When Hollywood turned stridently against the war and the men who fought it, Chris Noel stuck with the GIs—and she’s still with them.
A model turned actress in the early 1960s, Chris Noel was a young blonde bombshell with a number of movies and TV guest appearances under her belt when she first started entertaining the troops in Vietnam. She received the Distinguished Vietnam Veteran award in 1984 from the Veterans Network for her work during the war. In an interview, Noel recalls her life-altering experiences and her ongoing efforts in support of Vietnam veterans.
Vietnam: Tell us a little about your Hollywood career before Vietnam.
Chris Noel: When I first went to Hollywood, I was put under contract to Universal for one month, and then they fired me. Their head of casting said I had the worst voice in the world, and said to “send that girl back where she came from, she’s atrocious.” So I cried a lot, until three weeks later I was under contract to MGM. In the first film I did I played the girlfriend opposite Steve McQueen, in Soldier in the Rain. Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld were in the film. I guest-starred in almost all of the television shows of that year. I did a lot of beach movies and motorcycle movies, and just a little bit of everything.
And before Hollywood?
When I was in Florida as a young girl, at the age of 16, I was on the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine with a little baby, posing as a young mother. I was also the Kodak girl. There were wonderful posters that were done on the beach with me in a hammock, and with a beach ball, and that sort of thing. But I just knew that I had to do something more with my life, so I went to New York. A television writer did an article where they picked the three top women in television commercials and three top guys, and I was one of the three girls. Then I was also one of the Rheingold [beer] girls in New York, and on the cover of the New York Post and New York Mirror. But I always wanted to go to California.
What was the turning point for you?
The 1965 Christmas tour that I made with California’s Governor Pat Brown and various celebrities. That year, my boyfriend was over in Vietnam with Bob Hope. Then I had the opportunity to go to the VA hospitals. When I went into the gangrene ward of double and triple amputees, I was stunned. I remember the very first guy I saw there said something really nasty to us. Then Sandy Koufax took and threw a ball to a guy who had only one arm, and he reached up and caught the ball. He was laughing, and the other guys were laughing. I thought, “Wow, I have to find a way to learn to make them happy.” My girlfriend and I sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and we were absolutely terrible, but it was kind of cute. When I walked out of the ward, I was still very, very stunned. Those moments changed my life and made me realize that I had to make a difference.
How did you get the disk jockey job with Armed Forces Radio?
My boyfriend came back from his tour and he had to put in Reserve time. He was at Armed Forces Radio and Television Service in Hollywood, and he found out that they were looking for someone to put on the radio. So I called, made my appointment, went in and did my interview—and they chose me. I started off doing a show called Small World with George Church III. I became really popular. The colonel called me in one day, and said, “Well, Chris, I hate to tell you this, but you’ve been fired.” I said, “Fired? What did I do wrong?” And he said, “Well, you’ve been fired, but you’ve been hired to do your own show.” It was pretty exciting. They came up with the name, A Date With Chris. They would record it to be put on 33-1/3 records, which would be sent to all the outlets throughout the free world.
Did you ever meet Adrian Cronauer?
During the Vietnam War, there were several people who had a radio show for the U.S. troops there. Adrian Cronauer was not the original. I met Adrian back here after his movie was done.
What did you think aout your radio show being called America’s answer to Hanoi Hannah and Saigon Sally?
Something that just blew me away was when Hanoi Hannah stated that she really didn’t know how the GIs all felt about her until she got a video of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam! Isn’t that weird? I never really knew what Hanoi Hannah looked like until 2007, when CSPAN was showing an interview with her. It was fascinating. I had heard just a little tiny bit of her voice a couple of times in Vietnam, but usually I was so busy that I wasn’t really tuned in to her.
How did you get on Bob Hope’s tour?
After I started my radio show, I knew that the holidays were coming and Bob Hope would be going back over again. I asked, “Is there any way that you could get Bob Hope to let me go with him to Vietnam?” The answer came back: No, I wasn’t considered a big enough star to go with him. But a few weeks later I got a telegram from the Pentagon asking if I would go over and entertain the troops.
How was your first trip to Vietnam?
The first time I went over was in December 1966. I was very excited, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do, because all I knew was how to be an actress on radio and television. I took a portable record player with batteries, and a little record case. I think I had the top 100, or maybe only the top 50 songs. They said, “You’re going to be there at Christmas time, so take some kind of Santa Claus outfit.” I was only being paid $200 a week by MGM, so I didn’t have a lot of money. I went to Hollywood Boulevard and I saw a little silver miniskirt and little silver top, and that’s what I bought for my Santa Claus outfit.
They sent me to one of the bases to get my shots, and I had to stand in this line, just like all the guys. I had never been anywhere outside of the United States except one time to Mexico. When we landed in Vietnam and I walked down the steps at Tan Son Nhut, it was stifling. They took my suitcase and we got into a van. The windows were open, but there was mesh on the windows, which they said was to keep grenades out.
What was it like being on Bob Hope’s 25th Anniversary show in Cu Chi on December 25, 1966?
