Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP03: Answering the Call

Release Date: April 26, 2021

The draft is one of the most complex topics related to the Vietnam War, and its perceived inequity is often cited as a major factor in turning public sentiment against the war effort. In this episode, Callie Wright interviews two veterans who were drafted —Ernie Guthrie of rural Georgia, and Michael McMahon of New York City —about their personal experiences with the Selective Service System.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


[00:00:00] (HOST) Callie, why don’t you just introduce yourself?

[00:00:03] (CALLIE) My name is Callie Wright. And I’m the Education Director at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. I work with teachers and students to educate folks about the Vietnam War and Vietnam era. And I really focus both on the war and the era, because you know, the war itself impacted everyone at that time.

[00:00:24] We’re here to talk about the selective service system, otherwise known as the draft, and to share two interviews that you conducted with men who were drafted, just in the context of the Vietnam War. That’s a complex topic. But the history of the draft goes way farther back than that, can you talk a little bit about that part?

[00:00:42] The United States didn’t create the draft, right? It’s been it has been going on for years and years before we became a country even. But when we became a country, men were expected, it was considered an obligation and a privilege that you serve in military service. And one thing that’s kind of interesting is, is after the Civil War, they create a system of rights within the states, and states are then responsible for that drafting piece. Well, during World War One, we come to a system have more localized boards. And it is even more refined during World War Two. And so by the time we start the Vietnam War, we’ve had a system of state and local boards, that’s really coming down from as early as 1917. And we come into this system that is incredibly complex.

[00:01:35] With all the controversy around the, the draft during the Vietnam War, in particular, it’s easy to forget that two thirds of those who served were volunteers. What do you think the perception doesn’t match the reality?

[00:01:51] Any stats when it comes to thinking about the draft, are really complicated, because you’re right, only a third of people were drafted. But if you look at folks who joined the military, because of fear of the draft, that number goes up to more than 50%. If you were a male, who was 18, you were a sitting duck, you could be drafted. And so that actually caused a lot of men who joined the service to join, because they were the fear of being drafted. And all of a sudden, you realize that the draft loomed so large in everybody’s mind during that time. I also think it has to do with the with the controversy of the war. As a nation, we still have so many things that we don’t understand or can’t reckon with about the Vietnam War. And I think the draft is certainly one of them. It’s so important to reflect on all of those families whose lives were altered by that system. It’s hard, you know, the draft is hard to talk about, just like anything is hard to talk about in Vietnam, because there’s no one draft story, just like there’s no one Vietnam story, you know, people will hear this and think, well, that’s wrong. That’s not what happened to me. And that’s completely fair, because it may not be. And one of the most misunderstood things about the draft is this belief that like, it was only these people or only these people, when in reality it was, it was pulling from a lot of segments of the population. However, there were deferments for folks in higher socioeconomic status,

[00:03:32] (HOST) People with access to influence,

[00:03:34] (CALLIE) Right, if you had money, and you got to go to college, then chances were, you would know how to get a job that would allow you to continue those deferments. Or if you had access to health care and doctors, then you could get a doctor that might get you out of being drafted. All of those were those deferments really speak to the inequity issue within the draft. And I think anytime you have an inequity or something that isn’t fair, it kind of like pops up and looms large in our in our mind. In 1969, we moved from a local board system to a larger draft lottery system. We moved from a board to a lottery system to address what people saw. Where the inequities of the local boards. The local boards were the little group of neighbors, the people from your community, who sat down and decided who is, who they chose to be to come down and be drafted. And what might pass in one community as someone who could be deferred or excused from service might be someone in another community who is automatically called up. These changes from place to place made it difficult for people to feel that the draft was a system that was fair.

[00:04:54] (HOST) So he spoke to two men who were drafted by boards one from New York City and one from rural Georgia. Very different perspectives, very different experiences. What do you think are the similarities that link these two accounts?

[00:05:06] (CALLIE) One of the biggest similarities is they both have a lot of pride within the fact that they served their country. And they both believed that when they were drafted, and when they were called that it was the thing, the right thing to do. I understand, you know, after speaking with Michael, and Ernie, I really understood better for myself, the sense of pride around being drafted. And one thing that I really gleaned from both of these men was the incredible love and the incredible caring that they brought into their lives and into their communities after their service, and the incredible respect that they have for life because of their service.


