps. Some of these people haven’t been back to the stockade. I don’t know how it’s gonna be for them. I’ve no idea, you know? I get a general idea but how do I know? I ride there on my bike three times a week, you know? It’s become less land, you know? I’ve tried to diminish in my life now involved it. Is now happened in a different way.
Eric Klein: The Presidio Mutiny took place on October 14, 1968, and we are speaking with Keith Mather today on the Courage to Resist podcast because we’re coming up on the 50 year anniversary of that event. To learn more, you can go to the website Couragetoresist.org. My thanks to Jeff Patterson, to Keith Mather. Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to the podcast anywhere where you get your podcasts, or you can listen to past episodes right there at the courage to resist website again, that’s couragetoresist.org