Women in the Vietnam War served as soldiers, health workers, and in news-gathering capacities. Though relatively little official data exists about female Vietnam War veterans, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation estimates that approximately 11,000 military women were stationed in Vietnam during the conflict. Nearly all of them were volunteers, and 90 percent served as military nurses, though women also worked as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and other positions in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines and the Army Medical Specialist Corps. In addition to women in the armed forces, an unknown number of civilian women served in Vietnam on behalf of the Red Cross, United Service Organizations (USO), Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian organizations, or as foreign correspondents for various news organizations.
U.S. Army Women in Vietnam
The great majority of the military women who served in Vietnam were nurses. All were volunteers, and they ranged from recent college graduates in their early 20s to seasoned career women in their 40s. Members of the Army Nurse Corps arrived in Vietnam as early as 1956, when they were tasked with training the South Vietnamese in nursing skills. As the American military presence in South Vietnam increased beginning in the early 1960s, so did that of the Army Nurse Corps. From March 1962 to March 1973, when the last Army nurses left Vietnam, some 5,000 would serve in the conflict.
Five female Army nurses died over the course of the war, including 52-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, who served as a military nurse in both World War II and Korea before Vietnam and suffered a stroke in August 1968; and First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, who died from shrapnel wounds suffered in an attack on the hospital where she was working in June 1969. Lane was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm and the Bronze Star for Heroism. Colonel Graham is one of eight women whose names are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, a monument designed by 21-year-old female college student Maya Lin.
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Early on, the U.S. Army resisted sending women other than nurses to Vietnam. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC), established during World War II, had a presence in Vietnam beginning in 1964, when General William Westmoreland asked the Pentagon to provide a WAC officer and non-commissioned officer to help the South Vietnamese train their own women’s army corps. At its peak in 1970, WAC presence in Vietnam numbered some 20 officers and 130 enlisted women. WACs filled noncombat positions in U.S. Army headquarters in Saigon and other bases in South Vietnam; a number received decorations for meritorious service. No WACs died during the conflict.
Women in the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines in Vietnam
Members of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps also played an important role in the conflict beginning in 1963. Five Navy nurses were awarded the Purple Heart after they were injured in a Viet Cong bombing of an officers’ billets in downtown Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964; they became the first female members of the U.S. Armed Forces to receive that award in the Vietnam War. Apart from nurses, only nine Navy women–all officers–served in Vietnam, including Lieutenant Elizabeth G. Wylie, who worked in the Command Information Center on the staff of the Commander of Naval Forces in Saigon beginning in June 1967; and Commander Elizabeth Barrett, who in November 1972 became the first female naval line officer to hold command in a combat zone.
Women also served as members of the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and the Women’s Air Force (WAF) during the Vietnam conflict. Captain Mary Therese Klinker, one of the eight military women killed in Vietnam, was the flight nurse on the U.S. Air Force C-5A Galaxy that crashed April 1975 near Saigon. (The plane had been on a mission for Operation Babylift, which placed Southeast Asian orphans with families in the United States; some 138 people were killed in the crash, including many Vietnamese children and a number of female civilians working for U.S. government agencies.) Klinker was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal. The U.S. Marine Corps had a more limited female presence in Vietnam, as until 1966 only 60 female marines were permitted to serve overseas, with most of those stationed in Hawaii. From 1967 to 1973, a total of 28 enlisted Marine women and eight officers served in Vietnam at various times.
Civilian Women in Vietnam
In addition to the U.S. military women who served in Vietnam, an unknown number of female civilians willingly gave their services on Vietnamese soil during the conflict. Many of them worked on behalf of the American Red Cross, Army Special Services, United Service Organizations (USO), Peace Corps and various religious groups such as Catholic Relief Services.
Other American women traveled to Vietnam as foreign correspondents for news organizations, including Georgette “Dickey” Chappelle, a writer for the National Observer who was killed by a mine while on patrol with U.S. Marines outside Chu Lai in November 1965. According to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, 59 female civilians died during the conflict.