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The Women of the Vietnam War

 

November 8, 2018

Photo courtesy of Kim Tschudy

A Red Cross Donut Dolly

This Veteran’s Day marks the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Women’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The words of retired Admiral William Crowe USN, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, still replay as vividly today and bring the same tears as they did on November 11, 1993, at the dedication of the Women’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Breaking down in tears, Crowe reflected on a night near Bien Theu, Vietnam, where the Viet Cong had just rocketed a small village.

“Our men were pulling people from their burning homes. We had eight little Vietnamese children who were burned and badly injured, and in need of immediate need of medical attention. We called in a dust-off (medivac helicopter). We were not supposed to take civilians to field hospitals, which in this case was 80 miles away, but we got the crew to accept the injured. The dust-off landed, and the parents all wanted to accompany their children to the hospital, but there wasn’t room for all of the parents. One nurse jumped out of the dust-off and took control of the situation. She was able to speak a few words of Vietnamese, and explained that one mother could go along. Watching her as she worked among the injured, I knew I had just seen an angel of the Lord at work.”

One asks, how can a quarter century have passed so quickly? Time has passed, but the memories of that sunny November still linger strongly in the heart, mind and soul as each and every one of us in attendance shared tears and smiles that fall afternoon.

At various events both before and after the dedication day, many veterans were seen walking around with tags attached to their hats, or on strings around their necks, “looking for” friends they had served with, but over the years had lost contact with each other, a grunt seeking the nurse who saved his life. Some searches brought back together sisters and brothers of the Vietnam War.

Many people think that the only women in Nam were nurses. The military nurses made up the largest contingent of women in Vietnam, but there were also a fair number of WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and American Red Cross workers, lovingly referred to as “donut dollies.” There are no accurate counts of how many women served in Nam, but estimates put the number at 12,000-20,000 women.

The WACs were volunteering for Vietnam service before the Pentagon requisitioned any WACs. Women were not allowed during Vietnam to serve in combat roles, but often were serving in battle zones. In 1964, the first WAC officer, Major Kathleen Wilkes, and non-commissioned officer Sergeant Betty Adams, both trainers, were charged with organizing and training a Vietnamese Women’s Armed Forces Corps to assist the men’s force.

1965 brought a request for 15 WAC stenographers to serve in Saigon. This year also saw another 12 WACs fill positions in headquarters. Unlike typical workplaces where an eight hour workday was standard, the WACs often worked 12 hour days with no weekends off. Not all of the WACs served in Saigon.

A number of the women were posted to Long Binh, where they often were shelled at night by Viet Cong rocket attacks. At first it was very scary for the WACs. Although after a few weeks of nightly shelling they got used to the attacks, and not a single WAC asked to be transferred out of the area.

Each woman who served in Vietnam has their own story to tell. Master Sergeant Betty Lee Adams served in Vietnam in 1965. She was the first Non-Commissioned Officer to serve as the Advisor to the Vietnam Women’s Armed Forces Corps. She was transferred back to the United States on December 3, 1965, her birthday. “It was longest birthday I ever had, 38 hours long. I left Vietnam at 5:00 p.m. and arrived in San Francisco at 9:00 p.m.” She left San Francisco the following day for Kennedy International Airport. Just before they landed, her plane collided in midair with another plane. Her plane lost 30 feet of one wing, but they made a safe landing. “Believe me, I never had a moment in Vietnam, as I did in the last five minutes of the flight into New York.”

Chief Warrant Officer Ann McDonough was in-country from 1966-68. She started her military career when she joined the WACs in 1949. She was the first woman to attend Polygraph School at Ft. Gordon, GA. She was inducted into the Military Hall of Fame in 1988. When the 902nd Military Intelligence Group dedicated their new headquarters and Army Counterintelligence Center at Fort Meade, MD, it was named after McDonough.

Staff Sgt. Marty Misiewicz volunteered for Vietnam and served in-country from January 1968-January 1970. “In my first year I was an administrative assistant. We covered petroleum supply, food service and mortuary services. One of the things was a major task was doing inspections of the morgues and I could see how that affected him. During my off duty hours I visited the orphanages a few times. The things I remember from Vietnam are the heat, the rain, more heat, more rain. The USO shows, celebrities such as Bob Hope, Ann Margaret and Rosie Greer, the bunkers and the hours and nights we spent hunkered down waiting for the all clear.”

