The first time they poured a bucket of water on me, they had to turn my mike off because I turned around and I think I cussed.
As the camera pans back from the mini-skirted blonde in front of a U.S. weather map in a Saigon TV studio, she bids greetings to the “fellas in the 175th Radio Research Company motor pool” and purrs her signature sign off: “Until tomorrow, have a pleasant evening, weather-wise and you know, of course, otherwise.” With that, the Box Tops’ hit single “The Letter” begins to blare—“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane, Ain’t got time to take a fast train—” and Bobbie the Weathergirl starts grooving to the music. Thus ended one of hundreds of Armed Forces Vietnam (AFVN) broadcasts by the young and adventurous Agency for International Development (AID) clerk and volunteer morale booster, Bobbie Keith.
Keith spent most of her childhood abroad. Her father was a veteran of World War II and Korea and was an Army intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. After finishing high school in Japan and attending two years at Sophia University in Tokyo, she returned to the States with her parents in 1966. Then, the 19-year-old in search of adventure and a way to serve her country joined AID and was off to Vietnam. Plucked from obscurity to deliver the weather report on evening AFVN news broadcasts, the vivacious Keith etched her image into the memories of hundreds of thousands of Americans serving in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969.
She was a sight for sore eyes in a hostile world and provided plenty of comic relief on the air as well as in person during hundreds of trips to visit troops from the DMZ to the Delta. When Keith left Vietnam for a nearly two-decade career of globetrotting in the service of the State Department, she abandoned any notions of a TV career, but never forgot what she regarded as the greatest honor in her life, bringing a little bit of comfort and home to young men fighting in Vietnam. In 2008, with actress Chris Noel, Keith was awarded the Vietnam Veterans of America President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Now living in Florida, Bobbie Keith continues to support Vietnam veterans and their causes and frequently speaks to young people and patriotic groups such as the Korean war vets, Jewish war vets and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) about the American experience in Vietnam.
Off to Vietnam
Q. You were 19 in 1966, and decided to get a job that would take you to Vietnam. Why did you do that?
A. Well, I’m an Army brat, the oldest of two girls. Every member of my family served in one way or the other in the military, including my mother who was a Navy nurse in World War II. But, I’m not the type that favors military structure—you know, command discipline. USAID was looking for volunteers, so working for a foreign aid project sounded more meaningful and easier to deal with. As far as my family was concerned, if you don’t do something for your country, don’t call yourself an American. There’s always a way to do something good, to serve your country. I could have gone into the Peace Corps, as well, but the Peace Corps is a little bit more arduous and you don’t have the support when you go out in the hamlets or into the rural areas. With the foreign aid program, you have more of a support network built for you…and it’s better living accommodations. Also, I was looking for an adventure, so going to Vietnam served that purpose too.
What was the AID training like?
Quite the opposite of what the military received. Because when the military is trained to go into a war environment, they’re trained to kill. We were trained to win the hearts and minds of the people. We learned all about the country, the history, the economy, the political situation, plus we received three weeks of Vietnamese language training, which is an extremely difficult language because it’s tonal and if you can’t hear tones, you can’t learn the language very well.
Of course, we were thoroughly indoctrinated into the Domino Theory. And we all believed in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. I think everyone believed what we were doing was right. The foreign aid program was something I sincerely believed in because we sent our people out to work in the rural hamlets. A lot of people don’t know this, but we had 180 nurses in the country who worked with the AID program, many of whom went through extensive language training in Hawaii for a year before serving.
Any surprises or second thoughts after you got there in April 1967?
It was a lot more modern than I had anticipated. Saigon had beauty parlors, French restaurants, nightclubs, dressmaking shops. There was the culture shock and then dysentery—“Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge.” The third week I was there I was out on the balcony when a rocket came in and hit the street. That’s when I’m thinking “Holy crackers, this is reality.” Even though you’re living comfortably in a modern city, you’re still very vulnerable. When the rocket hit, I watched a lady pick up the body of a child and run off. I have always wondered whether that child survived. It’s a really weird scene when you can be on a rooftop, having a steak dinner, sipping a gin and tonic and watching tracers go up and hear helicopters whooshing around. There’s a war going on! How do you make sense of the surreal?
