War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

10 An Ordeal in Southeast Asia

There were no banners. No bugles. No presidential speeches proclaiming crusades "to make the world safe for democracy" or a day which " shall live in infamy." No United Nations resolutions or stirring Congressional declarations. But on March 8, 1965, America was at war when two Marine battalions landed at Danang, a port on the eastern coast of South Vietnam.

A month later, the leathernecks (as they were known) were reinforced by two more Marine battalions that established a base at Phy Bau, forty-five miles north of Danang. In June, the 173rd Airborne Brigade reached the country, and by October, some 150,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered the heavy military buildup to prop up the collapsing government of South Vietnam after a series of United States presidents had pledged to defend the tiny nation against aggression by the Vietcong (Communist guerrillas) and the troops of North Vietnam, a Communist country backed by the Soviet Union.

The Pentagon called the conflict a limited conventional war, but the grunts (as Army foot soldiers called themselves) and the Marines soon were confronted by a situation that would pose both danger and moral dilemmas. Vietnam, in essence, was a guerrilla war with no front lines. Civilians and the Vietcong looked and dressed alike. One couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys (or gals). One could only tell for certain when someone suddenly fired at you--and often it would be too late. So the American fighting men rapidly became suspicious of all Vietnamese.

Even as the war steadily escalated, leaders in the Pentagon were reluctant to ship servicewomen to Vietnam. However, by late 1965, some 650 American women, including civilians working for the armed forces, were "in country." Three hundred of these women were Army, Navy, and Air Force nurses, all of whom were officers and had to be twenty-one years of age. Their tour of duty was normally one year. Most Navy nurses lived and worked on two hospital ships, the Repose and the Sanctuary, which sailed off the coast of South Vietnam. Air Force nurses cared for the badly wounded on evacuation sites to the Philippines, Japan, Okinawa, or the United States. Army nurses worked in facilities classified as field, surgical, or evacuation hospitals, and MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).

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