[00:05:54] (HOST) From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of The Wall, this is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Crone, bringing you stories of service sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict nearly 50 years later. This is Episode Three, Answering the Call.


(HOST) Welcome to the third episode of our brand new podcast. If you missed the first two episodes, you’ll find them at, we’ll publish a new episode every two weeks, so be sure and subscribe. And if you like it, please share it with a friend who might like it as well. Either way, let us know what you think by leaving a comment on our website, or by emailing [email protected]. Not everyone can get to Washington DC, especially these days to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That’s why we created The Wall That Heals. It’s an exact replica of The Wall at three quarter scale, and it travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Grundy, Virginia, May 6 through 9. For more 2021 tour dates and locations visit


[00:07:27] (CALLIE) Ernie Guthrie was drafted into the military right out of high school. He served in the infantry in the army. He still lives in his hometown of Lincolnton, Georgia. I spoke with him about his experiences from our offices in Washington DC via Zoom.

[00:07:43] (ERNIE) Yeah, well, this is a very small town in Georgia right on the Savannah River near South Carolina State line. And I believe our population is about 8800 now for the whole county and probably less than that way back in 1969 when I was drafted in our local city, the city of Lincolnton and I believe we only have about 1800 total population and also a small town. Everybody knows everybody. We only had like one high school, one elementary school, and an awful lot of us are kin of each other here.

[00:08:19] (CALLIE) Were you expecting to be drafted when you got your notice what, what was that experience like?

[00:08:26] (ERNIE) I was the draft for the beginning was, was a big deal. Maybe from the mid 60s to the early 70s. When you graduated from high school if you didn’t have some physical disability that would, would keep you from serving and our you didn’t go to college or technical school we get a deferment for that period of time or a lot of guys right we able to get into the Army reserves and that kept them from getting drafted. Now, back during Vietnam War it was very unusual for, certainly National Guard were not being sent to Vietnam, but sometimes the reserve units would be, not much, not as much as I have been in the last few years with the Gulf wars and all. So, what happened was some guys, as soon as I completed college, their deferment was gone and they were in quickly. And that was usually, maybe an older than I was because they attended four years college. I graduated from high school when I was only 17 years old because of my birthday. And just watching it, worrying about getting drafted and all that just it just looked to me like you had to get to be like 19 before they would ever draft you. And of course I was 19 when I drafted. I never got any kind of school deferments or went in the Guard or the Reserves. So, I was kind of a sitting duck.

[00:09:58] (CALLIE) What were your feelings about drafted and how did your family feel as well about you being drafted?

[00:10:05] (ERNIE) During the time, I guess you could say, I was waiting to get drafted. There was all kind of unrest in the United States “stop the war”, you know, even had there was even organizations, Vietnam veterans against the war that had served over there and all. And it’s funny, and I remember this very well. Every afternoon on the CBS News with Walter Cronkite the first thing he would say, and you can dig back and see this. The first words he would say every day 43 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War yesterday, or 50 or 10 or whatever. And it just weighed heavily on you. And then with me graduating in May of 1967, from high school, two people that I knew, got killed in August of 1967, from this town, only three days apart and it rocked our little community too, because there again, everybody knew everybody. And so we were kin to each other and all and it really weighed heavily on me, and about their deaths. And then in 68, we had two other young men, and during this whole time 67 and 68, I not been drafted, but still when the war began I knew that it was going to come because I didn’t have those deferments and stuff. So, my family, you know, they would encourage me to try to get into school or get in the National Guard or something like that. And for whatever reason, at that time in my life, I was into girls and hot rod cars, and stuff like that. And I just thought, nah, nah, nah but it finally happened to me.

[00:11:42] (CALLIE) Ernie, you’re from a really small town and a draft board is made up of members from that area. So, I’m assuming when you went into be drafted, that on that draft board, there could have been someone you knew. Can you speak about the experience of going down to your local draft board?

