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‘Tour of Duty’ Probes Racism in the Ranks

Times Staff Writer

After returning from Vietnam in the late 1960s, Stephen Philip Smith, now a writer-producer on CBS-TV’s “Tour of Duty,” found himself stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga. There, he ran into some friends he’d met in Vietnam--and one day, he and one of those friends headed for nearby Phenix City, Ala., to have a drink at a local bar.

When they arrived, Smith was told he could have a drink--and that his friend could go around back and wait for him. Smith is white and his friend was black.

“It seemed like such a horrendous thing, that they could send this guy over there to die--and he almost did get killed in Vietnam--and still he could come back here and not be able to get a drink because he was black,” Smith recalled in a recent conversation, shaking his head in disbelief.

It was that incident, Smith said, that prompted him 20 years later to write “The Promised Land,” a “Tour of Duty” episode exploring the effect of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on race relations among troops in Vietnam. The episode airs at 8 tonight on Channels 2 and 8, on the 21st anniversary of King’s death. (Coincidentally, TV’s other Vietnam series, ABC’s “China Beach,” will focus on the same subject in its April 12 episode, also titled “The Promised Land.”)

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“It’s like you don’t want to forget--you want people to remember that kind of stuff happened,” Smith said.

In the “Tour of Duty” episode, King’s death shakes the platoon at about the same time a black soldier sacrifices his life by throwing his body over a live grenade to save his compatriots. Before his death, the soldier had requested that, in the event of his death, his best friend, Sgt. Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox), escort his body home. Anderson faces the wrath of his friend’s brother-in-law in the United States when he arrives and the family discovers Anderson is white.

The story also looks at the inner conflict of a black lieutenant (played by Randy Brooks) assigned to keep the troops in line despite their anger and disillusionment.

Smith, who served in the 1st Cavalry Division in 1966 as a helicopter door gunner and personnel clerk and is the author of the 1975 novel “American Boys,” was not in Vietnam when King was shot. But he researched the subject and found to his surprise that, while the Army feared a revolt, black soldiers reacted quietly to the assassination.

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“Things went back to normal without the kind of unrest there was here,” he said.

Nonetheless, Smith still saw King’s assassination as an opportunity to depict racial strife in Vietnam, a topic rarely dealt with in “Tour of Duty.”

“The fact that we have a squad of guys who are both black and white and they get along very well--that’s necessary for the show, to have it go forward,” he said. “But it’s also anachronistic in a way. Because you did get along, but you didn’t get along. Our guys sacrifice for each other, but often that wasn’t the case.

“Whenever there’s a chance to show that deep tension, both there and back in the States, you want to do it.”

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