Caged Freedom Bird, Fly

A sit-down with my grandfather and family to discuss his life and experiences as a Black Vietnam War Vet.

Zenobia H.
12 min readJan 30, 2024
Photo courtesy of my grandfather Sam

In 2019, I had the honor of interviewing my grandfather for this feature story project I was doing for an online writing course. It was really difficult to condense so many life highlights into one article, but I did my best! The full story is below:

“It’s not to reason why, your job is to do or die’… So you didn’t ask. You never asked a reason why. Just to do or die. That’s what they would tell you.”

“There was this chant we used to do in the military all the time,” Uncle Duane said. He closed his eyes as he tried to filter through some of his earliest memories, memories of his brother and the war. He snaps his fingers as the memory strikes him. Then he rolls his index finger around in the air as he recites.

“‘It’s not to reason why, your job is to do or die’… So you didn’t ask. You never asked a reason why. Just to do or die. That’s what they would tell you,” said Duane.

Duane is the younger brother of Pelmon Harris, Jr., a man whose life and legacy continue to inspire those around him. Pelmon goes by several different names that pop up throughout the story: Sam, Sunny, and Mr. P. Each nickname, in some ways, seems to highlight a different relationship that he shares with family members and friends. He prefers to be called Sam, so that’s what I call him.

“We used to chant that and run. You were never to question what somebody told you to do,” said Duane. The military chant is a version of a verse from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It goes like this:

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”

There were two wars that Sam would have to fight, and at some point, he would have to face both at the same time. Do or die… His very existence hinged on those few words. He didn’t ask questions. He did what he was told, so he could survive.

Throughout the '60s and early '70s, America joined forces with South Vietnam and other U.S. allies in war against the Communist group, Viet Cong. There was a lot of concern about Communism in America at this time (remember the Red Scare of the 50s). So in an attempt to extinguish the flames of Communism abroad, America vowed to utilize some of its military resources in South Vietnam. By 1965, the United States began deploying troops. Sam was among several thousand men drafted and eventually sent into the war zone.

Jackson Street

Sam was born on March 19, 1945, in Macon, Georgia. He was the oldest of seven children who grew up in a small home in the middle of the Jim Crow South.

“We were poor. We didn’t know we were poor then, but we were poor,” Sam said.

We sat in a dimly lit living room towards the back of the house. This was Sam’s “man cave,” his haven. He sat in his brown leather recliner chair. His feet in slippers, legs crossed one over the other, and his hands folded in his lap. He leaned back in his chair, relaxed. His usual posture whenever I see him. An empty can of Coke — one of his favorite drinks next to beer — sat on his small end table.

Growing up, he shared a three-bedroom home with eight other people, his six siblings, and parents. There was no hot water. There was no shower and no bathtub. It’s difficult for many of us to imagine sharing such a humble space with so many people, but back then, many people in our community grew up this way. Large, close-knit families shared smaller living quarters. No one minded because their families stuck together. Everyone took care of one another on Jackson Street.

Sam was a straight-A student and a stickler about many things. He took really good care of everything he owned, from his bicycle to his clothes. It was important that his shirt was crisp, his shoes were shined, and his pants were creased every morning before school.

After graduating from high school with honors, he briefly worked at a Macon hospital before getting a job at Putzel, a local lighting and electrical company. Like many other young Black men and women at that time, attending college was Sam’s most important goal. Segregation left many Black people in the city with a substantial disadvantage, not having access to the same facilities and commodities afforded to their White counterparts. However, this only fueled the aspirations of people of color to seek out higher education, hoping that this could move them one small step toward true equality. At the time, Sam was working to provide for his family (his father was the only other person working) and save up enough money to pursue higher education.

“Before I had a chance to even save up enough for tuition to get into college, that’s when I received the letter. Then that canceled all of the plans,” Sam said.

He received his draft notice to be apart of a fight he never intended to join. There were other plans and other battles he had to face at home.

Photo courtesy of Sam

“I had two choices — well, actually, three choices. I could report and serve. I could report and not serve and go to jail, or I could try to escape to Canada,” Sam said. “Those were the only three options. If I didn’t report and I was caught, I was going to jail, and I don’t know for how long.”

He’d never spent time outside of Georgia or Florida. Now, Sam was headed to California for training, then to Hawaii, before being sent to Vietnam. He was well over 9,000 miles away from home.

