The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 12

There were more than 450,000 American men in Vietnam now and God knew how many deaths and casualties. You certainly couldn’t find that answer in the Stars and Stripes. Many of the new troops in-country had barely six weeks of training. Unlike in World War II, when soldiers had trained together in platoons and went to war alongside men with whom they’d trained, these new recruits came alone and were dropped in wherever they were needed, without the support of a platoon, without men they knew they could depend on. Army Basic Training had been shortened to get the men in combat sooner; Frankie wondered who in the hell decided that less training for war was a good idea, but no one had asked her opinion.

There were good days, though, when few wounded came in and the sound of helicopters was far away; days when the nurses played games and read novels and wrote letters home and organized MEDCAP trips to local villages to offer medical services. On bad days, Frankie heard the distinctive roar of the twin-engine Chinook helicopter, the workhorse behemoth that could hold more than two dozen injured, and knew trouble was on its way. Sometimes the pushes were so intense, the numbers of incoming and their injuries so bad, that Frankie and Barb and Hap and the rest of the doctors and nurses worked for eighteen hours straight on both soldiers and civilians, with barely a break for food or drink.

Frankie had learned to think fast and move faster. She could do more than she’d ever imagined; she could initiate a surgery or close a wound or put in a chest tube. Hap trusted her with morphine administration and talked her through all of his surgeries, teaching her every step of the way. And some of this took place under direct rocket attack and mandatory blackout conditions, in a pouring rain.

Now it was just past 0300 hours, and the last surgical patient had been wheeled to Post-Op.

No sound of incoming choppers. No mortar attack. No red alert siren.

Quiet. Not even a sprinkling rain.

She reached for a mop, began to clean blood off the cement floor. It wasn’t her job, but she did it anyway. She was both dead on her feet and full of buzzing adrenaline.

She shoved the mop forward, through the blood, pushing it away. It slimed right back where it had been.

Hap entered the OR, nodded at the corpsman at the desk doing paperwork. He approached Frankie slowly, touched her shoulder. “You don’t need to mop, McGrath.”

He was giving her that look—she knew it now—sadness wrapped in compassion, wrapped in understanding. It was how they all looked at each other after a MASCAL, when all you could really count were the men you’d lost.

In the past ten days, most of them rainy, Frankie had spent well over a hundred hours across an operating table from this man. She knew that he never sweated, no matter how hot it was or how tough the surgery was; she knew that in easy moments, he hummed “Ain’t That a Shame” under his breath, and in harder times, he made a clacking, angry sound in his jaw. She knew he wore a wedding ring, and that he loved his wife and worried about his oldest son. She also knew that he made the sign of the cross every time he finished a surgery, and that, like her, he wore a Saint Christopher medal next to his dog tags.

He smiled tiredly. “Get out of here, Frankie. I thought I heard dancing at the Park. Let off a little steam or you’re going to blow.”

Frankie knew he was right. She peeled off her gown and left the OR. At her hooch, she picked up clean clothes and a towel.

She took a shower in the dark, washed her hair, and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. At her hooch, she traded her blood- and mud-stained sneakers for huaraches and headed to the Park, where the music of the Beatles greeted her.

She saw a trio of men standing over by the makeshift tiki bar, drinking and smoking. The stand of frayed banana trees rustled beside them. Tiki torches glowed yellow and sent a thread of black smoke into the night sky.

Barb sat in one of the beach chairs near the stereo setup, smoking a cigarette.

Frankie pulled up a chair, sat down beside her. A cardboard box, overturned and stained, created a coffee table that held a half-empty bottle of gin and an overflowing ashtray.

“You took a shower,” Barb said. “I hate that about you.”

“There was blood in my armpits. How the hell does that happen? And the water was cold. They should put that in the So You Want to Go to Pleiku brochure.”

“Let’s face it, you’ve got to be crazy to want to come here.”

Frankie reached for the pack of cigarettes and lit one up.

“We got mail today. My brother, Will, sent this,” Barb said, handing Frankie a Polaroid picture of thousands of people standing or seated on the ground, with the White House in the background. Someone held up an IMPEACH LBJ sign. Another sign read MY SON WAS KILLED IN VIETNAM. WHY?

