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Charles J. Merdinger oral history interview, March 31, 1990

Date: Mar. 31 1990 | Identifier: OH0121
Captain Merdinger, an engineer and a Rhodes Scholar, received his Ph. D. from Oxford University while still an active duty Naval officer. Since he has participated in an oral memoir for the Naval History Institute, this memoir concentrates on the period since his retirement in 1968. Interviewer: Donald R. Lennon. more...



CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #121
Capt. Charles J. Merdinger
USNA Class of 1941
March 31, 1990
Interview #1

Donald R. Lennon:

Let's pick up with your retirement from your Naval career and take a look at your second career.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Okay. Well, I sort of wandered into education with no particular fixed idea. When I was at the Naval Academy on the faculty, as I mentioned, I was head of the English History and Government Department. This brought me into contact with a number of people in the academic world. While I was there, a number of people started offering me college presidencies! Well, I had never even thought about anything beyond the Navy, quite honestly. I listened to a few people. There were a couple of firm offers. I began to think, "Well, no, I'm not really ready yet to do this. But, there is something beyond the Navy, and perhaps this is something I ought to look into down the road."

Well, first of all, this was before Vietnam. I felt, well, I've got to go there. . . Civil engineer and Seabee and so on. That was a big part. I think that high percentages of Civil Engineer Corps, probably 80 percent or more, all went to Vietnam. I felt that's where I had to go. I would start to think about this after I came back.



Well, when I got back to my final assignment in the Navy, I was commanding the Western Division Facilities Engineering Command, which is located out in the San Francisco Bay area.

Donald R. Lennon:

This is what year?

Charles J. Merdinger:

This is '68. I came back from Vietnam. I was in the Tet Offensive. I do have a few sea stories about Vietnam.

So I came back there and at that time I began to look around. I could have stayed a number of years more in the Navy, but I figured it was about time to go.

So I remembered that I'd served on the Rhodes Scholar Selection Board in Maryland back when I was at the Academy. The chairman of these Rhodes selection committees is always a non-Rhodes Scholar. This fellow happened to be Dan Gibson who was the president of Washington College.

When I got back, I wrote to him and I said, "Well, I'm thinking it's about time to close my Navy career and some people have kind of excited my interest in academe. Here's a resumé." I said, "If you know anybody who might be interested in qualifications such as these, I would appreciate your passing it on." I think I invested a six-cent stamp or something like that.

Well, within a week I got a letter back from him that said, "It's interesting that you should write to me at this time. I have just decided to retire as president. So I have turned your letter over to the chairman of the board." The next thing you know, I'm the president of Washington College. Well, I had to go through an interview process and all that. But you must remember now, this is 1970, the time of Kent State, a great time for a



military man to go into academics. After all, this is an old-line liberal college, the tenth oldest in the United States.

Before I ever got there, there were all kinds of complaints about "No military man for president" and that sort of thing. So I arrived on the scene and found that it was in a bit of disarray administratively. The faculty had risen up against the dean who had been in office less than a year. So he was out. The business manager had just died. The dean of students took a job someplace else. So clear across the board, the whole top level of the administration wasn't there and I didn't really realize this until I got into the spot. It was a rather hectic time. Fortunately, we managed to get a few good people in there and put things together.

I might add that it was beginning to run into the red as well. So one of the first things I had to do was put a freeze on salaries, which of course, was not a very popular move. On one hand, as a private college, we had to depend on all these good folks who were going to support us. Most of them were of a pretty conservative bent. This was just at a time when they were beginning to desegregate the dormitories and everything in the world was going on, along with the Vietnam War. So I immediately, of course, tried to shed the old military image. People found out that I'd been a Naval officer, obviously, but I still tried to coast along on the "doctor" bit, and not use a military title. That didn't help much.

It was just a very, very rocky road. I became a member of the Independent College Presidents' Association of Maryland. I think that there were about twenty of us. This was a time of rapid turnover in college presidents. After two years, I think I was about the fourth senior in terms of service in the group!



As a matter of fact, I remember one day we were scheduled to meet at Johns Hopkins and a few hours before, we were told that the president had left! So things went rapidly. I found myself on the same roller coaster. After a while I said, "Boy, I don't know if this is really worth it." It wasn't so much the students. A lot of people felt that it was the students who were behind this. In many of the other colleges, the other presidents I'd talk to confirmed this and said, "No, really much of this is hard-core faculty. These are people who are kind of dissatisfied with things and they're egging the students on. So you see the students in the paper and everything. . . sure, some part of this is student unrest, but, the hard core of this is really being directed by some of the faculty." You find this kind of animosity building up. People are annoyed. They don't get paid what they think they're worth. On and on.

Finally, I got to the point where obviously some of the people were calling for my resignation. I don't know a president in those days who wasn't faced with that. I said, "Well, do I really want to tough it out, or not?" Well, fortunately, an old friend of mine from Oxford had become the director of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. They were looking for a college president to come in and set up a whole slew of Aspens all over the United States. They said, "Well, it's such a great idea here, but we don't really know whether this will work. We need somebody to come in and study it and if indeed it is feasible, then we will establish a number of these." This person will kind of head a consortium of these things. I don't know if you're familiar with what the Aspen Institute does or anything?

Donald R. Lennon:

I'm just familiar with its existence.



Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, basically, it was a "Great Books" kind of an operation initially. It got started by some folks: Hutchins of Chicago, Mortimer Adler, and a few people like that. They reasoned that if they could get some of the top executives in the country together to get into a retreat kind of place--Aspen is where it turned out--and give them a dose of the "Great Books" for a while that they would go back further refreshed and run their companies in a more enlightened fashion, if you will. They would mix these executives with a sprinkling of black activists, supreme court justices, and odds and ends of people who came from completely different environments. Then this branched out to include not only the "Great Books" program, but also a series of topics--communications, environment, and so on--that would bring people together in a seminar situation.

So at any rate, the thought was, "If it's good at Aspen, several Aspens would be even much better." So it was my out. I was able to move from the college to that with my skin intact.

Well, when I left the college, I really felt a sense of both winning and losing, of success and failure. Failure from the sense that I could tell that a lot of people just hated me. This was a kind of new experience because just shortly before, in Vietnam, when we'd had the last night as Seabees, we had about five hundred of them there at the farewell party, and I really felt that I could have gone anywhere and they would have followed me. In other words, I really felt the kind of support that you get in a combat situation. Then to come to a campus like this and find that a lot of people just hated my guts, that was a little tough to take.

But I looked back and said, "Well, what did we accomplish around here?"



Well, for one thing, we brought the place into the black. We brought the registration up. When I got there we had six hundred and some students; we had over seven-fifty when I left because we put out an intense recruiting campaign. We were re-accredited. We got the money and built three new dormitories. All these things were stumbling blocks. Everybody would fight me every minute of the way. I felt we needed a larger student body to support a better faculty. If you've got just so few students, you can't cover all the bases.

Donald R. Lennon:

And the faculty was opposed to the increases?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh yes. "We don't want that. We don't want to be another University of Maryland." We had a faculty-student ratio of about 10-1.

Donald R. Lennon:

That's very difficult financially to maintain.

Charles J. Merdinger:

That's a tough thing to do. But it was really funny, despite all the animosities; not everybody was opposed to me. I found when I got there that one-third of the faculty hadn't talked to each other in the last seven years! So it wasn't only against the administration or me. I also found that no dean was able to say in the saddle longer than two years in a seven-year period. As a matter of fact, with the dean I brought in, after he had been there a year and a half, I felt I had to get him another job. They were just driving him out of his mind.

Donald R. Lennon:

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that's fairly typical of higher education.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes. Well, I found, as I say, that the only people that I could completely confide in were my fellow presidents. They all seemed to be confronted with the same thing. So I suppose I could have stuck it out. But I thought, "Why do I want to do this?" I was waking up early. . . and you know, I'd been in combat in World War II; in Korea I was in



the Aleutians, which was a kind of combat situation of its own; and then of course, in Vietnam I was there in the middle of the Tet Offensive. I was at Da Nang, Hue, and Khe Sanh. . . all these places. And yet, I felt much more embattled when I was in this presidency. As I say, it was a new feeling, and as I looked back I felt we had accomplished something, however there wasn't much I was going to accomplish in the next few years except man the battlements. This Aspen Institute thing was really a Godsend.

Donald R. Lennon:

So how long were you there? Four years?

Charles J. Merdinger:

I was there from '70 to '73. As I say, my dean only lasted two years. I managed to help get him a job as academic vice-president in another school. Some of the other people I brought in with me didn't fare too well either.

I got over to the Aspen Institute and that was a very heady experience. We lived part of the time in an apartment in New York City.

To go back to the college for just a minute, there were a lot of bright spots. I don't mean to imply that it was all on the down side. There were some wonderful people there, wonderful faculty members and wonderful students. One of the things that my wife and I used to do was to invite about fifteen seniors over for dinner. We went through the whole senior class. We would sit on the floor and talk about life and where we were going and all this sort of thing. It was a great experience. We had a lot of interesting people come over.

Donald R. Lennon:

It was rewarding for the students considering your breadth of background and everything.



Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, we had a lot of fun. I only remember one negative thing. We had gotten some beautiful Oriental rugs when we lived in Japan. We put them over this old colonial floor. By the way, we lived in what was called the Henson Ringgold House, which is one of the great houses of America. It's in the National Registry. It was kind of a creaky old place, and drafty, and so on, but it was also magnificent in many ways. The one negative thing I remember was that one kid put a cigarette hole in one of my beautiful rugs! But I think that that was more than compensated for by all the energy and enthusiasm and everything we got. But one thing that used to bother me was the feeling that now they're seniors, they're going to graduate in a few months, and fully 75 percent of them didn't have a clue as to what they were going to do after they graduated.

Donald R. Lennon:

In that period of '70 to '73, did you see a great deal of idealism among them?

Charles J. Merdinger:

I find that hard to support. Sure, a lot of students are always idealistic, at any age at any time. Of course, the people who were brought to my attention were the dissident types, the kind who wanted to come into my office in bare feet. I said, "Well, I just don't want to entertain people in my office in bare feet."

Well, they're just trying to show their independence, you see. Then there was the fellow who was really very much against the war and everything, but he wanted to stay in college until he graduated. He didn't want to make a martyr of himself before then. We had Rennie Davis, who was one of the great antiwar types, come to talk. I sat in the back of the auditorium and listened to that, and my blood boiled! It was all I could do to keep from saying something but I just kept my peace. We invited every stripe to come to the place and if they wanted to say something, fine, let them say it.



Donald R. Lennon:

Why I asked is that, if you are on a campus nowadays, you do not see that idealism at all. The entire thrust is "I want an MBA so I can go out and make a million dollars, drive a new BMW, and live in a big house.

Charles J. Merdinger:

I would say, as I mentioned, most of them didn't really know what they were going to do when they graduated. They had some vague ideas. They might go into law--they might go into social work. I mean a lot of things of that nature. I don't recall any very strong feelings about, "I must get a job." As a matter of fact, it used to bother me. We had an awful lot of them in the buildings and grounds after they graduated! I wished

that somewhere they would have a little more of the business of the entrepreneurial spirit to go someplace. But I think that most of them turned out pretty well. It was the kind of place where many of them had Ivy League parents. The youngster didn't quite make it to Dartmouth so he ended up at Washington College. We had a very fine faculty in terms of the preparation and so on. As I said, I didn't particularly appreciate some of their antics but they were good teachers. I think the students got an excellent education there. So it's a mixed bag.

I got into the Aspen Institute and we lived part of the time in New York City and part of the time in Aspen. This was both winter and summer. We'd move the whole office from one place to the other. The secretary, the files, everything would go. That was a heady experience in that I was going around the country trying to determine, "Now where can we put one of these places and what will it cost to do it, and so on." I finally came up with a program. We were going to try four pilot operations. One would be connected with the university and another would be completely by itself, and so on. But when I totaled up the figures, it was just horrendous. It was tough enough to balance the



existing budget. Well, as a matter of fact, I don't know that Aspen ever did balance its budget because the chairman of the board of Arco was the chief agent of the place. If the balance was negative, I got the impression at the end of the year that he wrote a personal check.

Donald R. Lennon:

Arco made a contribution.

Charles J. Merdinger:

No, I think he made it. I don't know that Arco did. Well, Arco did probably as well. But he enjoyed this sort of thing. He felt he was doing something good for the country and so on.

Donald R. Lennon:

Now the approach there was to contact a particular corporation and convince them that all of their executive and administrative staff should participate in this?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Generally speaking, this would be the top-level. I recall the instance, I believe, when one [of the participants] had been the executive vice-president of American Can or a company of that stature.

Donald R. Lennon:

But they went as a group?

Charles J. Merdinger:

No.

Donald R. Lennon:

Just as individuals.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes, and they would meet other individuals from around the country. This case I think is typical. His president had decided that he ought to go. So he went and he spent two weeks there discussing Plato and Thucydidis and Martin Luther King and a few other things. He came back and was expected to write a written report. He said, "I really appreciate the vacation. It's a wonderful place. I enjoyed meeting the people. It was great from that standpoint. But, I don't really see how it is going to be of value to the company for us to send all of our executives to this thing."



So, he dropped the memo on the president's desk and went away and through the next several months, he began to reflect on his experience there. Every now and then, something would come up and he would remember something somebody had said or something he had read. At the end of six months, he wrote a memo reversing himself. He said, "I was wrong in my first evaluation of this thing. I have found that that experience was one of the most compelling experiences in my life. I have noticed I am making much better decisions on complex issues than I would have before. I think much of this comes from the stimulation that I received from that Aspen experience. So I recommend that we go ahead with it."

I think this happened to a lot of people. It was a kind of delayed sort of thing.

Donald R. Lennon:

It was in their subconscious.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Exactly. There was another feature there, too. They had what they called the "Scholars and Artists in Residence." They would invite, oh, maybe up to a hundred of them to come and spend the summer or part of the summer with them. At that time, Herman Wouk was concerned with writing the sequel to the Winds of War. So I assumed the dialogue went something like this: "Well, Herman we understand that you're writing a sequel to the Winds of War. How would you like to come out to Aspen? We'll provide you with a place to live and we'll give you a little stipend--walking around money. You don't have to do anything, but if you'd like to join some of our little functions, give a lecture, show up at a cocktail party, or whatever, we'd be delighted to have you."

Well, Herman Wouk shows up and Saul Bellow and also Henry Steele Commager, all sorts of people in arts and letters and everything else.

Donald R. Lennon:

That would be wonderful.



Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, I'm not so sure it was all that wonderful because sometimes there were so many great ones that they cancelled each other out a bit. But it was a very, very heady experience. That was just a marvelous environment to roll around in.

I was out on the road, of course, trying to set up these various things. I was just about to set up the first one and I turned in my budget. I could have dragged it out a little, but in all good conscience, I couldn't. "This is what it's going to cost. And I don't know where the money is coming from." They agreed.

So that terminated that program, so this put me on the job-hunting market again.

Donald R. Lennon:

How long were you with them--a year, two years?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, no. It lasted under a year. But it was wonderful. I thought it was a great episode in my life. It enabled me to escape from one environment, put me into another. Of course, with the Navy retirement pay in the background, I didn't feel compelled to grab the first thing that came along. I was on certain headhunters' lists apparently, because a number of things were thrust my way. They were all over the lot. They weren't in education necessarily. One was to take charge of a project building up the old seaport in New York City. Another was to run all of those famous "cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island. You would have to live at the Breakers, a twenty-three-room apartment!

Donald R. Lennon:

A sacrifice!

Charles J. Merdinger:

A military academy! A number of other things all came up. It was fun going to those interviews. It almost got to the point where it was more fun not having a job and being interviewed for them than it was having a job itself. But then Scripps Institution of Oceanography decided that it needed a deputy director. The director was, of course, a



world-class scientist and he was always in Paris or in Washington or someplace and they were looking for somebody who'd sort of mind the store while he was gone. Then, if he didn't want to go, there'd be somebody to send in his place. So, I ended up in that particular job.

That was fascinating because we had world-class scientists coming through the place all the time. I got involved in putting a lot of international projects together. I also got involved in this deep sea drilling project, which you may have heard of--The Glomar Challenger.

We had what amounted to a board of directors. It was a multi-national operation. We had representatives from France, West Germany, Soviet Union, Japan, Great Britain and the U.S. The directors of the various oceanographic institutions comprised the board members. Well, our director was supposed to send a member, or me, but I think most of the time I used to go to the meetings so I, in effect, became the board member. This was true of a couple of other institutions, too.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did any of your experience as a civil engineer and with the Seabees in any way prepare you for this oceanography?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, only from an organizational standpoint. I had no pretensions of knowing much about oceanography. This was a twelve-hundred person institution and we had a fleet of ships that made us, I think, about the fifth largest naval power in the world! So from that standpoint and my Navy background, I obviously could understand a little of all that. I was the only civil engineer in the place. I didn't really do any civil engineering. Whatever expertise I brought to the place was more in the field of management. One small example: The medical school and the Scripps Institution had gotten together in an



area that they both had a mutual interest in--it was doing something in the way of pulmonary and heart and other things in animals, particularly in sea animals and so on--physiology. Well, they had come together but then they drew apart. They just couldn't work together. So I was able to get four from one school and four from the other and say, "Look, I'm a dumb civil engineer. I don't really understand all of the things that we're trying to do here but perhaps you could explain them to me."

As we worked together, we were able to forge a very strong, new institute out of that. So I was able to act as a facilitator. In other words, I had enough scientific background and knowledge to at least understand when they told me what they were doing. At least I got the general drift. In some way, I was able to bring them together. Then the same thing was true in another instance: We had a number of scientific institutions down in Mexico and Baja California and the idea was to get their scientists working with our scientists. Again, I was able to play a major role in getting what we called CIBCUSIO(?)--the centers of investigation, or whatever it was--this international effort going. Then when I sat on the board for the deep-sea drilling project, there was a lot of coordination to be done and I played a role in that.

So the answer is, yes, I guess you might say. I used my managerial experience. It wasn't really technical knowledge. But the fact that I could at least listen to technical terms and somehow play a role in getting the thing organized. . . . That was a beautiful period. I spent about six years doing that.

