Archive for the ‘Vietnam War’ Category

U.S. Women Got Purple Hearts in Vietnam

May 20, 2017


Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

Seen here are, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam. Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

On Christmas Eve, 1964, National Liberation Front guerrillas drove a car loaded with explosives into a parking lot behind the Brinks Hotel Bachelor Officers Quarters in central Saigon. The blast killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded more than sixty American military personnel and Vietnamese civilians. Among the wounded were four Navy nurses who were injured while caring for U.S. servicemen hurt in the attack. On January 9, 1965, the nurses received Purple Heart awards for their service. In the photo above are three of the nurses, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. (Lieutenant Frances L. Crumpton is not pictured.) The photo was taken at the awards ceremony at the U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam.

We know that male U.S. servicemen earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but female nurses don’t typically jump to the collective American mind when it envisions the combat moment in the Vietnam War. Was the story of the Brinks nurses forgotten simply because four women nurses comprised a small fraction of the overwhelmingly male American casualties in Vietnam? Even though the Brinks bombing was part of a broader NLF strategy of urban combat before the 1968 Tet Offensive, did the lieutenants’ status as nurses — traditional women’s roles in wartime — somehow make their wounds acceptable to an American public that likely would not have supported women serving in infantry units or being drafted? Has this story remained obscured because it challenges the notion that the combat moment is a distinctly male space? Why are Americans invested in a Vietnam War narrative in which the characters are almost entirely American men? As the story of the Brinks nurses illustrates, American women saw combat in Vietnam, even in the air-conditioned jungle in Saigon.



July 24, 2016
Emily Strange

Emily Strange served in the Vietnam War as a Red Cross “Donut Dollie” with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force.

A few days ago, I learned that Emily Strange, one of the first Donut Dollies I interviewed for Beyond Combat, had passed away July 12. It was a shock to hear that she’s gone, in part because she had randomly popped into my mind before I had heard she’d died, and I had been thinking about the stories she had shared with me when we sat together in the living room of her home in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. That was nearly fifteen years ago, when Beyond Combat was just an idea for a dissertation, but I remember our conversation so vividly. I was a stranger to her, but she welcomed me into her home and told me openly and frankly about her experiences serving with the Red Cross in Vietnam, primarily at Dong Tam with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force. Her job as a Donut Dollie was to be a morale booster, a “touch of home,” for the troops she worked with. Donut Dollies organized parties and sing-alongs, played games, served sweets and cold (well, lukewarm at best in southern Vietnam’s heat) drinks, and listened to soldiers who needed to talk. Sometimes the most important thing a Donut Dollie could do was to sit beside a GI who couldn’t quite articulate all the things he wanted to say about being at war and just be a sympathetic human presence.

One of Emily’s stories that has stuck with me all these years is of her decision to stop learning the names of the guys she met in Vietnam. She had become close with one GI, a young man named Michael. They both played guitar, and when Emily was assigned to Michael’s unit, they’d sometimes sit around and play folk music together. Shortly after Emily’s Red Cross team moved on to another assignment, she learned that Michael had been killed in action. At that moment, she realized that she needed to put distance between herself and the guys she worked with. She needed to figure out a way to do her job of providing emotional comfort to frightened and lonely young men while protecting her own mental well-being. So Emily stopped learning names. She told me that there are probably guys she knows on the Wall, but she won’t have to face the pain of knowing for sure because she stopped learning names after Michael died.

Like so many veterans, Emily struggled to settle back into “the World.” She told me about times when her girlfriends would call her up and invite her to go shopping, and she would wonder how anyone could possibly care about something so frivolous. She knew it wasn’t that her friends were shallow, that it was her. What she had experienced in Vietnam made it difficult for her to enjoy everyday life back home. She found solace writing poetry, and she connected with other Donut Dollies as well as military veterans. She attended and spoke at vets’ reunions, and she built a website where veterans could publish their stories and find one another.

The emotional toll that the Vietnam War took on the women the Red Cross, the U.S. military, and other organizations sent to Vietnam to care for American troops mentally, emotionally, and physically needs to be part of the broader conversation about the war and its long-term impacts. On the home front, the war had a profound effect on the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of veterans, as my friend Andrew Wiest is exploring in his research on the families of Charlie Company, his follow-up to The Boys of ’67. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the U.S. Army’s Vietnamese counterpart in the war, employed women in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) to minister to ARVN troops and their families as healthcare and social workers. Women of the National Liberation Front (NLF) tended to their men as nurses and doctors. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s posthumous memoir, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, offers a glimpse of the experiences of an NLF woman doctor, but we have so much more to learn about the war’s impact on Vietnamese women caregivers.

