Delaware in the 1960s: Meet 'The Soldier'

Bill Hutchison was the last man from Kent County drafted for service in Vietnam. He remains a pacifist.


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Former teacher Bill Hutchison, at the former John Bassett Moore High School, from which he graduated in 1965.//Photo by Carlos Alejandro

 

Growing up on what had been his grandfather’s farm in Clayton, Bill Hutchison “played cowboys and Indians—and shot tens of thousands of Indians,” but he was hardly ready to go to war.

Times were different. Hutchison, the son of a state trooper, walked to and from school every day, and even walked home for lunch. In the summers, he would hop on his bicycle, meet a friend and play all day. If he wanted a soda, he’d find empty bottles on the road, cash them in for the deposit and buy himself a drink. His parents didn’t worry about him, as long as he came home in time for dinner.

In the fall of 1961, Hutchison entered John Bassett Moore High School, the predecessor to today’s Smyrna High and the same school his father had attended. It was the first year that black ninth-graders attended formerly all-white schools, as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

One of his friends was Larry Potts, who had formerly attended the all-black William Henry School in Dover. Hutchison would occasionally walk into town on his lunch break to make bank deposits for one of the school clubs he had joined. When Potts came with him one day, he picked out a place to stop for lunch. “Then Larry said, ‘I can’t go in. I’m not allowed to eat in there,’” Hutchison says. “And then I saw the sign in the window—‘We reserve the right to refuse service, etc.’—and that was the first time segregation really affected me.” (Potts later joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam. He was declared missing in action in April 1972. His remains have not been recovered.)

The three assassinations of the ’60s gradually altered Hutchison’s views. “I was very interested in politics, but not to the point where I was extremely active,” he says.

He was a high school junior when John F. Kennedy was killed. “We were in current events class when word came over the PA that he had been assassinated. We talked about it until the buses arrived, and we were sent home,” he says. He recalls being glued to the television with his family the entire weekend, watching news accounts of the tragedy—until he stepped into the kitchen on Sunday afternoon for some food or drink. While he was out, the TV showed, in real time, Jack Ruby suddenly emerging from a crowd and shooting suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being taken from the Dallas police station to the county jail.

As a junior education major at overwhelmingly white Salisbury State College, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have an immediate impact on him. He soon learned that the incident triggered rioting in Wilmington, “but it seemed very remote to my experience.”

With the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, everything changed. “I had begun to realize that what was going on in Vietnam was wrong, and we needed to do something about it,” Hutchison says. “Robert Kennedy seemed to be the only viable choice” for those opposed to the war.

After graduating from Salisbury State in 1969, Hutchison took a job teaching junior high humanities in Dover’s Capital School District. “I thought I was going into a profession that would keep me out of the service. By November I was drafted.” A month later, the draft was suspended, replaced by a lottery system.

As was common practice at the time, Hutchison asked the district to write a letter to the draft board requesting a deferment because of his occupation. He got the deferment, but only until the end of the school year.

By May, when National Guardsmen fired at anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, Hutchison considered himself a pacifist. “I could not see that what we were doing was solving anything. The violence was unspeakable. The people we were fighting against, all of that, it was not the way to solve any problem,” he says.

He considered seeking conscientious objector status, or moving to Canada, but wasn’t willing to give up his family or go to jail. He reported as required in June. As the inductees boarded the bus to take their physicals in Philadelphia, Hutchinson’s name was the last to be called. That, he says, gives him a unique claim to fame: “the last man ever drafted for the military from Kent County.”

Hutchison made some low-key protests during boot camp, like refusing to step forward to take his oath and declining to participate in target practice, until he realized his objections would have no impact. He would serve with distinction in Vietnam, earning an Army Commendation Medal for valor in the field, then landing an assignment as a combat reporter/photographer.

He returned home and to teaching in the fall of 1973. “By then my hair was down to my shoulders, and I was the hippie of the school,” he says. For 10 years hardly anyone knew he had served in Vietnam.

In the ’80s, he was one of several teachers who would occasionally wear their uniforms to school to talk about their military experiences, “to give the kids a different perspective than they got from ROTC and the recruiters.”

During the first Iraq war, Hutchison attended a peace group’s vigil in Kent County, then decided the next day that he would not stand for the pledge of allegiance in school the next morning because he could not support the war. After explaining his position to his students, he sat at his desk in silence. His stance drew media attention, both locally and nationally.

Because of that experience, last fall’s controversy over pro football quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem struck him personally.

“My point is, the flag is a symbol of freedom. I’m showing my dissent by refusing to participate in a patriotic ceremony. When Kaepernick said he wasn’t going to stand for the pledge because of the way blacks are being treated, I had a lot of sympathy for what he was doing and why. We are basically a racist society.”

After Hutchison, now 69, retired from teaching, he began working with the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, where he is now lead educator emeritus for Delaware’s tall ship.

He remains passionate about the ideals he nurtured in his youth that remain unfulfilled in our society. “The power of love, understanding, compassion—we sure could use that today.”

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