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Jean Tretter Transcripts

Jean Tretter, Communications Technician Interpretive (CTI) First Class

After joining the Navy to escape small town Minnesota, Jean Tretter’s service would take him from the Gulf of Tonkin at the beginning of the Vietnam War serving as an undesignated sailor to listening in on Russian Cosmonauts during the breakup of Interceptio, the “Impossible” Russian Space Shot. As a high value linguist fluent in Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu and Norwegian, Tretter experienced the Cold War first hand as both a US Navy and National Security Agent linguist.

CTI Jean Tretter was born and raised in Little Falls, Minnesota after WWII. Tretter was raised to believe he was Norwegian (rather than German) because of the anti-German sentiments post-WWII and the high concentration of Norwegians is Little Falls. From a young age, Tretter took an interest in global affairs. His community in Little Falls consisted of numerous European nationalities, and both World Wars generated knowledge and intrigue about foreign countries. This interest culminated in Tretter’s stamp collecting hobby, one that he has pursued throughout his life. As a child, Tretter and his friends would collect stamps from around the globe, including rare stamps of countries and territories that later ceased to exist, and consequently learn quite a bit about the military history of a given location. Tretter’s global affairs interest also manifested in his love of learning new languages.

Upon graduating high school, Tretter joined the US Navy. From a military family, Tretter joined when the Navy was drafting individuals for the Vietnam War. Tretter explains in his interview that sailors who joined voluntarily, had a bit more control over the manner of service, which drew Tretter himself to enlist. Interested in language, and scoring well on the language examinations, Tretter became a linguist. He boarded the USS Ranger in September, 1964, and deployed for Vietnam.

Tretter worked on the USS Ranger until March of 1965 on admiral’s plot. Unfortunately, while on board, Tretter was exposed to Agent Orange which would result in health complications later in his life. Upon returning in 1965, Tretter completed language school in Monterey, California, learning Russian. He then went to Pensacola, Florida, for security training. Tretter served in Hawaii, at Fort Meade in Maryland, as well as in numerous countries in Southeast Asia interpreting and translating Russian messages and communications. Additionally, Tretter was stationed in Turkey as a part of TUSLOG [The United States Logistics Group] Det 28 from 1965 to 1967. At his numerous stations, Tretter explains that getting to know the people and culture of various nations was a rewarding experience. For instance, Tretter learned the Turkish language--and numerous variations of it--from native Turkish speakers rather than in a formal training setting.

Ultimately, two factors contributed to Tretter’s desire to leave the service: the paranoia surrounding espionage work, and his identity as a homosexual man. Tretter describes the Nixon era as one in which the government was plagued with suspicion and paranoia. This, even, resulted in certain parts of Tretter’s service being redacted from his personal file which made it more challenging for him to get treatment for his Agent Orange exposure later in life. Tretter also describes sailors being threatened with imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth should they be “discovered” to be gay and, similarly, other military personnel were threatened with other prison locations. Tretter’s gay identity was never revealed, but needless to say he did experience emotional stress having to keep this part of himself secret.

After his service, Tretter felt called to educate individuals about LGBT+ culture. Often, Tretter encountered individuals who knew nothing about LGBT+ culture and insisted that LGBT+ people were instead an anomaly of American culture. To combat this misconception, Tretter collected a significant amount of artifacts related to gay history and culture which became the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the libraries of the University of Minnesota.