Emily never knew how influential she was in the development of my thinking about women and the Vietnam War and about what it means to experience war. She taught me about the emotional burden Donut Dollies bore while working to lift the spirits of men at war. Her stories pushed me to think about the various ways in which the Vietnam War affected women’s lives and what it meant to be a woman serving in the war. I am grateful to have spent some time with her, brief as it was. Rest in peace, Emily.

* Check out Emily’s website,, to see lots of photos from her time in Vietnam, read her poetry, and learn more about her work as a Donut Dollie and the men with whom she served. *


February 23, 2015

Vietnamese_evacuationOne of the most harrowing scenes in “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in April, 1975, depicts a South Vietnamese air force pilot’s efforts to get his family out of Vietnam. His wife and their three young children boarded a Chinook helicopter, which he flew out to the USS Kirk in the Pacific Ocean. The helicopter was too large to land on the frigate, so the pilot hovered the aircraft as low as he could to allow his family to jump out into the arms of American sailors on deck. Miki Nguyen, the pilot’s oldest son, who was six years old at the time, is interviewed in the documentary, and he describes watching in amazement as his mother dropped his six-month-old baby sister out of the Chinook. After his family was out, the pilot flew the helicopter back over the water and managed to keep it in the air while he removed his flight suit. He jumped out the door as the Chinook crashed into the sea, and then he surfaced, uninjured. A Navy rescue boat brought him to the Kirk, where he rejoined his family.

That Kennedy and her team of filmmakers chose to include the stories of South Vietnamese military personnel and their families makes the film an important addition to one of the most well-documented events in recent history. Scholars, journalists, and participants have spilled much ink on the Vietnam War, but Vietnamese voices, particularly those of the men and women who supported the Republic of Vietnam (commonly known to Americans as South Vietnam) and served in its military, remain largely absent from the dominant war narrative in the U.S. and in Vietnam. Although “Last Days in Vietnam” tells the story of the U.S. evacuation mainly from an American perspective, four Vietnamese are interviewed on camera: two South Vietnamese military veterans, a civilian who was a college student in 1975, and Miki Nguyen, the son of the Chinook pilot. It’s nowhere near a comprehensive list of the range of Vietnamese experiences as the war came to an end, but it’s a start.

Critics of the documentary have missed this point. In his review in The Nation, Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, suggests that the stories of those Vietnamese, especially military personnel, who made the decision to flee their country in 1975 are less important than the stories of war deaths and American atrocities. Turse writes that a South Vietnamese army captain’s decision to leave Vietnam with his family was “surely a gut-wrenching personal choice, but microscopic in a war that saw suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.” The gist of his review is that Kennedy should have made an entirely different documentary, one that focused on the destruction U.S. intervention in Vietnam caused rather than the evacuation of South Vietnam and the experiences of those who tried to escape.

The truth about atrocities U.S. troops committed in Vietnam, the lasting effects of chemical warfare, the bombing of civilians, and other American sins are rightly part of the Vietnam War narrative. “Last Days in Vietnam” is not a revision of that history. The stories of South Vietnamese troops and anticommunist Vietnamese perspectives will not conceal the devastation arrogant U.S. policies caused in Vietnam. They will help us understand Vietnamese motivations and the complex political situation in the Republic of Vietnam, where there were multiple opinions about what Vietnam’s postcolonial identity should be. By downplaying the importance of these stories, Turse implies that not all Vietnamese voices matter.

Acknowledging various Vietnamese perspectives can help facilitate reconciliation among wartime adversaries, especially in Vietnam. When I lived and taught in Saigon last year, some of the friends I made came from families that had favored a non-communist Vietnam. One friend, a restaurant owner in Saigon, told me a saying: “Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa tiêu Công Lý,
Đồng Khởi vùng lên mất Tự Do.” It is a reference to Saigon street names that the new government changed after the fall of Saigon. Công Lý (“justice”) was renamed Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa (“Southern peasant uprising”), and Tự Do (“freedom”) became Đồng Khởi (“total revolution”). My friend said it translates in English to: “The Southern uprising killed justice. Total revolution stole freedom.” I met others who are bitter about not being eligible for government jobs or benefits because they or their loved ones had served in the South Vietnamese armed forces or were associated with the Saigon government before 1975. I met veterans who served time in reeducation camps. The students I taught at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, as well as students I met when giving talks and workshops at other universities, were fascinated when they learned I was doing research on the Republic of Vietnam because they know very little about it. It is not part of the official Vietnamese story about the “American War” beyond the characterization of the Saigon government and South Vietnamese military as “puppets” of the U.S. Engaging with the stories of “the losing side,” as Vietnamese journalist Huy Đức called his book about post-1975 Vietnam, can help facilitate the healing of forty-year-old wounds.

