My Vietnam Decision: Join or Be Drafted

Larry Hudson had never contemplated going to college — it wasn’t a common goal for African American young men when he graduated from segregated Burney Harris High School in 1967. But, it was an uncommon time. For young men, black and white, Vietnam loomed.

“I had two classmates already killed in Vietnam,” Hudson recalls. And his brother, who was in the Air Force told him, “You’re gonna get drafted.” He was right; statistics from the first three years of the war show that while African-Americans represented 11 percent of the civilian population at the time, they represented 16.3 percent of all draftees in 1967 and 23 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam. In 1965, they accounted for nearly 25 percent of all combat deaths.

Larry Hudson College ID Card
Larry Hudson’s College ID Card from the 1970’s

A friend who was attending historically black Morristown College in Tennessee advised Hudson to talk to the school counselor. She urged him to apply for the second semester at Morristown that would begin in January 1968, and, in the meantime, to save up $400. Administrators at black colleges were sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable young black men and the need for a college deferment.

“They knew that blacks were being put in the infantry,” explains Hudson, who waited tables at the Athens Country Club to save up the tuition.

He chuckles recalling the second day at college, “They called me to the office and gave me a list of classes, and I said ‘nobody mentioned anything about going to classes.’” Hudson, who admits he’d been much more interested in football than books in high school, found the classes harder than he expected and the requirement to maintain a C average more than he was prepared for. He came home after that semester and it wasn’t too long before he got a draft notice.

“I ran down to the post office and raced up the stairs [to the recruitment office],” he says. He took his brother’s advice and signed up for the Air Force, passing the entrance exam by 10 points. When his friends queried whether he was going to fly airplanes; he joked, “Sure, probably on weekends.” In fact, at that time, African Americans were channeled into support roles.

Hudson trained in Texas, Illinois, and Florida, noting “it was the first time I had been around white guys,” the ratio of white to black in his classes was about 70/30, he says. He and a white classmate from Philadelphia, Miss. often took the train to Chicago during tech school, and double dated with girls they met at their favorite restaurant, a White Castle. But in Tampa, a local restaurant refused to serve Hudson and others in a mixed-race group, resulting in a melee. Luckily, the police took them all back to the base.

Finally, after a year and half of training, he was assigned to the Philippines. When he asked an instructor where that was he was told, “you’re going to paradise.” Hudson would work as a cryogenic fluid specialist, servicing the fighter jets stationed at Clark Air Force Base. After four years, he decided not to re-enlist, and came back to Athens in 1973. Although he was concerned about being back here because there was so much racial unrest, he went out to the state’s Youth Development Center to apply for an opening.

“Are you a veteran?” the interviewer asked before Hudson even filled out the application form. When he responded yes, the man then asked “Can you start tomorrow?”

Hudson retired from the state as a juvenile corrections officer in 2002, after 33 years.

Betsy Bean
Betsy Bean
Betsy Bean completed graduate school at UGA in 1972. She was a school librarian for a year and then became a rock and roll DJ for the next 10. Subsequently, she worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, followed by public relations and marketing and newsletter publishing and was, more recently, the downtown development director for the City of Anniston, Ala.

Get in Touch

  1. Do any of the readers happen to remember Fred L. Thomas (1943-1966), who was raised in Greene County (later in Athens) by his grandmother and his aunt — Mrs. Kate Thomas and Lillie (Mrs. Abe) Thomas? I’ve talked with his cousin, Mrs. Hattie Whitehead, as well as Mr. Charles Stroud, of Burney-Harris Alumni Association, and they have searched for a photograph of Private 1st Class Thomas for The Wall of Faces …to no avail. If you knew Fred Thomas, do you recall which school(s) he attended, or have some idea where else we might look for just one photograph of him? Any and all assistance honoring this man’s sacrifice is greatly appreciated. -Mary DeWitt, VVMF Volunteer (870) 376-2990

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