VN-E12: Zels Johnson

by Courage to Resist | Vietnam Full Disclosure

Podcast (VN-E12): “I refuse to be [used] against people who dissent” – Zels Johnson

June 3, 2019

Vietnam Series Podcast, Episode 12:

“It’s very hard, and I think that’s what’s going on to this very day. Even what happened at Kent State. It’s very hard for people to believe that their country would try to kill them.”

“I just quit going to National Guard meetings. After about a month of not doing that, I went to the National Guard, I had been AWOL and was going to be punished, and at the morning drill I stepped forward and said, “I refuse to be a part of a political police force that will be used to enforce against people who dissent.” And I left. And that was the beginning of what would be a couple year struggle.”

“Nobody ratted anybody out, so they gave up and they ended up with three of us, and they charged us with conspiracy to overthrow the prison.”

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Zels Johnson: I think that when you come to grips with the fact that your country is prepared to kill people for what really isn’t a crime, but what is really a protest, is very very hard to grab hold of. So, that’s what I felt, I’d try to get the word out. I went to the news media, they didn’t believe me. They thought I was crazy. I talked to people in the left and other progressives who didn’t quite believe that that would happen. It’s very hard, and I think that’s what’s going on to this very day. Even what happened at Kent State. It’s very hard for people to believe that their country would try to kill them.

Robert Raymond: You’re listening to the Courage to Resist podcast, and I’m Robert Raymond. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. For this episode, we’re on the line with Zels Johnson, who first became active in the anti-war resistance during the late 1960s, when he refused to continue serving in the National Guard. In his book, which is titled “Failing Spectacularly”, Zels describes his experiences during this period, including much of the organizing work he was involved with, as well as his time within the military prison system.

Thanks for coming onto the podcast today Zels. I want to start with … You joined the National Guard in the late 1960s and your experiences there really led you to your lifetime of anti-war organizing and resistance. I’m wondering if you can describe how you first joined, and then maybe what compelled you to first go AWOL.

Zels Johnson: Well that’s actually pretty simple. I was working in a tuxedo rental store near the University of Washington, and my boss did not want me drafted. He was the neighbor of the Adjutant General of the National Guard at the time, Howard McGee. And unlike Dan Quail or George W. Busch, I did not join the National Guard for patriotic reasons. I got in the National Guard because they didn’t want me to go to Vietnam. So I got into the National Guard.

Robert Raymond: And then what were your experiences while you were in the National Guard, which led you to feel like you needed to leave, you needed to speak out against what was going on? What sort of compelled that?

Zels Johnson: Everything was pretty much like the old National Guard. Most of the National Guard units were artillery units until what happened in Detroit in 1967, The Detroit Rebellion. Also in Newark and other major cities. And that’s when the Kerner report came out, that it was ordered. And in that moment, Linden Johnson almost simultaneously, before the Democratic Convention I believe, came out with the re-organization of the National Guard. So units would be taken from artillery, turned into infantry. And I was with the headquarters and headquarters unit of the 41st infantry division, which was later turned into the 3rd battalion of the 161st infantry. And we began riot control training. And in the riot control training, because I was with the S3, the operations officer, we organized a lot of those activities. Everything from creating a elaborate war room, which almost sounds like it’s surreal.

But all of that was done, and in the meantime, they would have units of the National Guard that would be rioters, and some that would be National Guardsmen. And they would practice drills. And they gave complete control over the units that were going to be rioters to come up with whatever they came up with, that whatever they thought would be the way the rioters would act. And then the National Guard would respond to that, as you can imagine, it many times got way out of hand. And it culminated after the Democratic National Convention, which a whole lot of everything changed. It culminated where we had a drill that took place among command units. And those command units were the beginning of what would be the use of the National Guard, the police and other forces as one combined unit, which happened later in a lot of demonstrations.

And it was at that point where there was actually sniper squads that were created and trained for the National Guard and for the Seattle police department. It was a 72 hour drill at pier 91, which is where the National Guard was at that time. And I left that in complete shock, stunned, I’m pretty sure that I got just completely inebriated and was just really, really, really upset because I had never come face to face with the idea that anybody in the United States would attempt to kill other people in the United States if that became necessary. So it just changed my life and I had counsel with my parents, I went and talked with people in the anti-war movement and different organizations. People had all sorts of things they said I could do. They said they could chain me to church and protest that way. So I was just in complete … I didn’t know what to do.