At one point in the documentary, the Republic of Vietnam national anthem plays over footage of the national flag being lowered on a South Vietnamese ship. Vietnamese soldiers salute the flag one last time. Interviewed for the documentary, Kiem Do, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the South Vietnamese navy, reflects on that moment and sings a bit of the song before saying, “I had lost my beloved country.” The scene is gripping in large part because it is surprising. Images of South Vietnamese servicemen and others who had supported South Vietnam are rare in both American and Vietnamese accounts of the Vietnam War. Nothing about these images challenges or revises the history of American brutality in Vietnam. The images acknowledge the loss of identity and homeland that many Vietnamese felt as a result of the war, which was a civil war as well as an American war.


October 16, 2014

The Pentagon’s Vietnam War 50th anniversaries commemoration series made the news again earlier this month after a group of 500 Vietnam War scholars, Vietnam veterans, and former antiwar activists sent a petition to the series organizers demanding that the series be revised to incorporate antiwar perspectives. I, as well as others, have criticized the series as an attempt to recast U.S. military intervention in Vietnam as a noble cause (click here for my May 2013 post). Veterans for Peace, a Vietnam vets group, has created an alternative commemoration series called “Full Disclosure: Toward an Honest Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam“. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a leading ’60s activist in the antiwar movement, said this to a New York Times reporter about the Pentagon’s Vietnam commemoration program: “If you conduct a war, you shouldn’t be in charge of narrating it.” Common Dreams picked up the story and highlighted Hayden’s quote.

At issue is who should write the history of the Vietnam War and whose experiences should be part of the narrative. Hayden believes that the U.S. government body responsible for perpetrating the war should not be entrusted to commemorate accurately the havoc the war wreaked on Vietnam and the American social fabric. The Defense Department has a vested interest in creating a public memory of the Vietnam War that highlights the sacrifices of veterans, civil-military cooperation, and military technologies developed during the war. Acknowledging atrocities, PTSD, and home front opposition to the war would require policy makers and military leaders to grapple with tough questions about the decisions that led to and escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Nearly forty years after the war ended, perhaps Pentagon officials see an opportunity to cultivate a sanitized public memory of the war, and aging antiwar activists such as Hayden are worried that their commitment to ending the conflict will fade from the narrative of one of the most controversial events in U.S. history.

However, Hayden’s argument that participants in an event shouldn’t write the history of it applies to the antiwar movement as well. Those who fought against the war are also invested in a particular memory of it, and Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Staughton Lynd, Amy Swerlow, and other activists have written histories of the antiwar movement that present a view of the Vietnam War that, in its own way, is as narrow as the Pentagon’s. As long as Americans, military and civilian, cling to their decades-old beliefs about the war, we will not be able to appreciate its complexities and truly understand its impact. UC-Berkeley historian and Vietnam expert Peter Zinoman’s recent review of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves drives home this point. Americans’ unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom regarding Vietnam War atrocities allowed Turse to write a book that has received considerable acclaim even though it does not offer much that is new about the range of violence that devastated civilians in South Vietnam during the war. Zinoman’s point is not that we should quit talking about atrocities but that we should examine wartime terrorism in all its forms, including those unleashed by the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army on Vietnamese civilians.

Zinoman’s review speaks to a larger issue about American memory of the Vietnam War — we call it the “Vietnam War,” but we think of it as an American event. This is why Vietnamese voices remain marginalized, if not silent, in the Vietnam War narrative. Instead of writing a story about Tom Hayden’s frustration with the Vietnam 50th series, why didn’t the New York Times interview Vietnamese people who came to the U.S. after the war? It would be enlightening to know what they and their families think of how Americans remember the conflict. Hayden expressed his concern that the Pentagon series does not mention Daniel Ellsberg, but I wonder if he thought at all about the missing Vietnamese voices. Thankfully, historians such as Pierre Asselin, Philip Catton, Jessica Chapman, Edward Miller, and Lien-Hang Nguyen have written books based on research in Vietnam, and their work has established a foundation on which other historians of the Vietnam War can build a more complex and dispassionate narrative that moves away from the politicized debates between the military and New Left establishments about what happened and how Americans should remember the war.