My escort officer said to me: “Chris, Bob Hope is going to be doing a show on Christmas Day. How would you like to be in his show?” I wasn’t very far away from Cu Chi, so they just helicoptered me in. When I first got there so many cameras were clicking, it sounded like a field of locusts. We went to this tent, and they had fans going, and makeup artists, and hairdressers. Some GI had given me a poem, something about the Night Before Christmas, only it all had to do with the Vietnam War. It was that whole poem I did onstage.
I kept hearing all of these show business people complaining—they complained about everything! They complained about how hot it was—“I can’t go out there if I’m sweating like this,” and “You must do something better with my hair.” I’m sitting there thinking, my gosh, I can’t stand these people! They’re all just prima donnas. They don’t have the foggiest idea of what it’s really like over here. They’re in air conditioning as much as they can, and they’ve got the best of everything, and all they do is complain!
How was it to work with “Colonel Maggie,” Martha Raye?
I had been up north for several days and was back in Saigon, and I was very, very tired. I was so happy to think that I was actually going to have a bed, and could lie down behind a closed door. When I got to the hotel I remember being told that Martha Raye was there. I walked in, and there was Martha with three Green Berets. Someone introduced us and we talked for just a second, and she said, “Get it together, girl, you’re having dinner at the camp with the boys.” I said: “I just got here! I’m not going to eat any dinner, I’m not doing anything!” She said: “Oh, yes, you are! You get it together, because you’re having dinner with the boys.”
When we first got to Camp Goodman, we walked into a mess hall that had a kind of platform and a very long table. Nobody else was in the room—just four of us. The food was brought in to us. I was talking a little bit, and then the captain sitting next to me very meanly looked at me and said: “What are you doing here? We all know what Maggie is doing here, but what is it that you’re doing here?” I looked at him and was almost speechless. I said: “I’m doing the same thing Maggie is. I’m here because I care. I was asked to be here.”
Then a lieutenant who was there, Ty Herrington, said, “Miss Noel, would you like to see our camp?” I felt as if he was on a white horse saving me, and I said, “Oh, yes, yes!” He took me around and showed me the camp a bit, and then he opened the door to his room. There was a picture of a woman in a silver frame. I said, “Oh, that must be your wife!” And he said, “My mother wishes she were.” Shortly after that day he became my escort officer. After a couple of more tours we were in love and we got married. As it turned out, the woman in his picture was his wife! He had lied to me.
Some big acts were restricted to base camps for security, but you sometimes went alone to the more isolated firebases. What was that like?
I’m so thankful that I was able to have that opportunity—to just drop down out of the sky in a helicopter, and to see the guys come out of the boonies, exhausted, and already with that stare in their eyes. I feel really blessed that I could be there for a few moments with them, just to sign some pictures, just to say hello, just to let them know that, yes, people do care about you. Along with Maggie and a few female war correspondents, I was one of the only women who ever traveled the entire scope of South Vietnam. I really think I got to have one of the most incredible experiences, to see that it wasn’t the same war for everybody.
You kept doing this even though the Viet Cong had a $10,000 bounty on your head and you had a fear of heights?
I didn’t think they’d ever really get me. I felt really protected. And once I started getting into those helicopters, I just loved it. What’s weird is that now, when I get into helicopters, I freak. Back then, one time the hydraulic system went out in a helicopter and we went down…that was scary.
Did your helicopter ever come under fire? Were there any close calls on the ground?
I only remember one very serious time in a helicoper, while trying to leave a mountaintop. Being in places that were being mortared—maybe three times. And groundfire—maybe twice.
You are a hero to GIs, but in show business, openly supporting the troops was the equivalent of professional suicide. How did you keep doing the hard right over the easy wrong?
Whenever I talk to young people, I always leave them with one thought: Do the right thing. Actually I never really thought of it that way, but when I started hearing it a lot—“do the right thing”—I realized that that’s how I went along in my life, just always trying to do the right thing. I cannot imagine anybody having grown up in this country ever betraying it. Yet I’ve met so many people who are somewhat like that. And I’ve had to endure their conversations and sit there politely, and excuse myself when the time was up.
Your book A Matter of Survival is subtitled The War Jane Never Saw. How could you and Jane Fonda, coming from the same Hollywood culture, see things so differently?
I went to see a psychiatrist in New York who was doing work with PTSD, and I was just hoping that maybe she could help me because I really needed some help from somebody. Something came up about Jane Fonda. The doctor looked at me and asked, “How can you possibly even consider yourself in the same breath? She was born with a silver spoon, and you weren’t. Why would you even bring her up? You don’t have anger against her, you just have anger, period, and your own hostility. You’re just using her as a catalyst.”
I was in a pretty fragile state as it was, and I thought to myself, “Man, then if I have these thoughts that are so misdirected, are you trying to say to me that all these thousands and thousands of men and women who know the truth about Jane Fonda and feel the same way that I do—that we’re all screwed up? That she was fine, but we’re all the ones who are screwed up?”
Did you ever meet with Jane Fonda?
