Blood on the Tracks: Berkeley Daily Planet

Blood on the Tracks: Life And Times of S. Brian Wilson

by Gar Smith
Berkeley Daily Planet
July 12, 2011

It’s a good sign when the testimonials on the back of a 440-page autobiography include the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ed Asner and Martin Sheen. But that only hints at the praise directed at S. Brian Willson’s long-awaited memoir. The testimonials continue on the inside—for another seven pages—and include plaudits from Cindy Sheehan, William Blum, Kris Kristofferson, Norman Solomon, Peter Dale Scott, Cynthia McKinney and Country Joe McDonald.

This whopping epic (published by Oakland’s feisty PM Press) tells the story of a Vietnam-era soldier who entered the war as a red-blooded small-town recruit and emerged as a die-hard dissident, driven to expose and oppose not only warfare in general but also the US’ unique role in spreading military terror around the world.

Willson returned home to become a leading war resister—a man whose dogged determination to confront the war machine lead him to fast on the steps of the US capital and eventually cost him both legs—severed on September 1, 1987, when he was run over by an ammunitions-filled locomotive on the first day of a nonviolent protest on the railroad tracks leading to the Concord Weapons Station.

As Daniel Ellsberg notes in his powerful introduction, “Viet Nam was not a mistake any more than the Iraq War is a mistake . . . They are part of a pattern of brutality written into our country’s DNA.” Americans seem to feel that “it is our manifest destiny as exceptional people to gain ever more material goods, even at the expense of anyone and everyone else, and the earth. We continue to treat others as inferiors.”

Before embarking on his self-styled “psychohistorial memoir,” Willson lays down some grammatical ground rules. His manuscript does not refer to US citizens as “Americans” but as “US Americans” arguing that “it is presumptive and arrogant to do so, considering that the USA is but one country of many on the American continents.” Willson’s book also insists on capitalizing the phrase: American Way of Life. “As an acronym,” he explains, “it signifies being AWOL (‘absent without leave’ in military jargon) from our humanity and the natural systems of the planet that sustains us.”

Born on the Fourth of July

Like other autobiographies, Blood draws us back through the author’s childhood. The son of a rabidly conservative salesman, Willson grew up in the small-town ambiance of central New York State where he learned to revere the military and fear the “communist threat.” Like fellow vet and activist Ron Kovic, Willson was born on the Fourth of July. He was a member of his high school honor society and a standout athlete on the baseball diamond and the basketball court. His family’s John Birch/Barry Goldwater worldview suffered its first small fractures at Eastern Baptist College when he happened across a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He decided to abandon his plans to enter the Baptist ministry and instead enrolled to study law at the American University in Washington, DC.

Willson’s plans to become a lawyer were derailed by a draft notice that arrived in March 1966. He enlisted in the Air Force and within three months was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Willson’s depictions of combat training are revelatory. Commanded to plunge a bayonet into a dummy 100 times while screaming “Kill! Kill!” Willson’s body freezes in revulsion. “In my head I wanted to comply” he writes, “but my body stubbornly refused to cooperate . . . Much later, I came to understand that the human body has its own wisdom, one older than the thinking mind.”

Auto da Fein Viet Nam

Willson’s education continued in Viet Nam, an experience that he captures in a cavalcade of stunning, surrealistic scenes, events and encounters. Here’s just a taste: “One evening while watching pornographic movies on the patio of the officer’s club, pilots were eating steaks and drinking beer with their Vietnamese whores when the siren went off warming of potential incoming.”

In one poignant recollection, Willson writes of a rare invitation to share dinner at the home of a Vietnamese family. After the meal, the family asked to sing a “special song.” It was called “Ode to Norman Morrison” and was dedicated to a US anti-war activist who set himself afire beneath Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office window. In a stunning aside, Willson pauses to note that Morrison was not the only US citizen to immolate himself to protest the war. “There were at least eight others from March 1965 to May 1970, ranging from 16 to 82 years of age, including three women. Five of the immolations occurred in California.”

