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Voices from the Past:
The Search for Hanoi Hannah, Part I
We called her Hanoi Hannah. She called herself Thu Houng, the fragrance of autumn. But her job was to chill and frighten, not to charm and seduce.
How are you, GI Joe? It seems to me that most of you are poorly informed about the going of the war, to say nothing about a correct explanation of your presence over here. Nothing is more confused than to be ordered into a war to die or to be maimed for life without the faintest idea of what's going on. (Hanoi Hannah, 16 June 1967)
The wartime words of Hanoi Hannah, part of the loud soundtrack for the Vietnam war. It may have been the first war fought to a rock n'roll background, but for American GIs, along with the beat came the message: disinformation from the enemy in Hanoi and misinformation from the US Army in Saigon. Even so, radio brought music and messages with a familiar sound to soldiers who thought the war was the end of the earth, and to many it didn't matter who was broadcasting; Radio Hanoi or US Armed Forces Radio.
It was my first return to Vietnam since the war and mixed into the list of economists, generals and journalists I asked to interview was Thu Houng, the lady we knew as Hanoi Hannah. The meeting was arranged. We would meet on the roof cafe of the Rex Hotel in Ho Ville for coffee at ten.
As an ABC News correspondent during the war I tuned into her broadcasts regularly. Like attending the "five o'clock follies" (USMACV's daily briefing), Radio Hanoi's broadcasts in English were just another source of information or disinformation to be checked out and sorted in the communications pudding of the Vietnam war. Some days on Radio Hanoi you just might hear useful information like a message from a US POW or the first hint of a policy shift in Hanoi's Politburo, but mostly it was highly exaggerated reports of the war and curious messages to American GIs from Hanoi Hannah. Not much news worth reporting.
American GIs don't fight this unjust immoral and illegal war of Johnson's. Get out of Vietnam now and alive. This is the voice of Vietnam Broadcasting from Hanoi, capitol of the Democratic republic of Vietnam. Our program for American GIs can be heard at 1630 hours. Now here's Connie Francis singing "I almost lost my mind" (Hanoi Hannah, 12 August 1967).
In Vietnam you habitually tuned into whatever newscasts your transistor radio would pick up. It was reassuring to know that you were not missing a big offensive somewhere in the next Province and that you could spend another few days on that elusive pacification story in Xuan Loc. BBC was the first choice for radio news and most reliable, but often hard to pick up. On US Armed Forces Radio even a major battle could sound like a minor skirmish if it didn't favor US or ARVN forces, but you learned to read between the lines of their newscasts. Sometimes you would hear your own TV or radio reports from Stateside broadcasts, picked up and rebroadcast over US Armed Forces Radio, as long as they didn't mention American setbacks or were critical of Washington policy.
Radio Hanoi could be heard in most areas of South Vietnam, particularly at night and I would often join groups of American GIs around 10:30pm having a few beers before bed and setting the dial for Hanoi Hannah for a few laughs.
The GI's radio was, after his rifle, his most valued possession. Like his rifle butt, the radio was usually wrapped in frayed black tape for protection. GIs would laugh and hoot over Hannah's attempts to scare them into going home or her suggestions to frag an officer. If their unit was mentioned a great cheer went up and they pelted the radio with empty beer cans.
We would ask each other how the hell could she know what she did. Inevitably, the stories of her insights and military intelligence grew with each telling and she was often credited with broadcasting Viet Cong offensives in advance and within hours of battle knowing the names and hometowns of dead American soldiers.
Now for the War News. American casualties in Vietnam. Army Corporal Larry J. Samples, Canada, Alabama... Staff Sergeant Charles R. Miller, Tucson, Arizona... Sergeant Frank G. Hererra, Coolidge, Arizona.... (Hanoi Hannah, September 15, 1967)
Former US Marine Ken Watkins joined me on the Rex roof for the meeting with Hanoi Hannah. Ken is now a counselor at the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Houston, Texas. He had returned to join a group of veterans from Garberville, California to build a health clinic in Vung Tao. Ken had been confronting many old ghosts of his Vietnam duty in the past weeks. Hanoi Hannah would be yet another phantom to encounter face to face. Ken was a regular listener of Hannah's during his time as a Corpsman with the U.S. First Marines based at Marble Mountain in 1966. Ken recalled, "The signal was pretty good around Danang and we would tune in once or twice a week to hear her talk about the war, a war I was beginning to question and wanted to hear discussed. U.S. Armed Forces Vietnam Radio didn't talk about the war really, they ignored the issues or public attitudes at home. Hanoi Hannah didn't necessarily make sense and there was a certain awkwardness; she used American English, but really didn't speak our language in spite of her hip expressions and hit tunes, even tunes that were banned on U.S. Army radio. The best thing going for her was that she was female and had a nice soft voice."
