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20 Years After, Women Recall Vietnam

February 05, 1989|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

The Sho-lettes picked up Saturday in North Hollywood where they left off 20 years ago in Vietnam: under fire, with a song on their lips.

The former USO showgirls belted out an impromptu version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" as a photographer shot pictures of their reunion at the Beverly Garland Hotel.

"I was a little off-key," apologized Georgia Peat West, 39, of Oakland.

But the other Sho-lettes--Patty Hooper Jump, 40, of San Diego; Brenda Owen Meadows, 39, of Auburn, Calif., and Sharon Freer Minard, 39, of Sacramento--didn't mind. They were happy just to see one another.

The homesick GIs entertained by the miniskirt-clad group at landing zones and scattered encampments in war-torn South Vietnam in 1969 had felt the same way. The men had been happy just to see girls from home.

'China Beach'

Saturday's reunion was organized by the producers of the "China Beach" television series, a fictionalized account of women serving in the Vietnam War. It drew about 30 women from across the country who once served in Vietnam as officers, nurses, Red Cross workers and USO entertainers.

"We're all swapping war stories," said Karen Johnson, 45, an attorney in Little Rock, Ark. She spent 20 months in Vietnam as an Army captain and head censor for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.

Before their reunion, the women were filmed telling of their experiences in the war zone. Their tales will be woven into an upcoming episode of the ABC television show, said series co-creator John Sacret Young.

Musician Kathy Ruhl, 41, of Sacramento recalled performing at an outpost called Firebase Sally one hour before the Viet Cong attacked and killed or wounded 200 Americans there.

"I was very pro-war when I went over there. When I left, I felt the war was the worst piece of garbage imaginable," said Ruhl, who signed up to entertain for six weeks with a USO troupe and ended up staying two years.

Nurse Jan Wyatt of Ventura said girlfriends who stayed home never realized what Vietnam was like--until she returned and showed them photos taken in her field hospital operating room.

"Then they knew," said Wyatt, 42, who joined the Army to pay for her medical training.

The U.S. government never kept track of the number of women who served in Vietnam as civilians, and estimates range from 7,500 to 50,000. Those gathered Saturday said the war changed their lives forever.

"I believed in the war when I first went over there. But it didn't take two weeks for me to re-evaluate my feelings," recalled former Red Cross "Doughnut Dolly" Bev Gasper Willison, 43, of Pittsburgh.

Despite their name, the Dollies never handed out doughnuts. They traveled between bases and camps to talk to soldiers primarily as surrogate sisters.

Willison, now a psychotherapist, was reunited Saturday for the first time since 1967 with another ex-Dolly, Linda Hallenbeck Pelegrino, 44, of West Los Angeles. Pelegrino, an executive, agreed: "I went from being very conservative to not believing in the war anymore."

Jeanne Christie, 43, a painter from Milford, Conn., remembers volunteering to be a Doughnut Dolly, not knowing what war was. "In two weeks, I knew. I was standing 50 feet away when a VC kid blew up the club we were going to."

Christie is helping to organize a reunion of her own in July that will reunite 123 former members of an Army long-range reconnaissance patrol platoon that served in South Vietnam in the mid-1960s.

"I learned to care a lot more about people when I was in Vietnam," Christie said. "Those were my boys over there."

They still are.

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