Down in the Jungle

Basic training. Photo Courtesy of Sam

When asked about racism and prejudice at home and within the army, Sam responded, “ Oh, in the United States of America, race always matters. You can’t escape it.”

As Sam recounts, the amount of discrimination a Black soldier faced depended on his unit. The U.S. military was not opposed to putting Black soldiers on the front lines. These men were expendable. Black soldiers seldom reached high ranks, so they were mostly privates and sergeants, meaning they spent most of their time on the battlefield.

“You were fighting to get back home, so pretty much you didn’t want no trouble. You just wanted to get it over with and get home. You pretty much didn’t have much choice to do anything but take it,” Sam said. The alternative was prison, and that was just not an option.

“ Oh, in the United States of America, race always matters. You can’t escape it.”

“Once you got out in the boondocks where the real fighting was going on, we didn’t have as much trouble as the people in the rear, because, in the front line up there, we were all armed,” Sam said. It was here in the jungle—in the heat of the battle—where a soldier’s race mattered a little less because survival was of the utmost importance.

“You’re not gonna call me a ni**er, and go out and take a leak in the field, and I’m behind you with a rifle,” Sam said. “I hate to say it like that, but you understand what I’m saying. You know, if I’m armed and you’re armed, we’re equal.”

If you wanted to survive, you had to be able to trust the men around you with your life. Whatever issues you had with Black Americans had to be buried there, under the humid air and thick jungle brush that surrounded you.

We take a short break from the interview, and Sam offers to take me to his office. Lining the walls were photos of family, Vietnam hats, war certificates, a frame containing his military uniform badges, a map of Vietnam that displayed the areas where the war had taken place, and a giant frame containing a completed jigsaw puzzle of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” flyer.

On his desk, there were coin collectibles, an Esterbrook dip pen holder, and a Vietnam mug that held a U.S. stick flag.

The glass case contains most of Sam’s war badges and medals. His Purple Hearts are located in the bottom left corner of the frame. Photo courtesy of Zenobia Harris

Death’s Door

Part of Sam’s unit. Sam (bottom left) lost his best friend Charles (sitting to Sam’s right) in the attack that gained Sam his second Purple Heart. Photo courtesy of Sam

Death lurked at every turn. There was no safe space. In rough, foreign terrain where the other side had the advantage of knowing the land, it was like being a sitting duck. Seeing death and carnage was inevitable in a place like this. Sam became no stranger to violence and death. He was injured on three occasions, for which he earned three Purple Hearts. This was an honor usually given to soldiers injured in action.

There are some painful memories that Sam is hesitant to share. He’s a man who is slow to anger and has a generally sunny disposition. The jokes he made throughout our conversation made a heavy interview feel very light. It was the sudden shift in his body language that made this moment especially harrowing. He was able to recall several different instances where he came close to death. These incidents were separate from the ones where he earned his Purple Hearts. He grew up in the Baptist church (the same one I frequented as a child), but these moments brought him closer to God.

I didn’t think I was gonna die; I knew I was gonna die.

“There was one particular time where we were surrounded, and we were about to run out of ammunition. We were surrounded… and I get choked up when I think about it,” Sam said. This was the hardest story he ever had to tell. His voice begins to crack. His eyes become glassy as tears seem to well up in his eyes, but they do not fall.

“I knew I was gonna die, and I’m praying to the Lord that it be fast. I wanted to be shot in the head. I wanted it to be instant. I didn’t want to be captured. I don’t wanna be laying out here dying slow. And I actually knew… I didn’t think I was gonna die; I knew I was gonna die,” Sam said.

By the grace of God, a miracle befell his group. “Me and the guys around me were saved by a unit that came out at night with headlights on — that’s something you don’t do in a war zone like that — with tanks. They came out there and saved us,” Sam said.

After a year of service, and three life-changing battle injuries, Sam was finally coming home. He was leaving the war, but there were still battles he had to face stateside.

Mama, I’m Home

“When I came back home, I couldn’t believe — I had kind of put it in the back of my mind — the racial discrimination that was still going on back in the States,” Sam said.

In addition to dealing with racial discrimination, Sam and other Vietnam vets were met with overwhelming hostility by anti-war protesters. Even though he had been drafted, Sam faced backlash over a war that he had not intended to fight in the first place.

The soldiers were told to quickly change into civilian clothes and make their connecting flights to wherever they were planning to go. They were given explicit instructions not to go outside.