As an intelligence officer, Willson began to doubt the rationale of the military’s “free-fire zones,” which allowed pilots to strafe and bomb farming villages on the flimsiest of suspicions. His concerns were dismissed and he was warned not to become a “gook-loving kook.” Willson’s worst fears were confirmed when a Vietnamese lieutenant invited him along to inspect a recently bombed village in Vinh Long Province.

“I didn’t see one person standing,” Willson writes. “Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and machine gun wounds, many blackened by napalm beyond recognition; the majority were obviously children. I began sobbing and gaggin . . . I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed. I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes . . . Napalm had melted much of the woman’s face, including her eyelids, but as I focused on her face, it seem that her eyes were starring at me.”

The full horror of America’s war in Viet Nam settled deep inside Willson’s soul that day. “I could not talk about this experience for twelve years, and the thought of it still creates tremors in my body,” he confides in his book. “I often find myself crying at the thought of it, and at times feel a rage that nearly chokes me.”

A Warrior for Peace

Confessions like this make understandable his transformation into a relentless critic of US military interventions. Willson’s experience as a combat officer made him a formidable critic in the anti-war movement—and a target of covert government surveillance. Working with Veterans Against War, War Resisters League, and Veterans Fast for Life eventually took Willson (in the company of singer/actor/activist/veteran Kris Kristofferson) to Central America, where the US was waging a secret war against the revolutionary government in Nicaragua.

To Washington’s mounting anger, Willson visited hospitals to visit victims of US-backed “Contra” attacks, protested outside the US Embassy in Managua and addressed 300,000 Nicaraguans at the Plaza of the Revolution on November 8, 1986.

On his return to the US, Willson was determined to find an enhanced strategy to confront Pentagon brutality—some tactic that carried more moral force than mere words, fasting or vigils. With his friends Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe, David Hartsough and others, Willson decided to revive the historic peace vigil outside the gates of the Concord Naval Weapons Station—the major transshipment point for US weapons being sent overseas.

Showdown at the Concord Weapons Station

“After a couple of weeks of seeing so many trucks and trains pass slowly by our vigil, visibly loaded with rockets and bombs, I started ‘seeing’ bodies inside the boxcars.” It may have been latent Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Willson reflects, but “all I knew was that the rockets and bombs we saw on flatbed railcars looked, to me, like bodies of the dead.”

This chilling vision drove Willson to envision a form of confrontational protest that was to prove even more dangerous than he could have imagined. He resolved to begin a 40-day fast that would take place on the very rails leading into the Weapons Station.

The protest was named the “Nuremberg Actions.” The vigil was intended to call attention to the fact that Washington’s Central American wars were illegal under both the US Constitution and international law. And, further, that the Nuremberg Principles—enunciated during the famous trials that held German Nazi officials to account for atrocities conducted during WWII—compel citizens to not only “refrain from participating” in illegal government acts but also to actively oppose them, even if that means breaking other laws.

The Nuremburg Action statement read in part: “Once the train carrying the munitions moves past our human blockage, if it does, other human beings in other parts of the world will be killed and maimed . . . We are not worth more. They are not worth less . . . It is worth giving our lives to save theirs.”
“We assumed we would be arrested and made plans to fast in jail as well,” Willson recalls. This was an honest assumption. Previous protests at the weapons station had all concluded with arrests and jail terms. In addition, the base had safety protocols in place that held train traffic to a slow 5 mph. Train operators were instructed to halt trains whenever there were any obstructions on the tracks (a sensible rule, given that the trains were loaded with tons of high-explosives).

The Navy Decides to Go for a Kill

But on September 1, 1987, someone in the military chain-of-command decided to play by different rules. There were early signs. For the first time, extra security (a show of armed marines wearing flak jackets and brandishing M-16s) was trotted out. One shouted out to Hartsough: “There is going to be violence today.”

The protest had been widely announced—to the base commander, to politicians and government officials, to the press. It was clearly stated: “Fasters will not move for approaching rail traffic.” The morning was sunny and clear as Willson and fellow fasters Duncan Murphy and David Duncombe took their positions on the railway track at 11:40 a.m. A weapons train was seen approaching the Weapons Station but it pulled to a stop several hundred feet away from the vigil. The protesters were clearly visible to the two men standing on the front of the engine to act as “spotters.”