While I was on that, it turned out that Avco Corporation, which was a multi-national conglomerate, was looking for a director for one of their satellites, Community Developers. They were looking for somebody to come onto their board of directors--an



outside director--who had had a sort of multi-national experience and had also been in the building business a bit. Well, I ended up on that board. Then it turned out that at the major Avco Corporation, of which this was a subsidiary, the scientist on the board was retiring and they were looking for somebody to kind of be the token scientist among the outside directors, so I fleeted up to that.

That became an interesting experience because, well, to give you a few titles of the people on the board: the retired president of AT&T, the former chairman of Metropolitan Life, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, and the head of the Center for International and Strategic Studies. It was a fourteen-man board but it was really a wonderful, wonderful group.

First of all I should say there were certain people, certain types in the Navy that I enjoyed working with. They were just my kind of guy, the kind of people I like. It was fascinating to get over the academe, because you got a different group over there. But after a while you get kind of tired of that. I kind of longed for the sort of people I used to deal with in the Navy. Well, I found on the Avco board exactly those people.

I used to have to go back once a month. We did all kinds of things. We were in the movies. We made "The Graduate." We were in the defense business in many ways--making the wings for the B-1 bomber. We were in the space program. We made most of the engines for general aircraft in the country, the Avco Lycoming engines. We ran all the airfields in Saudi Arabia. We were involved in various types of research, and heart pumps, and that sort of thing. We also had a Christmas paper organization that manufactured Christmas paper.

Donald R. Lennon:

You needed a diverse board then.



Charles J. Merdinger:

This was a diverse conglomerate. It was also a conglomerate with a soul. One of the things that was included was an outfit called the New Ideal Farm Equipment Company. They made certain farm equipment that was particularly well known in the Midwest. But it was a loser. As you know, there was a period then, I'm not sure if they've come out of it yet, when the farming industry was dead flat, particularly as a market for all these pieces of equipment. So the company was looking for some way to sell this thing. There were many people who came forward but the company looked them over and said, "No, we don't think they're going to take care of these customers." We thought we still had an obligation to supply them the spare parts that we had contracted with them to provide when we sold them this equipment.

So lots of people talk about the corporation without a soul, but that was not true. This was a marvelous group of executives and people who really had a social conscience. So I was very disappointed when ultimately we got hit by a raider. So we had been through all this business of "white knights" and "golden parachutes" and all these other things, when we were hit by some outfit, and there wasn't one person on that board that had ever heard of this company. It was about one-tenth our size and all of a sudden they had 5 percent of the shares or something. That begins to get to be a critical area, you see, in this takeover game. This took place in about 1984, as I recall, because I was on the board for six years. It was 1985 when this first raider hit us. We hired a number of lawyers to come in and they were supposed to be the best ones in the anti-takeover business or maybe the takeover business, whatever it was. We paid them a bundle and basically they said, "Buy them out."



It wasn't greenmail because we paid them at the going market rate, but it was darn close to it. Disney had just previously run into a tremendous amount of criticism because apparently they had paid more than what the stock was worth to get some raider off their backs.

Donald R. Lennon:

I remember the Disney episode.

Charles J. Merdinger:

I don't recall the details, but it was something along those lines.

Well, here we are, almost in the same boat, but not quite. What that did, of course, was jack the stock up. So it went from here to a much higher value. In the meantime, people were getting kind of antsy. Then we got hit with yet another raider. This boosted the stock up still further.

Donald R. Lennon:

And all the time, the corporation is having to go more and more into debt to try to ward off the takeovers.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes. You certainly get the impression that a lot of things are standing still. In other words, there is more manning the barricades than turning out widgets. Ultimately, it came down to the fact that Textron came in with a friendly takeover offer. The board was urged by the lawyers, who by the way, I guess had taken in millions in this. . . . They said, "We think you ought to go for this because you're really ripe for the picking." The point was that the company was a good company but being a conglomerate with all these odds and ends, it was very easy to say, "Ah, we'll slice off a piece here and we'll slice off a piece there."

Well, in the long run it wasn't good, certainly, for people's morale. Some people will argue, "Okay, so the company's leaner and meaner" and so on. And I think this is probably true in a number of cases. But in this particular case I found it hard to believe.



When Textron took over, that ended my days as a corporate director. I really enjoyed the experience. It was once a month going back to New York or someplace else so that we might meet at one of the divisions. I traveled to just about every division in the corporation, so I knew all the top executives. I've never been so impressed with how in the world the company managed to get so many fine people in such an organization. As I said, they were not only competent and smart, but they were also compassionate. They had all the things you like to think of in American industry. So that was a wonderful experience. I look back on those days with a great deal of fondness.

After I retired from Scripps, we owned the home up in Lake Tahoe as well as the one down in La Jolla. We decided to make Tahoe our home. I should add that Tahoe got in the picture way back in Vietnam. I was headquartered in Da Nang as I mentioned, and I had troops all over I-Corps. Every now and again I would go down to Saigon. I had to talk to logistics people down there. I ran into a Navy captain who played tennis and we played at Circle Sportef and became good friends. Then, after Vietnam, we both ended up in the Bay area in our assignments, and there was more tennis. Well, when I retired from the Navy to go to Washington College, he retired shortly thereafter and went up to Lake Tahoe. I used to get letters and post cards from him that said, "Jeez, you've been in three wars and now you're in a fourth war! So, why don't you come up here and we'll just go skiing and play tennis."

I thought, "Gee, that's a very tempting idea." I had never thought about Lake Tahoe, retiring, or anything else. But it seemed worth looking into. Well, as I mentioned, when the Aspen thing folded, and Scripps now became the job, we came from New York and we said, "Well, let's drive by Lake Tahoe in route to San Diego and we'll



see where old George lives." Well, the point of all this was that we stopped for maybe overnight, maybe two days. The sky was blue, you could see forever, and you could smell the pines, and we bought a place. We had never owned a place in our lives. We now bought that one and we bought the one in La Jolla. So, after having never owned anything, in our fifties, we now buy two places within two weeks and they turn out to be two of the most lovely places in the world, La Jolla and Lake Tahoe.

So when my days at Scripps were over--I could have stayed thee longer too--but I thought it was about time to go. I had been reading about and hearing from people who were always going to take a trip and they never got around to it. Financially, it was no problem. As a matter of fact, the business with Avco had certainly helped. I had invested in Avco and had ridden this thing up. Nevertheless, I had rather not have made the money and continued the activity on the board. I felt that we were doing something useful and important.

So we had the place up at Tahoe and said, "Well, let's shift," So, what had been the vacation home became the number one home and La Jolla received the number two, and we've been up there ever since. I found that it was a lot of fun to go skiing and play tennis and so on, but I also became actively involved with a college there, right in Incline Village where we live.

I'd dropped in, as a matter of fact, before I retired from Scripps. It was and is the only four-year degree-granting accredited college in the state apart from the University of Nevada system itself. So this is a little school that scrubbed its way up from nothing.

Donald R. Lennon:

What's the name of it?



Charles J. Merdinger:

Sierra Nevada College. Well, I told the president, although, he wasn't the president, he was called the director of this thing. . . . it had been a proprietary school and a few of these people owned it. They were just struggling. They were in the first stages of recognition for candidacy for accreditation. I told the president, "Well, I'm in town now and if there's anything I can do, let me know."

He said, "Well, we're going to have an art show next week. We're inviting some of the citizens from around the place to make an early viewing. I'm going to send you an invitation."

Well, we get over there and I have a badge that says "Trustee." I said, "What's this?"

He said, "Oh, well, we voted you in as a trustee of the college."

I said, "Well, that's very nice. When do you meet?"

He said, "We meet at the trustee's meeting once a year."

I said, "Fine, when's the next meeting?"

He said, "It's going to be next week."

Well, I went to the meeting and just before, this fellow, the president, Ben Sahn, takes me aside. He'd have made a wonderful junk dealer. He's one of those entrepreneurs. He's a very bright guy. His background in education wasn't all that great but he was interested in the thing and he ultimately acted as the janitor and the president and the instructor in mathematics and a few other things.

Donald R. Lennon:

Whatever was needed.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes. Whatever was needed. So he took me aside and he said, "Chuck, we've got a number of people on this board who are very willing workers and so on, but nobody



really knows anything about education. Would you mind being elected chairman of the board?"

Donald R. Lennon:

You'd been there one week!

Charles J. Merdinger:

So I said, "Well, okay."

Well, that started seven years of being chairman of the board. We started changing things almost immediately. I said, "If this board is going to be worth anything, it's got to meet at a minimum of four times a year. Then, we've got to form committees and do this and that and the other thing." So, we just dragged this thing from scratch. It was a heady experience doing this.

The school started out by advertising in Rolling Stone, and a few other prestigious publications for its students. By golly, they got all kinds of young people in there--some a little older, who hadn't quite made it or didn't like it someplace else.

Donald R. Lennon:

Was the fact that they were in Lake Tahoe an incentive?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes, it was a real incentive. So we started with a magnificent environment and we gradually accumulated a faculty. There wasn't any permanent faculty, it was just the president and the so-called dean, who was a buddy--an old college buddy of the president's--neither of them were educators, but as I said, they managed to accumulate a few of these people around.