So to begin with, I just quit going to National Guard meetings. After about a month of not doing that, I went to the National Guard, I had been AWOL and was going to be punished, and at the morning drill I stepped forward and said, “I refuse to be a part of a political police force that will be used to enforce against people who dissent.” And I left. And that was the beginning of what would be a couple year struggle.

Robert Raymond: And what year was that?

Zels Johnson: Probably was early ’69.

Robert Raymond: Gotcha. Early ’69, so just before the Kent State shootings occurred in 1970 I think, when the Ohio National Guard killed four students who were at an anti-war demonstration on campus. That was in 1970.

Zels Johnson: May 4th. May 4th, 1970. Coming up on its 49th anniversary.

Robert Raymond: Right. Right, so it was around 1969 when you left the National Guard. I’m wondering, can you tell me a little bit about what the process of leaving was like? The process of leaving the National Guard and then what kinds of organizations and anti-war resistance you were involved with afterwards?

Zels Johnson: Well, I was living with my wife at the time, and daughter. I was AWOL and I was unable to work. I had worked for a while in a job until they asked for my Social Security Number and then I quit. And an incident happened when I was living there. I was taking care of my daughter and all of a sudden, well I was talking with some neighbors, and one of the neighbors said, “There’s several people that are in the parking lot and there’s a lot of activity going on.” So she called the police. The Seattle police came with sirens and then the people who were probably CID took of on a dead run and the police captured them. And I’m sure they were pretty angry with everything. And at that point it became pretty clear that I had to split. So a lot of people let me stay at their house for a day or two at a time, that were part of the peace movement.

Then we moved into a house with several other people and we became involved in something that was called the Seattle Liberation Front, or I did. And that would’ve been 1970, so all of this had gone on for a year, but different things that were going on and I was active with things that were against the war and still trying not to get arrested. And we joined the Seattle Liberation Front and that was January of 1970. And Jerry Reuben had spoke at the University of Washington, and that’s when that hole developed in our collective, which was called Long Time Coming, was going to be involved with organizing around Fort Lewis and being around the Shelter Half, disrupting selective service offices, disrupting high schools where usually seniors had to sign up on their 18th birthday for the selective service. And that’s what we did.

Robert Raymond: And just to clarify, the Shelter Half that you mentioned, that was an off-base coffee house for GI’s?

Zels Johnson: Yes it was at the Shelter Half, was ESU, and they had a newspaper called Fed Up, so we would go outside the post, we would go to Tacoma, we would go to places like that, and I’m AWOL all this time. So as this all started to get more and more active, then there was a visit by the FBI. I came to the house, but people saw that they were crawling around outside of the house, so I went into the basement and hid, and they were turned away. And then another time, they forced the car off the road that they thought I was in that car. And they thought another person who was also going through this with me who was in the Army Reserve. And they forced the car off the road.

And another incident where they broke into a house to try to see if either one of us was there. That was pretty much what had happened. But in the meantime we had barricaded ourselves into the selective service office at local board 6 in downtown Seattle and taken over the office. And we were able to get away. We never got caught. Until, but was known as the day after, which was February 17th, 1970, and that was the day … Because the whole purpose of the Seattle Liberation Front was to protest the seven people who were tried as a conspiracy to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in 1968. And they were on trial in Chicago with Judge Julius Hoffman. And Bobby Seal was also the 8th, but he was set aside after they bound and gagged him and disconnected him.

So when the verdict was going to come down, and they had picked February 17th, there were thousands that came to the U.S. Courthouse and protested. And our collective, the Long Time Coming collective, our goal was that anytime the police attempted to arrest a demonstrator, we would run up to the police and make some noise and they would come chasing after us and release other people. Until I don’t know, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, it seemed like longer but I’m sure it wasn’t. About seven or eight police brought me to the ground, one with his riot baton. And there was a picture in the newspaper called The Helix, that shows me on the ground with a number of police surrounding me.