Slowly the train began to move. And as it bore down on the three men, the engine began to pick up speed. Instead of 5 mph, videos of the incident revealed the train was travelling upwards of 15 mpg when it struck Willson and, at the moment of impact, it was accelerating. Duncan suffered a gashed shin but Willson, as he attempted to rise from a seating position and move off the tracks, took the full brunt of the locomotive.

Horrified onlookers watched as Willson’s body was smashed beneath the train and bounced 20 feet down the track “like a rag doll.” In the process, the train amputated both of Willson’s legs just below the knee, leaving his boots, with his severed legs and feet still inside, scattered alongside the rails. One arm was torn open and a large part of Willson’s skull was ripped away, exposing his brain.
Willson credits his wife Holly (with her training as a midwife) and former Green Beret medic Gerry Condon for stopping the bleeding and saving his life.

The military attempted to spin the story, portraying the near-murder as an “accident” but eyewitnesses and videotapes told a different story. After a long and painful recovery, Willson sued the government. In the course of the subsequent investigations, it was revealed that the train crew had been given special instructions that day to proceed without stopping. The train crew’s defense in the “Nuremberg Actions” case was ironic: They insisted they were “only following orders.”

“When the Naval command gave the order to move the train forward, the message was that the government was willing to murder us in order to protect their cargo, cars full of weapons designed to kill other people.” Like the napalmed villagers in Viet Nam, “like the eleven campesinos I saw being carried to their graves in Esteli [Nicaragua], we were in the way of empire. We had to be eliminated.”

But the War Machine was stopped that day. After running over Willson, the locomotive and its cargo of rockets and bombs braked to a halt outside the Weapons Station. And as word spread about what our government had done that day, the people of the Bay Area decided to rise up rebel against intimidation.
The next day, as Willson remained unconscious in a hospital bed recovering from multiple surgeries, thousands of nonviolent activists—including Joan Baez—descended on the Weapons Station. They chanted and sang and then they rolled up their sleeves and began tearing up the tracks that had been used to carry US-made bombs, rockets and ammunition to waiting ships. Inspired by Willson’s sacrifice, the people united and actually stopped the Pentagon’s War Machine.

The story of Willson’s near-death experience only takes us to the middle of this detailed (536 footnotes!) and fascinating autobiography. The middle of the book also offers a special treasure—a 60-page book-within-a-book filled with a stunning collection of photos that recapitulate the author’s amazing life and travels.

A Man in Motion

S. Brian Willson continues to be a man in motion. Four months after being crushed beneath a speeding locomotive, Willson was back on his (new, prosthetic) feet, participating in an anti-war protest on the steps of the US Capitol with Dan Ellsberg, Ed Asner and others. He soon resumed a full campaign of agitating, actively waging peace with fact-finding trips to Central America, Palestine, Iraq, Panama City, El Salvador, Cuba, and Haiti.

These days, however, Brian has stopped flying. He refuses to promote polluting forms of travel that stoke climate change. He has designed and built his own sustainable home, powered by solar panels. He has replaced the engine on his 1984 Chevy pickup truck with an electric motor.

S. Brian Willson is currently embarked on a “carbon-free” book tour to promote Blood on the Tracks. You won’t have any problem spotting Brian out on the highway. He’ll be the one traveling down the road in an “arm-powered handcycle” beneath a whip-pole flying the flag of Veterans for Peace.

Local Book Tour Appearances:  

Wednesday, July 13
7:00 PM — 8:30 PM

Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center
55 Eckley Lane
Walnut Creek, CA
Thursday, July 14
7:00 PM — 9:30 PM

CommunityChurch of Sebastopol
1000 Gravenstein Hwy N.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Friday, July 15
7:30 PM — 9:30 PM

First United Methodist Church
9 Ross Valley Dr
San Rafael, CA 94901
Sunday, July 17
Noon — 1:30. First Unitarian Church
1187 Franklin Street (at Geary)
San Francisco, CA
Monday, July 18
6:00 PM — 9:30 PM

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists
1924 Cedar St
Berkeley, CA 94709By Paul Thissen with contributions from Lou Fancher

Back to the S. Brian Willson’s Author Page