Fred Schein is a man of quiet courage. His feelings of patriotism to the United States led him to enlist in the Navy and later volunteer to go to Vietnam. Although the military had a policy of actively discharging gay service members, Schein did not think of the risk even though he is gay. He risked his life during combat in Vietnam, helped with mine sweeping in the swamps and even taught English to the Vietnamese. Schein is a six year Navy officer veteran; his service includes Naval Intelligence, Executive Officer River Patrol Base, service in Vietnam and Survival Instructor. He made many sacrifices for our country but when asked about his service, he feels it was his duty.
Fred Schein was born on July 10, 1941 in New Jersey. He has been a Mill Valley resident for 38 years. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a maintenance supervisor for American and Eastern Airlines. He was a senior in college at Rutgers University, when a navy recruiter came to campus and he made the decision right then to enlist. He had had one year of ROTC which was required. His uncle had served in the army in France and another uncle served in the navy in the Atlantic during World War II. At the time he did not think too much about the conflict in Vietnam. Schein knew he was gay well before he entered the military but never felt discriminated against. There were a few times when it became an issue to him but the people around were not aware of it or were not concerned about it.
He entered the Navy in Sept, 1963 after graduating from Rutgers University and went to Navy Officers Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island until Feb. 1964. The training was rigorous. He stayed in an old WWII building that was drafty and cold. He lived with hundreds of people in very small quarters and was busy all day. He took class, studied and trained. He recalls coping with training, “I have a habit which has served me well not to look too far down the road when something isn’t pleasant. Instead of looking at something that is going to take 4 months to do, I look at getting through the first day. Before you know it you are done.” He was commissioned as an ensign in February 1964 which is equivalent to a second lieutenant. His strongest memory was finding out Kennedy had been assassinated when he was cleaning toilets in the barracks. He drove to Manhattan later that day to spend Thanksgiving with friends and he recalls the streets were empty.
Schein was first assigned to the USS Yorktown based out of Pensacola, Florida where he was a division officer in charge of about 60 sailors. The Yorktown was built during WWII and was now a training carrier for student naval aviators to practice landings and takeoffs. The rooms were small and the officers lived in staterooms. Many people complained about the food but there were movies for entertainment. Overall, the morale on the ship was good. Schein found this interesting because life on a ship was not comfortable and very restrictive but the men had a good attitude. About 95% of the navy was volunteer and there were no draftees on the ship so he felt morale was higher because of this. Schein was involved with training and helped coordinate with shore training squadrons. He also handled extensive administrative activities. The ship was so big that people sometimes got lost. The ship went back and forth in the Gulf of Mexico between Corpus Christi, Texas and Florida. He had a lot of fun and was even in the backseat of T28’s during carrier landings and take offs. The ship also made several trips to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and up to South Carolina. When he went ashore he visited many historical sites. Schein recalls, “Each assignment was a bit of a mystery and you get excited about it. I always found it interesting to take on a new assignment. You were going to meet a lot of new people.” His highest rank at this assignment was Lieutenant junior grade.
From 1965-1966 he went to Panama and worked in the Office of Naval Intelligence, He did a lot of reporting but the specifics were top secret. His job was classified and he had top security clearance. He could not let anyone know he was gay because if they found out he would have been discharged. The people he worked with were very skilled, both military and civilian. They were knowledgeable about military affairs in Latin America and around the world. This work was an integral part of national defense. He went through the Panama Canal about 50-60 times. His rank at this time was Lieutenant junior grade.
In 1967 he was sent back to the Yorktown in Pensacola to help coordinate between onshore to ship flight training. He was the coordinator for naval aviation students and helped train them on missions to the ship. Schein went back and forth between the ship and shore regularly. It was a very specific coordination so the training squadrons knew exactly where the ship was going to be for students to practice takeoffs and landings. There was a lot of technical work, training 3-4 sessions a day.
Schein explained that aircraft carriers have two decks, the main deck and an angle deck which is short and used for landing with a wire. To take off you need more room and the main deck is better. One time a student attempted to take off from the angle deck, landed in the water and the plane flipped over. These were WWII type aircraft and very powerful. The student got out of the cockpit and a helicopter rescued him. He was taken to sick bay and the doctors were surprised to find his heart rate and other signs were identical to those recently measured ashore. Schein was at this assignment for 6 months.
He then volunteered to work as an advisor with the Vietnamese Navy. There was opposition to the war and the navy preferred to send volunteers and when the request came, he volunteered to work as an advisor with the Vietnamese Navy. He was aware of the general opposition to the war but did not have an opinion on it. He was going there to perform his duties.