The Vietnam War is much bigger than the American experience of it. We should never forget the sacrifices of veterans or the courage of those who spoke out against the war, but we must finally start focusing on the multiple Vietnamese sides of the story as well. That Americans continue arguing about the same stories using the same voices forty years after the war ended demonstrates an arrogance that is not unlike the hubris that drove U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. The war wasn’t just about Americans, and there is a lot more to remember beyond what it did to American society. There are Vietnamese on both sides of the Pacific who are still trying to make sense of and heal from the conflict.


September 29, 2014

On May 25, 2012, President Obama issued a proclamation launching a 13-year program to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of important dates in the Vietnam War.  The series began on Memorial Day 2012 with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and will end in 2025 with the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.  In partnership with the Department of Defense, National Park Service, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, local governments, veterans groups, and civilian organizations throughout the U.S. will host events honoring Vietnam veterans for their service and acknowledging the contributions made by American citizens and U.S. allies to the war effort.  In his proclamation and other statements regarding the commemorations, the president emphasized the public’s obligation to pay belated tribute to a generation of veterans who returned home to silence rather than fanfare.

Reflecting on the service of military veterans is an important act.  It reminds us that the human costs of war include those who live with mental and physical battle scars as well as those who died fighting.  Focusing on veterans can raise awareness about policy issues such as healthcare.  One of the Vietnam War Commemoration events held in June was a seminar in Holmdel, New Jersey, on how to navigate the Veterans Administration healthcare system.  A mobile medical unit was on site offering screenings and patient education.  This is an example of how war memorials can move beyond mere flag-waving to offer concrete support to veterans.

War commemorations also provide opportunities to scrutinize national security policies and military commitments.  In a way, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial served that purpose when it was unveiled in 1981.  Designed by Maya Lin, a Yale undergraduate student at the time, the black wall with the names of the more than 58,000 dead servicemen and women etched into it symbolizes the wound that the war burned into the American psyche.  Critics of the memorial have argued that the wall demeans the service of Vietnam veterans and casts the war as a source of shame.  Yet probably more than any other memorial in the U.S., the Vietnam wall exposes war’s intimate reach.  We literally see ourselves reflected in the glossy, black stone behind the names of the dead.  Men, women, and children approach the wall to take etchings of the names of their loved ones—an act so personal yet so public that, observing it, it is hard not to ponder why the U.S. fought in Vietnam and hope that war will cease to be an instrument of international relations.

This is where the Vietnam War 50th anniversaries commemoration fails because it seeks to remember the war as a noble cause.  Since the war ended, Vietnam has served as a speed bump, if not a roadblock, along the way to subsequent military engagements.  In debates over whether to engage in conflicts in Africa, Central America, or the Middle East, the question of “will this be another Vietnam?” has forced policymakers to weigh the costs and benefits of military intervention even if the memory of Vietnam did not ultimately prevent war.  The Vietnam War has been an example of the worst that could happen when the U.S. intervenes without a clear security objective or goal.  But the commemoration series has set out to cast the war in a new light.  Its objectives include: “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War,” to emphasize civil-military cooperation in the war effort, and “to highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to military research conducted during the Vietnam War.”  Drones may very well be the legacy of Vietnam-era technological development, and reports of errant missiles that miss their targets remind us of war’s impact on civilians.  President Obama’s proclamation spoke of honor, valor, and heroism but said nothing of misguided policy decisions, atrocities, or PTSD.  The president talked of Vietnam veterans having fought “to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans,” but what are those ideals?  How were they threatened by a civil war Vietnam?  Should the U.S. have intervened, at the cost of more than 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives?  Hollow rhetoric only shrouds the harsh and far-reaching consequences of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.  By reducing the Vietnam War to meaningless generalities or creating an image of it as a noble cause, we lose the most important purpose the collective memory of the conflict has served.  Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues offers us a better way to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of the Vietnam War.  Instead of concealing the uncomfortable details of the war, we should “finger its jagged grain” so that the painful memories of Vietnam make us pause before we commit American men and women to any military engagement that is not clearly in the nation’s best interests.  That is the honorable way to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans.

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