Vietnam War Veterans and the girls/women they knew

By Vivian Blevins

Contributing Columnist

The final withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam was in 1975, and with the passing of that generation, that part of American history will soon be relegated to scholars unless scribes like me elicit the stories of those who served and record them.

Rob Brundrett, a U. S. Navy veteran of that war, a Seabee who served as an advisor to construction forces, has written what he terms an historical fictional account of a love story between an American serviceman and a Vietnamese girl. Girl from the Racetrack: A Novel of the Vietnam War, Brundrett’s second book, is a quick read from an author who obviously knows his way around the Saigon of that time period. There is an easy familiarity with the city, the country surrounding it, and the history with the remnants of the French as well as with the military of the U.S. assigned in the early 1970s to special duties in support of the South Vietnamese Army.

Author Brundrett introduces some ethical/moral challenges regarding the value of the war, the prejudices of some American military against the Vietnamese whom they were allegedly there to support, and the long-term impact on a character in the novel of killing a young Vietnamese enemy in a “kill or be killed” situation.

Throughout Girl from the Racetrack are references to Vietnamese females — prostitutes, Saigon tea girls, beggars with leprosy, young women who date U.S. officers who then leave them when their tours of duty are up, bar girls who are spies, beet girls, country girls, and girls/women who are “just casualties of war.”

A quick search of the web indicates sites such as “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 provoked my interest, and I asked some Vietnam War veterans to educate me.

Army infantryman John Looker said, “We came across some girls and women in villages for no longer than a few hours if we needed to go in and search a village after taking fire from it.

“They had brown teeth from chewing betel nuts. And we saw them when we were dropped hot meals once every week or two. The meals of hot ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans came in disposable pans, and there were lots of leftovers which we couldn’t take with us as infantry carrying packs and M-16 rifles. The women came to the edge of the village where we were located and took what was left once we had eaten. The age range was 20s to 80s, and they were malnourished and had long, black hair.”

Jim Miller, a U.S. Army officer and a helicopter pilot, had more contact with Vietnamese women: “It was rare to see a Vietnamese female in the field. On one mission in the Mekong Delta, however, a helicopter landed close to mine shortly after I had landed, and a doctor and a female 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 bed sheets and clothes. Our rooms were 6’ by 10’ 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 burning in them 24/7 because with the heat and humidity, our clothes and boots would quickly grow mold and mildew.

“We used sign language and occasionally an interpreter to indicate to the mamasans what we needed done as we were too busy flying, sleeping or getting ready to fly to take care of these tasks. We paid these workers $5 a month.

“We also saw girls and women, ages late teens to early 20s, at the officers club, The Tigers Den, a thatched-roof building. The women who worked there spoke broken English and were not bar girls. They were small, short, very attractive, some with the influence of the French with very little slant to their eyes.

“In the rice paddies were women, leaning down, squatting, caring for the crops in order to have something to eat or trade. They wore wide-brimmed straw hats and were just getting on with their lives as they had no other choice to stay alive, keep the family together.”

A U.S. Air Force officer in Vietnam, Nicholas Essinger indicated his sense of the women: “They were petite, perfect bodies, pleasing shape to their faces, bright eyes. Some were looking for a way to the States. The older mamasans with teeth that looked rotten from chewing on betel were often on the streets, begging and selling. The waitresses on base or in restaurants were eager to please all clientele, attentive, and respectful.

“At Da Nang at the 15th Aerial Port where I was executive chief administrative officer, we had five Vietnamese ladies working as secretaries. They were competent, knew how to do their work.

“In downtown Saigon, there were women in tatters squatting on the streets. When I was at Bien Hoa Air Base north of Saigon, I saw bar girls/tea girls, beautiful, child-like girls working the bars with promises of sex. Sometimes it happened; sometimes it didn’t.”

Essinger concluded, “Vietnam was a war zone, but I was not in the field. I probably have a rosy outlook because I didn’t see some of the things others say they saw.”

Carl DeSantis was in Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1971. A protocol officer because of his college degree in communications, he was stationed where there was a plethora of lieutenant colonels, a “dime a dozen” as he worded it, where each had his own mess. DeSantis’ job was to supervise the Vietnamese women who prepared the meals for these officers. At times the women would use native vegetation that “smelled like an old skunk” in the food, and he had to tell them to stop using that addition.

At age 24, DeSantis says he “felt like a father” to these women who “aged quickly 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 duties was to visit with the Montagnards, an indigenous people who supported us in the war and who lived in shacks built from throwaways. The floors of their homes were dirt and the women kept them amazingly clean with photos of the Pope, Confucius, Ho Chi Minh, and Buddha on the walls, thus covering all their bases.” The men made knives and bows and arrows which De Santis purchased to bring back for the officers to have as souvenirs. He would then have plaques engraved to go with the weapons.

A part of DeSantis’ sojourn required socializing with the Montagnards, eating and drinking with them prior to making purchases. DeSantis said that he could plan on two days of sick leave after departing with the treasures intended for General Westmoreland and lots of others.

DeSantis’ comments serve as a fitting conclusion. “I don’t know what happened to any of these people who supported us because the U.S. was hightailing it out of there. I was safe during my time in Vietnam, no John Wayne stuff. When I got out, I went home, bought a ridiculous car, went to work, and stuck that 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 The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints nor the independent activities of the author.