By Sailing to Vietnam, This Swarthmore College Student Became a Campus Hero
John Braxton opposed the Vietnam War, so in 1967 he set sail with a group of Quakers to deliver medical supplies to the Vietnamese.
John Braxton (far left) on board the Phoenix of Hiroshima.
Sometime in early 1967, Swarthmore College freshman John Braxton, then 19, came home with a plan for his summer: He would fly to Japan to meet up with other Quakers and go sailing to North Vietnam.
At the time, the Vietnam War was at its peak, and the U.S. Air Force was bombing the region. There were 485,000 U.S. troops in the country, and more than 11,000 would die that year.
“Sounds awfully risky,” said Wilbert L. Braxton. Still, Braxton’s father didn’t say, “No,” so John Braxton went, becoming the youngest crewmember on the third and final voyage of the Phoenix of Hiroshima, a 50-foot, 30-ton wooden yacht. Eight months later the Phoenix arrived at Haiphong with medical supplies for North Vietnamese civilians injured by bombings. Braxton missed his fall semester, but was a “big man on campus” when he finally returned.
“What the Phoenix trips accomplished was a demonstration that Americans were willing to risk their lives to oppose the war,” said Braxton. “We were also able to bring back first-hand testimony that the U.S. government was bombing civilian areas with anti-personnel weapons,” something the government had previously denied.
The missions received intense media coverage and criticism from officials and others who supported the war. The State Department later revoked crewmembers’ passports. Many wanted the Quakers prosecuted.
Despite his tenacity, the Braxton home in North Wales was not a political cauldron. “My parents never connected their Quakerism to political activity,” said Braxton. “For them, it was more how you treated other people. And always in the background was the idea that the whole world could act this way, if only people would. There is no reason why they couldn’t.”
The Braxtons attended Gwynned Friends Meeting, and Braxton and his siblings attended Quaker summer camps. As a teen, Braxton remembered his mother, Nina, leaning on him to attend a Quaker conference on civil disobedience. “I did not want to go,” he said. “It was ‘another dumb old Quaker conference,’ but mother sort of twisted my arm.”
The conference leader turned out to be George Lakey, an activist in the 1950s ban-the-bomb movement, who then joined the civil rights movemment, during which he was arrested in a 1963 sit-in. Lakey also worked with Cesar Chavez in leading strategy workshops; taught the theory of nonviolent struggle to pro-democracy students at a guerrilla encampment in Burma; and co-led peacekeeping workshops for the African National Congress. In 1966, Lakey would co-found A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), a group of activists who found traditional Quaker organizations too timid.
“I didn’t come away from that conference thinking that it had changed my life, but there were some good experiences,” recalled Braxton. “George was warm, interesting and very lively.”
A few years later, at a conference of adult Quakers, Braxton heard Lakey speak again. AQAG had tried to mail relief packages to North Vietnam, but the U.S. Postal Service had refused them. When AQAG raised money for the North and South Vietnamese Red Cross societies, the Treasury Department froze the account under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act.
At that Quaker conference, Lakey told the group of various plans for civil disobedience regarding the Vietnam War. One idea was to send activists to live in North Vietnam, then dare the U.S. government to bomb cities where Americans were living.
“Any chance someone like me could go?” asked Braxton.
“Put your name in,” Lakey responded.
And so he did.
At Swarthmore, Braxton went to many anti-war meetings and could often be seen behind a card table, soliciting donations for AQAG. “I collected several hundred dollars—not a huge sum, but not small to AQAG—and mailed it off,” said Braxton. “It let them know that I was actually trying to do something, not just on it for a lark.”
The call from Lakey came in the spring: “We think we’re going to do another trip. Would you be available?” According to Braxton, AQAG paid for his airfare, though Wilbert and Nina later received a letter from the group requesting a donation.
The Phoenix belonged to Earle Reynolds, an anthropologist who left a job at Antioch College in 1951 to move his family to Hiroshima, Japan, to study the effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors. Having never previously lived by the sea, Reynolds became fascinated by it, and had the Phoenix built at a local boatyard. In 1954, he quit his job and set sail for Hawaii.