"Any of her broadcasts you particularly remember?" I asked Ken while waiting for Hannah to arrive. "Whenever she named our unit, the First Marines, and where we were, that always stands out in my mind. Some of us thought she had spies everywhere or a crystal ball."
"Do you still feel anger toward her, Ken?"
"Sure, some antagonism, add it to the Vietnam list, but this trip back is about coming full circle on a lot of things and she is another voice from the past I want to confront in person."
So an old Marine and an old journalist waited that sunny Saigon morning on the roof of the old Rex for the real Hanoi Hannah to appear, waiting for reality to sweep away years of bitter old images in the mills of our minds.
Dragon Lady? Prophet? Psi-warrior par excellence or what? Like so many of the phantoms encountered in Vietnam she was not what she seemed.
She was no phantom. She didn't look like a dragon lady and she was on time. A pleasant looking woman, slim, well groomed and attractive showed up at 10:00am sharp on the Rex roof accompanied by an escort from the External Affairs Press Office. The wartime sounds of Radio Hanoi came flooding back.
We Gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place, surely there's a better life for me and you. (An Eric Burden song... regularly heard on Radio Hanoi, banned on US Armed Forces radio.)
Don: Thu Houng, you played a lot of American rock music, where did you get it?
Hannah: Yes, yes, we bought the music from progressive Americans who came to visit Hanoi. We also have our own music, but I think that the GIs like to listen to American music, it's more suitable to their ears.
Don: Have you ever heard from those GIs who heard your broadcasts and to whom you became a household name?
Hannah: After the war we received one letter from an ex-GI who said he listened to our broadcast and now that the war was over he is back home and wanted us to know about it. I am sorry that I forget his name, it has been quite a long time now.
Don: What prompted your government to begin your broadcasts to American soldiers?
Hannah: Because the GIs were sent massively to South Vietnam, maybe it's a good idea to have a broadcast for them. It wasn't a new idea. During the war against the French we had this kind of broadcast for the French soldiers.
Don: What about the foreigners who helped you during the war?
Hannah: The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett helped us from time to time and a French woman, Madelaine Riffaud. We did several interviews with Cora Weiss and Jane Fonda. We asked Jane Fonda if she would like to meet American pilots in Hanoi, but she refused, she didn't want to. I saw the pilots sometimes and we broadcast statements but I never interviewed them either. They were authorized to listen to our broadcasts. And we broadcast tapes sent to us from Americans against the war. These were most effective I believe. Americans are xenophobic, they will believe their own people rather than the adversary, even a friendly enemy voice. Don: Did you ever evaluate the effects of your broadcasts?
Hannah: No, during the war it was difficult to get feedback except through foreign news reports but we knew we were being heard.
Don: What were your main aims?
Hannah: We mentioned that GIs should go AWOL and suggested some frigging, or that is fragging. We advised them to do what they think proper against the war.
Don: But there were few, if any, defections of Americans, did that surprise you?
Hannah: No, we just continued our work. We believed in it. I put my heart in my work.
Don: Many American soldiers think you received excellent intelligence on their unit positions and battle readiness and casualties. What was the main source of your information on US troops in Vietnam?
Hannah: US ArmyStars and Stripes. We read from it. We had it flown in everyday. And we also read Newsweek, Time and several newspapers. We could also intercept the AP and UPI wires and of course we had the news from our Vietnam News Agency and we rewrote it. We had many sources of news. We took remarks of American journalists and put it in our broadcasts, especially remarks about casualties...high casualties. There was the list of Missing in Action, those who were killed on the battlefield, we read the news with the native place.
Don: Sometimes the North Vietnamese Army when they killed Americans would find letters to their families. Did you ever get such letters and read them?
Hannah: No. Maybe the Army, but not our radio station.
Don: Do you remember any articles in particular that you used?
