During the Vietnam war, nearly all Navy women played their usual role: they took over the jobs of Navy men in the United States, releasing them to fight the war. Only a handful of Navy women other than nurses—nine officers—actually served in Vietnam, but related events at home affected all Navy women.
The first woman to serve in Vietnam was Lieutenant Elizabeth G. Wylie who reported to the staff of the Commander of Naval Forces in Saigon in June 1967. She worked in the Command Information Center, which prepared various kinds of reports, including briefings to visiting journalists and politicians. She spent three to six days each month in the field gathering information and taking pictures. "I’d go back if I had the chance,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “The opportunity to see the heart of the Navy at work is unique and rewarding.” She did not want "to glorify what I did in Vietnam. I never was under hostile fire or anything like that."
Speaking of the women with whom she shared quarters in Saigon she said, “The only difficulties encountered were the same as the men. We were all away from home, families, and not in a particularly pleasant situation.”
The second line officer to serve in Vietnam between 1968 and 1973 was Lieutenant Susan F. Hamilton, who in 1968 was assigned to the naval staff in Saigon. Lieutenant Commander Barbara Bole and Lieutenant Sally Bostwick later joined her. Lieutenants Mary Anderson and Ann Moriarty in 1971 reported to the Naval Support Activity in Cam Ranh Bay. In 1972 Lieutenant (junior grade) Kathleen Dugan reported to Saigon; Commanders Carol Adsit and Elizabeth Barrett also served there. No enlisted Navy women served in Vietnam.
Barrett was the highest ranking woman naval line officer to serve in Vietnam, and the first to hold a command in a combat zone. She arrived in Saigon in January 1972, and in November became the commanding officer of the 450 enlisted men in the Naval Advisory Group, a position she held until she left Vietnam in March 1973. She was forty years old, had nineteen years of naval service behind her, and knew that some of the men in her command were “not too pleased" to have a female commanding officer. "It gave them something to talk about," she said.
During her 15 months in Vietnam, she had three days off: "February 2, 1972, when I went sailing at Cat Lo, March 29 when I went swimming at Vung Tau and December 19 when I wrote Christmas cards.”
Far more Navy women volunteered to serve in Vietnam than went. The women knew that if they were not allowed to carry a share of the burden, then the men would have to carry more. Lieutenant Wylie wrote from Vietnam that “given the adequate living facilities and outstanding working atmosphere, I strongly believe that the Navy women who desire to serve here should have this opportunity." Nevertheless, the Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Women still did not think Vietnam duty was suitable for women, but she did agree to a policy that allowed a woman officer to be sent to Vietnam only if a Navy commanding officer asked for her by name and stated that she was particularly qualified for a certain job.
Meanwhile, in August 1972, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt announced policy changes for the assignment of women. One change was to initiate a pilot program under which a limited number of officer and enlisted women were assigned to the crew of the hospital ship USS Sanctuary. On September 8, 1972, Personnel man Third Class Peggy Sue Griffith reported aboard USS Sanctuary, the first of a group of 32 enlisted women and two women officers setting off on uncharted seas.
The enlisted women were to work in the ship’s deck, supply, and operations departments as well as in administration. (In addition, 21 enlisted women worked in the ship’s hospital.) These women were now the U.S. Navy’s first sea-going women sailors, expected to perform the same duties as their male shipmates.
Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Kerr served primarily as an administrative assistant, with significant additional watch standing duties both in port and at sea. Ensign Rosemary Nelson of the Supply Corps was responsible for the officers’ wardroom mess (dining room) and also stood watches in port.
The women performed their duties competently, often exceptionally so. The Sanctuary’s commanding officer concluded, after a year’s experience with his mixed crew, “Women are capable and may serve on board the Sanctuary, under the present administrative conditions, in perpetuity.” During the ship’s time with a mixed crew, she was underway at sea for several brief training periods. She also sailed from San Francisco to Buenaventura, Colombia, then through the Panama Canal to Haiti, and finally to her new homeport of Mayport, Florida. Compared with other Navy ships, this was little time at sea, yet some women line officers assigned to the ship earned their qualifications as Officer of the Deck.