[00:12:02] (ERNIE) Yes, there is a story to be told there for sure with me. My parents were separated for a while. And for a short period of time, my mother lived next door to the lady, a lady named [unintelligible] (Lavonna Marlow?), and she’s still alive today. That ran the draft board here. And you could just tell which I don’t wanna’ say she hated her job. But sometimes it was tough on her what she had to do. But anyway, when finally I got my notice, and I think I still have it somewhere it says something like greetings from the President of the United States. You’ve been selected to serve in the military. Yeah, that that was real tough. But, but I do remember, I didn’t  witness it, but at some point, Miss Marlow(?), apologized to my mother for having to draft me. She was just doing for job, we didn’t have any ill feelings towards her, you know, and they had all these things back then where you could appeal and come up with reason that you shouldn’t be drafted and stuff like that. When we didn’t, we didn’t do that. A friend of mine, a guy that graduated with me, he joined the Navy to keep from getting drafted. And we met at a local service station here one day, and I actually drove him to Fort Jackson, South Carolina to be inducted into the military. When I got back home that evening, my mother called me and said, Ernie you got your draft notice. So the very day I carried him to be inducted [unintelligible] and I got my direct notice. And then also, you had to take a physical, you know, they’d load up on buses, where several of us guys met. And one of my, another of my classmates went to take the physical, same time I did and we got back on the bus up there in Atlanta. He said they didn’t take me and I said why didn’t they take you? He said they said I have flat feet. I said take your shoes off. He took the shoe off. And I took mine off and I swear I couldn’t see a bit of difference. And But anyway, we got along there. And Callie I was in a very small town, very small school, there was only 35 males in my graduating class of 1967. And I’m the only one out of that class that actually got drafted. Many of them would have been drafted if they had not done the things that they did to get the deferments and get National Guard and Reserve and things like that. So but then another interesting twist to the to the draft is I’m currently, for this county and district, I’m on the Selective Service board and should there ever be a need for the draft to be started back I’m part of the selective service board now that sent me to the army in Vietnam.

[00:14:43] (CALLIE) After you were drafted, where, where did you end up doing your training and with what branch of service?

[00:14:52] (ERNIE) I was in the Army. And at the time I was drafted they were pulling some people into the Marines. And I know, we were in Atlanta, after we get physical and went back to be inducted. It was almost a joke because you were standing there in Atlanta and they’d say, do you want to be the marine or do you want to be in the army. Course, early on in the Vietnam War that there’s no question about it, the Marines were more involved in it than the Army, you know, they went ashore, and stuff like that, where later on we landing in airplanes and stuff over there. But anyway, it’s funny watching, you know, some guy say I want to be in the Marines and they’d say you’re in the Army, and I was trying, when my turn came up, I was trying to think what I needed to say, because I didn’t want to be in the Marines. But anyway, I said Army and that’s where I wound up. So, in on September 2 1969, I was inducted into the army, I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for training, the basic training about eight weeks, then after that they determine what they call the MOS, which MOS would be Main Occupational Skill. I think that’s what that stood for, and they decided for me that should be infantry. And when I say infantry, it’s light infantry, foot soldier not a tank or artillery or whatever, but actual foot soldier that would, would be trained to go to Vietnam, and I’ll tell you, they did a very good job of preparing us. And they were, it was like, I remember a drill sergeant said once he said, when we get through with you you gonna’ want to go to Vietnam, the fight this cause. And it was all it almost became true, you know? So anyway, I finished my training in January of 70 at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and one other thing I remember, Callie. The day we graduated from advanced infantry training, we were standing in formation, and they would call your name out and say, just say, let’s say, Ernie Guthrie, Vietnam, Joe Johnson, Germany, or whatever. But I remember this one guy and he was, he was older than us. And I got to know him during training. He was a college graduate, and when they called out his name and Vietnam he immediately questioned it that he said, Why would you.. I don’t remember what his degree was… but he said, why would you take somebody with a degree like I have, and send them to be a foot soldier in the jungles or rice patties of  Vietnam? My education could benefit the military better in some other field. And the drill sergeant told him, he said, we don’t want to send stupid people into the infantry. He said, the smarter you are, the better your chances are of surviving. A lot of the times, the people that joined, did not end up in the infantry, simply because they joined for four years, versus me being drafted for two years. They got to at least asked for something that they would liked to be involved in whether it was communications or working on helicopters or being a mechanic or [unintelligible] or whatever. Because they joined, they’d sit down at some point with a recruiter and join. They did have a better chance of avoiding the actual infantry. I have four grandsons and I wish they would have kept the draft going. I really believe it was a good thing for young men. I believe if I hadn’t got drafted I probably wouldn’t be the man I am today. And in serving Vietnam attributes to that too, but so many young people now they, they lost and they need that discipline and all. So if the draft was reinstated today, and my grandson’s had to go, it would be okay with me. Sometime when I’m around my buddies now, especially guys in my age group, I feel like, in my own way, I’m different than them. My country called me and asked me to do something. And I didn’t agree with all of it, but I did and I would do it again today. And I hope that all you people, men and women, would do the same. But, but sometimes I kinda catch myself thinking, you know, not that I’m better than y’all, but I’m different than y’all. And I take a lot of pride in that.