Over the next several years, the Reynolds family explored Polynesia, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, passed through the Panama Canal and toured the Caribbean. Ports included Cape Town, Sydney and New York. By 1958, they were back in Hawaii where the Reynolds’ Phoenix was berthed near a 30-foot sailboat named The Golden Rule. Crewed by Quakers, The Golden Rule was bound for Bikini Atoll to protest nuclear weapons testing.
Reynolds was squeamish about religion, and didn’t think much of the Quakers. However, Barbara Reynolds invited the crew of The Golden Rule to dinner, where the pacifists explained their position: “Nuclear explosions, by any nation, are inhuman, immoral, contemptuous crimes against all mankind.”
Having seen what atomic weapons could do while working in Hiroshima, Reynolds started to nod. He suspected that atomic weapons testing was unsafe and, as a sailor, was offended at U.S. closure of international waters for its tests.
After The Golden Rule set course for Bikini Atoll in May, and its crew arrested a few miles off Hawaii, the Reynolds family took over the mission. They were arrested, too, and thereafter became fully committed to the cause. Reynolds also joined the Quakers.
By the time Braxton arrived, Earle Reynolds had captained Phoenix on two trips to North Vietnam, but was getting a bit tired. He was 57 and growing more selective about sailing conditions and destinations. “One of the lessons learned from the Phoenix was that sending out a bunch of people in their 50s wasn’t the greatest idea,” said Braxton. “They wanted someone who wasn’t too likely to get hurt when the book took a big roll.” Braxton was judged sufficiently agile and athletic.
For this voyage, Reynolds lent the boat, but didn’t go himself. The captain would be Robert Eaton, a 24-year-old Swarthmore grad, with a crew that included Lakey, Braxton and a couple others.
According to Braxton, politics made it important that they not appear to be taking sides in the war. Instead, they would offer medical supplies for civilians. Sailing first for Hong Kong to get visas, they spent weeks in limbo. Visas were finally obtained for South Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese told them not to come. “The North Vietnamese said it was too dangerous,” said Braxton. “They worried that their shore batteries would shoot at us, and they didn’t want to shut down their shore batteries.”
Arriving at Da Nang, South Vietnam in November, they were turned away, despite having proper paperwork. It turned out their medical supplies were marked for a Buddhist hospital in Saigon, and the Buddhists were critics of the South Vietnamese government.
When a gunboat threw a line on the Phoenix to tow it back out to sea, the Quakers tried passive resistance and jumped overboard. However, they were quickly rounded up, put aboard and towed out.
“We had a very sweet exchange with the gunboat crew,” said Braxton. “They wrote on a blackboard: ‘We regret towing, we apologize” and we responded, with old signal flags, ‘We understand. Peace.’”
For several days, the Phoenix sailed up and down the coast, trying to remain in the news and put political pressure on the South Vietnamese for turning away needed medical supplies. They tried going into Saigon, but were again turned away. A following gunboat fired tracer bullets alongside, then bumped into the boat, causing some damage. Phoenix went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to make repairs and swap cargoes.
“The supplies for South Vietnam had been for treating tropical diseases,” explained Braxton. “The supplies for North Vietnam were for dealing with wounds.”
In January 1968, North Vietnam finally told the Phoenix crew that they could come. U.S. bombing had been suspended for the Tet holiday, so officials judged that the foreigners could come and go safely. “We were treated like heroes,” recalled Braxton. “Government officials repeatedly told us, ‘We appreciate your opposition to war. We know that American people oppose the war.’”
Braxton was savvy enough to know that many Americans supported the war. Nevertheless, he was impressed that the North Vietnamese distinguished between the U.S. government and the American people. Americans, he said, often categorize enemies by race and culture. “But that was not their approach,” said Braxton, who said the experience cemented a decision to make social change a focus of his life. He later served 30 months in prison for violating the military draft, and subsequently became a reformer in the Teamsters union.
That February, Braxton arrived back at Swarthmore, where he begged his professors to admit him to classes that had already begun. They could hardly say no to a campus hero. With summer classes, he graduated on time and because those classes were less than regular tuition, Wilbert and Nina saved money by not having to pay for the lost semester.
Braxton is now a biology professor at Community College of Philadelphia. For a chance to help damage the U.S. war effort, Braxton still considers it a summer well spent.