Reference Entry

Daly, James A. (1947 - 1998), Soldier, Conscientious Objector

Glenn Allen Knoblock

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Daly, James A. (1947 - 1998), Soldier, Conscientious Objector

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Vietnam War veteran and conscientious objector, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to James and Mary, a city employee, and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Although his father abandoned the family, his mother was a positive and loving influence, and Daly remained close to his older sister Phyllis, and younger siblings Pamela, Dennis, Ralph, Martin, and Elaine. Daly graduated from Franklin K. Lane High School in June 1966. He was a thoughtful youth, tall and awkward, with an interest in cooking and baking. Raised a Baptist, Daly became interested in the Jehovah's Witnesses at the age of eleven. Although he accepted their beliefs and hoped to become a minister, he never officially converted.Daly thought he would escape military service in Vietnam; “because of my religious beliefs—because I was totally against killing, in any war—I was confident that I would be given conscientious objector status and would not be drafted” (Daly and Bergman, A Hero's Welcome, 1). He checked with the local Selective Service office and was astounded to learn that, not being a minister, he was not even eligible to apply for conscientious objector (CO) status. Discouraged, Daly naively consulted with an army recruiting sergeant (who was also black) about his options and was advised to enlist. The recruiter deceived Daly into believing that he would be given noncombatant status and would be guaranteed a job as either a cook or a clerk after he completed basic training. Despite a vaguely uneasy feeling, he accepted the recruiting sergeant's advice and enlisted in the army. On 17 January 1967 he was officially a soldier in the U.S. Army, thus setting in motion a tragic chain of personal events that mirrored the impact of the Vietnam War on America's political and social psyche.Even in basic training, Daly continually emphasized his beliefs against killing in a polite but persistent way to his superior officers and tried to gain CO status. Nevertheless, he did his best to fit in to regulated army life and never disobeyed orders. After completing basic training, Daly was sent to infantryman's training school, not cooking school as originally promised, where once again he emphasized his beliefs, yet faithfully followed orders. A base chaplain advised him to “Go home on leave—and stay home! Let the MPs pick you up. You'll be charged with AWOL, but you'll get attention and be able to plead your case” (Daly and Bergman, A Hero's Welcome, 36). While on leave, Daly briefly considered leaving the country, but he could not leave his family. He considered the chaplain's advice about going AWOL (absent without leave) but was advised by a Jehovah's Witness overseer that breaking the law was not acceptable. Instead, Daly returned to duty and was subsequently sent to Vietnam on 29 September 1967 as a private first class in Company A, Third Battalion, Twenty-first Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade.Daly held firm in his convictions against killing and continued to ask for CO status while in Vietnam. But his company officers continued to send him on patrol, even with the knowledge that Daly refused to load and fire his rifle as a combatant. He largely kept his personal thoughts to himself and was by no means an antiwar agitator in his unit. The historian Jeff Loeb states that Daly was “absolutely consistent in his ethical strategy” (Daly and Bergman, Black POW, 28) and never wavered in his beliefs. On 8 January 1968 Daly and his fellow soldiers in Company “Alpha” were moved to the deceptively named “Happy Valley” in Quang Tin province in support of “Charlie” and “Delta” companies that had sustained heavy losses in previous days. Daly arrived on the scene and “I just stood there for a full minute, looking at all those ripped-up pieces of bodies that only the day before had been living men … it made me understand like I never had just how horrible war really is” (Daly and Bergman, A Hero's Welcome, 71). The following morning, Delta and Alpha companies moved out to continue their search for missing soldiers from Charlie Company. Spread out in a long line while crossing an open rice paddy, the men were ambushed by a large force of North Vietnamese troops and quickly overwhelmed. Four members of Alpha Company and Daly were wounded and subsequently captured. Daly would spend the next five years as a prisoner of war (POW).For the first three years of his captivity, Daly was held in the south in primitive camps where malnutrition and disease were all too common and medical treatment almost nonexistent, resulting in deaths among fellow prisoners. Although subject to continuous “reeducation” during his imprisonment, Daly never signed any letters his captors crafted protesting U.S. action in Vietnam, as he was frequently asked to do. Although conditions were brutal, Daly and his fellow prisoners were never subjected to torture, though beatings were administered to those who tried to escape. In early 1971 he was transferred to North Vietnam and imprisoned at Plantation Gardens in Hanoi. For Daly, the transition was “like going from hell to heaven” (Daly and Bergman, A Hero's Welcome, 174). Plantation Gardens consisted of prison cells with electricity, clean clothes, blankets, and a supply of personal hygiene items. Daly remained firm in his moral convictions throughout his imprisonment, and despite the squalid conditions in which he was held, he retained some empathy for his captors. He was particularly struck by how the war affected Vietnamese civilians, especially women and children, and was distressed when he learned that the United States was deliberately poisoning Vietnamese rice paddies. By Christmas 1971 Daly had joined the Peace Committee at Plantation Gardens, a prisoner group that had signed letters opposing the war. Ironically, while the Vietnam War was widely denounced in the United States, Daly and the other members of the Peace Committee would later be branded as traitors. He was finally released from captivity on 16 March 1973 in the second major release of U.S. POWs and returned to the United States. Some of his fellow POWs, led by air force colonel Theodore Guy, would soon accuse Daly and other members of the Peace Committee of failing to adhere to the Code of Conduct for POWs. When these charges were dropped, additional charges of mutiny—specifically, failure to obey an officer's orders while a prisoner—were also brought against Daly. This charge was also quickly dropped.In April 1974 Daly married Ira Jean Worthy, a South Carolina native, and he would remain with her for the rest of his life. Even before his service was over, Daly was contacted by author and writer Lee Bergman about the possibility of writing a book about his Vietnam experiences. As Bergman recalled, “I read about his story in the New York Times and the charges brought against him and it seemed to me this was an important story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of an American POW who was moved ultimately to speak out against it. I contacted him through his lawyer and he was agreeable to the idea. In the months to follow I taped his account and hours were spent editing the tapes before writing the book. Daly was a complex person, very open … he felt strongly about everything he said, and enjoyed telling his story” (Bergman, phone interview, 13 May 2007). The resulting book, A Hero's Welcome: The Conscience of Sergeant James Daly vs. the United States Army, received good reviews but quickly faded from the public eye at a time when most Americans wanted to forget the Vietnam War. Daly's account remained an important one, however, and one of the few books published by a black soldier who served in Vietnam.Because of his actions in Vietnam, Daly was shunned by the POW community and remained a controversial figure. True to his humanist morals, however, Daly dared to put a human face on his captors and strove to dispel the notion that the Vietnamese were evil. His civilian life was quiet. Jane Fonda asked him to accompany her on a speaking tour, but this never came about. He was interviewed by Walter Cronkite but broke down and could not finish the interview, so only a portion was later broadcast. James and Jean Daly opened a laundromat in New Jersey, and he also worked as a postal carrier in Teaneck, and later Willingboro, New Jersey. He retired due to a diabetic condition in 1993, and suffered the amputation of both his legs shortly before dying at his home in 1998. His legacy, like that of the Vietnam War era, is a controversial one, but Daly deserves to be remembered as a man of unwavering conviction who served his country under the most difficult of circumstances.

Reference Entry.  1545 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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