He was sent to Coronado, CA where he received specialty training for three months which included learning Vietnamese. He was also trained in the tactics that were being used by the navy for river patrol in Vietnam. Everyone who went to Vietnam went through this training at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado.
The navy had three functions in Vietnam. The first was mine sweeping so the rivers would be free of mines. The Soi Rap River was the main channel into Saigon so merchant ships had to use it to go in and out of the port of Saigon. Secondly, the navy used river patrol boats which were medium sized with a fiberglass hulls and went at a high speed. These boats were heavily armed and used for offensive tactics tor out Viet Cong where intelligence said they were setting up bases. Third they trained the Vietnamese Navy to perform these so that could eventually take them over. Schein learned much about mine sweeping. He had to learn the general tactics and how to work with a foreign military force. He was also had training about survival escape resistance which he did on Whidbey Island north of Seattle. Physical training was a requirement and the soldiers would often run through the sand from Coronado to Imperial Beach. It was a very structured intense training.
After training he went directly to Vietnam. His assignment was to work with the Vietnamese Navy River Patrol Force but the unit he was assigned to was disbanded. He was transferred to be an executive officer, maintenance officer and communications officer at an American base at Nha Be from 1967-1968. He immediately began his work as executive officer and maintenance officer of River Patrol Boats and the mine sweepers. He had to make sure the boats were safe and working. They were propelled by Jacuzzi water jets. Seaweed would get caught in the jets and had to be removed. Schein had to also make sure the guns were functioning. The mine sweepers dragged under water with equipment that looked like giant scissors. A mine that was submerged with a cable and sunk at the bottom could have the cables cut. These were wooden hull boats because some of the mines were magnetic and a metal hull ship might detonate the mine.
While there, he was also a communications officer and made sure all the communications were effective. He had general administrative duties which included defense of the base which was often attacked with mortars. When attacked, they would have to stop everything they were doing and go into a defensive position. They had a perimeter base defense set up that Schein was in charge of. It used containers that were filled with ammunition and had 50 caliber machine guns mounted on the top. This gave served as defense around the base. Everyone had assignments. Schein remembers, “These were not serious attacks but thy were dangerous. Everyone knew where to go to be safe and what to do because these attacks would happen without warning day or night.”
There was once a shortage of antibiotics at the base. On one occasion Schein made a special trip to the Navy Command in Saigon to obtain the needed antibiotics and they were able get them to the base overnight.
Although this was not part of his duties, Schein helped maintain good relations with the people in the village. It was a fishing village and they were not used to outsiders. He got to know the mayor of the village and his family. He also taught English at a local high school once a week. He got books from the U.S. Agency for International Development in English. It was expected the war would end and the current Vietnamese government would survive. Knowing English would be very important for the people. They all wanted to learn the language. The students in Asia were very different than the U.S. They called him professor. For one assignment Schein assigned a lesson that was a restaurant scene. The next day he asked for volunteers to come up and act out the scene. He got strange looks from the students because they had memorized the assignment and thought Schein did not think they did their work. He never asked for volunteers again. Many times he was invited to the homes of students for dinner. They were extremely poor and lived in houses with dirt floors but there were often porcelain plates for dinner. He realized that the village only had two sets of china plates and when one family had a guest they would get the plates from the last family that had the china. He served 1 ½ years at this assignment.
When he returned he did not feel he was mistreated by the American people. However, many people did not want talk about the war. Schein recalls, “It seemed rather abrupt. I was resentful because I did have stories I wanted to share and people did not seem interested in them.”
In 1968 Schein was due to be discharged. He had been assigned to a training base in Little Creek, Virginia. He was asked to re-enlist and said he would if he could go back to California. He went back to Coronado, training students who were going to Vietnam.
While in Coronado, because of his background in Asian history from college he taught Vietnamese history along with counterinsurgency. He also taught river marine boat patrol tactics, survival tactics, and escape and resistance training which including conducting a mock POW camp where he was the commandant. His classes ranged from 1to 400 students and sometimes included captains and admirals.
During Schein’s military experience there were several occasions he witnessed sailors being discharged because of their sexual orientation. The military’s attitude was that if you were gay you would be discharged with no recourse. Until the mid-1990s, you could not be in any branch of the service and be gay. Later when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy came it was possible to be gay provided that you did not reveal or discuss it. Before this policy there were active efforts to find out if people were gay. There were many servicemen and women discharged from WWII through the 1990s because of active efforts to seek them out. Many of the sailors Schein knew did not care about the issue but the navy did care. There were jokes and stories aboard ship about people who were gay but most of the sailors did not have any issue with it.