And then I went before a U.S. Commissioner and the U.S. Commissioner said he knew of my case, and it was a question of whether or not they had properly activated me after my being AWOL, and whether they had followed the procedure. So there was a court case involved with that, and this Walter Reeseburg said, “I know about this case. I wash my hands of the matter.” And walked away. Sort of like right out of Ponce’s pilot. When he did that, the military police came in and grabbed me and drug me out, put me in a car and, with a police motorcade, to Fort Lewis stockade with helicopter overhead and that’s when I was put in the stockade at Ft. Lewis.

Robert Raymond: Okay, so you spent some time in the stockades, or military jail, at Fort Lewis in Washington. But you were still pretty active, in terms of organizing, and you were still pretty active in terms of anti-war resistance during this time, right?

Zels Johnson: Right. We became involved in … The thing that happened in those days, is that people put together organizations and demands. And one of the things about the demands, this was called the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Fort Lewis Stockade. And one of the people was with the chaplain’s office and he was able to mimeograph these off and so we had copies and we handed them out. So the demands were not as important as the fact that people holding these pieces of paper put themselves in great jeopardy of being taken and put into segregation, and perhaps even losing all their good time they may have accrued. So holding the demands became much more radical than even creating the demands.

And that’s what happened. They had people that had tried to find all these demands and get all the papers, and they had locker searches and I don’t believe they caught very many. But they certainly then took care to make sure that this didn’t happen again. And there was a number of people, there was one person in particular who was very much involved, and his name was Willy Williams. Willy had just served a tour I believe in Vietnam, come back to Seattle. His family lived there. And he, on his board of his company, he put a picture of his military ID card on a poster board and underneath it, it said freedom or death to Nixon. So he was put into the stockade. So Willy was there, Wade Carson was there, who had been put in the stockade for selling Fed Up newspapers on post and a number of other people that were also there.

And in the meantime my case had gone on to the point where they were going to, one with my court marshal, and the court marshal went on. And the process of that with my JAG lawyer, Judge Advocate General, that attorney working with my other attorney, they got me released pending the results of the trial. And they got me released to the reception station where I was working as a, kind of a clerk typist I guess, which is what my MOS was, seven A one bravo twenty.

Robert Raymond: And then at some point you decided to bail and head up to Canada.

Zels Johnson: Well yeah, before that all happened, my whole thing was that I worked with the Shelter Half and I wasn’t supposed to leave the post or leave the area, but I did that. And then word got back to me that in fact they were going to put me back in the stockade because they were going to send me, I believe the ASU was going to send me as one of the people to go to San Diego where they were going to change from the ASU, they were going to become part of the movement for a Democratic military, or that was the talk. And then when word got out, then people came and took me off the post in the trunk of the car and took me to a group of houses in Seattle that were known as the Safeway houses because these houses were going to be condemned and destroyed for a new Safeway store, so Safeway pretty much had almost nothing rent and people took these over hoping that they would not take care of them and then that the neighborhood would be glad to see it gone. And I lived in the attic of one of these houses and by night we would go out and spray paint Free Willy around that area.

Robert Raymond: Right. And in your book you describe one night when you and a friend were out there spray painting Free Willy on campus actually, and you actually had a run-in, like a pretty close call with the authorities. You barely got out of it, but that experience ended up sort of compelling you to leave the U.S. for Canada, right?

Zels Johnson: Well it was what would later become a good friend and now is a world-renowned poet, David Morgan. He was going to Seattle University, and he had the whole thing down cold, and he said, “Just let me take over.” Because we had been spray painting Free Willy all over the Seattle University campus. And he told the police, he says, “We were just coming from studying”, and we were going back, and the policeman took it and bought it and said, “Oh well be careful because there’s people running around this campus and they could be very dangerous.” Which of course we weren’t, and he said, “I’ll radio ahead to the post up ahead so that you can get off campus.” And he did that and we got out, and at that point, the people the house I was living in were somewhat active as well with the Seattle Liberation Front, and they said, “Well, we need to get you out of here.” And again, they took me to Canada, and I went across the border again in the trunk of a car and made it into Canada and got together with somebody that was in the news at the time, Bruce McClain.