“Why indeed?” Frankie said, leaning back, trying to work a kink out of her neck.

“My mom sent me a newspaper article about a march in D.C. A hundred thousand protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.”

Frankie didn’t know what to say about that or, really, what to think about it. The world of hippies and protesters felt far, far away. It had nothing to do with the guys dying over here. Except that it did. The protests made them feel that their sacrifices meant nothing or, worse, that they were doing something wrong. “The world is upside down.”

“Yeah. No shit. I heard that Canada is demanding the U.S. stop bombing North Vietnam. Canada. You know you’re doing something wrong if you piss them off,” Barb said, exhaling smoke.

“Yeah.” The headline of the latest Stars and Stripes was IT’S ALMOST OVER. WINNING THE WAR.

But they’d been saying that since Finley had been killed. And look at all the deaths since then.

There was no winning in war. Not this war, anyway. There was just pain and death and destruction; good men coming home either broken beyond repair or in body bags, and bombs dropping on civilians, and a generation of children being orphaned.

How could all this death and destruction be the way to stop communism? How could America be doing the right thing, dropping all these bombs—many on villages full of the old and the young—and using napalm to burn whatever was left?


November 7, 1967

Dear Mom and Dad,

This is a bad night for me. I’m not even exactly sure why. Today was just another day at the 71st. Nothing particularly horrible.

God. I can’t believe I even wrote those words.

If I chose to describe a mass casualty, you’d be horrified. I’m horrified, and I’m even more horrified that normally I can get through it. Do I want to know how to see these things and still breathe and eat and drink and laugh and dance? It feels obscene to have a life and yet, given what these soldiers give up for their country, for us, it feels obscene not to. The fighting near Dak To has been devastating.

And it is not just American soldiers who are being killed. The Vietnamese people are suffering and dying, too. Men. Women. Children. Last week, an entire village was bombed and set on fire. Why? Because no one really knows who the enemy is over here and our boys are being killed by jungle snipers and they’re jumpy as hell. It’s dangerous to be scared all the time.

What a waste of life and promise it all is. The only thing I know is that the soldiers—I used to think of them as my “boys” because they were so young. But they are men, fighting for their country. I want to help them. I’m trying not to think of anything else. For a few, I’m the last American girl they will ever see, and that means something. You wouldn’t believe how many want to take a picture with me before they leave.

You keep writing about war protests and flag burnings. None of that is in the Stars and Stripes. And Barb’s mom said Martin Luther King says this war is unjust. I’m starting to wonder about it myself. But can’t they support the warriors and hate the war? Our men are dying every day in service of their country. Doesn’t that matter anymore?

Much love,

F

PS. Send hand lotion, perfume, crème rinse, Polaroid film, and candles. The damn electricity is constantly going out.


A heat wave hit the Central Highlands in mid-November. The ever-present mud dried out, turned into a fine red dust that coated everything, filled every breath, turned their tears red. No matter how often Frankie placed a wet cloth across her brow, there was no getting rid of the dirt that stained the new creases in her forehead, settled in the lines that fanned out from her eyes, coated her teeth. Fat red drops of sweat slid down the sides of her face and along her spine. In its way, the heat was as demoralizing as the mud and the rain. There was no sleeping in this heat, and that meant the Park was packed after work with people listening to American music, trying anything to ease the sharp edges of their war.

“Go, Frankie,” Hap said, taking her by the shoulders, turning her toward the doors of the OR. “Barb left an hour ago.”

Frankie nodded. Had she fallen asleep on her feet for a second? Too tired to argue, she pulled off her mask, scrubs, cap, and gloves, and tossed them away.

Outside, daylight.

She blinked, confused for a moment. What time was it? What day?

Move, Frankie.

She left the OR and stepped outside, onto the walkway; there were pods of people about, looking tired, not much talking going on, drifting in and out of the mess hall.

In front of the morgue, she saw a single litter, positioned between two sawhorses. Beside it was a stack of body bags.

