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Page 25
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Operation Peace on Earth and Statue of Liberty

By Bobby Clarke

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Operation Peace on Earth and the takeover of the Statue of Liberty began for me with an ad I saw for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Playboy magazine. It really caught my attention! I was still enlisted in the USAF at Homestead AFB near Miami, Florida, arriving there after two consecutive years in Thailand loading munitions on F4 jet fighter bombers. That piqued my curiosity about the group.

After my discharge in April 1971—I missed Dewey Canyon III—I returned to my hometown Pittsburgh. I hooked up with a couple of my high school friends and we went to DC for Mayday. I have somehow been able to erase most of that memory except that I was not arrested. It was not long after that I read in Pittsburgh's underground newspaper the Fair Witness that VVAW met in the same building where the paper had its offices and printing press. There were not many of us to start. But I ended running the chapter and meetings. This led to—I'm not sure officially or unofficially—me becoming the regional coordinator for Western Pennsylvania. I attended the August 1971 Regional Coordinators meeting in Kansas City where the concept for Operation Peace on Earth came about. Who remembers that meeting? I talked to John Kerry at the meeting about him leaving the organization.

Valley Forge was symbolically chosen by the leadership in Philadelphia because of George Washington's "Winter Soldier" and its proximity to both Philadelphia and New York City. I had never met Ray Grodecki or Gene Halpern until we were camped out at Valley Forge. They both quietly rounded up several of us where we gathered in one of the tents. Ray had done reconnaissance of the Statue of Liberty partially funded by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, he told me later. After the plan was laid out Ray and Gene asked who was in. I didn't really know most of the 14 vets who volunteered. There were also to be demonstrations in Philadelphia that needed manpower. This took place on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas day we headed out to New Jersey to Gene Halpern's house where we solidified plans. We spent the night and headed for New York City on the 26th. I remember that Nixon resumed bombing North Vietnam that day. We were pissed!! We made some sandwiches that we were able to hide under our big overcoats so that we had some food as we had no idea how long we would be inside the Statue. We arrived at the ferry and the group took several ferries over. I remember being on the very last ferry that day. The group was to mill around until close to closing time when we would assemble at the steps up to the crown. The stairway to the crown is a very narrow spiral that as you stand on them you can only see several people in front of or behind you. This helped make our "operation" successful. Partway up the stairwell there is a cage-like doorway that leads to a ladder in the arm up to the torch. Several of my SOL brothers have written about how we pulled this off. One of our brothers was able to pull the cage door open enough for one of us to squeeze through. As this was happening, we had one brother at the tail end not letting any tourists who may have gotten in line behind us up the stairwell. We hung off that ladder until our scout at the top could see out through the torch when the last tourist and employee ferry left the island. We then came down and assembled in the crown. We sent two scouts down into the main building to make sure that everyone was gone. There happened to be one night watchman that one of our scouts discovered. He let the man know we were from VVAW and that we were taking over the Statue as a protest for ending the Vietnam War. The guard wanted no part of it and left through a back entrance that we were able to secure so that no one could get in that way. The Statue was under construction inside and there were building materials that we used to barricade and secure the main entrance. Our mission was a success at this point. If my memory serves me correctly, we made a group decision that the only way we would leave was to be arrested.

We informed the VVAW office in New York City who in turn informed major press affiliates. We gave the office the pay phone numbers inside the main building. We received calls from press all over the world. I remember talking to someone from France. Throughout the next two days, many press were outside the main entrance along with various law enforcement agencies although it was the National Park Service police who had jurisdiction. The event was Walter Cronkite's lead story on the 27th evening news. It was written up in my hometown paper the Pittsburgh Press. We hung a flag upside down from the crown as a symbol of distress. On the 28th a judge in New York City ruled that if we did not leave that the police were going to break in and arrest us. The group again took a vote and we narrowly decided to leave peacefully. We firmly believed we made our point through the awesome global media attention we received on how we as a group of Vietnam veterans were against the US aggression against the country of Vietnam and wanted to bring our brother's home.

I'm sure we made a statement as we left the Lady. Gene must have said something to the press. Photos were taken which have been published by VVAW in the past. The New York City office arranged for us to be taken to a private room in a Manhattan restaurant. There we had a meal and were given Statue of Liberty postcards from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I'm so bummed I don't have mine today as I have so much memorabilia.

It was only recently that I discovered that VVAW had a FaceBook group that I joined and have been able to connect with a few of the brothers I knew back in the early '70s when I was actively involved. This December will mark 50 years since the first takeover. Jim Murphy and I have discussed having coffee at the Lady on December 26th to commemorate. There are details that I wish I could remember from this memorable event. Paul Fisher's audio account with Jim Murphy and Don Carrico is a great listen! I have done a lot of reflection and research to make my account of the takeover as fresh as possible.

Bobby Clarke, Simpsonville SC, USAF 67-71,10 years in the entertainment business, 30 years in IT, 12 in Cybersecurity, retired 2017. Train and coach at Five Forks CrossFit since 2013.

The 14 Remaining Veteran Participants are invited to have coffee with Jim Murphy at the Statue of Liberty on Sunday, December 26, 2021...and this time he will pay. <murphyvetsfor@gmail.com>

Statue of Liberty Occupation - December, 1971.

Coming out after VVAW's takeover of the Statue of Liberty - December 28, 1971.
Bobby Clarke, front row, third from left.

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