Well, in time, it truly became organized as a bonafide college. We got to the point where we got a lot of very fine people on the board. We got it to the point that the college is flourishing today. They probably have, let's say, 165 full-time students and then an equal number who are not quite taking a full course load--working in the casinos and other things. You see, the lake is part in California and part in Nevada.



Donald R. Lennon:

Right, I realize that.

Charles J. Merdinger:

We're on the Nevada side. Then we've started what amounts to a community college element of the thing, too. We give all kinds of basket-weaving courses, real estate, and this and that and the other thing. That, in turn, has attracted another large number. So, there are probably, in the course of a year, 700 different people.

Donald R. Lennon:

But it has to be self-sustaining.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Right, it has to be a self-sustaining college, absolutely.

Donald R. Lennon:

No money coming from the state of Nevada?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Fortunately, Incline Village is a very up-scale place and many of the members of the board are multi-millionaires and they have been willing to support this thing. We've gotten a foundation behind us now. So the thing is really going.

Donald R. Lennon:

While being a trustee, you were actually helping administer it?

Charles J. Merdinger:

I was helping and a couple of other people. One of the fellows who'd owned a bank in the Midwest came in as our financial man. He was doing a lot. So some of us were doing a lot of detailed things that we knew are not truly the work of the trustees but were needed in this start-up period. It was a start-up period for a long time. We are now at the point where we have students who go on to post-graduate school. One came back a short time ago with a doctorate from Stanford and gave a lecture. The place has gained a lot of respectability. Most recently, respectability with its ski team, which was very high up in the National Championships. Here's this little school beating all the big name schools. But of course we kind of have a backyard advantage there.



At the end of six years, I said, "Well look, it's really time for new administration. I'm getting too involve in this and I would like to go out. So as of next year, we've got to have a new chairman."

We had a little search committee and so on and finally it brought in a new chairman. But this time I went out on a very high note. The had a beautiful dinner for us. Gave me an honorary doctorate. They even gave us a stove to place in the house. In these homes in Tahoe, there are a lot of wood fires and fireplaces and so on. Well, one of our students in the environmental course, designed this very special wood stove, which is a very efficient and lovely thing. He went into marketing them--formed a company and marketed them. These things are worth about a thousand dollars. They gave me a plaque that said something about my service. They put it on the stove and installed it in the house in lieu of one of the crummy little stoves that we had. It was a far more pleasant departure from academe.

In the meantime, I was the secretary for the Rhodes scholarships for the state of Nevada for several years. I had been on the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee in four different states and I guess I was in this business for well over twenty years. Well, this brought me in contact with a number of interesting people in the state. I went down to the president of the University of Nevada-Reno, and asked him if he would sit as chair of our selection committee and asked if there were some women that he could recommend to sit on the committee. Well, one of them turned out to be the secretary of state and the other turned out to be a very influential and very powerful state senator. So all of a sudden we find ourselves in a new environment. If somebody wants to get involved in public policy and everything in the state of Nevada, it's such a small state in



terms of population, something a little over a million, I guess, you can really get right in there.

It's been fascinating meeting those people and then seeing how that has spread out. Before I was involved slightly in a political culture, and although I don't consider myself a political animal, it's been fun getting to know those people and getting their help. Many times we called on them for help in the college.

When I decided to step down as chairman at Sierra Nevada College, the president of UNR said, "Well, it looks as though you're going to have a little time on your hands. How would you like to be a commissioner for the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges?" You know, that's the accrediting agency. He said, "Nevada has never had a public representative. I'd like to put your name up in nomination to be the representative from our state on the board."

It's a twenty-five-person commission. Mostly educators, I think. You've got one executive director, who is full-time, and then you have three public members, and the remainder, for the most part, are presidents, deans, something like that from various colleges and universities up in the Northwest--seven states, including Alaska.

So the next thing you know, I find I'm a commissioner on that thing. Now I'm swamped. We have basically two meetings a year and,of course, sometimes you serve on one of the visiting teams. As a matter of fact, I've served on a couple of them already--headed one of them before I went to school to learn to be one--to be a head! But every commissioner gets a stack sometimes like three feet high of self-studies, various kinds of catalogues, and heavens knows what. But all this stuff is incidental to a visit.



So every outfit that is being visited now is sending all these packets to everybody. Nobody in the world could read all of this stuff before he comes to the meeting. What I tend to do, and I think most others do too, is to get a report from the visiting committee and note the salient points there. Then I go back to this pile of stuff that I have, paw through it, and see if I can make some kind of sense out of it.

Donald R. Lennon:

So this is a working commission rather than more honorary.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, this is work, work, work.

Donald R. Lennon:

I know how those self-study things go. Seems like we're in the middle of them all the time.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, you know, when I think back, if I had known then at Washington College what I know now, I think that it would have been a lot easier when we went through the accreditation process.

Back in Washington College, I went to the president's school about this process for a college about to be reaccredited. They go through the process every ten years, normally. There were so many horror stories about faculty sabotaging the process. They didn't care that the school didn't get reaccredited. They just wanted to embarrass the administration.

Donald R. Lennon:

They weren't concerned about their jobs?

Charles J. Merdinger:

No. I couldn't understand it. It was absolutely unbelievable. But I recall three different instances of institutions where they told us the faculty sabotaged the process. They just wanted to oust the president or the dean or whoever happened to be in their sights at that time.



Well, that was kind of a scary school to go to to find that kind of an attitude was rampant. I don't think things are that way today. Sure you get a few people who want to vent a few gripes and so on, but I don't think it has the fervor that you had some twenty years ago.

So, that has been an interesting thing that I have found myself engaged in now. As I mentioned, I'm still skiing and playing tennis, which was the original intent.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well, a good part of your time is now taken up with that commission, is it not? I don't know how many colleges and universities fall under that particular accrediting agency, but I would think that it's a continuous process?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh yes. I wold say at any given time, we must have at least twenty colleges and universities under consideration of one sort or another. Some are full-scale evaluations, others are just a one-person visit and so on.

Donald R. Lennon:

Are they either trying to regain their accreditation or trying to get above their partial approval?

Charles J. Merdinger:

That's right. It gets really interesting because we have a lot of Indian schools and Eskimo schools and things like that. That, of course, poses a special problem. The way the process works is that the school asks for the visit. Then the commission puts together a team. Sometimes there will be a commission member on the team and sometimes there won't be, but there's a cadre of people out there--maybe five hundred--who are on call. As you know, the various expertises are represented. Somebody is the financial person and another is humanities and so on.

When the team goes in and comes back, it never says what its recommendation will be. It says, "Here are the strengths, here are the weaknesses, etc." Then it reports to



the commission and the commission makes the final decision. But, of course, there will be an oral recommendation from the chair of the visiting committee to the commission. For the most part, of course, it goes through, but every now and then the recommendation doesn't hold and gets debated. Sometimes there is some rather hot debate about these things. The wheels are not necessarily all greased for these things. As I say, the commissioners really want to encourage some of these institutions and they say, "But where is the quality here? Is this really up to accreditation standards?" If anything I think it tends to bend over backwards to give them credibility as opposed to knocking them down.

But at times it almost poses a moral dilemma. What really is the best course of action to take? So, this is not the usual kind of perfunctory thing that after somebody reports we say, "Yeah, that's fine, we agree or disagree." It's a much more hands-on experience, a very titillating experience.

Then there's another group that I'm involved with. It's the church group, the "Papal Knights of the Holy Sepulchre." This is a group that goes back to Godfrey de Bouillon, the chief crusader in 1099. It's the oldest papal order to knighthood extant. It's before the Knights of Malta, which of course get much more press.

The functions of this group are the same as those of the founder--which is to retain a Christian presence in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem. This involves the supporting of colleges there and it tends, of course, to support the Christian Arabs who are there. A lot of people don't realize what the problems are there.

Donald R. Lennon:

They are so complex. I don't see how anyone could really understand.



Charles J. Merdinger:

No. It really is complex. We fortunately made a pilgrimage back a few years ago. We had a marvelous priest, Father Godfrey Klesky(?), who is a Franciscan, but he is also an archeologist, historian, and theologian all thrown into one. It was just marvelous going back there and seeing all those sights and getting it through his eyes. He is an old hand in the place and has been there for years, and in a sense, even he really doesn't see a solution. Gad, we're back here trying to figure out one. When you get on the site you realize what a complex thing it is.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well, let's face it. Those problems in that part of the world have existed since the twelve tribes came out of Egypt.

Charles J. Merdinger:

You're right. It's been forever. The Muslims hold the Dome of the Rock as a holy place--Mohammed stepping into heaven. Then there's the Crucifixion for the Christians and King David for the Jews. I mean, everybody has got a legitimate interest in it. I don't know how that place succeeds! Yet, a lot of them have managed to live in peace. I just hope that somehow we can continue.