“I asked some people, ‘Why we gotta have on civilian clothes?’ They said, ‘If you go outside, people are protesting.’ They’re calling you baby killers. You know? You’re not welcome back in the United States,” Sam said.

“ A lot of people did not welcome us back into the United States. Most of the people who welcomed us back were other military people and families. Because the general population, they didn’t care nothing about us. They thought we were scum of the earth.”

New Day, New Strengths

Photo courtesy of Pelmon “Sam” Harris Jr.

Sam’s time in the army changed him tremendously.

“He was a lot more serious,” his brother Duane recalled. In addition to being the oldest child, Sam often served as a father figure to his younger siblings. Their father provided for their family as best he knew how, but he battled many personal demons. He would drink often, sometimes taking out his frustrations on his kids and his wife.

“ I don’t know all of what happened between him and my father, because they had got into it. He had kind of roughed up my mom, and my father actually shot Sunny (Sam) and hurt him,” Duane said. “That was probably one of the darkest times in our family. To regroup from that. And he did. You know, he did. It was just his own strength.”

His life had changed so much since he came home. He was almost a different person. He may have changed, but the world around him was stagnant. His father had not changed, and Macon had not changed.

Just a few nights after coming home from the war, Sam made his way downtown to a local pool hall for a beer and a hot dog. He walks into the pool hall, heads to the bar, and then…

“We don’t serve your kind here,” Sam recalls the man tending the bar saying. His first thoughts were that maybe he was being discriminated against because he was a soldier. He told me that back then, soldiers could easily be spotted because of their haircuts. And since this was such an unpopular war, it would make sense that he would be discriminated against because of that.

“And then it came to me… He wasn’t talking about me being a soldier. He was talking about me being Black. It was because I was Black, and it was a White pool hall in downtown Macon, Georgia,” Sam said.

“And that really hurt. It hurts to this day. That you go out and be drafted — because I did not join. I got a draft notice. I didn’t have no choice but to go. So that hurts. That hurts…”

As time moved along, Sam established a family with his wife Juanita. They have two children. He continued to work at Putzel after the war. This is where he met one of his best friends, Saul Seabrooks. They worked together for over 18 years. Saul and his wife Gwen rented a home from Sam many years ago. Sam helped Saul repair the home where he and his wife would spend some time raising their family. They were coworkers turned close friends.

“He was a fair man. He never put nothing on me that he wouldn’t do himself. We could be out on the weekends, having a breeze. But when we had to be at work… In the morning when we had to be at work by 6:00, and it was 6:01, all that fun we had, it ain’t even mentionable. You’re there then to work,” Saul said.

“We made some hard jobs seem like a piece of cake. Cause we’d get in there, and I’d say, ‘Mr. P, we gone do it today.’ He’d say, ‘ until dark thirty!’ and I’d say ‘okay, let’s roll.”Saul said. “Let’s roll.” He doubled over in laughter. As far as Saul was concerned, the two never shared a coarse word, just fond memories of hard work and laughter.

Sam flips through an old book with pictures of Vietnam soldiers in basic training. Photo courtesy of Zenobia Harris

Just for Today

Sam expressed that after retirement, his PTSD, depression and anxiety got much worse. He wasn’t working which meant that he had more free time. He needed help coping. He joined a group for war veterans that he attends religiously, and he says that it’s helped.

Case containing one of Sam’s Purple Hearts. Photo courtesy of Zenobia Harris

“Down at the vet center, we have a saying: ‘just for today.’ Just for today, if I smoke, I’m not gone smoke. Just for today, if I don’t exercise, I’m going to try to get out there and do a little exercise. Just for today, if I gotta smile, I’m gonna try to give a smile to a person, you know. I’m gone feel blessed if I get a smile back,” Sam said.

“I’m gonna feel blessed if I get a firm handshake. Whatever it is that’s positive. So I live like that, from day to day to day.”

After we finished our interview, I made my way across the driveway toward my car. Sam accompanies me, and we pass the gate to his backyard. There’s a cowbell tied to the top of it. I’ve passed this gate many times growing up. The bell has always been there, but no one in our family cared to ask why. I glanced at it for a second. It definitely seems odd, but my grandfather always does things for a good reason. I didn’t ask, but somehow, he caught me glancing at it. He laughs as he flicks the brass bell. It lets out a loud, wonky ring. Then he says:

“That’s for extra security.”



Zenobia H.

I write about things that I generally like to read about—culture, art, life, career, cooking, etc.—so it runs the gamut!