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'Hanoi Hannah' Fondly Remembers Her Role

Vietnam: Wartime propagandist now listens to Voice of America, longs to visit San Francisco and Hollywood.

April 04, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Her voice was as smooth as silk, her English impeccable, and as North Vietnam's premier propagandist, "Hanoi Hannah" tried to convince GIs they were fighting an immoral war that America had turned against.

For eight years, the GIs tuned in to her daily radio broadcasts in Godforsaken outposts with names like the Rockpile, Ben Het and Con Thien. Although virtually no one took her seriously, they did wonder if she was as lovely as she sounded, and many considered her Hanoi's most prominent Communist after Ho Chi Minh.

Hearing this today, 67-year-old Hanoi Hannah--whose real name is Trinh Thi Ngo--giggles, feigning surprise. "Oh, my," she says. "I wasn't a celebrity. I did love that time in Hanoi, but I was just an ordinary citizen trying to contribute to my country."

Petite and, yes, lovely, Ngo did the last of her 30-minute broadcasts in 1973, when the bulk of the U.S. military withdrew. She moved to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1975 with her husband, an engineer now retired. They live in a modest three-bedroom apartment, near the former Presidential Palace she used to call the "den of puppets," and listen faithfully to newscasts on the Voice of America.

Although she earned a First-Class Resistance Medal for her work and still does occasional translation and voice-overs for the Voice of Vietnam, Ngo has slipped quietly into anonymity, surrounded by young Vietnamese who have never heard of the Rockpile, much less Hanoi Hannah.

"This is Thu Huong calling American servicemen in South Vietnam," her daily broadcast would begin, using an alias that translates as Autumn Fragrance. Then she'd play a melancholy song ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was a favorite), read news of antiwar protests back in America and, on Fridays, recite the names of Americans killed in action from the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

"My goal was to tell GIs they shouldn't participate in a war that wasn't theirs," she says now. "I tried to be friendly and convincing. I didn't want to be shrill or aggressive. For instance, I referred to the Americans as the adversary. I never called them the enemy."

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Her scripts were written by propagandists in the North Vietnamese army who lifted their material from articles in Time, Newsweek and the New York Times that North Vietnamese diplomats abroad had sent home. Sometimes members of the antiwar movement brought the articles to Hanoi.

Ngo smiles as she recalls those activists she befriended, among them Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. "They were very helpful," she says, "in helping us explain to the GIs why the war should be solved by the Vietnamese themselves, not Americans."

She pauses, perplexed. "You know, Jane Fonda never came back at all after the war. I wonder why. She'd made a tape I played that was very good. I heard that some years ago she made an apology in the United States for coming to Hanoi during the war. Is that true?"

Ten years ago, Fonda made a televised apology to Vietnam veterans and their families for her 1972 visit, during which she was famously photographed at a North Vietnamese gun emplacement.

In many ways, Ngo seemed an unlikely candidate to become the voice of communism. She grew up in Hanoi, under French colonialism, the daughter of a prosperous glass factory owner. She took private English lessons and perfected her command of the language watching French-subtitled Hollywood movies, among them "Gone With the Wind" (which she has seen five times).

After working as a volunteer at the Voice of Vietnam, in 1965 she was chosen, largely because of her unaccented English, to begin broadcasting to U.S. troops as Thu Huong.

"Yes," she recalls, "I wanted to make them a little bit homesick."

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It wasn't until several years later that she learned through news clips that GIs had nicknamed her Hanoi Hannah.

The trouble for Hanoi Hannah--as for other wartime propagandists such as Tokyo Rose, Seoul City Sue and Baghdad Betty--was that her broadcasts weren't very credible. The reports were also wildly exaggerated, announcing the annihilation of entire U.S. divisions and the loss of hundreds of U.S. planes in a single engagement.

Even the North Vietnamese themselves did not trust the news they heard on the Voice of Vietnam. If they spoke English, they tuned in to the Voice of America, the BBC or Armed Forces Radio, a network run by the U.S. military, for their news of the war.

With her broadcasting career winding down and having recovered from a motor scooter accident that had laid her up for two weeks, Ngo says she hopes one day soon to visit the country she spent eight years talking about.

"San Francisco has always been a dream," she says. "And the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood, I'd love to see them too."

And if she could make one final broadcast to former GIs, what would she say? "That's easy. I'd tell them: 'Let's let bygones be bygones. Let's move on and be friends.' "

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