What was your job with AID and did you enjoy it?
It was a clerical job, keeping track of secret documents. I enjoyed the job but I enjoyed the people more. I worked in the Commodity Import Program (CIP) at an AID Annex in Cholon, which was next door to PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) Headquarters. And next door to a great BEQ (Bachelor Enlisted Quarters) where we could go for breakfast and lunch breaks. Many Public Health workers also had their offices in our building. Everyone was so dedicated and worked long hard hours. No one complained. It wasn’t unusual to work through the weekend with no time off.
What did you do for entertainment?
They showed movies at the BEQs and BOQs (Bachelor Officer Quarters). They’d have movie and popcorn night, which was popular. And then there was the Pineapple Palace, where all the reporters would come in and you could get the scoop on what was going on in Vietnam. That was one of my favorite places to go because it was a safe environment. It was actually combat photographer Al Chang’s place. He was Hawaiian and would play the ukulele, and some of the girls from the embassy would do the hula. We’d have a little Hawaiian party. It was great because you’d sit in there and hear all the newspaper reporters tell their stories. I’ve got photographs of people sitting around the Pineapple Palace talking to each other.
Was the conversation at the clubs ever about the controversial nature of the war?
Among the soldiers, no. Never. I think I was there in a very fortunate time frame because I missed the drug culture that hit in the latter part of the 60s and the early 70s. At one time, we had a troop level of about a half a million. I was invited to go out—and I’m going to use the word ludicrous—but I was invited out to Tan Son Nhut air base where the troops were arriving—to meet the “one-millionth man” who came to Vietnam to serve! And I’m standing there at the bottom of the ramp where they got off the plane thinking to myself, “I should be greeting the one-millionth man to leave in one piece, not to arrive.” That was my thought process. This is really absurd. This hit national news, too, that they wanted to “welcome” the one-millionth soldier.
I don’t know how many troops we had lost by then. When I left Vietnam in 1969, we all knew that we were downsizing, that we were pulling the troops out, we were going to be leaving. That was the Vietnamization policy—leave it up to the South Vietnamese, train them and let’s get out. When the drug culture hit, a lot of it was because the men felt like they were just fodder for the war. It was very sad. That’s when you go, what are you doing here? Why am I here? Where is the rationale for the war—how do you find it?
I think we had a bad habit of ignoring the repercussions of the war going on all around us—it was like if you don’t talk about it, give it any credence then it does not exist or impact upon you.
I can look back now and get a little bit skeptical about what goes on in government. Look at the Gulf of Tonkin incident now that that’s been declassified. The Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened, and that was the resolution to justify the Vietnam War so we could go in. So, things like that can make you wonder. You’re going to examine everything your government says to you, knowing that the government can lie to you. When you’re serving, you put your faith in your government that it’s going to tell you the truth.
Did you perceive a change in attitude from time you got there to time you left?
When I was leaving, there was a definite change. I don’t understand the news media, and I’m never going to pretend to understand the psychology of how the news media reports things. I mean everyone’s there for the right reasons. I don’t think that anyone went for wrong reasons. We all believed in the Domino Theory. We all believed that what we were doing was right. You can get pretty well indoctrinated. And then when things start to happen it’s like, Tet for example, when the war hits. On TV, when you call it a television war, my mom and dad probably saw more action on TV during that Tet battle than I saw living right in it. With the news coverage, they probably had more fear for me than I had for myself because I couldn’t see what was going on. You could hear it but you couldn’t see it.
Saigon During Tet
What was it like in the middle of Saigon during Tet?