During Schein’s service, the Office of Naval Intelligence handled military intelligence and criminal activity. Schein was part of this organization in Panama. One time a sailor from a ship in the Panama Canal was in the process of being discharged because he was gay. The investigators were civilians and the sailors in question had to admit their sexual orientation but that had to be certified by a commissioned officer. One day Schein was called in to be that person and certify that man had admitted his was gay. Schein was 23 years old at the time. At first he did not think it was unusual. He thought they just wanted his signature, until he was in the room and realized what was happening. He recalls, “This was one of my most difficult experiences in the navy because I was in a room in effect participating in the discharge of someone who was gay. I was too, but they did not know that. I signed the form, but the realization of what I had just done has troubled me ever since.”
In Vietnam, there was a young man who had gone into Saigon on leave and apparently encountered some gay Vietnamese people. His sexual orientation became known and he was discharged. Schein remembers being very upset for two reasons. One that it was happening and two that he was a really good worker. Today he thinks about how offensive it was for someone to be discharged because they are gay.
There was a humorous incident that happened to him during his service. Schein remembers, “One man assumed I was gay and he was trying to out me but he was not smart enough to do that. This was like a game because each time that he tried to create a situation where I might become obvious I was able to deflect him. Nothing came of it but it became annoying.”
Schein was discharged in Coronado in June, 1970. He left the navy because he knew his sexual orientation would eventually become an issue and end his career. In those days if you left before 20 years you did not get benefits. He decided it was not worth investing the time to stay longer and lose it all after 12 or 13 years. He states, “It was terrible discrimination but the military was only following their guidelines. They were not concerned with the effect it would have on an individual’s career or life afterwards.”
He received 5 medals in the while in the Navy 2 for being in Vietnam. He then took time off to re-acclimate to civilian life. He travelled to the east coast and met many people who were hippies and anti-war. He learned a lot through traveling. He also took accounting classes at San Diego State University. He then took a job as an auditor in Washington DC with the Department of Health and Human Services analyzing expenditures. After this, he worked with the Social Security Department and was in charge of a team of auditors. He wanted to return to San Diego but found a job in San Francisco where he later retired. He made lifelong friends from the military and stays in touch with them today. Three have passed away and each time, strong memories of his navy years came back.
Schein is a life-long Republican and 1964 Barry Goldwater supporter. He is currently the President of the Marin Log Cabin Republicans and formerly of the San Francisco chapter which he originally joined in the 1980s. He served as secretary of the San Francisco chapter before becoming president. He is on the Marin County Republican Central Committee and a delegate to the California Republican Party. He is also the Chapter Development Chair of the Log Cabin of California. He gives talks to college Republican groups and other Central Committees about Log Cabin. He is founder and a long time board member of the Mill Valley Dog Park. He is former President of SAGA-North Gay Ski and Boarding Club and a former commissioner of the San Francisco Gay Softball league where he managed teams that played in the Gay World Series.
He remembers the scariest part of his services was the first time he was attacked in Vietnam because the enemy surprised the unit. He was afraid because he did not know what the outcome was going to me. He recalls “I did not know if the attack was going to be a minor one, which most of them were after that. Fear often comes because it is unexpected. You do what you have to do and it is only until later that you might have been worried about something.”
Schein does not feel he made a sacrifice but others did. He saw three people killed in Vietnam. He was about 3 feet from someone that was killed. The sailor was only 19 years old and Schein still thinks of him. The other two were also fairly close to him. He states, “Those three men made a sacrifice I didn’t. He feels the Vietnam War was a mistake. “We did not do anything there that in the context of the time was incorrect, but looking at it from a strategic standpoint, I think President Johnson’s decisions were not correct. They were based on his experiences from WWII.” Schein explained in the longer perspective had the war not occurred southeast Asia would be pretty much as it is. He feels some wars have a long term benefit but Vietnam did not. He traveled to Washington D.C. to see the Wall and found the names of the three men who had been killed. He thought about what they might be doing today. He doesn’t feel his outlook on life has changed dramatically. He has always been a very patriotic American. He tries to apply the experiences he had in the military to his ordinary life.
He feels men and women wanting to serve should join. The military gave him skills that could be transferred to civilian life. He stated, “You have to work closely with people, you may like or dislike and that is something you learn early.” His slightly humorous advice on life is to make as much money as soon as you can, so you can do things later in life that your work may have prevented earlier.
Schein’s courage to enlist in the Vietnam War with an underlying knowledge that he could not be himself demonstrates his sacrifice and dedication to our country. His patriotism is an inspiration.
Interviewed by Anna Lonsway on July 13, 2016.