She headed slowly toward the litter, drawn to the loneliness of the man lying there, hoping he hadn’t died alone out here. He was young—so young—and Black. He had one limb left—his right arm—and it hung limply over the side, his fingertips just inches above the bloody ground.

His youth upended her. She was twenty-one years old, and she felt ancient. All these young men who’d come here, most of them by choice, being shot at, ripped apart, broken into pieces. The majority were Black or Hispanic or poor, straight out of high school. They didn’t have parents who could pull strings to get them out of service or into the National Guard, or college classes to keep them safe, or girls who would marry them. Some volunteered just to choose the branch of service, rather than be shipped out in whatever service when their number came up.

A generation gone. Her generation.

Dirt and blood streaked his face. She could see clumps of sweaty skin where his helmet had been. She couldn’t help wondering who he was, what he had believed in. They all had stories, these guys, stories that they’d thought would go on for years, through marriages and jobs and children and grandchildren.

She saw a helmet nearby and bent over to pick it up. A Polaroid picture, splattered with mud, stuck up from it.

This young man in a white tuxedo coat and black pants, wearing horn-rimmed glasses with his arm bent at a crisp ninety degrees. Beside him was a Black girl in a long gown, wearing elbow-length white gloves, her hand tucked into the crook of his arm.

Senior Prom 1966 was scrawled on the white border of the print. On the back it read Come home, Beez. We love you.

Frankie gently wiped the Polaroid clean and put it in his pocket. “At least you’ll be going home,” she said quietly, touching his cheek. “That will mean something to your family.”

In the distance, she heard a mortar thud and explode, and then nothing.

She was so tired of watching young men die. Instead of turning toward her hooch, she went to the Park, where people sat in chairs, watching a movie. The rat-a-tat-tat of the noisy projector garbled the dialogue.

Frankie knew that no movie would ease her loneliness or dim this new and acute sense of impending doom that had attached to her, but it was worse to be alone than to be among people. She sat down in the chair beside Barb, who handed her a drink.

“What are we watching?”

The Great Escape.

“Again?”

One drink, Frankie thought. Just one.


On their first day off in two weeks, Frankie and Barb sat in chairs in the Park, a cooler beside them, drinking lukewarm TaBs. Barb was reading a letter from home aloud.

November 17, 1967

Dear Barbara Sue,

Lord, I don’t know who to worry more about these days, you in harm’s way, or your brother in California. The letters coming from Will are worrisome, that’s for sure. I sent you clippings about the riot in Detroit this summer, remember, when the Guard was called in? There were other riots, too. In Buffalo, Flint, New York City, Houston. Lots of cities. Cops clobbering on us negroes. Looting. I just found out that Will was in Detroit that day, rioting. 33 Black folks died.

I’m afraid. Ever since your brother got back from Vietnam, he’s been angry in a way that will get him killed. Those college white boys might get away with violence at their protests, but it won’t fly for Will and his Black Panther friends. I know you’re busy, but maybe you could call him? He might listen to his big sister. Lord knows he won’t listen to his mama. Thinks I oughta be mad as a hornet, but what good will that do? Me breaking a window or marching across a bridge won’t change a thing. He forgets I saw your uncle Joey get lynched for looking wrong at a white lady. That wasn’t all that long ago.

Anyway, we miss you plenty back here. Counting the days till you’re home.

Love, Mama

“Lieutenant Johnson?”

Barb looked up.

Talkback, the camp’s radio operator, stood beside them. He was a skinny kid from Nebraska with apple cheeks and a swizzle-stick neck. “Lieutenants Johnson and McGrath, I have a message for you both from Lieutenant Melvin Turner.”

“Who’s that?” Barb asked.

“Coyote, ma’am, of the Seawolves.”

“Your water-ski buddy,” Barb said to Frankie.

“He said to tell you there’s gonna be a shit-kicking-good—his words, ma’ams—bon voyage party at a club in Saigon tonight and it sure would be sad to see the two purtiest nurses in ’Nam miss it. There’s a C-7 at the airfield right now.”

“That sounds like an order, Talkback. I usually prefer a printed party invitation,” Frankie said.

“Engraved,” Barb added.

