Real Life

True tales from the female entertainers of the Vietnam War

Over 50 years ago, a generation of young women and girls went to Vietnam to entertain the troops. Many of them still carry the scars.
A girl on stage in a red dress performing for soldiers in the war.
Patty McGrath (later Newton) on stage performing for a crowd of soldiers. Credit: Australian War Memorial

Saigon in the 1960s was the place to be. The Vietnam War was at full speed. Hundreds of thousands of Americans and Australians swarmed across this small farming nation. Mighty rivers of American greenbacks poured into what had been the elegant, quiet, devoutly Catholic city of Saigon. As Paul Ham wrote in his definitive book Vietnam: the Australian War: “Along the grand, poinsettia-lined boulevards the Vietnamese rich held parties of obscene ostentation … while people in the backstreets huddled in shanties fashioned out of flattened Coke cans and nibbled on handfuls of rice….”

The Vietnam War was a musical and TV war to the soundtrack of the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place. All the big stars of the day flew in and flew out to perform there, feet barely touching the ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of second-tier working musicians – many of them girls and young women – stayed for weeks and months at a time. They were shot at, assaulted, had grenades hurled at them on stage, but they stayed, living embedded in a war zone. This is their story.

“Everything is groovy when you’re 16,” singer Maureen Elkner, who did three tours of Vietnam, tells The Weekly. “You think about the beautiful beaches and rolling down the hill on a great big tyre. And the men were really good looking. Everything was an exciting first for me. First time on a plane, first time having sex … having hundreds and hundreds of people just adore you.

“Red dust everywhere, rockets coming over the mountains … You could get on top of the hills and watch the rockets come in. Being 16 when I went, I was thinking, ‘gee this is fantastic.’”

Saigon’s Ton San Nhut airport was the busiest airport in the world during the 1960s. The city’s streets teemed with bicycles and cyclos darting this way and that around lumbering convoys of military vehicles. The temperature and the humidity were off the scale. The markets sold everything anyone could want from transistor radios to heroin. On the street you’d find hustlers and spies, assassins, adventurers, black marketeers, drug lords and men who had run out of other options. Everybody knew that today could be their last.

“Everything about it isn’t like you’re in a normal place,” dancer Elizabeth Burton told the Australian War Memorial, “because you never know when there’s gonna be a rocket attack or somebody’s gonna throw a hand grenade or there’s gonna be a sniper or somebody loses the plot. When you’re the actual person being there, it’s not abnormal. That’s where you are, that’s what you’re doing and this is how I’m earning my living and having an adventure.

“There were outgoing rockets and the earth moved … You would get sirens saying there were incoming rockets, so you would go to a bunker, and a bunker was a big hole in the ground, and it was wet and smelly and had rats and really big cockroaches.” But she adds, “it wasn’t as frightening as it was exciting, darling.”

A black and white photo of an Australian entertainer singing to a Vietnam war soldier in the crowd.
Hundreds of young women spent time in Vietnam entertaining soldiers as a reprieve, despite the threats they faced. Credit: Australian War Memorial.

Who were the women who went to Vietnam?

Elizabeth was one of the 650 Australian artists who entertained the troops between 1965 and 1975. Some of them – the big stars like Denise Drysdale, Lorrae Desmond, Lucky Starr, Col Joye – were contracted by the Australian Government and flown in, escorted to a show and then quickly scooted out of harm’s way. During their three days in Vietnam, the five-star entertainers performed at Bien Hoa Airbase, two military hospitals, an air force base and the Australian rest and convalescent centre.

Other artists were employed by private promoters on contracts, and this group looked after its own transport and security.

Some of those entertainers lived much like the wealthy the locals. Elizabeth had a villa with a maid and cleaners. “We had a really nice French-style home in Saigon and we had a couple of people who did our washing and cooking. All of that was wonderful,” she said.

Others, like drummer John Strange stayed in local hotels. At the Diplomat, he recalled, every night there were at least four parties going simultaneously. If you were looking for something more classy, the rooftop bar at the Caravelle or the Rex were perfect for sipping cocktails and watching the tracer fire, like morbid fireworks, while contemplating your luck at surviving this far. In this intense world, you lived every day as your last.

