Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Last time on Warriors In Their Own Words we heard from Chief Warrant Officer Jim White, and today we’ll hear the rest of his story. White served in the Marine Corps before transferring to the Army to become a helicopter pilot. After returning home from Vietnam, White was sent to prison, and he ended up spending 38 years behind bars. While encarcerated, he created a program that helped over 1500 inmates earn college degrees, and raised over $350,000 dollars for various causes by organizign walkathons and fundraisers.
CW2 Jim White:
So, we jumped off from Quảng Trị and went to Khe Sanh, reopened Khe Sanh. In fact, I was interviewed there by a newscaster and he asked me what I thought of Khe Sanh and I said, "I was here with the Marines in '68 when they threw us out." Actually, I'd flown there in 66 and 67, as well. And I said, "When they're tired of us being here, they'll throw us out," and that's what happened. Three months later, we were... Not even three months, two months later, we were ousted out of Khe Sanh.
But the missions I went to, I transferred to a Cav unit and I went back to flying the little helicopters, the Loach 086s. And that's three top level and if you're an adrenaline junkie, it's very exciting. But I did that and I stayed with them flying Loaches until the summer probably, I think it was in August, September, I left and came back to the States. I came back to Fort Bragg and I was assigned to a aviation unit as the maintenance officer.
The problem was that when I went and took my flight physical, I failed it. I've lost my hearing in my left ear and that was due in some shrapnel and probably years of being around helicopters without any ear protection, which was common in the old days. Plus flying, you didn't have ear protection other than the helmet back then. So, I'm totally deaf in my left ear. I failed the the flight physical and I left the military.
And leaving the military was very difficult for me because I loved it. I really, really loved it. And I had at that time, 13 years invested in it and to me, it was just the greatest time of my life. And one of the reasons was that my dad was a doctor and he was a medical research guy and he was pretty well known. And I was an only child. And one of the problems was, I was always known as his son, his son. I was never known, even as a kid, as my own person. And when I went in the military, they didn't care who your dad was. And this was really, for me, a great thing. I became my own man, so to speak. And so when I left the military, it was shattering, let's just say that. I didn't know what I was going to do. The economy was pretty rough back then. There weren't many helicopter jobs around. But I was lucky enough that I got on and flying first for a oil company, and then I went to work for a company that supported flying for the oil company, called Era Helicopters, E-R-A, in Alaska. And I flew with them for a while. But my wife didn't want to live in Alaska, between the cold weather, she just didn't want it. And I really loved it, but I spent a couple years doing that. Went to South Africa for a year, flying there. And then came home to nothing, and I just was not happy. I did not use drugs and, I drank, but just purely socially, I wasn't an alcoholic. But I was just angered because I was no longer in the military and felt excluded from life. And I had a couple good job interviews and they asked my military, they said, "Were you in the military?" I said, "Yeah, I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam." And in both cases, they said, "We didn't want a Vietnam veteran."
And so I came to the West Coast. I was with them in North Carolina, we came out the West Coast, and I got a job in construction, and enjoyed, per se, the work I did, but it wasn't rewarding like flying. But I did this for a while.
And then I got arrested in 19… 1981 I got arrested. I shot and killed a guy that had molested my stepdaughter and had beat my wife pretty severely. So, I was convicted for murder in the state of California and received a life without the possibility of parole sentence. And I believe, and I'm not crying over it, but I believe the reason I got that sentence was that, and I'll quote the DA, "I'm just another psychopathic Vietnam veteran let loose on society to kill at whim." It was at the heart of you watch TV at night, The Streets of San Francisco, all the cop shows, they were all about Vietnam veterans that were druggies, that were killing people, robbing people and all that. And so I understood the jury's thought pattern that this is just another crazy Vietnam veteran.
And so I went to prison. I first went to old Folsom, and when I got there, there were only about 600, 700 inmates there at that time. And I did what I could to try to start a vets group. There were quite a few veterans there and most of them were Vietnam vets. There were a lot of staff there that had served in the military and had been in Vietnam.
But after four years there, I got transferred to San Quentin. And once again, I tied up with veterans. And one of the first ones I met... And you have to understand, there was a lot of racial tension within the prison community. And I've never really bought into that whole program. I just take to somebody for how they treat me and how they act. I don't care about their color, religion or any of that stuff. I just wasn't raised that way. And so I met this guy, I saw him, his name was Geronimo Pratt. And apparently, Geronimo was the Minister of Defense for the Black Panthers. And he had been convicted for a murder, robbery, and also a shooting in Southern California at a tennis court. And he claimed his innocence. He said he wasn't there and it wasn't him. But anyway, he was convicted. And so I found out he was a vet and so he was a very influential inmate at the prison. And especially within the Black community, he was very well-respected and influential.