But, as far as a Christian presence there is concerned, the situation is very tenuous. You've got maybe 5 percent. The remainder of the population is split right down the middle--Muslims and Jews. The Christian community is every stripe of Christian you can ever think of--from the far right to the far left. The Orthodox Greeks are basically the ones who are in charge of most of the shrines there because they came in as a result of the Turkish occupation. While various Christians attempt to operate in harmony, the Greeks are sort of the top dogs in most of the places when it comes to running these things. It's kind of interesting, you go to the shrines there, and of course they have this overlay of the Greek Orthodox, which has icons and all these little candles



and everything else. The place is kind of "glooped" up. Well, you go into a place like the Dome of the Rock--the Muslim place--and it's quiet. You take off your shoes. Lots of space. I don't know, somehow it's a more prayerful kind of attitude that you find there than you find in Christian ones! So, Father Godfrey said, "Look, what you have to remember is what happened in these places. Don't get taken in by the current disarray that seems to be here and the people holding out their hands and selling you candles and all this kind of stuff. Think of what happened here and what it means to us who are Christians and you'll see it in a different light." Which, I think, is a very enlightened way to look at it, but as I say, when you contrast these two, it's a very interesting contrast and one that certainly leans toward the Muslim side.

Donald R. Lennon:

I would like to pick up a few points from your Navy career in the Vietnam era.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Okay. Two things stand out in my Vietnam experience in particular. First of all, I must tell you that the Civil Engineer Corps was divided up in that area into three main parts. One was the Seabee Brigade, which by the way, one of our classmates, Jim Bartlett, headed. Then, there were the Civil Engineers who were responsible for overseeing the contracts. There was a huge civilian consortium building much of the infrastructure there, so they were concerned with administering that. Then the third group, which I headed, was the Public Works organization at Da Nang. This was primarily a Seabee group, but we also had a large component of civilians. We had Koreans, Filipinos, and, I think, we also had some Viet Cong. The whole backwash of Asian was in this outfit because we were the Public Works organization running the utilities and much of the ground transportation, that sort of thing. So, we would encroach on each other's territory.



Basically, the contractors were in there to build the major infrastructure of the thing. The Seabee Brigade was in there to engage in construction projects primarily in more advanced areas that were more liable to come under enemy fire. Public Works was there, in a sense, to maintain what these two outfits had already put in place. But many times they would only complete 95 percent of something and it wouldn't work and we would have to build the other 5 percent. So sometimes we were in the building business. For instance, we had a huge contingent up at Khe Sanh that reinforced Khe Sanh before the onslaught up there. It was being billed as another Dien Bien Phu or something like that. That's one of the incidents that I recall.

Major General Hochmuth, who was commanding 1st Marine Division, had asked Jim and me to come up with him to Khe Sanh to look over the property so we could decide what it was we would be able to do to reinforce the runway. This was the kind of thing we did. One of the things my outfit was going to do was to actually bring in a rock crusher--we had to crush the rock right up there to mix the concrete. We had to tear up the old matting and put in a new base because it was all really torn up from the increased air traffic on it.

A few weeks later, he invited me to go up again and I said, "Yes, I will." Then at the last minute, I couldn't make it and I don't remember why now. By golly, that was the ill-fated flight, he was shot down someplace. He was the one Marine general that got killed in the war. I missed that flight. I keep thinking of Pearl Harbor and everything that happened there and then I get to Vietnam and I just miss it.

The other incident in Vietnam was that we were growing so rapidly that the Marines really were not equipped with engineer forces to support what they had.



Originally, the Marine forces were designed to go in for three months, or whatever it was, and were really very much of an expeditionary force. But they began settling in up there as the Army would do and they didn't have the engineering support to do it.

So I went to each one of the chiefs of staff and generals and said, "Look, I'm here with the Public Works. What I will do is to place an officer and some of my Seabees, but if you can augment it with a few of your Marines, we'll keep your utilities going." If there is anything big, then, I'll bring my major forces in and so on."

So I get people spotted in all these Marine outfits and they had Marines attached. It was a mixture, it wasn't anything that was on the table of organization, it was just something that was just expedient and so we did it. In the course of doing this, I realized that I needed a heck of a lot more people to do this thing. There was always a fight for numbers because they were fighting these numbers in the Pentagon, as you may recall. Everything had to be justified. It took a long time to get any. So I felt that I had to go back to Pearl Harbor to talk to the logistics people there to really get this thing off the ground, as far as Seabees were concerned. Well, I got back there, and in came a message for me to fly back to Washington, D.C., and report to Vice-Admiral Moore(?) in the Pentagon. My boss, the admiral in Pearl Harbor said, "What is this?" He knew that my wife was back in Washington. I mean she was located there, but, in fact, she was now in Pearl. When I knew I was coming back I had said, "I'll take a few days leave and I'll meet you in Hawaii." So she's in Hawaii! He said, "What kind of business is this that you're trying to get a ride back?"

I said, "Sorry, Admiral, I don't really know anything about this." I had a suspicion, but I wasn't sure.



So, he said, "Well, okay."

I said, "But I'd rather stay here. I don't want to go back to Washington. My wife is here."

So I go back and the admiral said, "Ike wants to see you up in Gettysburg. We've got a helicopter standing by out there. Get on the helicopter and go up and see Ike."

So I went to see him. I'd never met him. We had the most wonderful forty-five minutes I've ever had in my life. He and Kevin McCann, who was his assistant, and I-- the three of us, as I say--met for forty-five minutes or so. He wanted me to become the first president of Eisenhower College. We had a wonderful time. He said that really, originally, he had wanted to go to the Naval Academy and I told him that originally I had wanted to go to West Point!

Then he reminisced and I'll tell you, he was really a charismatic character. It's a moment that I'll cherish for the rest of my life because I felt that I was really in the presence of greatness. He was a very humble yet commanding figure all at the same time. He had all of the best qualities. It was as if I had known him forever. You know, "Come on in and have a seat."

He told me all about Eisenhower College. He said that this group of people were forming this college.

Donald R. Lennon:

This is in Abilene, right?

Charles J. Merdinger:

No, this was up in New York State. It was somewhere near Geneva. Well, anyway, it was up in that area of New York.

He said that these people had come to him and they wanted to establish this liberal arts college there and that it was important that they get early accreditation. They



had to have a president in this place. He had scouted around and decided that he wanted me to be the president. He said, "I had two people in mind. Goodpaster and yourself. Goodpaster was tied up. I think he was commanding NATO or something like that at the time."

So he said, "I'd like you to do it. You know, the most wonderful days I ever had was when I was president of Columbia."

Gad, I'm sitting there thinking, and he said, "I want you to go up and see the place and meet the people. I'd like you to take the job." That was the gist of the conversation, although, as I said, it was a lot of reminiscing that went on during this period. I felt very, very close to this wonderful man, but at the end, I couldn't quite say yes. It was sort of coming out of the blue. What he wanted to do was to get me out of the Navy right that minute. As a matter of fact, to show you how these people work, Kevin McCann said that originally Ike had said, "Get Johnson on the phone." (Johnson being the President of the United States.) McCann said, "Look, General," (by the way, he preferred to be called "General" rather than "President") "we'll get Merdinger back here through the Navy channels and we don't have to call the President to do this."

It turned out that this Admiral Haran(?) had been Ike's naval aide at one period. So that was the connection you see. So they told him to get me back there so I could see Ike.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well, how had he identified you specifically? Due to your Rhodes Scholarship?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes. The real key was Abe Lincoln, who was the head of social sciences at West Point for many years. He was a Rhodes Scholar. I'm not sure whether he was on Ike's



staff during the war, but whatever it was, Ike had very great faith in him. I think he was the one who threw my name in the hat when this thing came up.

Well, the idea was that Mary was told to stand by depending upon how my talk with Ike went. Well, obviously, it went favorably because we had to call her up to meet us someplace else in New York, although I have forgotten what the name of the place was.

She had to drive up there in the car while I was flying from Gettysburg to the place in New York. I said as we left, "It's been a great privilege to meet you, General."

He said, "Well, I'd consider it a privilege if you'd accept the presidency of the college."

I said, "Well, I'll have to let you know. I've got to think about this."

When I stop to think of it now, I suppose, here's so elevated a person and you're telling him, "Well, I don't know. I'll have to think about it."

I got on the plane and a fellow by the name of Bell who had been the education commissioner under Ike got on the plane specifically to convince me that this was what I ought to do. He said, "Boy, if I were your age and had the opportunity to start a college this way--its already got name recognition, which is a very important thing. There are all kinds of people, Bob Hope and these minions, and all these people are going to support this thing. So the name Eisenhower will stick as a college. It's a wonderful opportunity and I want you to really consider it."

Well then, we get to the town and I go out to the site. This place is jus rising out of the mud flats there. I met all the good burghers of the town. By this time, Mary had joined me. We had a wonderful day with them. At the end, when we were kind of



closing out things, I said, "I suppose you will want to look at a number of other candidates on this thing."

They said, "No, no. We want you."

I said, "Well, quite honestly, I just can't give you an answer. I've got to really think this one over." I wasn't really quite ready to leave the Navy yet. I was kind of halfway through the war.

Donald R. Lennon:

Something like that to come out of the blue entirely, while you're concentrating on the situation in Vietnam.

Charles J. Merdinger:

It wasn't completely out of the blue because I'd received a letter from Abe Lincoln to the effect that something was in the wind. So that's why I say, I had an inkling, but I didn't really know. I didn't know what it was all about until I got there.