Entertainment was vital for morale. These young Australian troops were often teenagers, stranded a long way from home in alien jungles, ranged against a ruthless enemy. The Australian performers thought it was the least they could do for these kids. The Australian Government flew in Johnny O’Keefe, Col Joye, Little Pattie, Dinah Lee, Patti McGrath (later Newton), Denise Drysdale, the Sapphires (who were actually only a duo at the time), Ian Turpie and Pat Carroll amongst many other acts.

A group of Australian entertainers on stage performing for soldiers during the Vietnam war.
The Australian entertainers in the Vietnam war saw the terrors of war with their own eyes.

Australians often appeared at Luscombe Bowl at Nui Dat base which was a makeshift amphitheatre bulldozed into the red dirt at the end of the airfield. A very basic stage offered shelter from the elements. It was here that Col Joye and Little Pattie played while in the distance the Battle of Long Tan flared in the rubber trees.

Adding a touch of glamour

The Queen of the Luscombe Bowl was Lorrae Desmond. She completed five tours between 1967 and 1971, always taking time to talk with the diggers in the field. She was known for dynamic performances and extravagant dresses. On one show, Lorrae concluded with the Peter, Paul and Mary hit Leaving On A Jet Plane, which she slowed from a jaunty pop song into a poignant ballad.

“When I first sang the song in Vietnam, they were all emotional,” Lorrae told the ABC’s Peter Thompson. “I said, ‘I’ll never sing it again.’ They said, ‘Oh, please, it’s our song. You must sing it again.’ So I did, but it hurt them because … you know, most soldiers want to be with the people they love most. They weren’t.”

Fourteen years after the war, Lorrae reprised the song in 1987 at the Welcome Home Concert. “When I sang the first three notes of the song they went, ‘Whoa!’ And 20,000 people stood and held their arms out. I nearly died with my leg in the air. I don’t know how I got on with that song. I just … I nearly choked to death.”

Lorrae was not the only woman to bring a touch of glamour to the war zone. The shows at Nui Dat base or Da Nang featured comedians and dancers as well. Pat Wordsworth, also known as the Big Pretzel, was very popular. At one of her gigs the Kiwi artillery platoon fired a round on the beat just as she hit a hip-shaking climax.

“Once they told us we stopped the war, because the Vietcong were in the trees with the binoculars, enjoying the show,” Elizabeth recalled.

A black and white photo of a female performer talking to a male soldier.
The performers would often put their lives at risk, dodging bullets, rockets and grenades.

Another popular act was dancer Toni Rees from Melbourne. With a backdrop of parachutes decorating her stage, Toni launched into a series of Eastern dances which drew a roar of approval from the diggers. After her show, Toni was surrounded by a crush of camera-clicking troops, all eager to record the show for their photograph albums.

Gloria Carter, singer with the Mystics, also found the experience exciting despite the danger. “It was July ’68,” she told Ahoy magazine, “the Tet Offensive had been in February. It was really a war zone and we had been thrown into it at the deep end. Traveling in this convoy, in flak jackets and helmets, we had no idea why they kept stopping. It wasn’t till later we learnt they had been sweeping ahead for mines! That night we slept on stretchers on the stage.”

The Vamps enter the jungle

Moving around was always perilous: land mines, Viet Cong, the terrain itself. Ingrid Hart was a singer who became a very successful agent working in Asia and especially Vietnam. On the basis that the early bird catches the best worms, Ingrid was up at 3am driving through the jungle to different bases to secure work for her clients. “This was not easy,” she told the author, JD Owen, not long before she died in 2020, “as the Việt Cộng mined the road and set up ambushes during the night.”

Ingrid was also known to ride, fully armed as a gunner on an armoured personnel carrier, transporting some of her talent.

A woman standing in front of a war vehicle.
Some of the Australian entertainers have faced lifelong health issues after returning from the Vietnam war.

“Sometimes we’d get picked up by a chopper at one base and be flown by chinnock about 20 minutes to the front line and they’d have a makeshift stage there and we would do our show,” Maureen tells The Weekly. “There were times when we couldn’t get out, so we stayed and they had special barracks for us. We travelled by truck a lot of the time and one thing I never did get over was seeing the dead bodies on the road.”

Margaret Britt of the Vamps was another woman blazing through the jungle. Her official driver kept getting lost, so Margaret got a Kombi van and did the job herself, notwithstanding the danger. The van did come under fire during one trip and was only saved by Margaret’s strategic driving.