I was still living in the hotel downtown on Nguyen Hue Street, the famous street of the flowers, right in the center of the city, and I mean this literally: the war came to my doorstep. And that’s a total freak out. You’re going, what I am doing here. Holy crackers. Cholon got hit bad, and I worked at the AID annex there. We couldn’t go to work for weeks, so we girls all got together and worked in the mess halls, including washing dishes. We made up box lunches to take out to the troops. When my friend Pat Zanella and I went out to the hospital, the Viet Cong started shooting out of a theater across the street and we had to take refuge. Later, when we got in a Jeep and went farther out to take food to an engineer battalion, Viet Cong jumped out of a garbage heap and started shooting the place up. That’s when you start going, “Gee mom, I want to go home. I’m not sure I can handle this.” I think we went back that night and downed a few gin and tonics. The fear was there. The reality of the war was there.
We all know what happened, but what did Tet look like to you at the time?
People looked at this as a desperate action by the Viet Cong. We won, but the publicity that came out of Tet was misread to the American public. I don’t think the American people really understood what was actually going on. We didn’t lose Tet. We didn’t lose one battle in Vietnam. But the publicity that comes from all of that was never told. The television war lost it in a way. But that’s retrospect. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t and cannot think that way—one has to remain an optimist at all times—that’s part of being a good U.S. Government employee.
Was Tet the most frightening experience you had?
Actually the May offensive was the most frightening. Yes Tet was very scary because it was too close to home. But when I was visiting the Marines at Quang Tri, the base came under attack, and I had to stay in a bunker. I felt protected by the Marines but at the same time the fact was the enemy had penetrated the perimeter of the area and you’re left with the unknown. During the 1969 May offensive, the Viet Cong lobbed rockets into Saigon every single morning for 30 days. No one needed an alarm clock. I used to kick the mattress off my bed and jump in the bathtub with it. You think, okay, the building can get hit and demolished, but I’m going to be safe in my bathtub under my mattress.
I had girlfriends, Connie Collins and June, who were working as nurses in the Delta in Canto—they can tell you some pretty amazing stories—like during Tet when the Viet Cong came into their house, and they hid under the bed.
When you say you went to Quang Tri to visit the Marines, were you doing this as part of your AID job?
No, after I got the job at AFVN as the weathergirl, I would visit troops on weekends. But I was very fortunate at AID to have the right job with the right people that allowed me to have the liberty and the flexibility to do these extracurricular duties as a volunteer.
Becoming the AFVN Weathergirl
How did you get the weathergirl job?
It was an accident. I mean I think it could’ve happened to anybody. About six months after I got to Vietnam, I was having lunch at the International House on Nguyen Hue Street with my girlfriends, and Colonel Ray Nash came over to the table and said, “You look like a weathergirl.” I thought it was a joke. I know that Colonel Nash had about 20 women go out to the studio to be interviewed, so it was something serious. I went to the interview, but I still didn’t take it seriously, and when I got the job, I couldn’t believe it. It was volunteer work. I didn’t get paid for it.
Had you seen the show on Armed Forces TV?
No. Never watched it. I never had a TV. I think that if I had seen myself on TV I might not have done it. We listened to music. Usually, by the time we got home, we stayed in. My apartment building was all AID employees, so we would usually get together within our own apartment complex and have dinner. And when I was living in a hotel, for the first months I was there, it was mostly AID people and we would meet on the rooftop and eat and drink together, and then crash because you had to get up early the next morning and go to work. So, it wasn’t a habit for us to watch TV.
How did things change for you when you became the Weathergirl?
When I arrived in Saigon working for AID, I did have some profile simply because there weren’t a lot of American women around. We were called Round Eyes. But when I started the TV show, my profile was greatly elevated. I couldn’t go to many places without people watching everything I did. When you’re out in public and people clap when you get up to go to the bathroom, it’s kind of embarrassing.