Well, I went back to Vietnam. I hassled it over for a number of weeks. I finally thought, how can I really turn this down? I wrote a letter to Kevin McCann. When I didn't hear from him, however, I promptly forgot and I went about other things. But when I got back to the States, I gave Kevin a call. I said, "Whatever happened on this thing?"

He said, "Whatever happened? We never got anything from you. Since you had seemed to be leaning on the negative side when you left and we didn't hear from you, we just decided that we would have to go ahead without you."

So my letter got lost in Vietnam. I have often thought, "Well, now, obviously if I had said 'yes' right off the bat, that would have been it. But, with the letter being lost, what might have that have been?" I don't usually look back on things. This happened, so it happened and that's it.



So those are the two anecdotes about Vietnam.

Donald R. Lennon:

Several years ago I did some interviews with General William K. Jones. Did you have any association with him when you were in Vietnam?

Charles J. Merdinger:

No.

Donald R. Lennon:

He was there for quite a while.

Charles J. Merdinger:

You see, I was up at Da Nang and this was far removed from Saigon--which was, of course, where the main offices were for everybody. I felt I was sort of a boondocks type. I was out on the road practically everyday. Our office hours ran from seven in the morning to about ten at night, seven days a week. We'd take an hour off to go to church on Sunday and that was about it.

Donald R. Lennon:

In your comments concerning the three levels of construction that were going on there, who was responsible when the Viet Cong damaged or destroyed a site?

Charles J. Merdinger:

It depended on the situation, but primarily, it was a Public Works responsibility. If we got some damage to part of our main facilities, then we would go out and do it. If it was beyond our abilities, we would call on the others. We very seldom would call on civilian contractors for that. It might be that the battalions would be called upon to come in to do something. It wasn't all nice and clear-cut. After all, if it happened over in a battalion's area, and they got bombed there, obviously, they would take care of it themselves.

Donald R. Lennon:

These civilian contractors, were they primarily American firms?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, yes. R & K. . . well, you can go back in the archives. . . it was a big consortium of Brown, Root, and Jones and Morris Knutson(?). As I say, since I wasn't



directly connected with them, I didn't pay that much attention. I was much more concerned with my own outfit.

At the time, I had about fifteen hundred Seabees and about three thousand civilians. I tell you, it was really heartening the way we were taking some of those Vietnamese civilians and making carpenters and plumbers and electricians out of them. In many cases, we'd have a Korean on one side and a Seabee on the other, teaching this Vietnamese. You see, the Army had taught the Koreans, of course, in the Korean War, and now they [Koreans] had come over as master craftsmen themselves. I don't mean to say that they taught them everything, obviously, but, I mean, there was a lot of that going on in Korea. The Koreans, well, they're very fine workers. Very good artisans. I think that some of the Vietnamese drew some kind of inspiration from them: "Well, here's somebody from this part of the world. He got trained by the Americans and so can I."

We had some very heartening stories. For instance, we went in a Vietnamese hospital that never had had running water before. We brought them running water. We taught them so many of the elements of sanitation. You'd hear about these idyllic Vietnamese villages, well, perhaps they existed, but I'll tell you, most of the ones that I walked into weren't particularly idyllic. The people were old at thirty-five.

Donald R. Lennon:

The French presence had not brought them any standard of living.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, certainly not out in the boondocks. Saigon, on the other hand, was one of the loveliest cities in the world. It had all the best of the French and the Vietnamese. You can't downgrade the Vietnamese entirely because, after all, certainly a great portion of the population is literate and artistic and all the things that we would prize. But you get out in the boondocks and the people are certainly at a different level. We were



bringing something to them. I used to say, "Well, regardless of the political outcome of this war, we will have served the purpose here because we will have brought them all these modern capabilities in the basic trades--carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc.

I still remember talking to one of the Seabees. As I mentioned, I spent a lot of time in the field. I would check in the office first thing in the morning and then be out in a jeep or helicopter or someplace talking to the troops. I recall this, when I asked this fellow, "Well, how are things going?"

He said, "Well sir, I'm really pleased with what I'm doing. I was a plumber before I came into the Seabees and I'm doing my plumbing work now. I'm teaching that Vietnamese over there how to be a plumber. I think I am really doing something for this country. You see that fellow up over there?" He was up on a platform with a machine gun. He said, "He wasn't a machine gunner or rifleman or whatever it was before. He sort of is now, but he won't be in the future. I think that I've got an edge on him in terms of what I'm feeling I'm doing. It's important around here." You just take that and escalate it to a whole group. The morale was tremendous. Just wonderful guys. As I mentioned, before I left, I felt I could have led this outfit anywhere and they would have followed me. It was just a very elevating experience to be with these guys.

I felt that my whole life, in a sense, led up to Vietnam. This is what I had been prepared to do and I was doing it and I was doing something important. I know that runs counter to a lot of the general philosophy that you get, the current wisdom; it was all a mistake, we didn't do any good and this and that and the other thing. The point is that we did an awful lot of good over there. We were part of doing that good. So that's why I can look back on that with a special sense. I can do that because among other things, I was



lucky, I didn't get wounded. It's very easy to come back if you've survived. Then there's some other fellow who's lost his legs or whatever. He has a completely different view of the war. I would bet you that you could take ten people who were in the Da Nang area at the same time I was and every one of them would give you a different story. Everyone saw his own Vietnam. But I saw it in these idealistic terms.

I got to know a number of the Vietnamese because I had Vietnamese contractors working for me. The interesting thing is that most of them were women. I don't know if you remember that cartoon, "Terry and the Pirates?"

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes.

Charles J. Merdinger:

And the "Dragon Lady?"

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes.

Charles J. Merdinger:

The Dragon Lady exists. She is, or she was, all over Vietnam, in that you had all these women entrepreneurs. They seemed to be much stronger than the men in the general sense. I don't know if it's just that the male population fought itself out. . . you know, those people have been fighting forever in that country. . . or just what it was. But the point was that most of the contractors I dealt with were women.

I remember one, Madame Nom was her name. She had a brother, or a relative, I don't know which, who was the Bishop of Hue. She had high connections in the government all through the place. She had been in North Vietnam and of course, in 1954, I believe, the Vietnamese were given the option of either going north or south. Well, something like 80 percent--a huge percentage--came south versus those going north. She was among those who came south apparently. She and a number of others like her that I talked to said, "We cannot co-exist with the Communists. We have lived



under the Communist regime. It's impossible for us to live with these people. If you Americans attempt to force us to live with them, we'll simply have to leave Vietnam. We love it and we want to hold on to Vietnam, but we will be forced to leave it and go someplace else."

You know, you hear about the business of the Vietnamese being lukewarm about our presence and everything else. It certainly wasn't the case among those people who'd lived up there. We had another family we got to know. As a matter of fact, they're here in the States now and we helped them a little to get resettled. They owned seven houses and various plantations and all sorts of cars and everything else. Yet they weren't ostentatious and they were not simply war profiteers. As a matter of fact, they didn't change any of their money into dollars--which they easily could have done. At the end, they didn't even get the whole family out of Saigon. Only part of the family got out. They were in those waning hours, you know. Things were just about to cave in. One brother was already in Hong Kong and the family got over there to the States and the brother wrote to my last military address. This was in 1975, and although I had already retired, the letter got to me!

We got in touch with them and ultimately, helped them. A lot of other people did even more than we did, but we were part of it. We helped them get settled in the Los Angeles area, which is where they are now. They got started in a little business, and we helped them with that.

For a while, it went beautifully, but unfortunately, there were too many other people in the same Vietnamese business, then Chinatown, and so on and so on. So, they're struggling now but their kids did well. They came in and most of them went right



to the top. Now the son, who was just a baby when they came over, is well along in high school. He's an "A" student in everything. He's on the football team and basketball team. He's doing everything. They've really integrated into the community. They don't even live in a Vietnamese community. They're the only Vietnamese in the neighborhood. I don't ever know how long they can hang in there now because of the economics but they have no intent on going back.

We've had occasion to meet some of their relatives who have been among the boat people that have come over here. They talk about the repression that went on, which was predicted. A lot of people say, "Whatever happened to the domino theory?"

Well, as a matter of fact, the domino theory did take effect. A lot of these people are victims. So, we sort of kept touch with Vietnam that way.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did you learn any Vietnamese while you were over there to help you communicate or did you rely on translators entirely?

Charles J. Merdinger:

No. Everything had to be translated into English. As a matter of fact, we had a tour of duty for three years in Japan. I headed the public works outfit at Yokosuka there.

That was a marvelous outfit. I had about two thousand Japanese working for me, and among them were five former admirals in the Imperial Navy--one of whom was the chief of naval personnel--Vice Admiral Nagazanu. He'd been in prison as a war criminal and I was told that he came out to the base to work as a janitor when he got out. I don't know if that's true, because when I got there, he wasn't in that position, he was the head of the maintenance shop of about eight hundred carpenters and plumbers and so on. I don't know whether he knew about plumbers or carpenters, but he knew how to run eight hundred men, I'll tell you.