Talkback looked nervous. “Coyote didn’t make it sound like much of a question, ma’am. I reckon he figured you’d love to get off the compound for a while. That plane won’t stick around for long. It’s on a supply run.”

Barb folded up her letter. “Thanks, Talkback.”

“I do hate being told what to do,” Frankie said.

“And being taken for granted,” Barb added.

Then they both smiled and said, “Outta here!” at the same time.

The two women ran to the hooch and packed for an overnight trip.

Less than fifteen minutes later, packed and dressed in civilian clothes, with their military scrip converted into Vietnamese money, Frankie and Barb boarded the fixed-wing cargo plane and sat down.

At Tan Son Nhut, an MP escorted Frankie and Barb to a waiting jeep; they jumped in the backseat.

Amazingly, this was Frankie’s first close-up view of Saigon in daylight. The city was a chaotic mess: Streets teeming with Army tanks and armed military men and MPs. Bicycles and pedestrians fighting to make their way around them. Whole families sat crowded on scooters that zipped in and out of traffic. They passed a skinny Vietnamese woman squatting on a corner, cutting vegetables on a wooden board.

Military vehicles jockeyed for position with motorbikes and bicycles. Horns honked. Bike bells clanged. People yelled at one another. Three-wheeled vehicles threaded aggressively in and around the motorbikes, belched out great plumes of black smoke. The Saigon police—called the White Mice by Americans because of their white uniforms—managed traffic where the lights didn’t work or weren’t being obeyed.

Barbed wire and oil drums and sandbags protected the government buildings. On one corner there was a floral memorial for one of the Buddhist monks who’d self-immolated to protest the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of them. No doubt the police would take it all away, and the flowers would appear again tomorrow.

The jeep pulled up in front of the Caravelle Hotel, which dominated an entire street corner.

Frankie jumped out, slung her worn, faded overnight bag over her shoulder, and thanked the driver.

Barb came up beside her. “Damn, those flights make me thirsty.”

Smiling, they headed for the hotel’s glass double-door entrance.


They spent the day in the old French Quarter of Saigon, with its gorgeous, ornate buildings and tree-lined streets. It was like seeing a beautiful corner of Paris through a dirty window. You could sense what it once had been, this city, picture the French occupiers dining on foie gras and drinking fine wine, while the Vietnamese cooks and waiters struggled to feed their families on paltry pay.

At 1200 hours, they went to a small French-style bistro, with white tablecloths and uniformed waiters and fresh flowers; Frankie was struck by the incongruity of this place existing in a land torn apart by war. It was as if they’d crossed some magical portal that led back in time.

“Just go with it,” Barb said, touching her arm. “We’ll be back in the shit soon enough.”

Trust Barb to know exactly what Frankie was feeling. She slipped her arm through Barb’s and they followed the host to a table by a window, where they sat down and ordered lunch.

Inside, the roar and clatter of the city faded and the sweet fragrance of fish and broth replaced the outside odors of exhaust and diesel fuel. After lunch, they walked from shop to shop, buying new clothes and sneakers and candles and scented body lotion. Frankie bought a T-shirt that read SKI VIETNAM. They each ordered an ao dai to be made in soft, diaphanous silk, and Frankie bought a bolt of silver silk shantung for her mother and an ornate brass cigar cutter for her father.

At 1615 hours, they returned to their hotel and readied for the party at the club.

What a treat. Hot, hot water, and lots of it. Scented soaps and lotions.

Frankie put on a new purple dress with a white plastic hip belt and a pair of sandals. When she looked in the mirror, she saw herself for the first time in eight months. Eyes still a vibrant blue, pale skin freckled by the sun, lips so chapped lipstick didn’t work, hair shaggy and grown out at different lengths.

Her face was thin; she’d lost so much weight that her upper arms were like pencils.

Barb came up beside her, put an arm around her. They stared at their reflections. Barb wore navy blue knit bell-bottom pants and a white shirt with a bold geometric silk tie around her neck. A headband accentuated how big her Afro was getting.

“I didn’t know I’d lost so much weight,” Frankie said. “And why did I buy this ridiculous dress today? Did I want to be Grace Kelly at war?”