The experiences I had because of the show were invaluable. I mean, I wasn’t paid, but it was worth more than a million dollars, because I got to see the men and the country, from the DMZ to the Delta. I think one of the best things I ever did with my girlfriends a few times, was fly in helicopters out of Long Binh or Ton Son Nhut down to the Delta and deliver mail to the guys. That was very heartwarming. Barbara, Pat and I flew down to the Delta for Christmas of 1967 together to the LST and PBR boats with Santa Claus. We are still in touch with each other as well as with Larry Weatheral, who was on one of those LST boats. Such a small world some 30-40 years later, absolutely amazing!
You frequently visited the troops in the field as the Weathergirl?
Almost every weekend I had something I was invited to do. It wasn’t obligatory. It was left up to me. They would call over to the TV studio or they would contact me and say: “The Cav would like you to come out and see them on Saturday. They’ll put you up overnight.” One of the first things I was asked to do was go visit the 199th Light Infantry, which guarded the perimeter of Saigon. I visited the 199th probably most often. I had an escort, too, usually an officer who took me everywhere I went. That was military protocol. With the 199th, the Redcatchers, they flew me around on a LOH (light observation helicopter). I have many fond memories of my visits with those guys—and am honored today to still be part of them and go to their reunions—and to see Dennis Haines—and to be invited to his wedding.
When I went out to see the First Cavalry, they made me an honorary member. I still go to their meetings and reunions. It’s quite a compliment to be remembered from 40 years ago. After flying in a cobra helicopter, they made me an honorary member of the Blue Max Battalion.
The Navy took me out to the USS Enterprise for one July 4th weekend; it was absolutely unbelievable. They posted a Marine guard on each side of my door, but I don’t think I needed to be protected. It’s like I could be out in the field and be the only girl with a thousand troops, and I had no fear, because they were all gentlemen.
Any idea how many trips you made out into the field?
I wish I had kept a diary. Hundreds.
Did I Say I Was Looking for Adventure?
What was one of the most bizarre experiences you had?
When I first arrived, we were all housed in hotels on Nguyen Hue Street. My hotel, the Astor, was next door to a popular French restaurant run by a well-known French guy named Dominique, who had a French-Vietnamese mistress named Elaina. One time, to make her jealous, he told Elena that he had had a fling with me, the Round Eye, while she had been away in Paris. So one night, I’m down the street at the Chez Jo Marcel nightclub with a bunch of the news media people when this very attractive girl comes in and attacks me. It was Elaina, and I mean she’s got nails like daggers. I popped her in the nose and gave her a bloody nose. A guy, I think who was CIA, broke up the fight. I was furious. Then she put a contract out on me. So I had to go around with some escorts. I told Leo that he’s got to tell Elaina that, you know, there are 500,000 men my age there, I am not that hard up that I have to go with some old fart. The Viet Cong didn’t put a contract out on me, but Elaina did.
Come to find out, Chez Jo Marcel’s was a hangout for CIA people, and a lot of underground things were going on there. One night we were down there, the place got shot up and we had to run up the stairs and jump in the pool and hide. It was a black market gang shoot out, it had nothing to do with the Viet Cong. But that scared the wits out of us.
Is it just urban legend that a bar girl set your hair on fire?
Once in a while we’d get adventurous and go hit the bars on Tudo Street, which ran parallel to Nguyen Hue Street just around the corner of the hotel where I was living. We were not supposed to go there because that’s where the GIs on R&R would hang out. The GIs, though, were the most polite, sweet people. When I was there, chivalry was very much alive among the troops. So the guys aren’t going to harm you. You’re completely safe. But the bar girls—one of them tried to set my hair on fire with her cigarette. Thank God a GI threw a drink on my hair along with two others who poured beer over my head to put out the flames. Bar girls didn’t like the competition of having round eyes in their territory.
That’s a dynamic you don’t think about. Did you get to know any of those women?
