From Viet Nam to Marsh Chapel Via the FBI (Part 1)

Dave Cutcomb is a true American patriot who has enjoyed an illustrious career as a United States Marine and also as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Dave’s father was a career United States Navy WW II veteran and retired as Chief Warrant Officer W-4.  So, Dave grew up in the heart of a patriotic military family.

Graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1960, Dave was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He had his basic training at Quantico, then was assigned as a Platoon Leader to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, First Marine Brigade in Kaneohe, Oahu.

Two years later he became the Night Duty Officer for the Hawaiian Armed Services Police (HASP), Headquartered in Honolulu. This group had jurisdiction over every military member not on base. One year later he returned to the First Marine Brigade as the Executive Officer for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. Dave was subsequently transferred to Marine Aircraft Group 36 in Tustin, California. Here he served as the Legal Officer and Headquarters Staff and Administrative Officer.

Dave rotated to Viet Nam with the Marine Aircraft Group 36 as they executed an amphibious landing and established a helicopter airfield at Chu Lai. He was granted a transfer request back into the infantry and assigned as Staff Logistics Officer and Headquarters Company Commander for the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines on Hill 55 at Dai Loc Province.

Later he transferred to the Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia as Staff Logistics Officer for Service Battalion, MCB, Quantico. While there, Dave resigned his commission in 1968 in order to accept an appointment as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

During his 21 year career with the FBI, Dave worked in the Boston, Massachusetts and Dallas offices. He would carry a full case load, investigating major thefts, white collar violations, bank robberies, extortion, kidnapping and fugitive cases. In addition, he was Police and Bureau Instructor teaching firearms, defensive tactics and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT).

Dave’s career also included being the Fitness Coordinator for the Dallas office, a member of and Training Coordinator for the South Central Region SWAT Team, in addition to being a Bureau speaker. (Now, all of that is a mouthful!)

First assigned to the Boston office in 1968, Dave was placed on the Fugitive Squad and was selected, along with one other agent, to go undercover on the Boston University campus during what was known as the “Marsh Chapel Sanctuary” event. Boston University students, and others were harboring two military deserters on campus: Thomas Pratt, a Marine, and US Army Private, Raymond Kroll.

The Marsh Chapel Sanctuary event was a nationally publicized event and the FBI’s concern was to evaluate the situation and all involved, before any arrests were made, and avoid confrontations that could result in violence. The two undercover agents were sent in to contribute to this effort.

Dave recalled, “While deserter cases were generally low priority and often routine, some of the most deadly encounters fugitive investigators have faced were at the hands of military deserters. I encountered a couple of that ilk, later in my career.  

 “Working those cases, it became obvious some deserters were senselessly willing to assault or kill to avoid capture. At first glance, one would believe otherwise considering the relatively light punishments that awaited deserters as compared to the penalties facing felony violators.

 “I suppose a certain percentage were mentally unbalanced and found life, especially military life, traumatic or beyond anything they could tolerate. Then too, being in a fugitive status naturally creates a potential for panic and thus illogical and unpredictable behavior.

“In this case, however, we never developed any indication we might be dealing with irrational subjects, or their supporters. On the other hand, in any arrest situation, one should never assume never.”

Just a few years later, as the “All Volunteer Army” was evolving, the  military began discharging deserters and ceased looking for them as AWOL suspects. The FBI would be relieved of this enforcement duty.

Special Agent Dave would be on campus day and night for five days, unshaven, dressing “carelessly” and carrying or wearing a Marine Corps utility jacket. He remembers, “I slept on or under one of the Chapel pews and generally just tried to fit in, with varying success.

 “I was unarmed and carried no identification. With only a few dollars for fast food & telephone calls, I would occasionally check in with one agent or another who would meet with me during a quick meal, or on the street outside the Chapel. I sometimes used a pay telephone to report pertinent developments. Of which, most days, there were few.

“Other Agents, usually dressed in coat & tie, occasionally looked in for short visits during their workday and mixed with the crowd. The entire scene included a diverse group mainly consisting of young, college-aged sanctuary supporters, with older folks coming and going.

 It was there I first heard the African Folk Song, Kumbaya. As a folk music fan, I immediately loved that song which has remained a favorite, over the years. I quickly learned the song’s simple words by watching & listening to the younger folks, who knew them well.”

 As the week progressed, speakers would be brought in to address the protester crowd. The assignment did not include identifying these speakers or what they were advocating. But, Dave would listen with “curious interest” as some speakers warned that there possibly were FBI agents among them and the potential violence that could occur.

As Dave was listening and learning, he heard them giving “advice on how to survive and defend oneself against an assailant. A suggested tactic involved grabbing an overly-aggressive Agent’s necktie and using it like a leash to pull him off balance, so his victim could escape.

 “It was suggested, when FBI Agents arrived to apprehend the protectees, those wishing to do so should crowd, en masse, into the aisles to passively block and impede the Agents’ progress, forcing them to revert to using force in order to advance. Speakers warned that the FBI or police might employ tear gas. And basically useless information was offered about how to survive and reduce its impact.

 “More than one speaker cautioned against initiating violence. On the other hand, it was clearly implied the anti-war cause would be enhanced if any of the Agents could be provoked into becoming violent.”

 Early in the week one of the speakers warned the crowd that there may be FBI agents among them at that very moment. Dave says, “Suddenly pointing to a man in coat & tie, apparently observing over the top of an open newspaper — the speaker raised his voice and dramatically exclaimed, ‘In fact… that may be an FBI Agent standing right over there… RIGHT NOW!’

 “Well, it was an FBI Agent, in for a visit to check out the festivities. Startled, the Agent reflexively raised the open newspaper, concealing his face for a moment.

 “The whole place erupted! Jeering, pointing and clapping! Including me! A delightful and wonderfully hilarious moment.  The Agent smiled, folded his paper and used it to salute, waving farewell. Then walked out of the Chapel.”

 Dave encountered a few young ‘detectives’ during the week that thought they had sniffed him out. “Each time, I would express hurt and resentment for the lack of appreciation extended this Viet Nam victim who just wanted to join in striking a blow against unconscionable government policies.” The first was during a program, while everyone was standing, and we presume were singing Kumbaya. As Dave looked around the crowd, “I noticed an attractive young lady, standing in a group in the pew behind me, and to my right. She was glaring…. At me.

“While pretending to ignore her, in my periphery (she was, after all, attractive), I noted she was squinting, lips pursed, and clenched jaw. It was apparent she didn’t care for what she saw in a disheveled 30-year-old non-student interloper. And was anxious to show it.

“Eventually I turned, smiled, and asked why she seemed upset? ‘Because you don’t belong here. You’re probably a cop.’  So much for the disguise.

 “‘You know…’, I intoned, ‘I’m just a Viet Nam veteran, down on his luck, who went through a tough time over there and came thinking I might feel appreciated and maybe supported. But what do I get? Hostility! You’re not the first to make me feel unwelcome. And I’m tired of the (mild expletive) rudeness.’ [my disingenuous attempt at portraying a conscripted victim, unwillingly trained to kill, by the United States Marine Corps]

 “‘I’m so sorry. Please excuse us… Sir’, followed by small talk between conditionally trusting new friends — who would never meet again.

Dave explained the Marsh Chapel event, “Essentially, the Marsh Chapel event involved providing ‘protective sanctuary’ for two military deserters, in protest of the Viet Nam conflict. One, the Marine, turned himself in, to someone, somewhere off premises, early in the week (I had no part in that) – leaving only the soldier, Private Raymond Kroll, USA deserter.”

In the next post we’ll see how the Marsh Chapel Sanctuary event was brought to an end.