Vietnam War veterans and the girls/women they knew
By Vivian Blevins
The final US withdrawal from Vietnam took place in 1975, and with the passing of this generation, this part of American history will soon be relegated to scholars unless scribes like me recount the stories of those who served and record them.
Rob Brundrett, a US Navy veteran of that war, a Seabee who served as an adviser to construction forces, has written what he calls a historical fictional account of a love affair between an American serviceman and a girl Vietnamese. Girl from the Hippodrome: A Novel from Vietnam War, Brundrett’s second book, is a quick read by an author who is obviously well acquainted with the Saigon of this period. There is an easy familiarity with the city, the country around it and the history with remnants of the French as well as with the US military assigned in the early 1970s to special duties in support of the South Vietnamese army.
Author Brundrett presents some ethical/moral challenges regarding the value of war, the biases of some US servicemen against the Vietnamese they were meant to support, and the long-term impact on a character in the novel of killing a young enemy Vietnamese. in a “kill or be killed” situation.
All along Daughter of the Racetrack are references to Vietnamese women – prostitutes, Saigon tea girls, beggars with leprosy, young women who date American officers who then leave them at the end of their service, bar girls who are spies, girls of beets, country girls and girls/women who are “just victims of war”.
A quick web search turns up sites like “Wanna Date Vietnamese Women?” detailing that there is a supply of cute or beautiful girls/women for dating or for marriage.
Brundrett’s references to girls/women sparked my interest and I asked Vietnam War veterans to teach me.
Army infantryman John Looker said: ‘We met girls and women in villages for just a few hours if we had to go in and search a village after shooting them.
“They had brown teeth from chewing betel nuts. And we saw them when we were dropped hot meals once a week or two. Meals of hot ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans arrived in disposable pans, and there were plenty of leftovers that we couldn’t take with us, as the infantry were carrying bags and M-guns. 16. The women came to the outskirts of the village where we were and took what was left after we had eaten. The age range was from 20 to 80 years old, and they were malnourished and had long black hair.
Jim Miller, an American army officer and helicopter pilot, had more contact with Vietnamese women: “It was rare to see a Vietnamese woman in the field. On a mission in the Mekong Delta, however, a helicopter landed near mine shortly after I landed, and a doctor and nurse were on that flight. Seeing her was so rare that I photographed her.
“At Soc Trang Airfield it was very different. We had what we called mamasans to clean our rooms, make our beds and wash and iron our sheets and clothes. Our rooms were 6 feet by 10 feet with enough space for a cot and a side table Our closets had room for two uniforms and a pair of boots We kept a light bulb on there 24/7 because with the heat and humidity, our clothes and boots quickly developed mildew.
“We used sign language and the occasional interpreter to tell mums what to do as we were too busy flying, sleeping or preparing to fly to deal with these tasks. We were paying these workers $5 a month.
“We also saw girls and women, aged in their late teens to early twenties, at the officers’ club, The Tigers Den, a thatched-roof building. The women working there spoke broken English and were not bar girls. They were short, petite, very attractive, some with French influence with very little slanting of the eyes.
“In the rice fields, there were women, leaning, squatting, taking care of the crops to have something to eat or trade. They wore wide-brimmed straw hats and went on with their lives because they had no choice but to stay alive, to keep the family together.
A US Air Force officer in Vietnam, Nicholas Essinger, said what he thought of the women: “They were small, perfect bodies, nicely shaped faces, bright eyes. Some were looking for a way to get to the United States. Older moms with teeth that looked rotten from chewing betel nut were often on the streets, begging and selling. The waitresses at the base or in the restaurants were anxious to please all customers, attentive and respectful.
“In Da Nang, at the 15th air port, where I was the executive general manager, we had five Vietnamese ladies working as secretaries. They were competent, knew how to do their job.
“In downtown Saigon, there were tattered women squatting in the streets. When I was at Bien Hoa Air Base north of Saigon, I saw bar girls/tea girls, beautiful childish girls who worked in bars with promises of sex. Sometimes it happened; sometimes not.
Essinger concluded, “Vietnam was a war zone, but I wasn’t in the field. I probably have rosy vision because I haven’t seen some of the things other people say they’ve seen.
Carl DeSantis was in Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1971. A protocol officer by virtue of his college degree in communications, he was stationed where there was a plethora of lieutenant colonels, a “penny the dozen” as he put it, where everyone had their brothel. DeSantis’ job was to supervise the Vietnamese women who prepared the meals for these officers. Sometimes the women would use native vegetation that “smelled like an old skunk” in the food, and he had to tell them to stop using this addition.
At 24, DeSantis says he “felt like a father” to these women who were “aging rapidly because of the sun, the heat and their lifestyle. They were superstitious and believed that if three of them were photographed together, one would die.
“Another of my tasks was to visit the Montagnards, an indigenous people who supported us during the war and who lived in huts built from rubbish. The floors in their homes were dirt and the women kept them incredibly clean with pictures of the Pope, Confucius, Ho Chi Minh and Buddha on the walls covering all their bases. The men made knives, bows and arrows which De Santis bought to bring back to the officers as souvenirs. He would then have plaques engraved to accompany the arms.
Part of DeSantis’ stay involved socializing with the Mountaineers, eating and drinking with them before shopping. DeSantis said he can plan two days off sick after he leaves with the treasures for General Westmoreland and many others.
DeSantis’ comments serve as a fitting conclusion. “I don’t know what happened to any of those people who supported us because the United States got away with it. I was safe while in Vietnam, no John Wayne stuff. When I got out, I went home, bought a ridiculous car, went to work and put this part of my life in a closet and closed the door.
Note: Brundrett’s novel is available on Amazon. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending.
Vivian B. Blevins, Ph.D., a graduate of Ohio State University, served as community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunications employees across the country and students. at Edison State Community College and working with veterans. The views expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these views or the independent activities of the author.