I used to go to a seamstress around the corner from the hotel and I had to walk down this alley to get there. Every time I’d walk down the alley, the bar girls would yell and they’d tease me. And I would just keep walking. One day I thought, you know what, I don’t have to be such a snob. I don’t have to ignore them. I can go and make friends with these people. And I did. I would join them at the bar and drink Saigon tea, which is really Saigon tea—it doesn’t have booze. I would talk to them and listen. One of their objectives was to perfect their English. But they were all victims of circumstances. Every one of them had families they were supporting. They wanted to be educated. They wanted to change their careers. They wanted to run businesses. They all had good business minds. They weren’t necessarily what you want to call girls of the night. They were wholesome nice people, but victims of circumstances.
We used to have fun sitting there and crossing our legs over the bar stools. When people walked by, they could see our legs. The guys would walk up and down the alley and they would do a double take when they saw a Round Eye. And we’d get a big giggle and then I’d turn around and run. So I became pretty good friends with some of the Vietnamese women. The lady who ran the seamstress shop, she was a very good seamstress. I could go get a dress made overnight for 10 bucks. They had wonderful talents for clothes making. The beauty parlors were outstanding.
One of the Guys, or Life in the Testosterone Jungle
Were you ever asked why were you there when you didn’t have to be?
It was more like, “What are you doing here? Are you crazy?” Occasionally you’d get someone with an attitude like, “You don’t belong here.” It would come from men who wanted to keep their women protected, because in those days, remember, they didn’t allow women in combat. A couple of times I did go into an environment where it was shocking for me and shocking for the men too. On one occasion, the guys had just been pulled in for a stand down after being out in the bush for a long time and they didn’t expect to see a woman. And it kind of upset them, and it upset me too.
Did you often think that some of these guys you’re out visiting would probably be wounded or killed shortly after you left?
You tried to erase that part of the process. I remember flying over to Con Son Island where the guys from the LST and PBR boats from down in the Delta would go for a one day R&R. We’d enjoy a fabulous steak cookout on a beautiful sandy white beach, then I could jump back on the plane for the relative safety of Saigon—while they would have to head back to the war zone in the Delta. It hits you, but you try to bury everything. That was our coping mechanism. You eat your steak, you sip your gin and tonic, you watch the flares, you hear the helicopters—and you try to ignore it. I’ll tell you something really weird about the whole thing, there is not one person I know who served in Vietnam who doesn’t get goose bumps when they hear the roaring blades of a helicopter.
I’ll tell you a cute story about guys on R&R. One of the nicest things that we were allowed to do after serving for so long was to put in a bid for R&R. I had put a bid in and went to Taiwan. On the plane ride over, I was the only girl other than the stewardesses. So I met my seatmates, a bunch of young guys, nice kids. When we got there, I went through the R&R briefing, right? And everything’s for the guys. I go to a tourist resort hotel, and the guys go down to the strip and they get a room with a girl who can do everything, including shine their shoes. And I don’t get anything. That’s the duplicity of the men versus the women. It was comical to me. The girls that they wound up with, they would take me shopping and make sure I didn’t get gypped. We all went together to see Planet of the Apes. Afterwards we had Mongolian barbeque, and the guys and I got absolutely sloshed and we went into the tattoo parlor and that’s when I got my butterfly tattoo. After R&R they went back to the war, and you wonder what happened to them.
Life as the Weathergirl
Clearly you were you a sex symbol, right?
I never thought of myself as being a sex symbol. I was treated more like the girl the guys left behind. I wore White Shoulders perfume back in those days, and the guys would say, “Oh my girlfriend wears that… that reminds me of my girlfriend.” I was reminding the guys of their loved ones they left behind. I don’t think anyone ever treated me as a sex symbol. No. Even when they did the pin-ups. I wasn’t a movie star. I wasn’t Raquel Welch. I wasn’t Hollywood. I didn’t have any talents. I was just there, an American girl. It could have been anybody. There’s a way to conduct yourself and a way not to. And I think because I was on military bases as a brat growing up I could recognize and deal with this very chauvinistic organization full of testosterone.
