The Vietnam War took place between 1959 and 1975. Also called the Vietnam Conflict, the War involved a confrontation between the Southern Vietnamese government with support from the US and the communist Northern Vietnam (Rushby 2). The participation of the US and other western nations was based on the fact that the Northern Vietnam was a communist country. This paper will thus discuss the different roles played by American and Australian women during the Vietnam War.
The role of American women during the Vietnam War
Women in America have played different role in all military engagements that the United States has taken part in. These women have taken on diverse roles such as secret agents, pilots, servicewomen, pilots when called upon. For example, women in the Navy Nurse Corps and Army Nurse Corp were sent to take part in the Vietnam War and the Korean War (Hornung 3).
During the Vietnam War, the US sent over 2.5 million soldiers. It is worth to note that, out of this number, over 6500 were women who played different roles such as nurses, air traffic controllers, intelligence and language experts, legal officers, occupational and physical counsellors and other administrative and security positions (Hornung 5).
According to Jan Hornung, the women’s battlefields were Operating Room, Emergency Room, Pos-Operating Room, ICU and Surgical Rooms. Although majority of these women were young and inexperienced, they served their country with honor, courage, and diligence. In spite of the numerous first hand challenges they encountered, they were able to achieve the highest survival rate-over 82%- for the most seriously injured soldiers (6).
These women had to deal with high number military casualties. For example, during the entire period of the Vietnam War, over 152,900 military personnel suffered serious injuries that required immediate medical attention. In addition, an extra 149,000 had moderate wounds that needed medical care. It is worth to note that all these men were well taken care of by these nurses and other women from the Red Cross organization (Hornung 7).
Civilian women also played a role in the Vietnam War through a number of organizations for example: the USO; the American Red Cross Army; the CIA; the United States Agency for International Development and many others. Women also went to the War as flight attendants, press officers, and as representatives for a number of humanitarian and religious organizations (DeCillis 1).
Some went to the War as ‘nice girls’ to provide leisure services and boost morale of US soldiers engaged in the War. Nice girls offered other services such as sports, hobbies, service clubs, fine arts and delivered personal letters from the soldiers to their families at home (Hornung 8). These women were brave enough to offer these services in a dangerous environment. Some of them died in line of duty. According to statistics, over 50, 000 American military and civil women died during the Vietnam War (Hornung 9).
American Red Cross Women in Vietnam
According to official Red Cross records, over 1100 women offered their services as Red Cross volunteers during the Vietnam War. Over 600 of that number young females who took part in the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) program run by Red Cross in Vietnam. Others were assign to work at Service t Military Installations (SMI) and the Service to Military Hospitals (SMH) programs. The Red Cross enlarged its operations in Vietnam to assist the US military personnel during the War.
By 1968, the Red Cross hospital staff, field directors and leisure staff were offering their services to about 25,000 military personnel every month. The entire staff of Red Cross carried out recreational activities for the wounded soldiers and facilitated communications between the patients and their families back at home (Dickerson 1).
Red Cross also flew a number of female college graduates to Vietnam, at the request of the US military, to run recreation centers of the organization for military personnel posted in different in various parts of the country. According to estimated figures, these programs benefited over 280,000 servicemen. These college graduates (also called Donut Dollies) had to traverse their entire Vietnam, covering over 26, 000 miles using trucks, helicopters, and jeeps to provide these services to the military personnel.
For the seven years that these programs were in operation, the Donut Dollies travelled over 2,120,000 miles. The services offered by Donut Dollies had significant impacts on the US military operations in Vietnam. For example, the military leaders admitted that the Donut Dollies services were crucial because they not only offered welfare services to the servicemen but also boosted their morale (Dickerson 1).
At this recreation centers, both the servicemen and the Red Cross staff discussed about the adversities and dangers they experienced in the battlefield. Majority of the Red Cross members were injured and some died. For example, the Red Cross lost five of its members during the War. Of this number, three were women- Lucinda J. Ritcher, Hanna E. Crews and Virginia E. Kirsh. It is worth to note that they all part of the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program (Dickerson 1).
The role of Australian women during the Vietnam War
According to Megan wood, Australian women have played a number of roles in Australia’s combat missions as volunteers and also as service women (1). As they took part in combat missions, they encountered horrifying experiences as doctors, nurses, members of the press, and entertainers.
Moreover, they carried out important functions for the country during the Vietnam War while at the same time fighting off conventional views about the roles of women during war times (Megan 1). In addition, a number of women at home took part in movements that protested against the Vietnam War (Unit five 77).
Women as nurses
Majority of women volunteers served as nurses during the Vietnam War under the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). The AANS was made up of women trained on voluntary basis to serve as nurses during the Vietnam War. Their services was not only limited to giving medical attention to the wounded servicemen but also included serving close to combat areas such that a good number of them lost their lives.
They offered their services military transports, hospital ships and other military installations in Vietnam (wood 2). Thus over 200 civilian nurses and 40 Army nurses took part in the Vietnam War. The War zone was the most dangerous place for these women because the Vietnam War did not adhere to the international rules of military engagements.