My chief advisor was Vice Admiral Baron Nobishinau(?). His wife was of the royal family. He had been superintendent of the Naval Academy and chief of the bureau of ordnance.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did you develop a camaraderie with them?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, we are still closely in touch with them. Nagazanu has long died but his son, every Christmas, sends us a picture of the family and keeps in touch.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well, at that point in time, what was their attitude toward the war?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Let me tell you. By the way, what I started to say was that I never learned Vietnamese. However, my wife and I studied a book called Japanese in Thirty Hours and we were still studying it at the end of three years! I used to give speeches in Japanese to the happy workers. I would, of course, write it out in English then my secretary, who was Japanese, would put it in the framework so that I could read it off and, theoretically, I was reading Japanese. I was told that they understood about 75 percent of what I said, but they loved it! They said, "Gee, he took the effort." So I could get along a little in Japanese. We could get a couple of days someplace without having to speak English. You know, get on a train or order a meal or something. But we never really learned it. But Vietnamese was much worse.

Donald R. Lennon:

I have a colleague who is up here with me on this trip that is preparing to leave for a tour of Southeast Asia. He's an Asian historian. The last two nights, he's been sitting there in the room with his Indonesian and Tai language cards, and probably his Vietnamese language cards also. He's going to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia and he is cramming.



Charles J. Merdinger:

I admire these people who have a flair for languages. I think our number four daughter has a bit of that. I mentioned that she's into Latin, Greek, German, French, and so on.

Well, to get back to the attitude of the Japanese, let me tell you one example. Admiral Nobishinau(?) and I used to talk at long length on these things. He was well into his seventies--possible eighties--so he had nothing to gain by giving me any kind of line. I think what he told me was absolutely sincere.

We had a very good rapport with each other. He wasn't in charge of anything, his function was serving as a floating elder statesman there. People would come to him. . . kind of like an ombudsman. But he said that, generally speaking, the Navy didn't want to get into war with the United States. They were much more sophisticated really than the Army persons because they had been all over the world. They knew the industrial might of the west. The respected it as something that was going to fall in on them if they really got into a major war. But as you may recall, the government was under Tojo and the Army generals. The way Nobishinau(?) explained it was that most of these people had only a limited view. In Nobishinau's(?) view, this was a war that they really shouldn't have gotten into. Of course, once they were committed to it, they had to go all out. We know, of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor and so on. He said that it was probably a good thing that Japan lost the war and that the Americans took over. He praised very highly MacArthur's occupation. He said that had Japan achieved its initial objectives, they would have caused a stalemate in the Far East. In other words, all they wanted to do was to control the territory of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. The government in power, probably would have lasted for a long time in a dictatorship form.



The war, then, gave them the opportunity to form a democracy somewhat a long the lines as we know it. He said that that was all to the good.

There was only one enduring negative thing--the fact that we had taken away religion from them in a sense. In other words, the emperor was removed from this exalted status that he had. Now, he never used the word "god" or anything like that, but the emperor in a sense, was head of church and state, if you will. Morality flowed from the emperor.

Well, we took him out of there, but we didn't replace him with anything. As a consequence, he said, "A lot of the next generation coming along don't have the same kind of moralistic roots. They are much more materialistic." All the charges we have made over here about our young people.

Donald R. Lennon:

Isn't that going to be part of the pendulum swing inevitably?

Charles J. Merdinger:

I think it's a worldwide phenomenon. But he was seeing it in terms of Japan and he didn't like that aspect of it. So that kind of central core of morality had been removed and, as I say, had not been replaced. But, on the other hand, he felt all the other moves were in the right direction: That Japan would prosper from this, that would be the best thing. Well, he was a pretty good prophet.

Of course, my wife ended up teaching the English language to the professors in the electrical engineering department of the Japanese Defense Academy. So we formed a number of friendships that way. We got to know the Japanese on a level plane. Japanese were working for me in the Public Works department and that was one kind of relationship. But here, we were equals and she was sensei, the teacher. She would say, "Well, you know, sometime we would like to climb Mt. Fuji." Next thing you'd know,



they would have organized an expedition and the whole family, the four daughters, and the professors would all go to Mt. Fuji and climb it. One thing after another, we saw Japan. Also, my secretary was single and didn't have any family ties or anything. So on weekends, she would go with us and we would visit the various Japanese shrines. Sometimes we would take an extended vacation. So we always had our Japanese interpreter with us. We were getting something about the country although we lived on the base. We were getting involved in a lot of the Japanese culture.

Donald R. Lennon:

I thought that the Japanese were neutralized militarily at this period. The National Defense Academy, did you say?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes. It was a combination of West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the Naval Academy.

Donald R. Lennon:

So they were continuing to train military personnel?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, yes. We had advisors there. It was called the Japanese Self-Defense Force. Their concept there was a four-year undergraduate education, at the end of which time, they would go to the separate branches. But they all had this common core to begin with. But, I suppose, on the scale of things, it wasn't really very large. We got to know a number of the people in that operation as well, more as colleagues.

The Public Works Department that I had, did a lot of work out in town to restore the schools. I was always going out to accept a scroll or something on the behalf of the people of Yokosuka for what our Seabees had done. I had a small contingent of Seabees within this Public Works Department. It was primarily Japanese. I suppose we had twenty-two hundred people in the whole outfit, of whom about two thousand were Japanese.



So we had a rapport with the town. In fact, we still have a highly prized Cloisonné vase that we have down there in our La Jolla home that was given to me by the mayor of Yokosuka in recognition of the efforts our department had put forth in the city there for the schools and other things. So it was a wonderful experience.

Donald R. Lennon:

There were four of you from the Class of '41 there on the NEVADA, I believe. You, Joe Taussig, and Sandy Landreth, being three.

Charles J. Merdinger:

And Bob Thomas.

Donald R. Lennon:

Bob Thomas, okay.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Who, by the way, went into the Civil Engineer Corps, too.

Donald R. Lennon:

Do you have any recollections with relation to the four of you aboard the NEVADA, either before Pearl Harbor or during the situation.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, of course, we were close. Joe Taussig and I were roommates. Sandy Landreth and Bob Thomas were also roommates. Our doors faced each other. So we lived in proximity, we ate in proximity. As a matter of fact, we were the last ensigns to come . . . well, no, we weren't the last ones, there were some Reserves behind us. But, there was the Class of '39, and '40 in the junior mess. And then this whole slew of Reserves who came in just before we graduated and then we were the last four at that point. Somehow, we used to sit by seniority, so the four of us ended up over in the corner as the most junior members of the mess!

Initially, when we came aboard, I guess we had to live in a bunkroom someplace. Then, shortly thereafter, we were able to move into rooms. So, from that standpoint, we were living together, very closely.



Now, the four of us were all in the gunnery department. But, I was in the fire control division, which put me down below the decks. The fire control division was the outfit that basically did the calculations for firing the main battery. They were all up in the anti-aircraft batteries. So, when the attack [on Pearl Harbor] came, their stations were up there and my station was down in the plotting room.

I'd describe the plotting room as maybe a room of about this size. I have forgotten now, maybe there were fifteen or something like that of us there. Normally, I was the junior officer there. There were two officers senior to me, but on that day they were both ashore, so I ended up the only officer down there.

During an attack, one of the first things you do is go to general quarters: Everybody goes to a station. Then, after a period, they begin to close watertight doors. Well, during the attack, before the word had come through that all watertight doors were closed, I got the word, "Ensign Taussig has been hit." He was hit in the first few minutes. It's never been absolutely established as to what hit him. It could have been machine gun fire from one of the other ships. It could have been some explosive that hit on the deck and got him.

Donald R. Lennon:

Landreth was saying yesterday that he and Taussig had pretty much decided that he was hit by one of the planes that flew over.

Charles J. Merdinger:

That's certainly possible.

Donald R. Lennon:

As he ran out to go to his station.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes.



Donald R. Lennon:

Landreth said he was delayed a moment when he first heard the call. He was taking his good old time. He thought it was just a drill. So he was behind Taussig or he would have probably got the same strafing attack that Taussig got.

Charles J. Merdinger:

That's certainly a possibility. But you also had the possibility that some of the projectiles from the other ships were coming down. Who knows.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you were already in the battle when you heard that he was injured.

Charles J. Merdinger:

Oh, right off the bat. Again, it's a long time ago, so I'm a little hazy on details. One ear phone was on one channel and the other was on another. One of them was to the fire control circuit. It was to the tops where the lookouts were, and the turrets--in other words--the main battery. But the other one was on an entirely different circuit. It had nothing to do with the guns, per se. When I was told that Ensign Taussig had been hit, I got word to the corpse man, somehow. So they sent a corpse man up there to get Taussig down. Now, I think other people, at the same time, were doing the same thing, so it's questionable who did what. The point was that he was knocked out of it in just the very first couple of minutes.

The sequence of events in his case was that he had relieved his officer of the deck, a fellow by the name of Charles "Pop" Jenkins (Charles), out of the Class of '39, who was in the engineering force. Well, I talked to Jenkins about this. He lives somewhere around Sacramento, I think. Jenkins wrote a rather detailed report of things and then he put it away for years. He gave me a copy of it and I don't know what the heck I did with it. His account went something like this: He was on deck. Joe Taussig came up at about a quarter of the hour, roughly. They discussed a few things and Taussig said, "I relieve you, sir." Jenkins was over writing in his log when the attack started about five 'til eight,



roughly. So, immediately Taussig said something to Jenkins about, "I think I would be more useful up in my battle station." Jenkins waved his hand, "Go ahead, I relieve you." So Taussig was officer of the deck for ten minutes or something like that and then he went to his battle station. Jenkins was the guy on the site down there.