Did you ever feel exploited or used?
No, never. The guys at the TV station treated me with a lot of respect. They were so cute. I think of all of those people as my big brothers. They took good care of me. When you treat people the way they want to be treated, if you treat somebody in that environment like “okay you’re my big brother,” then they act like your big brother, they become your big brother. They become your siblings. I never had a problem.
Were you ever criticized for doing the show?
Well, yeah, there were a couple of occasions, like when they painted the temperatures on my body. I don’t think any of us thought of it as being sexist, as even being cheeky. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a take-off of Goldie Hawn on the TV show Laugh-In. Somebody—I think in Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s office—took offense, so they put an end to that. Maybe if I had seen the show on TV I would have thought so too, but we didn’t think of it that way. We were just being comical. It’s not that it was a highly conservative time frame. It’s funny because I was out recently—I’m invited on occasion to speak to high school students here in Florida. I tell the teachers up front, when I go out and speak I have an objective. My objective is to tell students that women were there and women have always been around during wars, and the diversity of the women is amazing. So I tell those students about that diversity.
I brought a scrapbook with me one time to the class and the kids were shocked at the bikini. And they go, oh my goodness how can you wear a little bikini like that. And I was shocked that they would think that was a little bikini because you know what they’re wearing now, thongs. So maybe people did get offended…who knows. The bikini was below the belly button. But look at what the French were doing. The French were very fashionable and were wearing teenier bikinis than I ever thought of wearing. Besides, the American Embassy had a boat, an African Queen type of boat, and for about $25 or $30, you could get a crew and cruise up and down the river around Saigon with a party of people aboard. Well, if there were any French women with you, a lot of them go topless. The first boat party trip I went on, about 10 of us were cruising the Saigon River when a helicopter whizzed by. The two French girls on the bow were sunbathing topless. I thought the helicopter was going to crash!
Did you know of Goldie Hawn and the Laugh-In show?
Not until I got back to the States. I had never heard of Laugh-In. The TV studio personnel, however, had been in the States and they were familiar with the show. Because I spent very little time growing up in the States, I have lots of American culture voids in my life, so this period was no different. And after leaving Vietnam, I was abroad for another 30 years in the State Department. So, it took me a while, after I returned, to become familiarized with my own country.
The weather report was really more of a vehicle for humor and a way to put some fun into the broadcast?
That’s what we tried to do. I think that maybe the powers that be wanted things to be a little more serious. We found out that someone got a little offended about the “Weatherwise and otherwise” sign off. You never know what’s going to offend people. One time I wore the jacket of a uniform that was given to me with military paraphernalia on it. I wanted to honor the guys who gave it to me. Now, the jacket probably came past my knees, but I didn’t have the bottoms on. Well, somebody called in and raised hell about that. It was ironic because the jacket was much longer than the miniskirts I usually wore!
The thing that people don’t know is that all those mini skirts were made by a Saigon seamstress. And every single mini-skirt was like a “skort,” so everything matched. You had complete modesty. I could get on and off helicopters, in and out of planes, go up and down stairs and maintain my modesty because everything was one piece. I’d like to say I was the inventor of what they now call skorts.
Who came up with the “Weatherwise and otherwise” line?
That was Paul Baldridge. He was a very straight arrow too, not sexist at all. He’s like my big adorable brother. The men really protected me like their kid sister. No matter where I went, no matter what I did. Those veterans provided me with a great family—a family away from home that really protected me from any harm.
Any idea how many broadcasts you did?
Hundreds, if you figure six or seven days a week. Even when I wasn’t there on weekends; we taped them in advance.
How did you do the weather report in advance?
I’d take a few changes of clothing and we’d mix up the numbers. The temperature never really changed. It was hot, or it was hotter than hot. During monsoon season, you could say 60 percent chance of rain, or it will rain today at 2 and it probably would. So I could go away for a few days and we would tape in advance.
