Radio Free Devens

In 1971, Medic, Robert Bowman and Marcus Gaufman were among the active-duty soldiers who met weekly at the Common Sense Bookstore in Ayer, Massachusetts. Located less than a mile from Fort Devens, the book store, the converted first floor of a single-family house, was overseen by college grad activists Peter Hagerty, and Paul and Claire Grace. GIs were welcome to buy books or just hang out. Legal counseling and referrals were on hand. David Rubin of Boston University led a weekly poetry workshop. From time to time there were gatherings in the yard out back. The bookstore also distributed The Morning Report, a covert mimeographed broadside written by GIs at Devens. Its strident articles denounced the war, the brass, the U.S. government.

Radio Free Devens was likely the only active duty GI antiwar radio show broadcast by a commercial station during the Vietnam war. Whose idea was it? Once a week Peter Hagerty drove Marcus, Bob, a black GI named Ron, and myself to rock station WAAF—107.3 on your FM dial—located in downtown Worcester. We had an hour of air time, and access to a large collection of LPs. Our live shows were planned at the book store. Between songs by Dylan, Baez and the like, we read poetry and anti-war rants. Once, while reading Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” I nearly broke down. A satire I’d written about a pestering black NCO gave his name and unit. When I returned to the barracks he was not pleased. Marcus and Bob read items they’d written in David Rubin’s workshop. It was said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) monitored the show. One day, Ron—who directed his radical remarks to black GIs—was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, never to be heard from again.

According to Peter Hagerty’s memoir Out Watering Horses, the bookstore too was under Army surveillance. After a CID agent was injured in a fake drug bust—the agent played the part of a drug-addled GI—Peter decided he’d had enough. Four months after it opened, the bookstore shut down. Radio Free Devens went silent.

I returned to Ft. Devens in 2006. The once-thriving PX, an enormous hanger-like warehouse, sat abandoned, its linoleum aisles and packed shelves empty, inhabited only by ghosts. The rotted roof of the movie theater—it was here that I saw Franco Zefferilli’s Romeo and Juliette, admission 35 cents—appeared ready to crash to the ground. Inside, the regimented rows of plush seats had all but vanished. The once brightly lit marquee hovered mid-air in a pitiful state.

Farther west, the ivy-covered red brick JAG compound, where deals were done, careers were made, and punishments fair and foul were meted out, lay deserted, a shell of itself in criminal neglect. As was the nearby brick barrack where, in the dead of winter, returned from war, I announced to portly First Sergeant Weiner, “I don’t pull guard duty, Sarge.” I had packed an AWOL bag, and added as I walked past, “I’m going to Boston. See you in three days.” On my return I was given an Article 15, the army equivalent of a traffic ticket, but the look on his face was worth it.

A few miles up the road, the sprawling base hospital, a World War II relic whose labyrinthine halls were daily mopped, waxed and buffed, had been mercifully torn down. It was here, on the Med/Surg ward, that I tended to the jolly wounded LRRP who would not part with his M1950 magnetic compass, which he wore round his neck on a sweat-soaked lanyard. And where I daily stuffed Iodoform gauze into the still shocked out lieutenants right thigh, gradually healing, having been ripped apart by an AK round.

It was here too that I slowly turned over in his bed the groaning young sergeant shot in the hip. A few beds down lay the handsome foot-injured captain, who carried on with the beautiful nurse on the back porch where, on Friday nights, nearly all the ward casualties smoked smuggled-in pot. And where I tended to stateside Kevin, a tall lanky young man who one freezing night, tripping on LSD, wandered barefoot for hours in heavy snow. His feet were frozen solid, the toes turned gangrenous black, his mind an acid blank. And so it went. The casualties, stateside and war time, just kept coming.

About twenty years ago, by great coincidence I met David Rubin at a writers workshop in Boston. He showed me a poem I’d written in one of his bookstore classes, which he’d kept all this time.

Paul Grace became a lawyer and labor arbitrator. He and Claire live in Washington state.

Peter Hagerty and his wife Marty Tracey (whom I met at the bookstore and was stunned by her beauty) live in Maine, where Peter, an environmental activist, is a horse logger and sheep farmer. The Hagerty’s also own and operate Peace Fleece, a wool co-op. I didn’t know until recently that after being discharged from the Navy for refusing to certify the safety of a defective gun-mount, Peter traveled to Vietnam to counsel imprisoned soldiers. One night, at a Buddhist monastery in the Mekong Delta, he met four Viet Cong who had visited there on leave to seek advice from the famous Coconut Monk. The encounter changed the way Peter viewed the enemy.

In 2013 I queried the Army about Radio Free Devens and the CID. No criminal investigation existed, they said. Or maybe they preferred not to share it. Stay tuned.


Top image: In 1945 WWII vet Zenas Sears began his career as a disc jockey who pioneered African-American popular Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Soul music. He promoted and arranged live performances from artists like Tommy Brown, Billy Wright, Chuck Willis and Little Richard. His radio station WAOK was responsible for the 1959 live recording of the best-selling album “Ray Charles in Person.” Sears was also an important supporter of the American civil rights movement. See Campaign for Independent Broadcasting.

The Morning Report 1971-1972

Dulce Et Decorum Est

The Coconut Monk

Peter Hagerty/Forest Carbon Project

Whatever happened to WAAF?

Specimen Days, by Walt Whitman