You never hear of Jenkins because he never wrote anything about it, except for this thing I'm telling you now. If I can find it when I get back, I'd be delighted to send you a copy.

A few years ago, when we had the USS NEVADA reunion out at Carson City, all of them were out at my house and we had a long taping session. All of us reminiscing about what we did on December the seventh. Landreth wasn't there, but Thomas, Taussig, and myself, and Ron Layman(?) and Ray Huttenburger(?), two Reserve ensigns, were there. So each of us had a different spot on that thing. Sometimes you would wonder if we were all in the same place in the same battle from what we had remembered. It was like describing the elephant to a blind man.

But my recollection of that day was trying to get a corpsman to Joe Taussig. I didn't really know what had happened to Bob Thomas or Sandy Landreth. I didn't hear anything about them. I was down there, you see, until about three in the afternoon. We had been at battle station for some time when I was ordered to send up half of my men to man the guns because so many people had been shot up there.

Now in those days, of course, everybody was kind of cross-trained. They were capable of moving into these different positions. So I looked around and I told the people who were on the most important phones to stay. I said, "Okay, Jones, Smith, and so and so, you go, and you fellows stay."



Now, there's an interesting thing about all of this. You've got to remember, I was a fresh young ensign. We weren't out of the Academy a year. These, for the most part, were old timers. Some had been in the Navy many, many years. But there was no question of who goes, who stays. It was kind of a "Hobson's Choice," because I think the people who were going up thought they were going to get shot, and the ones who stayed thought they were going to get drowned. So it really wasn't much of a choice. As I was thinking it over, I think I'd have preferred to have gone myself and got the heck out of there, because, by this time, we were lying on the bottom.

Donald R. Lennon:

You had already taken enough bombs so that you were no longer afloat?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Right. We had, as I recall, taken five bombs and one torpedo, which in turn set off secondary explosions so there were all kinds of fires and everything raging throughout the ship. We were sitting on the bottom by this time. We were leaned over just a bit. We had lost, of course, the major source of power so we had the green lights--the emergency power--on. We hadn't had any ventilation in some time. So, when I said, "You go, and you stay," there wasn't any debate. Nobody said, "No, I don't think I want to do this," or anything else. They just said, "Aye, aye sir," and just went.

That, of course, is one of the things that's always stuck in my mind as to why we have the gold braid and the salutes and all these other things. Sometimes it comes down to that one moment when someone is making a life or death decision for a whole slew of people and you don't think very much about it. You just do it.

Donald R. Lennon:

It has to be drilled into you.

Charles J. Merdinger:

It has to be drilled in. They did it and that's the way it went. I've reflected on it many times since, obviously. But then, as time went on, I went through three stages--



prayers, thoughts, whatever--and one was that I don't get wounded. The second stage was, if I get wounded, for it not to be something permanent--like the loss of a leg. I didn't know, of course, that Joe was already enroute to losing his leg. Three, if I have to go, I'm going to go like an officer and a gentleman. Everything that Annapolis taught me, I was going to set an example for the men. I was steeling myself. Of course, I didn't have to do it, you see, so I don't know how that would have worked out.

Donald R. Lennon:

But you really didn't have a great deal of time to even think about it. You were probably too busy?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Well, I did at periods, because it's like a football game. There are lulls. There are time-outs. So yes, there were times, particularly down there, when all we were doing was manning phones and passing word to here, there, and everywhere. I'd get on one phone, "There's a fire in such and such a place." So I would tell somebody, "Flood that magazine." That was going on but most of the time we were getting reports. In retrospect, of course, if I'd thought about it, I would have jotted down these things as they went according to time. But I didn't.

Well, about three o'clock, it became very clear that we'd had it down there. The plates above us were beginning to buckle and the water was dripping on our heads. We had long ago ceased to have any air. It was like some of these submarine pictures. Everybody has his shirt off and sweating. We said, "Everybody lie down and we'll use as little oxygen as we can so we can keep these phones running," because we were still performing an important function. Normally, our function was to shoot the big guns. Well, they weren't in action. Our function was simply to get word from one place to another.



Donald R. Lennon:

The fighting was over. The Japanese had long left but the fires and what have you were continuing?

Charles J. Merdinger:

The fires were going on and people were going here and there and so on. So in a sense, we were mostly relaying messages from one place to another, because where those two circuits connected was with us.

Well, the door by which we had always entered, the gaskets began to give way and the water was now coming in. We said, "Brother!" We knew, of course, that we were in an air bubble. There wasn't much outside there except water. Now it's running in through the door. So, I called up to the executive officer and said, "Commander, we can hold it about five more minutes. I request permission to secure."

He said, "All right. Permission granted."

Now, there was only one way that we could secure and that was through another door that went into the central station. I don't recall that I had ever been through that door, because we had always come in the one door to our battle stations or we went out that way and central station was just a different country. So I was hoping that there was something on the other side!

Donald R. Lennon:

I was getting ready to say that you didn't know what was behind that door!

Charles J. Merdinger:

Didn't know! So, when he said, "Okay, secure," I said, "All hands, secure." About half the men were left. They took off their phones, wrapped them up the proper way, (mind you, water is coming up to their ankles now, rushing in) and hung them on the bulkhead where they always hung them after securing from drill. We opened the door into the other place, which was full of smoke, with guys lying around. So we all went out and, of course, I would have liked to have led the charge out, but I had to hold the door



until the last man was out. Then we went into the other place. As I said, it was all smoky in there and a few bodies were lying around, and then we went up the ladder.

Now, there was a ladder that went up all the way to the conning tower. I shouldn't say a ladder--it was a tube--a metal tube that went all the way up to the conning tower. It was full of wires, communication lines, but there was a ladder in there underneath all this stuff. You had to kind of push it aside. A fat man couldn't have gotten up that thing, but we were all thin that day!

By the way, I should have mentioned that I went to my battle station in my slippers. I was in my bunk. Joe, of course, had gone to the watch. I put on my dungarees, my officer's hat, and my slippers, and I went to my battle station.

Of course we were all soaked. I got about half way up the ladder and smelled fresh air for the first time. I thought it was the most wonderful air I had ever smelled in my life. I got out and looked around the harbor and the harbor was aflame. You know, all the oil. To this day, when I smell diesel oil, I think of Pearl Harbor. I don't recall ever having any nightmares or dead vibes or anything else from it, but I can remember that.

The first thing that I saw was a lot of bodies lying around, all black, and we couldn't identify them. A lot of dead people! Of course, there were still fires on the ship. My first though was "Well, thank God, I'm alive." You know, I made it. I don't know that I felt any sorrow or pity or anything else. I just accepted it--some made it and some didn't. I'm glad I made it.

Then the next thing I thought, "God, what a job those Japs did!" This was a really professional job. I wasn't even angry. It's kind of funny. I could just admire the perfection of those guys.



Then I got to work and saw one of the fellows and he had a bandage around his head. I thought, "Boy, this guy really must have been in it up here." Well, it turned out that he hadn't even been on board when it all happened, but he looked as though he was a survivor. We settled in to settle up the place.

My slippers had dried and rotted off of me. I had hung up my dungarees to dry and somebody had walked off with them. All I had left in the world was my hat that identified me as an officer!

Fortunately, the Marine small stores were above the main deck and there were a few other people in my position, so they broke out some Marine gear. I was quickly outfitted in new Marine khakis.

Well, the commanding officer decided that I was probably the starchiest looking one on the ship, so the next morning I was detailed to go over to see all the wives of the husbands aboard ship that were in Honolulu and tell them what had happened to their husbands. It wasn't as bad a mission as you think, because, fortunately, none of them had even been wounded, let alone killed. So it was a pleasant mission. But to go over into Honolulu and run into the aftermath of that thing was really something. Everybody carrying sidearms and all this kind of stuff.

We had one experience that night that was a tragedy. I guess it was the LEXINGTON that was coming back. Their planes were flying in and it was dark. They were identified as friendlies, but somewhere on the perimeter, somebody started shooting. The next thing you know, every ship, including our own, is firing at our own planes up there. I saw it. It was beautiful and horrible to see this cone of fire. I don't know how many got shot down at that time.



Donald R. Lennon:

Were they from the LEXINGTON or the ENTERPRISE?

Charles J. Merdinger:

It could have been the ENTERPRISE.

Donald R. Lennon:

Because the ENTERPRISE was coming back from Wake at that time.

Charles J. Merdinger:

I don't remember, but I know it was a carrier. So that was the aftermath. We stayed on the ship that night. Then, subsequently, we moved ashore and then ultimately moved into family quarters. That's where Sandy Landreth and I rejoined forces. We lived in the same house with a couple of the other ensigns at the end of that period. Of course, we stayed with the ship and brought it back to Bremerton. Then I joined a new ship and went on the Murmansk run.

Donald R. Lennon:

You were on the ALABAMA after that?

Charles J. Merdinger:

Yes.

[End of Interview]

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