He was at Fort Lewis and he was kidnapped and they were going to send him to Vietnam. And in Hawaii he got out and was able to split and ended up in Canada, and he and his wife were living up there, and I met with them and stayed with them. And became involved in that movement up there.

Robert Raymond: Including some organizations like the Vancouver Liberation Front and…

Zels Johnson: Right, it was the Vancouver Liberation Front. Everybody was the liberation front. We were just organizing or there were a lot of resisters up there, there were a lot of AWOL up there. And a lot of them had no place to live and a lot of them were staying in hostels that the city provided. The mayor then closed down the hostels and they then went to the beach. And they had a big riot, went right in to the Battle of English Bay. So there were a lot of people that were resisters that were active and we did a lot of good things. And caught the eye of the FBI again. Funny story, we were living in a house and it had phones in there, but we had no phone service and then one day the phone started ringing. And we had a live phone. So we figured, well that’s got to be the FBI that had hooked up our phone to see if we would be stupid enough to plan over the phone. So instead, we just called all over the world.

Robert Raymond: Okay, so you ended up back in the stockades at Fort Lewis, and then eventually you ended up at Leavenworth, which is a prison located just outside Kansas City.

Zels Johnson: That’s correct.

Robert Raymond: Can you describe that process? There’s some pretty deep passages in your book around this point, where you talk about the sense of fear, but also inspiration that you experienced in prison. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Zels Johnson: Okay, what will lead into that is the brilliance of the United States Army. Every single post has the stockades. And at that time, on every single post, there were activists trying to do something in a very organized, or maybe not even a real organized way. So all of these agitators end up being sent to this one place called United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, or the Army prison. So we have at least fifty people that are around in this prison that have been active in the different places, including Leong Pin in Vietnam, including Manheim in Germany. And wherever there’s a post in the world, there’s a stockade. And all of these activists are all together, and we’re all together in this one place. So naturally the whole idea was to get together, and we did. And at this time, the Fort Lewis six, which were now three, Carl Dicks, Paul Forest, and Jim Allen, came from Fort Lewis and they were in the prison. And Willy Williams was there. And Wade Carson was there. And all these other people were in the prison.

So we started meeting in the library to plan to organize and to see what were some of the things that needed to be done. And we started dong that in the library because there was no surveillance in the library. They had no cameras on the library. It was just free. So we would go in there and work with that. And a number of things came up. One was that we wanted to have … Carl Dicks had pretty much, along with a couple of others that wanted to promote black culture. Black history. Others it was that this was a time when Angela Davis was going to trial and a combination of these two things happening is what led to an action, as they would call it, where people would go through the chow line and not have a hunger strike, but would just go through the chow line the way they normally would, pick up their tray, pick up all their utensils, walk through the chow line, and drop their trays off at the end and then walk to their table and wait until they were dismissed.

And that pretty well set it off where they then, along with what was going on with the black class and what was going on with other activities of, we were all in other classes, and it was just a matter of time. And then they shut the prison down, they rounded up at least thirteen people, including Carl and myself, and Paul and Jim, they rounded us up and put us into disciplinary segregation where they had what was called the ten or twelve step program of Carl Menengar, where they would take away everything, including your clothes and all your bedding, and you would be on what would be called rabbit rations. And then you would work your way back up until you got to another point. But nobody ratted anybody out, so they gave up and they ended up with three of us, and they charged us with conspiracy to overthrow the prison. They were going to court marshal us, and the three of us were put into what was at that time, death row, but it hadn’t been used since about 1961. So they opened up that and then we were put in there.

Robert Raymond: And so can you talk a little bit about what was, I guess going on for you psychologically during this time? Because that sounds pretty intense, like a pretty intense response to a relatively minor act. And you all weren’t doing anything that crazy. How did that feel, that heavy handed response? Did you ever feel regret or were you pretty assured of the track you had taken at that point?