[00:19:48] (CALLIE) Michael McMahon, who resides outside of New York City in New Jersey was drafted just out of college. He was drafted into the army infantry and I was able to reach him via Zoom from our offices inn Washington, DC.

[00:20:02] (MICHAEL) When I was drafted, I had finished college. I graduated from college in June of 1968. And I was working, I was working for Merrill Lynch and company, I had worked for the company through college. And on graduation, I had difficulty trying to find a job because I, at that point had lost my draft status and became 1A and was eligible for the draft. So, career, looking for a career was basically hit the pause button. So I stayed at Merrill Lynch on a full time basis. And I was just working waiting for the draft notice to come, I knew it was going to be coming in not too distant future. I was at the time, Dolores and I were engaged. I’m really lucky person I became engaged and married my high school sweetheart, when we’ve been married for 51 going on 52 years now.

[00:20:58] (CALLIE) How did you learn that you had been asked to serve?

[00:21:02] (MICHAEL) I received a letter, a letter in the mail. Now, the letter is, and I often say to students, you can google and come up with the draft letter. It’s the same draft letter that millions of men who were drafted during the Vietnam era received. I have a copy of mine, there were two things that are distinct about it. One is the date. The letter begins and it says greeting, you are hereby ordered for induction to the Armed Forces of the United States. Mine happens to be dated December 24 1968. Christmas Eve. So, I received some cards that week that had the word greeting on it. But they were generally season’s greeting, not the one that I received from my uncle. The other thing that I find interesting about it is in the corner of the letter is a New York City subway token. Back in the 1960s, the New York City Transit Authority use subway tokens to be able to buy a fare. And the draft board was noted that if they needed you for a physical or some sort of test, they would send you a letter and, in the envelope, they would scotch tape to subway tokens. And when you received the letter, you would feel the letter. And if you felt two subway tokens, you knew you were okay. Because they wanted you down. But they were sending you home that night, when you got the letter that that ordered you to report there was only one subway token in the letter. And that meant you were drafted. So that’s how, you know young men in New York City, basically learned about the draft.

[00:22:43] (CALLIE) What part of New York City were you living in at the time?

[00:22:46] (MICHAEL) I was born and raised in Brooklyn and lived there for many years. Before I, I moved out of the city, but I’m a Brooklyn kid.

(CALLIE) Did you know anyone at the time that had been drafted?

(MICHAEL) I did. And I at the time. If you think of a group of friends, think of your friends from high school, your friends from college. What happened was the group that we hung out with if I could use that term, from high school on, you know, one got drafted, was gone in the military for a couple of years came back, somebody else went in. It was, you know, sort of constant that there was somebody either ready to go in or had just come home. And when I graduated high school, and I put it in context this because it does affect how I looked at the draft. When I was in high school, Vietnam wasn’t on the radar screen. It wasn’t an issue. Generally, those men who got drafted were sent to Germany or South Korea. Now they were pretty stressful tours of duty. We were in Germany. We were if I could say eyeball to eyeball with the Russians with nuclear weapons. We had just gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War, War was at a height. So, it was pretty difficult duty but, but it was in Germany. When I graduated high school that summer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. And so during college, the draft increased and the number of men in Vietnam increased. When I was graduated high school there were 15,000 when I was a sophomore in college, there were 200,000. Junior year hits 300,000, Senior year 500,000. So, what happened was it escalated around me. And certainly in college, the draft became more of an issue than it did in high school.