Hannah: Yes, Arnaud DeBorchegrave in Newsweek. I remember we used his articles. And Don Luce about the tiger cages in South Vietnam. We would often say to the GIs that the Saigon regime was not worth their support.
Don: Did you ever announce attacks before they took place? Many soldiers in Vietnam thought you did?
Hannah: No, but, um, I don't think...for example, if we made a sum-up of war news maybe the GIs will guess something. I don't know. We never informed that such and such a battle would take place. That we would not do.
Don: You never gave any hints of what would take place?
Hannah: Well, in our talks we said that if they were in Vietnam, how could they avoid the war zone and maybe they will get bad chance, maybe killed. But it's not that such and such a battle took place.
Now for our talk. A Vietnam Black GI who refuses to be a victim of racism is Billy Smith. It seems on the morning of march fifteenth a fragmentation grenade went off in an officers barracks in Bien Hoa Army Base killing two gung ho lieutenants and wounding a third. Smith was illegally searched, arrested and put in Long Binh Jail and brought home for trial. The evidence that clearly showed him guilty of all charges and specifications was this: being black, poor and against the war and the army and refusing to be a victim of racism. (Hanoi Hannah, 30 March 1968)
Mike Roberts, 41, Detroit, Michigan remembers Hanoi Hannah. Mike was a Marine, in a Hawk Missile Battalion just outside Da Nang through 1967 and 1968. He summed up the black veteran's attitude to Hannah's broadcasts: "I remember June 1967, I was sitting in a tent with about thirteen guys from Charlie Company. We were all on mess duty and we were gambling, drinking and having a good timeshootin' craps, talking about the world, man, listening to music and you know one guy kept saying, 'Sshh, sshh, be quiet,' and everybody says what, what, and he says 'There's a riot in Detroit!' I guess the governor called in the troops... there was some loss of life. There was no feeling of, you know, what were they rioting for? What possibly could they want? We all knew what they wanted, you know what I'm saying. So of course we would feel some sort of empathy for the folks back home... the guys in the street who were struggling or rioting."
"Armed Forces Radio didn't give you an in-depth account of what was happening?"
"Hanoi Hannah comes on soon after that, and she knows what guard unit was called in, what kind of weapons were used...you know what I'm sayin'. That's when it starts to hit home.... We knew what kind of fire power and what kind of devastation that kind of weapon can do to people, and now those same weapons were turning on us, you know, our own military is killing our own people. We might as well have been Viet Cong...you know what I'm sayin'? It was just bad news, but Hanoi Hannah picked up on it and she talked about it. And clearly if she knew about it, Armed Forces Radio did too. They knew more than they had broadcasted. That was really the first time I started hearing Hanoi Hannah call upon Blacks, you know, to rethink their situation there. Why are you fighting? You have your own battle to fight in America. We were smoking herbs, you know, and we decided to listen to Hanoi Hannah. Now most of the guys that I hung out with didn't stay up all night waiting for Hannah to come on. But there were times when...like during bunker watch at night...we wanted to listen to Hanoi Hannah...to see what she had to say. But we didn't really see her as our friend...someone who is looking out for our best interest and would keep the Viet Cong from killing us if they had a chance."
Tom Walles spent eight years in Vietnam and Thailand with the US Army Special Forces. During his time in the Central Highlands Tom particularly remembers one broadcast.
"We had a young Lieutenant who had just turned twenty-two years old and we wanted him to come down and celebrate his birthday at headquarters. He got in a sampan with a couple of security guards and they started down the river. One of the enemy reached out and handed them a grenade and killed two of them in the boat. We found the boat later and there was a birthday card bought at an American PX pinned to his chest that said 'Happy Twenty -First Birthday Lieutenant...this will be your last.' A day or two later we picked up Hanoi Hannah saying that, uh congratulations to Lieutenant so and so, it's too bad he won't make his twenty-third birthday."
Jim Maciolek served at Lai Khe with the First Division in 1966. "When we heard Hannah mention our unit we would give a toast to her and throw our beer cans at the radio. If she knew where we were, so did everybody else. But Armed Forces Radio was on constantly, too. It was run by the U.S. military so we heard what they wanted us to hear. I think I would have liked to hear about opposition to the war that was being staged back home. That way I would have been better prepared when I got back home...seeing hippies, people chanting slogans, people with black arm bands...that was all new to me."