The Vamps were Australia’s first all-girl rock band and a very popular attraction around the clubs and bases of the South. “We could always tell an Australian audience,” Margaret says, “because as soon as you walked on stage they’d yell ‘Get your gear off!’ or ‘Show us yer tits!’”. Nonetheless Margaret still talks with pride about the entertainers’ role in keeping up morale for the diggers.

Working this close to the front lines, the Vamps did come under mortar attack while on stage at a US base, and Margaret was targeted by a sniper while relaxing on a roof at a Saigon hotel. The band was there when the North staged the Tet Offensive. That campaign almost finished the South Vietnamese administration and destroyed America’s taste for this blighted conflict. Once the enemy retreated, Margaret took the Vamps back on the road to get the spirits up. The US Army awarded the band a bravery medal for its gumption.

An Australian man and woman with a band of entertainers performing to soldiers in the Vietnam war.
Over 50 years ago, a generation of young Australian women and girls became entertainers in the Vietnam war.

Lasting health problems

As it turns out, it wasn’t the enemy that posed the most longstanding threat to Margaret’s life, it was the chemical defoliant that the US used to try to gain advantage in the jungle. Agent Orange was a massive scourge to the soldiers who fought in rainforests covered in this toxic cordial. Margaret was one of the civilians who copped it and her health has been severely impaired. Years later, treatment for the symptoms of Agent Orange poisoning also triggered a massive dose of PTSD. The atrocities she had seen and the tension she had lived with on two Vietnam tours came rushing back. But Margaret is a survivor. She continues to tour Australia with her new trio, although dealing with the Vietnam-related health issues is a constant struggle.

Entertainers and support staff were affected by the war service, sometimes as much as the soldiers. Mary Jane Boyd was a budding star and part of the Bandstand family when she toured Vietnam. But her former singing partner, Sylvia Raye, tells The Weekly that she believes the war zone environment was a contributing factor to the difficult decade she suffered through before dying by suicide.

The best-known tragedy to befall an entertainer in Vietnam was the case of 19-year-old Cathy Wayne, the first Australian woman casualty of that war. A former child singing star, she worked regularly with Col Joye and went to Vietnam with his show in 1967. Against his and her parents’ advice, she returned to Vietnam as the lead singer of Sweethearts On Parade, working for Ingrid Hart. On July 20 that year, at Da Nang, in a club for non-commissioned Marine officers, she finished her set with Dock of the Bay before being shot through the chest. She died on the stage. The murderer, probably a US serviceman, was never convicted.

Being around the American bases could be as dangerous as being in the jungle. The Chiffons were giving a jaunty version of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, when “all of a sudden we heard, ‘Drop down!’ There was a grenade and it missed us by inches.” They thought it was the Viet Cong but it turned out to be a disgruntled American soldier throwing it at the officers.

A young Australian entertainer between two Vietnam war soldiers.
650 Australian entertainers performed for soldiers in the Vietnam war.

Australian and especially US soldiers could be extremely dangerous. According to the Women In War podcast, 50 per cent of the Australian women entertainers in the war effort experienced some kind of sexual assault. The Chiffons’ singer Maureen Elkner was only 16 when she first went to Vietnam. Shortly after arriving she was raped. Margaret Britt recalled the time a crazed Australian soldier turned up in the night demanding to be let into her bedroom for sex. She forcefully told him where to go but things could have been worse.

One of the most disturbing attacks on women happened to Elizabeth Burton. She had gone to the beach for some peace and quiet. A group of six GIs gang-raped her at gunpoint. It was a terrifying, harrowing experience too graphic to include here, but that moment affected her for the rest of her life. As with most people touched by this terrible war, the trauma was suppressed at the time. Survival was paramount. But it all came back over the following decades.

The military has provided some support for its personnel, and after a Royal Commission, there has also been limited help for ancillary staff, including entertainers, but for most of the Australians caught up in this tragedy, unless you wore a uniform, you were on your own.

So many artists got their start in the chaos of the Vietnam War. Sylvia Raye still performs, Margaret Britt still tours extensively with Skyz the Limit, while Maureen Elkner had a #11 hit with the song Rak Off Normie and a stellar career on stage and screen, including roles in the original Sydney Rocky Horror Show and Jesus Christ Superstar. She still receives mail from American and Australian soldiers. Many paid an enormous price, but in the middle of hell these women offered a glimpse of hope.

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