War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

1 A Nightmare in Vietnam

Crump! Crump! Crump! The nearby explosions split the night air and abruptly awakened Major Lillian Lewis in her quarters in Saigon, South Vietnam. Then came the angry chatter of automatic weapons. Saigon had largely escaped damage during the war, as most of the fierce fighting had raged in the countryside amidst the rice paddies and the thick jungles. But now, Lewis knew, all hell had erupted in the city. It was the early hours of January 30, 1968.

"We women dashed to the rows of sandbags that had been placed around a men's barracks next door," Major Lewis recalled. "Smoke was all over the ground. We even had a number of snipers in the immediate area. One [sniper] shot out the side of one of our bedrooms and must have continued on down the hall."1

Lillian Lewis, an officer in the Women in the Air Force (WAF), was one of the several hundred American military females on duty in Saigon, which the Pentagon considered to be one of the safe places in the war-torn country. For the first time since World War II, American women in the services, other than nurses, found themselves caught in an enemy attack.

Communist forces had broken a truce agreed to by both sides so that the Vietnamese people could observe their Lunar New Year (Tet) and launched a powerful, coordinated assault. Within forty-eight hours, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese People's Army struck at thirty-six South Vietnam provincial capitals; five autonomous cities; seventy-two district towns; and many airfields, military bases, and headquarters.

Few Western nations have a holiday nearly so important to their people as Tet is to the Vietnamese. It is not only a time of revelry--of fireworks and street festivals--but also of worship, at the family altar, of revered ancestors. For several days the entire countryside is on the move as folk visit their ancestral homes, and all business--even the business of war--comes to a halt. Consequently, hundreds of Vietcong (Communist guerrillas) had infiltrated Saigon in civilian clothes, their arrival concealed by the throngs of travelers moving about for the holiday.

The ease with which the Vietcong were able to infiltrate Saigon was reflected by an incident a short time earlier. As a newly arrived American

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