The conditions were even worse for those nurses who lacked military training because they experienced stress due to a combination of several factors such as long working hours, insufficient supplies and souring heat in Vietnam. The Royal Australian army Nursing Corps set up four medical centers in several areas in Vietnam to provide medical care to servicemen. Hospitals were set up at Bien Hoa, long Xuyen, Baris and Vung Tau, near the Australian military installation (wood 2).
Nurses from the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) were sent to offer medical care to injured soldiers in Vietnam. These nurses did not have any military training or experience and therefore, were not adequately prepared for the task. They were force to work under hostile environment.
Since their work stations were located near combat fields, they had to take care of all types of military casualties. They also provided medical care to allied forces, injured civilians and prisoners of war. Thus, the services provided by nurses from RAANC marked a major transformation with respect to the role of military nursing since the First and Second World Wars (Unit Five 81).
However, the RAANC nurses were mainly concerned about the status of the Australian servicemen. A good number of Australian troops sustained grave injuries from gunfire, explosions, shellfire and mines. The swift medical attention offered by the RAANC nurses save many lives because most of the wounded servicemen would have died on the way to a nearby hospital. In spite of the grave injuries sustained by these soldiers, majority of them survived.
For example, a paltry 2.5 percent of the injured servicemen- the highest ever survival rate ever recorded- died during the Vietnam War. Although the Australian nurses were paid less income than their male counterparts holding the same rank, they did not complain. They focussed on proving medical care to the injured soldiers. For instance, according to Colleen Mealy, an Army nurse, all the injured troops were extremely happy when they saw women nurses with medical kits ready to treat their wounds.
On a number of occasions, these women were required to transport the wounded and dead soldiers back home. These nurses were trained to prioritise the interests of the wounded soldiers because they had to bear the massive emotional distress of the wounded and dying servicemen (Unit Five 81).
The role of civilian nurses during the Vietnam War
During the entire period of the Vietnam War, over 200 Australian were sent to take care of the wounded civilians. Although they were required to spend only six months in the War zone, some opted to extend their stay so as to help the injured. The working environment was deplorable.
They had to work in extremely packed wards to treat adults and children who had horrible wounds due to exploding mines. These nurses had to work tirelessly throughout the day as theatre and ward nurse. In addition, they had to report for night shifts after every two days.
They only rested for two days after working continuously for three weeks. When the number of patients reduced, the off-duty nurses would travel along with the medical doctors to a leprosarium, over 40 kilometres away, to carry out plastic surgery. Since the hygienic conditions in most medical facilities were deplorable, the nurses had devise creative ways to ensure that medical facilities and equipments were well sterilized (Hudson 27).
Women as entertainers
A number of women from Australia were sent to Vietnam as dancers and singers to entertain Australian servicemen. For example, Lorrae Desmond, a cabaret singer was among the famous entertainers from Australia who entertained servicemen posted in Vietnam during the War.
In addition, a number of government agencies in Australia sponsored several female entertainers to visit Vietnam. In spite of the apparent dangers in Vietnam, a number of entertainers volunteer to travel to Vietnam under the sponsorship of the Australian Forces Overseas Fund to offer their services to the military.
These female entertainers were brave enough to travel to this volatile region to entertain the military. Although the government made efforts to ensure their safety during their tour in Vietnam, one of the entertainer-Cathy Warnes- was murdered during the Vietnam War (wood 6).
One important aspect that was evident among all the entertainers who travelled to Vietnam is that they were motivated to travel, not because of the monetary gains but out of a deep sense of commitment to contribute to the welfare of their fellow countrymen engage in the war.
For example, while the voluntary entertainers from the United States were paid over $140 per week for the services rendered, their Australian counterparts got no pay. They were only provided with a small token to help them sustain their basic needs (wood 6).
As the discussion above has shown, the Vietnam War was one of the riskiest military combats since the culmination of the First and Second World Wars. This is because both sides employed unconventional strategies in their military engagements. This posed great dangers to women who volunteered to offer medical attention and other services to servicemen.
However, these women carried out their different roles with courage and humility to treat both the military personnel and civilian casualties of the Vietnam War. In spite of the primitive conditions they had to operate in, these women responded swiftly when called upon. Their contributions resulted in the highest survival rate ever recorded in any other war.
DeCillis, Paul. “The Vietnam Conflict.” Academic Information Portal for Education and Research. n.d. Web. Jun15, 2011.
Dickerson, Sharon. American Red Cross Women in Vietnam. n.d. Web. Jun 15, 2011.
Hornung, Jan. “In Honor of Veterans Day: women Vietnam Veterans.” Trackpads. Nov 11, 2002. Web. Jun15, 2011.
Hudson, Susan. “Pain remembered.” Australian Nursing Journal. Jan 8, 1995. Web. Jun 15, 2011./www.hotkey.net.au/~marshalle/nurses/nurses.htm>
Rushby, Pamela. When the Hipchicks went to War. 2009. Web. Jun 15, 2011.
Unit Five. Australian Women in the Vietnam War (1962-1973). n.d. Web. Jun 15, 2011.
Wood, Megan. Changing roles: women take up the fight. n.d. Web. Jun 15, 2011.