Hanoi Hannah could always be assured of at least the POW captive audience "authorized" to hear her broadcasts in the Hanoi Hilton. A speaker wired into every room made Hannah's commentaries impossible to ignore, although some tried. Lt. Commander Ray Voden, of McLean, Virginia endured her broadcasts for almost eight years after being shot down over Hanoi on 3 April 1965. "Hanoi Hannah's broadcasts often stirred up argument among the POWs, there were near fist fights over the program. Some guys wanted to hear it, while other guys tried to ignore it. Personally, I listened because I was never influenced and usually gleaned information, reading between the lines. They always exaggerated our aircraft losses, often claiming hundreds of U.S. planes shot down around Hanoi when we had not heard anti-aircraft fire for weeks. Once they piped in the BBC news by mistake and for once we really heard what was going on in the world. The music was the best part of Radio Hanoi and sometimes playing American tunes that were supposed to make us homesick had the opposite effect. One time they played "Downtown" by Petula Clark and everyone started dancing and yelling for an hour...just went wild. Another one that gave us a hoot was "Don't Fence Me In"...by Ella Fitzgerald I think. I taped Christmas messages for Radio Hanoi a few times, most of us did...it was not big deal, but they would make life miserable for you if you didn't. I've no hatred for them now. They were doing their job and I was doing mine. But, no, I wouldn't go out of my way to meet Hanoi Hannah if I was given the chance today."
Gerry Clark, Detroit, had been in country just two weeks when he heard Hanoi Hannah. "After welcoming our unit Hanoi Hannah said she had a surprise for us. She said that in honor of Ho Chi Minh's birthday there would be an enemy attack. Just then I heard small arms fire in the distance. It grew steadier and louder until it became a full -scale attack on the Da Nang Air Base."
George Hart, Boston, remembers Hanoi Hannah's broadcasts that mentioned specific GIs by name and said their girlfriends were sleeping with someone else back home. A few days later he remembers the soldiers named got "Dear John" letters from home confirming what Hannah had said.
Just as most vets remember a specific Radio Hanoi broadcast above all others, I do too. But it wasn't by Hanoi Hannah. It was broadcast by her male counterpart, Nguyen Van Tung, who sounded like an actorPeter Lorrethe popular villain of the Hollywood screen. It was also the first Hanoi Radio broadcast I ever heard, four week after arriving in Vietnam. It was recorded late one night in An Lac, a US Special Forces Camp in the Central Highlands. I still have the tape after twenty-five years.
You are new here and we don't expect you to believe us when we tell you just how bad it is. But just a sample of what you can expect was written up by a bona fide American correspondent for the New York Times on June 20th about some fighting less than fifty miles from Saigon. Zone D is all they said it was. It is a flat, scary jungle, thick with scrub trees and tall grass... hot and wet with intermittent rain and strong tropical dragon flies and Viet Cong sniper bullets. (Nguyen Van Tun, Radio Hanoi, 30 June 1965)
An Lac is about one hundred miles west of Nha Trang. I had been on patrol with US Special Forces advisors and the Montagnard Irregulars they were trying to train and motivate. It was pretty quiet, no contact and it had been raining hard for over a week keeping the supply plane that was my ticket out of coming in.
At night after the perimeter had been secured there wasnt much to do but play cards, read, drink Ba Moi Bao beer and listen to the radio. Up in the Central Highlands of Vietnam Radio Hanoi boomed in loud and clear.
Each evening I drank Ba Moi Bao with members of the A-Team and listened to Radio Hanoi. Each morning we all swore not to do it again. The Ba Moi Bao was said to be laced with formaldehyde and produced monster hangovers.
The Radio Hanoi broadcasts, while funny at the time, also tended to stay with you like a Ba Moi Bao headache.
You are a long, long way from Fort Riley now and there is no Jersey Coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter, eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to be afraid a bomb might go off, like it did in that restaurant in Saigon a few weeks back. Like I said you are new here and really dont know what LBJ and company have let you in for by sending you across the Pacific to invade Vietnam, because the local stooges and the more than sixty thousand American troops who came before you couldnt stop the South Vietnam liberation forces. But you will learn the hard way. Ask some of the guys that have been around a while. This isnt Washington Street in Junction City. You can get killed here. Get out while you are still alive and before its too late. (Nguyen Van Tung, 30 June 1956).