(CALLIE) How did you feel about being drafted?

[00:24:49] (MICHAEL) Growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was a child of the greatest generation. Around my neighborhood, the men who are my role models had all served, my father served in World War Two, there was an expectation, the draft, the draft was not a Vietnam phenomena. It began with World War One and the registration for the draft. When I think of my mother and father, my both my mother and father were born before World War One, a broke out their life was shaped by the influence of World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two. And I think a commitment to service when you get called, you serve. And I think there was an expectation on my part that eventually I would be called, and I would serve. So, there was never a feeling of anything. But, you know, that’s my, my responsibility. I, by the way, elected, it was a conscious decision. I decided not to join the military. I waited to be drafted. I explored joining the military, but military wasn’t what I looked at as a career for myself. The other thing is that draft these serve two years of active duty, were people who voluntarily joined, generally were responsible for three to four years of active duty. And when I was 21, three years was an eternity. So, I allowed myself to be drafted.

[00:26:29] (CALLIE) How did your family feel about you being drafted? Did you have siblings? How did they feel about that?

[00:26:36] (MICHAEL) I did, I do have siblings. I’m one of five children. My father was a Pressman for a newspaper for the New York Daily News and a union worker, my mother was a stay-at-home mom with the five of us. I think my father had a sense of pride, but he understood the risks being a veteran. And I think there was a nervousness about it. The things that about Vietnam, that strike me especially for like, my dad, we didn’t talk a lot about it. But I asked my brother a little bit about my dad’s reaction when I was in Vietnam, and what it was like, and one of the things that bothered, bothered him was more so those that were not serving, he saw the inequalities are the inequities in the draft. People who weren’t drafted. And, and there was a big sense of how can this son of say, somebody who was influential or a politician not be serving and my son have to serve. And I think it was more, you know, you had a draft card that gave you your status, but people didn’t know what your status was. And you know, people who had physical limitations and couldn’t serve, they could be walking the streets just as somebody who who’s 1A ready to serve. And I guess, when you have your, when it’s your, your son that’s in the game, you want to know why others are not in the game. So, he was really troubled by that. He also pointed out, my brother pointed out to me, sometimes the insensitive of other people talking to my father, I served with the ninth Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. And I was in what we call called Four Core. And there was one particular friend who my father had he we talked to regularly, who would always tell them, oh, I was reading how bad the action was down in the Delta, you know, your son’s at risk, you know, and, you know, my father would be really upset but couldn’t say to him, you know, it’s just the insensitive of other people talking to him. But I think there was a true sense of pride on his part of, of my service. I remember when I come home, specifically, when I came home, I was a sergeant, I had my read of my ribbons on an all and I remember how proud he was of my service.

[00:29:02] (CALLIE) Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with the woman who eventually became your wife, and still your wife, Dolores, and how being drafted and going to Vietnam changed that.

[00:29:16] (MICHAEL) If anything, it made it stronger. The relationship stronger. When we, when I was drafted, when I was at a college, we planned on getting married, we were engaged before I left on the draft. We knew I had a leave after 16 weeks, which from January would bring it to May. And we wanted to get married before wherever my orders were like a we knew there was a high probability of Vietnam. But there was also probabilities of other places as well. But the commitment was we’re going to, we’re going to get married. So we, we set a date. Based on the calendar as best we could judge it, and it was May 17, 1969. And we went forward, what I will say we burnt up a lot of, a lot of change in the telephone, you know, there were no cell phones or emails or anything like that you basically wrote, wrote letters, and you connected on the telephone. So used a lot of dimes, dropped a lot of dimes if I could put it that way. And, you know, we, we were close with, but it was, you know, maybe tested, it might be a word. We were separated, but we will commit it and, you know, we got buried that May 17. Even wasn’t, wasn’t until the end of my advanced training, I went through advanced training for infantry, the called the advanced infantry training AIT. And it wasn’t until I finished that, that I had gotten my orders. Right around the time I finished, there was an incident in South Korea, South Korea was we had a lot of troops stationed, but they weren’t, it wasn’t hot, so to speak, we were in combat at the time. And there was an incident in South Korea, and between North and South Korea, and the entire infantry class the Friday before they graduated the week before ours was redirected to South Korea. And I just had my fingers crossed that, you know, I’ll take South Korea as opposed to South Vietnam, but it didn’t happen.

