Women in Vietnam

Women in Vietnam

In 2002, we think nothing of seeing women soldiers going into combat, or women police officers on our streets. This is a fairly recent development and, even today, these are far from accepted roles for women outside the United States (and Canada).

During the time of TOD, 1967-69, women’s role in society was very limited. In the military, women were mostly restricted to clerical or medical duties. All women who served in the Armed Forces were either volunteers or “obligatories” (again, my term), the latter being mostly nurses who had received public funding for their training and were obliged to serve two years in the military in exchange. During the period of the Vietnam War, women did not attend West Point or participate in ROTC programs. Far fewer women served in the military (either in total or as a percentage) than had served in WW II.

All women in the Army served then in either the Army Nurse Corps or the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

All Army nurses were officers, and were direct commissions. That is, they became nurses first and then attended a ten day or so orientation course at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas to teach them how to be officers, the rudiments of military life, who to salute and when, etc. (There were a small number of male nurses who went through the same program.) Nurses were assigned to Army hospitals, both stateside and overseas, and were billeted separately from male officers. In Vietnam, Army nurses served exclusively in rear-area hospitals at major bases.

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) provided all Army female enlisted personnel and also had its own officers. Most WAC officers exclusively administered WAC units, but a handful received assignments to staff positions and other rear-echelon duties.

In Vietnam, enlisted WACs performed mostly clerical duties, although some worked as medical technicians. Whatever their duty assignments, all enlisted women, on any base, even in the States, were billeted together as a single WAC Company in a guarded compound. (WAC officers had separate quarters, of course.) Within this compound, in their barracks, WACs pulled their own guard, armed with baseball bats and whistles. (Neither WACs or nurses were issued weapons, and even those sent to Vietnam had only rudimentary firearms training.) One tiny WAC unit (peak strength, 20 officers and 139 enlisted women) was assigned to Saigon, and nowhere else in-country. No WACs, even medical personnel, got any closer to combat than this.

Eight US servicewomen died in Vietnam. Of these, four Army nurses and an Air Force flight nurse were killed in three separate, non-combat, plane crashes, and another died from disease. An older nurse died of a stroke. Only one woman, Army 1LT Sharon Ann Lane, was actually killed in a combat action, in a VC rocket attack on Chu Lai, in 1969.

Besides nurses and WACs other American women would also go to Vietnam. TOD and China Beach covered most of the categories. American Red Cross girls, entertainers, civilian employees of the US government or contracting firms, newspaper correspondents, Christian missionaries, that about covers it. ARC girls made brief daylight visits (a few hours) to advance bases. The rest had rear-area jobs. (Christian missionaries were usually older, married women.)

American civilian women lived in major Vietnamese cities, which were off-limits to US troops, the exception being Saigon. Any women billeted on US bases also lived in guarded compounds. (These would be the ARC girls and entertainers temporarily performing on-base.)

Women correspondents (all print journalists, not TV) accompanied US troops on some operations, but never overnight. Besides Americans, several European magazines sent female correspondents to cover the war. In their “off time” hours, correspondents had their own society in Saigon, or in hotels in a few other Vietnamese cities. In this macho circle, the majority of women journalists were casually dismissed by their male colleagues as “not being serious writers.” The military was held in contempt. The soldiers were only “sources,” not part of the writer’s “in-group.”

Only one woman correspondent, WW II veteran Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, was killed in combat, age 46. Another woman correspondent died in a non-combat helicopter crash

As for entertainers, this was kind of a broad category. At one end were the big USO shows, like the annual Bob Hope Christmas show, that toured all major US bases with big name stars. At the other end were a lot of small self-contained groups that toured with a small band, a few strippers, one or two has-been comedians and a manager. Usually most of the girls (and the band) were Oriental. They were booked by the Army Club NCOs on rear-area bases and stayed in guarded guest quarters.

How important were the guards, BTW? In Vietnam, two women, an ARC girl and a USAID worker, were murdered by American soldiers and a female entertainer (stripper) was sexually assaulted but fought off her attacker.

Now, how much contact DID this handful of women have with men? Generally, as much as they wished. However the ONLY people LIKELY to come in contact with a “round-eye” woman in Vietnam were people they regularly worked with, mostly rear-echelon officers. (For an enlisted servicewoman, while military regulations prohibited officers from dating her, a superior’s mere interest created pressure on her as a subordinate, while discouraging enlisted men who might be interested.) In the case of “entertainers” the contact would be with older senior NCOs.

However, if a woman merely expressed a wish for a ride in a jet fighter, for example, all would be arranged…by officers, of course.

The average GI was left to regard a “round-eyed” woman with awe and reverence. They were treated as semi-precious objects. A GI might see ONE in his whole year’s tour. People stood in line for hours to exchange a word or two with a ARC worker.

This is not to deprecate the role of women in the military, or in Vietnam, but to illustrate just how far TOD and China Beach pushed the envelope to include women in their episodes. For the fan fic writer, I suggest they keep the use of female characters within similar guidelines. Women military personnel should have rear area duties only and no exposure to combat, except accidentally. Any contact with men would, initially at least, have to do with her duties.

On the other hand, soldiers, of course, often came in contact with Vietnamese women. The majority of such women were either peasants, menial employees like “hooch maids” or prostitutes. (Among all of these would be enemy agents.) The very nature of the Vietnamese language limited communication to perhaps a dozen words of pidgin. There was also an enormous cultural gap. The average Vietnamese lived at an appalling level of Third World poverty that disgusted materially-oriented young Americans. For security reasons, Vietnamese civilian areas were generally off-limits to US troops. While some soldiers met and even married Vietnamese, the military went FAR out of its way to discourage such relationships. (More Vietnamese animals were taken back to America by GIs as pets than were Vietnamese brides.)

Here we might also dismiss out of hand any fantasy of a GI meeting some “French planter’s daughter.” Quite a number of French citizens stayed on in Vietnam to run French-owned businesses, but they were well-to-do people with their own upper-class society. As a group, they were conservative, insular and hostile to Americans. It was usual to send teenagers, especially girls, back to France for schooling as well.

Finally, keep in mind that soldier’s military duties are 24 x 7 and any time off would not be under their control. Even off-duty you could not leave the base without permission. There were no private telephones or vehicles and really no place to go. Privacy is a rare commodity in the military, yet, in fact, relationships were formed…


Next: R&R and Leave in Vietnam


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