Yes. In the 1970s a girlfriend said, “Come on, I’m going to this event—Jane Fonda is talking, at Warner Brothers Studio.” They had it set up in a big room. She was talking, and I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m here listening to all of this.” So finally, I stood up and told her: “I don’t even know where you’re coming from. How can you say these things? You know, you went over to the enemy side in the Vietnam War, and I didn’t. I stayed with our troops, which I felt was the honorable thing to do. How can you live with yourself, having done what you did? And how can you be saying today all the things that you’re saying about our government and the oil industry? I can tell you right now, I’m married to an independent oil producer, and it’s costing him more money to get the oil out of the ground than he’s getting for it. He’s losing everything that he owns and he’s going under. And I’m sitting in this room, listening to these disgusting things that you’re saying. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She said: “You and I need to talk. Would you come up afterwards? Because you and I just need to talk.” Well, that went nowhere. Everybody in the room looked at me like I was some kind of lu-lu.
You married Ty Herrington, whom you met in Vietnam, but that went terribly wrong?
Ty Herrington was a very charming, good-looking guy. I was madly in love with him, and it was so incredibly romantic. I was this Hollywood star, and he was this warrior. He was able to slip out of Vietnam a couple of times. I met him on R&R in Hawaii.
Then we decided to get married, but things started happening right before we got married, things that scared me. I realized that something was very, very wrong—but I went ahead and married him anyway. It was a horrible mistake. He used to put a gun to my head, and a knife to my throat, and he used to strangle me until I passed out. He would get this look in his eyes. I was scared, but I didn’t know how to get out from underneath it.
We moved to Nashville because he had a contract with Monument Records. They recorded him singing “When the Green Berets Come Home” and “A Gun Don’t Make a Man”—isn’t that something? I was able to get him to go see a psychiatrist once. The psychiatrist told me that he was a paranoid-schizophrenic manic-depressive, and that he was very dangerous. Then one day he put a gun to his head and he was gone.
You have remained a tireless supporter of Vietnam vets, with projects such as the Vetsville Cease Fire House you founded in 1993 in Florida to help homeless veterans.
I was living in Palm Beach at the time and married to a lawyer. I would go to United Way meetings and talk about the fact that we needed to do something for homeless vets. People would laugh at me: Here’s this movie actress talking about homelessness—what does she know? All they seemed to care about were all the people coming in from other countries. They didn’t care anything at all about the homeless vets. I finally concluded that none of these people were going to do anything but make fun of me and I would just have to do it all by myself. I woke up one day and said: “That’s it, today’s the day I’m going to do it.” By the end of that week I had a house in Riviera Beach, the roughest area in the entire town. At our opening ceremony, a neighbor walked over to see what was happening. Then he offered me the use of a house he owned that was right next to ours, and he wouldn’t take any money for it. Within about five months he went into foreclosure and lost all of his property. I went to the bank and made a deal to buy his two houses. So now I had three houses there. That’s how it all began, and then it expanded.
And now this project of yours has grown beyond Palm Beach?
Pretty soon we were in three cities, and I had people calling me from different places in the country, wanting me to help them. I don’t take government money. I did in the beginning—I applied for grants, and I did get them, but I don’t have any grants anymore. I just work really hard and have a fundraiser and do a mail-out to try to raise some money to keep the program going.
We are now in another muddled war that the American people are turning increasingly sour on. But so far they haven’t turned against the GIs sent to fight it. Why do you think it’s different this time?
I don’t think it’s different this time. I think they’re just keeping their mouths shut. I have found that if you ask anybody who tells you they were against the war in Vietnam, they will all deny having said anything bad about the GIs. Not one person has admitted to spitting on a GI or calling them names. I think that’s because the Vietnam vets suffered so greatly from the attacks against them, and there was so much emphasis on the reality of PTSD. But I believe that people still have the same thoughts that they had during the Vietnam War.
The only difference is that now it’s become so politically incorrect to say anything negative about the warrior—but they don’t really support the warrior. They’re not the ones who are sending letters over; they’re not saying great things about them. They just pretend that they support the troops but not the war. They may not admit it, but deep in their souls that’s the way they feel. They’re not going to invite GIs to dinner, or invite them over to their home when they come back, or be really good friends with them, or go to any of the veteran functions. Anyway, that’s my personal opinion. I really don’t think it’s changed.
So many of those fighting this war are children or, in some cases, grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. What more can be done to ensure we take better care of these new veterans?
Just keep fighting for them. Just keep fighting for the veterans’ issues. Keep fighting to make Walter Reed a better hospital—with more doctors. Sometimes our vets are fortunate, and they get a really good doctor; at other times, they are not so fortunate.
What enduring lessons did you gain from your experience during the Vietnam War?
I just think that war is hell, no matter who is fighting or where the wars are. But I think sometimes you have to have war in order to have peace. I mean, I’m just a retired movie actress. What do I know? I just keep fighting for what is my truth, trying to make it a better world for as many people as I come in touch with. I try to give the best of myself whenever I’m around other people, and try to be the best person I know how to be.
Claudia Gary is senior editor of Vietnam magazine. David T. Zabecki is senior military historian for Vietnam and all of World History Group’s other magazines. For more about Chris Noel and her work, see www.chrisnoel.com.