Zels Johnson: Well I think that for what happened when we were in the, in what was called the death row, it was pretty intense. But I think all of us felt that we were doing what we needed to do and what we had to do, and we were going to keep doing it. And there was fear all the time. But at the same time, it was an energy that I’ve never felt since. And it just was, it’s very hard to describe. But every time you do something and the Army would react, you would feel like you were doing something right. And they were overwhelmed by what was happening. In the area of death row, I know I had military intelligence that came to interrogate me. And I know that what was really exciting is when, and chains, I’m in shackles, handcuffs, and leg irons, walked across the yard, it was quite inspiring. People gave me the power salute as I’m being walked across, and that’s black, white, all over. Because that’s one of the things that we had done while we were there. We tried to break down the barriers that had been created, not by the prison, but by prisoners themselves.

And so you had a wing of the prison that was black, you had a wing of the prison that was white, and another wing I think that was all the rest. And sometimes they were a little bit mixed up like that. So that was very powerful, but was really intimidating was how much knowledge the military intelligence had on my life, going back to grade school, believe it or not. So that was pretty scary in itself, but it was also pretty powerful when you feel like you’re causing this much reaction, that means they’re afraid. They’re concerned that you could have power. And so that’s what kept happening.

I know at one point, the Catholic priest gave me choice, he said, “ You either recant what you’ve been saying, or we could send you as criminally insane to Springfield, Missouri for a frontal lobotomy.” And those were his exact words. I don’t think that was ever going to happen, but still, you know, its kind of scary.

Robert Raymond: Yeah, I mean it sounds like they were really trying to get under your skin and just really break you down from the inside. And I guess not just you, I’m wondering, in your book you describe quite a few interesting characters that you met in prison. Can you describe some of the stories of some of the other folks that were in there along with you?

Zels Johnson: One person who was the most interesting, and I met him when I was still in the general population, and I had never knew this went on, but he was a deserter in Vietnam. And he had ended up in a village, and in that village there was the National Liberation Front fighters that were protecting this village that had Vietnamese and deserters that were there. And they had a unit, and I have never really completely tracked this down as to whether this is all true, but a lot of people say there was a unit similar to this that was a skull and crossbones unit, which was out there to hunt down and not capture and take into custody, but to kill. Deserters that were living amongst the Vietnamese in particularly that were protected by the National Front. And that was quite incredible.

And he ended up being captured, and there had been a fire fight, and he had been captured and was put in the prison and had a life term I believe. And the life term was for, either the murder or attempted murder of people that were with the Army of the Replica Vietnam, ARVIN, along with U.S. military, and it may have been this particular unit. Now other people I’ve talked to who are veterans seem to recall stories of that, but you know how those are. But at least this is what his story was.

Robert Raymond: Wow. Okay and then suddenly you’re released in sort of, I guess somewhat mysterious circumstances. Just all of a sudden, you’re free to go.

Zels Johnson: Well Carl had made contact with a Congressman Ron Dellums, I believe, from California. And other U.S. Senators had been contacted because there were people on the outside, our families and other people in the movement that were trying to call attention to the fact that what was going to happen to us, because it was never really clear whether or not we were going to be facing more time or whether they were going to let us go. So we really never knew. So Ron Dellums had come to the prison. And in my case, my mother had got in contact with a number of so-called progressive Senators, like Warren Magnusun, and Kennedy. But Musty took a real interest in the case and demanded an investigation and even the Red Cross was not able to come and see us. And Carl had had contact with the Black Panthers, I think in Kansas City, so there was some activity that was going on, and it was being harder and harder probably for the prison to keep a lid on everything. And that’s when they just decided that this may not be worth it.

And I know I was called in. I had no idea I was going to be released. My prison term was less than Carl’s, it was two years. And they just came and got me in the morning and said, “You’re out of here.” And he brought me to the Commadine, I think his name was Francis Payne, and he said, “I’m not letting you mess up my prison anymore. You people are just, we’re going to, you’re just gone. We don’t want you around here. We’ve told the FBI you’re going to arrive, they know what time you’re going to arrive.” My parents were forced to come up with money to have me fly out and they took me to the airport, again in this overdramatic way where there was an armed escort taking me to the plane, and under armed escort marched onto the plane that was regular commercial flight out of Kansas City. And that was it. And when I arrived and I was back home, and I know the first thing I did was meet up with some people in the University District, and we were drinking wine spo-dee-o-dee on the steps of the U.S. Post Office, and believe it or not, the police came up and they came up to me and they said, “You’re under arrest for desertion.” And I had just gotten out of prison.

