Women in the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Between April, 1956, when the first U.S. Army nurses arrived in South Vietnam to train Vietnamese nurses, and April, 1975, when Americans fled South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese army rapidly advanced on the capital city of Saigon, an estimated 33,000 to 55,000 American civilian and military women served in a variety of roles in the war. There is no reliable count of these women because few organizations recorded personnel by sex. The Department of Defense does not even know exactly how many military women served. Most of the estimated 7,500 servicewomen in Vietnam were members of the Army, Air Force, or Navy nurse corps. Only 1,300 women in the line and staff corps of the armed forces (the non-medical components of the female military) served in Vietnam. Civilians account for the remainder of the 33,000 to 55,000 women.

American military and civilian women served in a wide variety of primarily sex-specific roles during the Vietnam War and shared the same danger as male support personnel with whom they worked.

Between April, 1956, when the first U.S. Army nurses arrived in South Vietnam to train Vietnamese nurses, and April, 1975, when Americans fled South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese army rapidly advanced on the capital city of Saigon, an estimated 33,000 to 55,000 American civilian and military women served in a variety of roles in the war. There is no reliable count of these women because few organizations recorded personnel by sex. The Department of Defense does not even know exactly how many military women served. Most of the estimated 7,500 servicewomen in Vietnam were members of the Army, Air Force, or Navy nurse corps. Only 1,300 women in the line and staff corps of the armed forces (the non-medical components of the female military) served in Vietnam. Civilians account for the remainder of the 33,000 to 55,000 women.

Servicewomen

About 6,000 military nurses served in more than thirty hospitals throughout the country. Army nurses worked in field, surgical, and evacuation hospitals. Navy nurses staffed two hospital ships, the USS Repose and the USS Sanctuary, and naval hospitals in Danang and Saigon. Air Force nurses served at casualty staging facilities or evacuation hospitals and as flight nurses on evacuation flights. These women witnessed the worst of the war as they cared for a constant stream of badly injured young servicemen.

The thirteen hundred servicewomen of the line and staff included about seven hundred members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), five hundred to six hundred Women in the Air Force (WAF), thirty-nine members of the Women’s Reserve in the Marine Corps, and nine Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). Members of the WAC, WAF, WAVES, and the Women’s Reserve volunteered for the Vietnam War in far larger numbers than were accepted; cultural attitudes toward women kept a majority of them from serving. Military leaders expressed concern about the need to provide guards to protect women in Vietnam. Some women feared that deploying women to a war zone would detract from the feminine image that they wished to maintain. Therefore, servicewomen were requested for duty in Vietnam in a narrow range of sex-specific specialties.

These three U.S. Navy nurses in Saigon became the first American women to win purple heart medals for service in Vietnam in January, 1965. All three were wounded by an explosion in a Saigon hotel. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Civilians

Civilian women who served in the Vietnam War can be roughly divided into three groups: those who provided humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese people; those who provided recreation, entertainment, or social services to the troops; and those who provided secretarial and administrative support. A few groups of women–journalists, flight attendants, and wives who came to Vietnam with their husbands–do not fit neatly into any one of these categories.

Women provided humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese as part of what became known as “the other war in Vietnam,” the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people. Aware that military force alone could not win the war, some sought to increase the quality of life for the Vietnamese people to help them resist communism. More than forty nonprofit voluntary organizations worked in Vietnam and cooperated with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which was sponsored by the State Department. Many of these organizations recruited women to work as doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, and home economists in a vast number of projects. USAID and organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, the American Friends Service Committee, and International Voluntary Services helped the Vietnamese establish hospitals, orphanages, day care centers, recreation programs, rehabilitation centers, agricultural projects, refugee centers, and training programs of all kinds.

The American Red Cross, Army Special Services, and United Services Organization (USO) hired women to work as social workers, librarians, entertainers, and craft and recreation specialists. They recruited primarily young, single, college-educated women, though supervisors were often older and sometimes male. The Red Cross provided both social services and recreation programs through Service to Military Installations (SMI), Service to Military Hospitals (SMH), and Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO). SMI, which employed both men and women, received and delivered emergency messages for military personnel and provided emergency loans. SMH women worked as hospital case workers or recreation specialists. SRAO women (nicknamed “donut dollies” after the Red Cross women who served during World War II) provided recreation for able-bodied enlisted men through the club mobile program or at recreation centers. Recreation centers, found at most military bases and operated by SRAO, Army Special Services, or USO women, provided a place where soldiers could relax, listen to music, write letters, play pool, or talk to an American woman. Army Special Services also provided libraries and craft shops at many of the bases. USO-sponsored shows, often featuring female entertainers, regularly toured the military bases for a month or two at a time to entertain the troops.

Women in secretarial or administrative positions worked for the Department of Defense serving under the Army, Navy, or Air Force; for the State Department in the American Embassy or consulates, with United States Information Services, or Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office; or with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They also worked for private companies under contract to the government. Some were well-seasoned civil service career women, while others were young women with little experience.

Risks and Aftermath

Although most men treated these women with respect, some men believed that the real reason for the presence of women in Vietnam was to provide sexual favors. This misperception led to sexual harassment, innuendoes, propositions, sexual assault, and rape. One young Red Cross woman was murdered by an American serviceman.

Most women who came to Vietnam expected to work “behind the lines” in areas of safety. In Vietnam, however, no area was impervious to rocket and mortar attacks, sniper fire, and terrorist bombings. Sixty-five American women are known to have died in Vietnam: eight military women, whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and fifty-seven civilian women.

Women came home to a nation bitterly divided by the war and experienced the same feelings of alienation as male veterans. No one could understand what they had seen and done, and no one wanted to hear about their experiences. Some women repressed their emotions, only to have them surface later as posttraumatic stress disorder. By the 1980’s, some female veterans began to talk and search for others like themselves. Reunions and the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial began to unite many of the women who had for so long been silent and isolated. Talking about their experiences with others who had served in Vietnam began the process of healing.

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