Phuoc Tuy Province
Nui Dat - Australian Task Force Base: Entertaining the troops
Lorrae Desmond performs in front of hundreds of Australian soldiers at Nui Dat in September 1969. A popular figure among the troops, Desmond made five trips to Vietnam. [AWM EKN/69/0189/VN]
Many famous and less-well known Australian entertainers volunteered to perform in South Vietnam. Their contribution to lifting the morale of men and women who faced a year in a war-zone was inestimable. Motivated by patriotism, or a simple desire for adventure, and willing to brave the obvious dangers one could face in Vietnam, hundreds of Australian performers made the trip, many more than once. Between 1967 and 1971 some 50 troupes left Australia for Vietnam.
Some, like Little Pattie and Col Joye, who were performing at Nui Dat on the day of the Long Tan battle, brushed up against significant military events. Mostly, however, the performances took place on less well-remembered occasions. Lorrae Desmond, whose fame endured well beyond the Vietnam years, travelled to Vietnam five times She had already performed in war zones for the British Foreign Office, but until Christmas 1967 had never performed for her own countrymen on active service. More important than the shows, she felt, were the less public moments when she visited men in hospital or simply spent time sharing a meal or chatting with troops.
'Entertaining the troops'
There were several ways by which Australian entertainers could get to Vietnam. Commercial agencies contracted performers, volunteers could make the journey through government sponsored Forces Advisory Committee on Entertainment (FACE) or the Australian Forces Overseas Fund. They received a daily allowance, transport, accommodation (often rudimentary indeed) and a security guarantee. The latter, of course, was a serious concern and the possibility of coming to harm in a country where violent death was commonplace sufficed to deter many performers from visiting Vietnam. Sadly, one Australian entertainer was killed. Cathy Wayne died performing at the United States Marine Corps base at Da Nang when she was shot in the chest. The sergeant accused of the killing was convicted but served just two years before being released, leaving the killer's identity and motive a mystery.
Many other Australians also found themselves performing for American audiences, fortunately with less tragic results. After auditioning in Sydney, Don Morrisson’s band, Xanadu, were contracted to play a series of shows at US bases. Ironically the band felt that they had no choice but to go overseas when two of their members became eligible for national service – ‘running away to a war to avoid one’ is how Morrisson later described it. Many of those who played shows before US personnel found that the racial tensions which bedevilled many American units remained close to the surface. A performer’s choice of song could determine the tenor of a concert. Soul music, songs by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Otis Redding, for example, pleased African American troops but drew the ire of some whites, while ‘white music’ annoyed African Americans. Those performers who experienced such tensions found playing for the more racially homogenous Australians a far less fraught experience.
Whoever their audience, most entertainers endured a gruelling schedule of performances in a hot, humid, uncomfortable environment. Three shows of more than an hour each per day was not an unusual schedule. Performers’ who went to Vietnam with a commercial agency did not have the benefit of organised transport and accommodation, they had, instead, to travel by whatever means were available. Low on the list of priorities, they could be forced to wait long and empty hours for a lift or a flight.
Whatever motivated entertainers to be there, performing a series of shows in Vietnam lacked the glamour that might have been associated with playing in Australia. But the musicians, dancers, comedians and others who put on shows for military personnel in Vietnam brought an hour or two of normality to men and women whose lives were consumed by war.