Robert Raymond: Wow.

Zels Johnson: And so they took me down to the military police unit. I said you better call Fort Leavenworth because I’ve been released. And they did, and they said, “Get the heck, you know, get out of here.” And that was it. And then I became more active in other things that were going on. At this time, Randy was very active. Randy Roland, people must know him, who had been part of the Presidio Mutiny, and he was active at Fort Lewis, and there was other people that were active at Fort Lewis. And then there was something called The Inside Out, which was a prisoner support group because of my contact with prison. And I just became very active after that.

Robert Raymond: So the title of your book is, Failing Spectacularly. I’m wondering if you could explain the title and maybe give us an idea of, you know, looking back now, how you feel about it all and that time period generally that we’ve been talking about. How’s that related, I guess, to where we are now?

Zels Johnson: I think the biggest thing for me was going through the drill and seeing that they were actually going to actually kill leaders of the anti-war movement. But the leaders they were most concerned about were the leaders that, in the middle of something that was going on, a riot, a demonstration, a rebellion, what have you. The leaders they were concerned about were the people that stood out to take charge, if you will, and people then would fall with them. Those are the people that they wanted to take out if necessary. And I think that when you come to grips with the fact that your country is prepared to kill people, for what really isn’t a crime, but what is really a protest, is very very hard to grab hold of. Now people of color can grab hold of it because they faced that all of their life, where their life is more threatened than a young white boy, if you will.

So that’s what I feel. I tried to get the word out. I went to the news media. They didn’t believe me, they thought I was crazy. I talked to people in the left and other progressives who didn’t quite believe that that would happen. It’s very hard, and I think that’s what’s going on to this very day. Even what happened at Kent State. It’s very hard for people to believe that their country would try to kill them. They may arrest them, but they won’t try to kill them. And that has changed a lot. And Kent State hadn’t happened, The Detroit Rebellion had happened in ’67, what happened in Chicago had happened. But I wanted to try to make sure that people knew this was happening and that it wouldn’t happen. And I couldn’t think of a better title for what I had written than Failing Spectacularly.

Because I tried to prevent what would later be a Kent State, and I failed spectacularly. Because Kent State happened. Jackson State happened. What happened in the war, it was much more aggressive after that. And it was a combination at what happened at Kent State, it was a combination of the police and the military and all of these other forces that were all part of one in attempt to try to stop the anti-war movement. Kent State is one of the most interesting campuses in the United States, in the sense that it’s so much in a blue collar industrial area, and so many of the students at that time, were the sons and daughters of that. So every year it’s a continual struggle as to why did the National Guard do what they did? And those were the things that we trained to do, was exactly what the National Guard did. So that was why it was really important for me to try to get that out. And it still is important. I think people are still questioning whether what happened at Kent State could’ve actually been something that was planned.

Robert Raymond: Right. And so as we wrap up, I’m wondering if there’s anything else that you’d want to conclude on, maybe in regards to your current work or organizations right now that you’d like to speak about?

Zels Johnson: Well first of all, Veterans For Peace is doing incredible, outstanding work. And it’s picking up where Vietnam Veterans Against The War left off and we have a very strong role to play. And not becoming archaic relics of the past, but continuing to be important to the present and to the future. And what it is, is just to constantly keep doing as much as we can.

Robert Raymond: Well thank you so much for sharing your story with us today, Zels. It was really a pleasure talking with you.

Zels Johnson: Right back at you, Robert. Thank you.

Robert Raymond: That was Zels Johnson. You’re listening to The Courage to Resist podcast, and I’m Robert Raymond. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam full disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks fifty years of GI resistance in and out of uniform, for many involved with this campaign, to speak truth to power and keep alive the anti-war perspective on the U.S. war in Vietnam. Visit and for more information and to offer your support. Thank you to Jeff Patterson, our Executive Producer.