Make ’em Look and Laugh
You did a lot of gags on air, what were the funniest?
Probably the ones that no one ever saw. The guys were always playing tricks on me to get me distracted and flub my lines. They would actually crawl across the floor below the camera, and that was a little distracting. The first time they poured a bucket of water on me, they had to turn my mike off because I turned around and I think I cussed. It surprised and scared me because the microphone was attached to my clothing, and I didn’t know if I would get electrocuted or not. I never knew when they were going to do something. One Halloween they had me fly around in a harness on a broomstick, and one time I rode a motorcycle—I almost fell off. We had a series of gags, and then I think they got to the point where someone said they’re getting a bit corny. And maybe if I had seen it I might have thought so too, but we didn’t think of it that way. With all the tragedies going on around us, we wanted to laugh and we wanted others to laugh with us—how else can you escape the fear that comes from being in a war zone?
You often closed the show with a personalized message or music request.
That started when men began writing in, asking me to mention their hometown, or play a certain song. “Proud Mary” was one of the most popular songs then, and guys would call in and say, “We want to see you do the Kick.” The sign off was usually to honor someone or a group of men I went to visit.
Were you emulating anyone or you were just making it up?
Adlibbing mostly. When I started on the show, I was sitting down and had a pointer and there wasn’t a lot of moving around. Then they suggested that maybe standing up with a pointer was better. Then they started putting the music in. The dancing at the end was adlibbed too.
You danced to end each show?
Yes, until the very end, and this is when I was winding down. I think that’s when somebody may have said, “She can’t do this anymore, she can’t say ‘This is Bobbie saying goodnight, weatherwise and otherwise. Have a good time.’” I had instructions to stop saying that and to turn it over to an anchorperson, who would do the sign off.
At the time, did you realize that you had one of the highest profiles of any woman in Vietnam?
I guess I realized it when I was getting invited to do all these things. And you’re invited not because of who you are…You’re invited because you’re on TV. That I recognize. And I’m very thankful for that. It made my tour of duty much more rewarding to have seen more and done more than had I just been in an office in Saigon. I think when the studio brought me in, that Dick Ellis and Paul and the rest of the studio group treated me like family. But, there was no place I could go without being recognized. You try to keep a low profile because you don’t want to be embarrassed. It’s like, when I was just walking to get my seat at a Bob Hope USO show, the whole place roared. There must have been 20,000 in that stadium. I could have absolutely died! But my salvation was when they saw me sit down, the guys came over and said, “Bobbie, we would love for you to come sit with us.” So rather than sit as a guest, I went and sat with the troops. A guy who was there recently sent me a great picture of that event. Talk about a small world!
Did your high profile have its advantages?
I met many interesting people. Raquel Welch was one of them. She was with the Bob Hope USO Show in 1967, and I met her at Ambassador Bunker’s party for the cast, which I was invited to attend. I thought Bob Hope was a bit pompous, but Raquel Welch is one who didn’t have an ego that had to be stroked.
Flattery and Absurdity
How does it make you feel to know hundreds of thousands of men have your image tucked away as one of the good memories of Vietnam?
It’s hard for me to comprehend. Even when a friend told me how he would watch me on TV, it was surprising; it was something I don’t expect. Even when I get letters and pictures now, I’m honored and flattered.
Why do you think you had such a lasting impact?
I was flipping channels one night and stumbled on a documentary, about the TV history of the war and the narrator said something like, “When America goes to war, we take our culture and comforts with us.” And, then he says: “Never has it been as absurd as in Vietnam…and the absurdities are numerous… And here comes Bobbie the Weathergirl. They even had to show the weather back home!” So, I’m an absurdity! It was funny because, what they don’t know is that guys really wanted to hear about their hometowns. They would watch for these little things we did, and it would connect them to their homes. Maybe that’s why we do these things in our culture.
You decided to leave your AID job and Vietnam in November 1969. Anything in particular happen to make you think, “This is it, I’m out of here”?