We were in the same building. One day I walked up to the table where he was and I asked if I could speak to him. And he said, "Yeah, what do you want?" And I said, "I heard you're a Vietnam vet." And he said, "Yes." And I said, "So am I." And I said, "Who were you with?" And he said, "The 1st Cav." And I said, "Oh, okay." I said, "I was a helicopter pilot with MACV-SOG." And for some reason, he and I clicked and we became dear friends, literally quickly because of our Vietnam connection.
And I understood, over time he explained why he was in prison. He did not kill those people. And subsequently, 30 years later, it was proven he did not kill the people, that he wasn't even in LA area. The FBI was following him and he was in San Francisco when the murders happened, and the FBI knew it, but they never said anything, they could have proved his innocence. Because there was a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, and I actually saw the letter, to the San Francisco office not to say anything because they wanted Mr. Pratt to be eliminated at all cost because of the Black Panther issue.
Anyway, in our talks, he told me about a guy named Shad Meshad. Shad Meshad ran a National Veterans Foundation out of LA and he had come to a prison and talked to a group of veterans, including Mr. Pratt. And Geronimo said, "This guy's really good, you ought to talk to him." So, I wrote a letter blind to him, to Shad, and explained who I was, how I found out about him, and basically asked him if he was ever in the area, would he stop by the prison and then we'll talk.
Also during this time, I had a pretty good job. I was a clerk for one of the associate wardens. The chief deputy warden at that time was a guy who was, I found out, a former Marine, Khe Sanh Marine, and he had been to Khe Sanh. And I went to him and I said, "I'd like to start a vets group here at the prison." And the warden shot it down, he said no. The warden at the time was not a vet and he looked at all Vietnam vets as problems. And the chief deputy said, "Do all the paperwork, but hold it." And then a couple months later, about three months later, he called me up and he called me to his office. I went in there and he said, "Look, the warden's on vacation, so give me the paperwork. I'm acting warden and I'll approve your group," and he did.
And so we had a meeting. That first meeting, I think I had 11 or 12 inmates and three staff members. And we decided to have a veterans group. And it was Vietnam veterans. Because there was a guy there that was a Korean War vet, we said we didn't want him in a group. So, we wrote our bylaws for just Vietnam veterans, that was it. And one of the guy... I said, "Look, this group's not..." I was the interim chairman and Geronimo was the interim vice chairman. And I said, "One of the ways this group's going to last is we have to do something positive in the community, whether the community's the prison or outside."
And so one of our guys, a man named Ralph Coleman, who was a former Marine at the Battle of, in 1965, Starlite, one first battles of Vietnam War. And he said, "How about let's raise money for Jerry's kids?" So, what we did was we had a walkathon on the yard and everybody, the staff, administration, they said, "Uh, it's not going to work. You guys, you're not going to do anything." And it turns out we raised over $5,000 for Jerry's kids. And so then we called up Jerry's kids and said, "Hey, we got a check for you guys for $5,000 from San Quentin Prison." And they wanted somebody from the prison to present it.
So, our sponsor, who was also a Vietnam vet Air Force PJ pararescue man, he went down with an inmate who was on minimum custody. And he took him down, they presented the check, was on the news. It was a big thing, really big thing. And the newscaster said this was the largest check that they received from Marin County. And Marin County's one of the richest counties in California. And they made a real big thing of that. The warden came down and congratulated us and he called us, "His boys." This is the same warden that said he didn't want us to have a group.
And so then we started doing positive things for the prison. We helped clean up a hospital unit there. We volunteered our time besides our work hours to paint it, to clean it, get it ready for a major inspection. And then I said, "Let's have a banquet," and so the administration approved of the banquet, and I invited Shad Meshad to the banquet, and he at the time was in Russia. And I had not physically met him. I had talked to him on the phone a couple times and written quite a lot with him.
So, he came into the prison, he was our guest speaker. And among other things, we gave a $2,000 scholarship away to a young lady whose father was in MIA, an Vietnam Air Force Pilot shot down. And once again with Shad coming in and 60 Minutes had just did his case, and when he was in Russia dealing with the Russian troops returning from their war in Afghanistan, we got a lot of news. We had three different stations, news coverage, and everything about the vets and all. Our group then was about 45 members, and they were real active. I mean really, really good.
And in fact, the chief deputy warden even said in his remarks at the banquet that we had made San Quentin a calmer place and we added maturity and what have you. So the veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, added stability, let's say, to a unstable environment.
That was SSG Leonard Goff. To hear the rest of his stories, listen to his interview on Warriors in their own Words.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.