Not only could the ship handle women, women could handle the ship. Women also served on small Navy craft. As early as the fall of 1972, 11 enlisted women reported straight out of boot camp to the Annapolis Naval Station for duty aboard the station’s yard patrol craft used to train Naval Academy midshipmen. From this modest beginning, the number of women serving in small craft increased steadily.
The Navy’s wartime decision to put women on board ships — its distinctive operational platforms — started the women on a journey from the naval profession’s periphery towards its heart. The nine women line officers who served in Vietnam had a significance far beyond their tiny number. Like hundreds of women in the other services, they made it impossible to deny that women other than nurses could serve in a combat zone. Their competence, industry, and patriotism demonstrated that Navy women were both ready and able to serve wherever they might be needed.
Compiled by Captain Georgia Clark Sadler, U. S. Navy (Ret)
Nine women line officers served in Vietnam and brought back lasting, vivid memories of their time in country. But women were also in jobs directly supporting the war effort and some were on the other “front lines” — college campuses and the streets of Washington, D.C. Regardless of where they were or what they did, the Vietnam conflict was an emotional experience for all of these women.
I spent New Year’s eve 1968 at Red Beach, a Seabee camp outside of Da Nang on the shores of Da Nang Bay. It was a beautiful beach with miles of white sand — right out of a resort poster — only for as far as the eye could see, there were coils and coils of barbed wire. The Seabees had built a small club and we gathered there for happy hour. I took my drink out onto the lanai to enjoy the breeze and view, barbed wire not withstanding. Flashes of light caught my eye from the nearby hills — they were flashes of gunfire and you could hear the echoing of the gunfire and mortars. And as I stood there with my drink, I realized that there were people—human beings—up on that hillside killing each other and I was overwhelmed by the feeling of the incongruity of it all. It is a memory I shall not soon forget. (Carol A. Adsit, Da Nang 1968)
I was the personnel officer for about 260 enlisted personnel and 350 Vietnamese civilians at the Navy’s air facility at Cam Ranh Bay. Because the facility was closing, I spent most of my time getting orders for my enlisted troops and carrying out a reduction in force (RIF) of the civilians. Despite being in the middle of a war, I had to follow the same RIF procedures as were used in the United States. Thus I found myself going to villages to give laid off employees their severance pay. It was a sad duty. Some Vietnamese said they were concerned for their lives and asked me to help, but there was nothing I could do. I sometimes wonder what happened to my Vietnamese personnel officer. He probably ended up in a reeducation camp. Following U.S. RIF procedures was not the only incongruous thing I encountered. I was not allowed to live in the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ) because it was considered inappropriate for a woman to live in the same building with men. Consequently, I lived on the other side of the base with the U.S. Air Force nurses. The difficulty was that I had to call Washington, D.C. frequently to check on the orders for the enlisted personnel. This meant driving outside the base at 3 am to get to the naval facility on the other side. On these trips I constantly saw flares and heard bombs as fighting went on nearby. Despite the danger, I was not allowed to carry a weapon because I was considered a non-combatant. It always struck me as strange that they were more concerned about my living in the BOQ than they were about my safety on these early morning trips near the battlefield. There were also very touching times. At Christmas I went with some Air Force women to Army fire support bases where we talked to the soldiers and sang Christmas carols. The men were young and lonely. It meant a lot to them to be able to reminisce with someone from their own country and who spoke their language. I also was part of the air facility group that supported a local Catholic orphanage with food and supplies. My skipper adopted two boys from the orphanage and because he left before all the paperwork was completed, I was the one who put them on a helo and took them to Saigon so they could go to America.
I am very happy I had the opportunity to go to Vietnam. My being there meant that one less man had to go. It also gave me the chance to do one of the most important jobs in the Navy — take care of the troops.
(Mary Anderson Shupak; Cam Ranh Bay and Saigon, 1971-72)