As You Were: NJ Vietnam Museum to Feature Special Exhibit on Skillman's Stephen Warner
Skillman resident and anti-Vietnam War activist Stephen H. Warner was drafted and — in a strange twist of fate — served in the U.S. Army as a field photographer and reporter in southern Vietnam before being killed in action just before be was scheduled to return home in 1971.
Warner’s fascinating and personal story, told through his photographs and in his own words, will be on exhibit at the NJ Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and Museum in Holmdel from January through June 2020.
Museum Curator Greg Waters gave a preview of the exhibit to a large group of Rotarians from the Route One Princeton Area chapter at a luncheon in the Hyatt Regency in September.
“My job as a curator is to create museum exhibits so people can better understand the 1,563 New Jerseyans who’s names are on our wall,” he told the group, which include several Montgomery residents.
“In a unique way, this exhibit will be Stephen Warner telling his own story,” Waters said, noting that whenever possible, he used Stephen’s letters and journals so that he could “speak for himself.”
Stephen H. Warner was born on February 21, 1946 in Skillman.
His mother was a stay-at-home mom who raised him and his younger sister Victoria, who later worked at the Princeton Public Library. His father was a WWII veteran, who, after the war, worked for Johnson & Johnson as a patent attorney and also was a municipal judge.
“Stephen was a quiet kid who loved to read and did well in school,” Waters said. Stephen attended public schools, which then included high school in Princeton, from which he graduated in 1964.
Stephen majored in history at Gettysburg College, where he became heavily involved in the anti-war movement from 1964 to 1968. He was a vocal leader of the protest movement while on campus at “a time when the popularity of the Vietnam War continued to diminish as the body count continued to rise,” Waters said.
Stephen wrote anti-war articles for the student paper and was a founding member in 1966 of a committee of students opposed to the war.
He and his friends also traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in an ant-Vietnam protest in 1967 outside the Pentagon. After graduating at the top of his class in 1968, Stephen entered Yale Law School but was drafted after completion of just one year, in June 1969.
The US had reached max peak troop levels in Vietnam about this time, Waters said, noting there were 543,000 Americans serving in southeast Asia.
While Stephen had a student deferment as an undergraduate, President Nixon made major changes to the draft policies in the late 1960s that resulted in eliminating the military deferment for most graduate students.
The war effort was in need of more troops, and Stephen was aware that he would likely be drafted as a 1A candidate.
“We know from Stephen’s records that he had long conversations with his dad about going to Canada to avoid the draft,” Waters said. “We also know he corresponded with an international group of conscious objectors.
“Ultimately, Stephen decided he did not want to do either of those things,” Waters said. “I think he did feel a sense of service.” He could not bring himself to sign the required statement that he would not fight for his country under any circumstances, according to his journals.
Upon finishing eight weeks of Army training at Fort Dix, he was ordered to a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam where he was assigned to the public relations staff at U.S. Army Headquarters in Vietnam.
Those who knew Stephen described him as open-minded and considerate of others. His former advisor at Gettysburg said he was “radically intellectual, a non-collegiate type interested in the arts, history, and economics.”
His former commanding officer in Vietnam described Stephen as “one of the most compassionate men I’ve met in my life. He had compassion and respect for the men and soldiers who fought in the war.”
“As with every other aspect of his life, Stephen threw himself whole-heartedly into his duties in Vietnam,” according to papers from an earlier exhibit at the Montgomery Arts Center (which is now defunct). The below excerpt is from those papers:
Stephen’s “desk” assignment involved writing feature stories about individual soldiers for distribution to their hometown newspapers. In addition, Stephen wrote articles for military newspapers, including Stars and Stripes.
In doing his job, there was no requirement that he accompany troops into combat. However, he felt compelled to report things firsthand, and spent most of his time in the field with the men about whom he was writing. He disliked the way the press back home in America was beating up on the common soldier in Vietnam, and he made it his mission to portray the soldiers in a truthful manner.
In a letter to his parents, Stephen wrote, “Ignoring my original objections to coming over here (which I think are still valid, but all history now), I wouldn’t give up what I’m doing here for the world.”
Stephen’s dedication to accurately portraying the experience of our soldiers in Vietnam can be seen clearly in the photos chosen for the exhibit. In one of his letters, he drew a parallel between himself and the great World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle: “He hates war but loves the men who have to fight...that about sums me up too!”
His letters began to evidence a growing frustration over the Army’s management of the news. The command to “paint out beads” at the bottom margin of one of the photographs on exhibit is representative of such management by the headquarters’ reviewers (i.e., censors). The wearing of such bodily adornments, popularly known as Love Beads (“Make love, not war!”) were not only in violation of military dress regulations, they were emotionally charged symbols of the anti-war protests being led by college students back home.
Stephen Warner was killed in an ambush near the Laotian border on February 14, 1971, just before he was scheduled to return to the United States.
Stephen is buried in Princeton Cemetery. He bequeathed all of his personal papers to Gettysburg College, his alma mater where they are maintained as the Stephen H. Warner Memorial Collection in the college library. They comprise some 4,000 photographs and several boxes of journals, notebooks and letters.
Stephen specified that his estate be used in the field of Asian Studies, and to create an atmosphere of, as he put it, “intellectual excitement, doubt, and challenge at the college.” ■