“It made you think of home. Cookies coming out of the oven. Dad’s martini. Or, in your case, your mother’s.”

Frankie smiled. Barb was right. Frankie had bought this dress because it made her think of home, of her mother, of the life that girls like her had been taught to want in the 1950s, when conformity was all important. No more.

Frankie might be a virgin, but she didn’t want to be a “good girl” anymore. Life was too short to miss out on anything because of an older generation’s rules.

She changed into the new blue-and-white gingham pants she’d bought and a white fitted tunic top with bell sleeves. At the last minute, she added the white plastic hip belt. “Come on. Let’s go.”

They went up to the rooftop bar and ate a delicious dinner, overlooking the chaos of the city below. At 2015 hours, they left the hotel and found an MP waiting for them. They drove through the hectic, busy streets and pulled up in front of a seedy-looking club, where a sign tacked up over the door read BON VOYAGE, HAWK! in bold black script. Inside the murky interior, a bar ran from end to end; in front of it, officers in fatigues and khakis and T-shirts and jeans stood shoulder to shoulder, clapping each other in challenges and congratulations, drinking cocktails that contained actual ice cubes. Vietnamese waitresses moved through the crowd, serving drinks and food; others cleared the tables. A dance floor had been created by pushing tables to the walls; several couples danced in the middle of the room. A three-piece band played unrecognizable music. Two ceiling fans whopped quietly overhead, pushing the hot air around, rather than cooling it.

At the bar, Coyote saw Frankie and waved. He approached Frankie with an endearing hesitation that reminded her of life back in the world, of first dates and school dances. Not the usual pilot’s swagger at all. “You look beautiful, Frankie. May I have this dance?”

“You may,” she said. It felt so ridiculously old-fashioned and otherworldly that she had to laugh.

He pulled her into his arms and onto the dance floor. She felt his hand settle on her hip.

She moved his hand back up to her waist. Apparently there was more good girl left in her than she’d thought. “I think you’ve confused me with a different kind of girl.”

“No way, Frankie. You’re the kind of girl a guy brings home to his ma. I knew that the minute I met you at the beach party.”

“I sure used to be,” she said. “Thanks for the invitation tonight, by the way.”

“I’ve been thinking about you since we met,” Coyote said.

The next song sped up in tempo and he twirled her around until she was out of breath and dizzy. For a beautiful moment, she was just a girl in the arms of a boy who thought she was special.

She was well past the “glowing” stage her mother had often warned her about. In this heat, she was sweating, and she loved it.

“Frankie. There’s Riot. I want you to meet my new CO,” Coyote said, taking her by the hand.

Frankie stumbled along, laughing at his quick change. One minute he was trying to touch her ass, and the next he was dragging her off the dance floor.

He stopped so abruptly, she bumped into him. Coyote’s hand slid down her bare arm; his fingers took hold of hers.

“Riot?” Coyote said. “I’d like you to meet my girl.”

“Your girl? I’m hardly…” Frankie laughed and looked up at Coyote’s commanding officer, who was dressed in fatigues and wearing aviator sunglasses. He looked like a CIA agent. Or a rock star. His stance and demeanor screamed regulation.

“Well, well,” he said, and slowly lowered the sunglasses. “Frankie McGrath.”

Rye Walsh.

Frankie was momentarily plunged back in time, to the Fourth of July party when Finley had brought home his new best friend. “Rye, like the whiskey,” she said, feeling a tightness in her throat. He made her think of Finley, of home, of innocent schoolgirl crushes.

He pulled her into his arms, gave her a hug so fierce she was lifted off her feet.

“Wait. You two know each other?” Coyote said, frowning, looking from one to the other.

“He went to the Naval Academy with my big brother,” Frankie said, stepping back. “He was the one who told me that women could be heroes.”

Coyote put his arm around Frankie, pulled her close. She pulled free.

Rye put his sunglasses back on. “Well. I don’t want to intrude on your fun, kids. Carry on. Nice to see you again, Frankie.” He turned on one heel, a parade-smooth gesture, and walked back to the bar.

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