(CALLIE) Is that when you found out then that you would be going to South Vietnam?

(MICHAEL) It was, when I finished when I finished advanced infantry training, received my next orders, I found I was going to South Vietnam.

[00:31:42] (CALLIE) When you when you got to Vietnam, was there a divide between folks who had been drafted and folks who haven’t?

[00:31:50] (MICHAEL) No, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t sense that. The, the only difference was our serial, our service numbers or serial numbers were different. Mine was US52777327, remember it to this day. So, on my dog tag, but remember, uh, I’ll never forget it. But it began with the letters US which meant that I had been drafted. The people who had signed up for the military were RA, regular army, and their serial numbers began with two different letters. Other than that, I don’t send sent didn’t sense any difference whatsoever. Among those that were drafted than those that joined, but at least in my unit that you know, this is an excellent point. That to me, at least, we’ve been talking for a few minutes now. And I’m telling you my story. And I think what, what I always try to do is encourage people to speak to as many veterans, Vietnam veterans as they can, because each story is different.

[00:32:55] (CALLIE) My next question is in 1969, we moved away from the draft boards, you know, the draft boards, these are the, the little groups of neighbors, right, who said and kind of made the decisions. And we moved to a lottery, which you know, was sold as a more kind of a pick, pick the birthdays out of the bowl, and a more randomize situation. And then in 1973, the draft completely ends and has not returned to this day. So, you are someone who, who experienced or who has bore witness to all forms of the draft in that way. What do you think about these shifts?

[00:33:36] (MICHAEL) I think the shift to the lottery was a very positive shift. There were some inherent inequities in the draft. And even if they weren’t real, they were perceived. And I think the lottery took that away. My current day comparison is my COVID-19 shot. I’ve signed up to get my shot. And fortunately, m,y my name has finally come up, and I’m going to be able to get a vaccine next week. The only thing is, for weeks went by, and friends names came up, or people like know and they got a shot. But it was in this black box, and it was how did they get it? And I didn’t. And I know other people have said the same thing about me. How did you get a date, but I didn’t. Um, you’re the same age. I’m the same physical condition. And I think the draft was a little bit like that. It’s how come you know, you’re, you’re exempt. And I’m not and and I think there were a lot of inert equities that would perceive that and that were real. And I think the lottery took that away. As far as the elimination of the draft. I think the nature of the military changed, how we fight wars technology changed, and fortunately we don’t need to supplement that and really what the draft was doing was supplementing the gaps where we couldn’t fill the need. People would draft it. And I think that we don’t have that gap any longer where we, we have enough people, fortunately, who are serving and sacrificing for us.


[00:35:22] (HOST) That was Callie Wright with Ernie Guthrie and Michael McMahon. These interviews were heavily edited for time in order to fit them into this podcast format. If you’d like to hear Callie’s entire conversations with Ernie and Michael, you’ll find them on our YouTube channel. We owe a big shout out to everybody down at the City Hall in Lincolnton, Georgia who made it possible for us to get Ernie Guthrie’s interview recorded for posterity. So, thanks, y’all. We’ll see you in two weeks for Episode Four. a Bump in the Road.

[00:36:02] (HAL KUSHNER) I’m not proud of being captured. I’m proud of the way I behave while I was captured. And I’m very proud that I came back. I put it behind me and I do not let this experience define me.

Echoes of the Vietnam War

Full Interviews

Full Interview with Ernie Guthrie

Full Interview with Michael McMahon

Echoes of the Vietnam War

Show Notes

Echoes of The Vietnam War

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