Specialist 5 Marjorie McLain was in-country in 1969-70. “I have seen GIs in Vietnam with the children there. American men are so fond of the children. The soldiers are doing a great deal for the orphanages in Vietnam, and they spend a lot of time with the children.”

Staff Sgt. Lucie Rivera, who served in-country in 1970-71, said, “I volunteered five times to go to Vietnam. My first night in Vietnam, January 1969, was terrifying because we had to go to the bunkers. I did not know if I was more afraid of dying or being bitten by rats or roaches.”

Actress Chris Noel, aka America’s Hanoi Hannah and Saigon Sally, had an interesting start with the Vietnam War. Her boyfriend had returned from a trip to Vietnam with Bob Hope. She had the opportunity to tour a VA hospital with her boyfriend. There she saw many double and triple amputees and made a decision that she had to do something to make them happy. “My girlfriend and I sang Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, and we were terrible. Those moments changed my life and made me realize that I had to make a difference.” Her boyfriend was working for Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He got her a job at his workplace, where she did a radio program with a second person. One day Noel’s boss told her she was fired, but was being rehired to do her own radio program, A Date With Chris! In Vietnam. During her time in Vietnam, Noel accompanied Bob Hope when he did his numerous Christmas tours around Vietnam. Noel, and her radio program, so upset the Viet Cong that they put a $10,000 bounty on her head. Despite being scared of heights, Noel often flew in military helicopters to outlying military posts and was shot down twice in helicopters.

“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting for you,“ were among the first the words Susan Haack heard when she arrived in Vietnam. “It was Sue Schungel, a good friend I worked with at the Pentagon. I told Sue, ‘I couldn’t get here any faster!’” Haack holds the distinction of being the first female commander of a Wisconsin VFW Post. Army Specialist 5 Susan Haack, who is a regular at the annual New Glarus Winterfest R&R, has her own interesting story of why she joined the Army and served in-country from January 4, 1969 to January 5, 1970. “My brother called and said ‘Sis, I just got drafted. I’m going to Vietnam.’ I said, ‘I’ll be there’. I got through my tests and they said, you passed everything, but you flunked mechanics. I said, good. Then I don’t have to get dirty nails. Enlisted women couldn’t go unless they were E4 or above, so I put in for Vietnam as soon as I was a Specialist 4 in early 1968. In November 1969, General Burba called me into his office. ‘Sue sit down, you’re going to Vietnam.’ All I knew was that I was going to the US Army Vietnam (USARV) Headquarters at Long Binh, and that I would be assigning privates through sergeants within Vietnam.”

She continues her story, “A guy named Gary and I were picked to do the processing of the KIAs and send the letters home. It sounded easy at first. I used a form letter—just added a name to it on my typewriter. Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, you know. Then it was signed by the government. But it got harder and harder to do.”

The Red Cross had a presence in Vietnam that began in 1962, ending their services in March 1973, when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. At the height of the Vietnam War, 1968-69, the Red Cross had 500 people in-country. Five of their members lost their lives in the war. The Red Cross provided services to 20 military hospitals in Vietnam and two Navy hospital ships, the USS Sanctuary and USS Comfort.

Between 1965-72, the Red Cross handled 2,168,000 phone calls to parents half way around the world. They also ran support programs for the families of POWs locked up in North Vietnam. As the war finally ended, the Red Cross was instrumental in Operation Babylift, which brought 2,000 babies from both Vietnam and Cambodia to the United States for adoption.

But how did the Women’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial come into being? Diane Evans Carlson, a nurse in Vietnam, went to her American Legion Post in River Falls, Wisconsin, to present the idea of a Women’s Memorial. Two members of the Post, Louis Pogpishil of Mondovi and Adolph J. Halverson of River Falls, joined in the dedication.

Photo courtesy of Kim Tschudy

A side view of the USS Sanctuary

Both were very proud of the promise they made to Evans-Carlson in 1982. “It was our American Legion Post that Diane first came to seeking help in putting together a monument for the women veterans because she was from our area.”

At the time Evans came to the Legion Post seeking help, the post made a promise to Evans. “We will come to the dedication of the Memorial.” It was a promise kept. Pogpishil and Halverson attended and brought with them 42 of their friends and neighbors.

Evans-Carlson explains the Women’s Memorial in this manner, “The Women’s Memorial was established not only to honor the women who served, but also for the families who lost loved ones in the war, so they would know about the women who provided comfort, care and a human touch foe those who were suffering and dying.”

 
 

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