I think some of it might have been when I’d hear people say we were pulling out and the talk about the morale of the troops and suddenly you feel disillusioned and you’re wondering, I don’t know how to say this, if it’s a no-win situation.
When I resigned from the AID I was kind of disheartened. You feel very let down when you think you are doing the right thing for the right reasons, and you’re so indoctrinated, and then you find out that all these things that you were told are not true.
I mean, how can you rationalize losing that many people? How do you rationalize the destruction of a country? There’s lots of emotions involved. I think the human species, we try to be pragmatic and rationalize everything we do, and when you become disillusioned, you can’t rationalize those things anymore and you escape. And my escape was resignation. When I left, I didn’t return to my own country until 1974.
Vietnam vets didn’t have a chance to really decompress. I gave myself a number of years.
Can you rationalize the domino theory today? A lot of people will say we were right, we kept communism from spreading into the other countries. History is still being written about that. But I do feel lucky that I survived everything. I love my people. I think we all went there for the right reasons. I don’t think anyone went there for the wrong reasons.
Where did you go when you left Vietnam?
I went on a “sanity sabbatical.” I loved Katmandu and went there first, then I stayed in Delhi and from there I was talked into going to Israel and wound up working on a kibbutz. From there, I went to Turkey for a while and then went to work and live in Greece. Then on to Dakkar, Senegal, and then Germany, where I worked at Rhein Main Air Force Base.
Then you went back into government work?
I went to Washington and got a job in the State Department. In 1975 I went back to Germany and from there had posts in Jordan, Paris, Turkey, Columbia and Morocco. I love every country I have served in. Finally, I returned to the U.S. in 1989. I didn’t even know about the Vietnam Memorial until I came back and worked at the State Department. I started volunteering at the Wall, helping people locate names or answer questions. I don’t think there is anything more awesome than confronting the reality of what happened in the war, seeing the names inscribed and to know we lost more than 58,000 people. It is a powerful memorial and it is quite an honor to be one of the many volunteers who care so much about their work at the Wall. I still try to get up to Washington to volunteer at the Memorial Day and Veterans Day services at the Wall.
Time to Reflect
You continue to work with veterans in Florida now?
In Brevard County we have one of the largest Vietnam Veterans reunions each April. They come from all over, including foreign countries, and camp out. It’s like being back in Vietnam. Sitting in the campsites, that’s when you hear the best stories from the guys. The Vietnam Veterans of Brevard work hard all year to put on the best Vietnam reunion in the United States. A very caring, generous group of veterans here also run a transitional center to take care of any vets who need help, a place to stay, a meal.
What other things have you learned about the war that makes you proud to have served?
I talk to people all the time about the civilian cadre of women in Vietnam. The U.S. AID women nurses served in primitive conditions in the rural villages and hamlets. Ann Kelsey, who worked in Vietnam with Special Services and is a storehouse of knowledge about women’s service in Vietnam, has documented that over 58 civilian women lost their lives in Vietnam. That is an untold story. When I go to talk about women’s service in Vietnam at different high schools, I’ll answer any questions.
What was it like to receive the Vietnam Veterans of America President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2009?
It was quite a surprise. When I was notified, I said, me? I was overwhelmed—and literally lost my ability to speak as—as my nerves got the best of me. It was truly an honor to be recognized for being in Vietnam and also very gratifying. It is amazing to find out that people really do care some 40 years later.
What do you tell veterans when you meet up with them today?
There are so many untold stories from those who were there and I tell them they should take the time to document their stories. I know it was a tremendous experience in my life, to be a part of history. Those guys gave me more than a million memories to cherish and I cherish all of them for what they did for our country. We are living history. I like the way the Donut Dollies described their mission: If for one second you can bring a touch of home into a grim situation, you’ve done your job. If you can think that way—if you wore White Shoulders perfume and someone thought of their girlfriend or of home—to be remembered for that is one of the greatest compliments you can receive.