In the very early and dark morning of Aug. 9, 1972, my Vietnamese driver and I departed Saigon on a special mission to Tay Ninh, about 45 miles northwest of the city. I was on my second tour in Vietnam. On my first, I had been an Army captain in a quartermaster battalion at Cam Ranh Bay during the communist Tet Offensive in 1968. Now I was a major in the 3rd Area Logistics Advisory Team 9, assisting the commander of the Saigon-area quartermaster group, which provided rations, fuel, uniforms and other items to South Vietnamese troops. That morning I went to Tay Ninh to deal with a fuel crisis.
I returned to Saigon at about 9:30 a.m. The streets were jammed with a sea of motorized bikes, pedicabs, cars and pedestrians generating a steady drone of noise and clouds of dust. Since I had left without breakfast, I was a little hungry and wanted to find a quiet place to have a late breakfast and write my reports.
American officers in Saigon were billeted in one of several hotels scattered throughout the area. Most of these bachelor officer quarters had a mess operation serving three meals a day. The meals were troop issue: the same food served to all the military off a cyclic menu. To accommodate early and late meal needs, one mess hall opened earlier than the others and one remained open later. When I arrived downtown, I went to the BOQ that served breakfast until 10 a.m.
I got there at about 9:45 a.m. The dining area was full of empty tables. I got a copy of Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper published for the troops, and selected a seat against the back wall where I could keep an eye on the entrance. We were taught to do that in Vietnamese restaurants. We would keep our weapon on our lap under the table as about our only defense against an enemy barging in firing an automatic rifle or tossing hand grenades. At least twice in Vietnamese restaurants I moved my hands to my weapon and released the safety, but never had to fire. Even today, nearly 50 years later, I still try to sit where I can see the door. I actually get nervous when my back is to the door!
I put my weapon, an M2 carbine with two 30-round magazines taped together, on a chair and pushed it under the table. I also had a .45-caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. I preferred the carbine to the M16 rifle because it was smaller and easier to use from a jeep. After placing my carbine on the chair, I walked to the serving line. Other than two Vietnamese kitchen workers, no one else was at the serving tables.
I settled down to enjoy breakfast, write the trip report and read the newspaper. The door opened. I looked up and was astounded to see a well-dressed white woman, unusual in Vietnam, enter and go through the serving line. As she proceeded to the end of the line, it became obvious she was American. She was beautiful. I could not help but wonder who she was, where she came from and why she was here. I wondered if I could find a way to move to her table and meet her.
Before I could devise a plan, she picked up her tray and walked straight toward me. She stopped at my table and said, “Hi, I am Michele Cornau. I am from New Mexico.” She asked if she could join me! I had spread my papers over the table but quickly gathered them together and welcomed her to sit. She was very friendly and asked all sorts of questions: Where are you from? What do you do in Vietnam? Is it dangerous? When will you be going home?
While answering Michele’s questions, I noticed another white woman take a tray and start down the breakfast line. I was beginning to wonder if this was real. Was I dreaming? This didn’t happen to me anywhere, much less in a combat zone.
The second woman picked up her tray and came to my table. She introduced herself: “Hello, I am Janis Gentry from the University of Utah. May I join you?”
Now here I was, sitting with two gorgeous women. No way could this be real. I was afraid I would soon wake up and “Poof!”—they would be gone, and reality would return.
Janis asked me similar questions, and I answered them as I continued to pinch myself to see if I was awake. Then two more radiant knockouts came down the serving line. They too walked to my table.
Seeing we would need another chair, in addition to the one with my weapon, I picked up my carbine, which had not been seen by Michele or Janis. When I did, they both exclaimed “Oooh!” and seemed shocked at the sight of my rifle. One of the two new arrivals said: “Greetings! I am Laurie Schaefer, and this is Allyn Warner. I am from Ohio, and Allyn is from Maine.” I thought it odd that each woman declared which state she was from, but that was only a passing thought.
It seemed they all wanted to know everything about me and what was going on in Vietnam. I still could not believe this scene was happening—me, with four of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, all together at once, and I’m the center of their attention. No, this couldn’t be real!
I hardly noticed another young pretty woman as she entered the mess hall, went through the line and came to my table. She said: “Hi, y’all!” before looking at me and announcing: “I’m Avis Ann Cochran, and I am from Louisiana.” I immediately knew she was Southern when I heard her wonderful drawl.
I finally mustered the courage to ask the girls what this was all about. Laurie explained she was Miss America. Janis, Avis, Allyn and Michele represented their states in the Miss American Pageant held in September 1971. They were in Vietnam with the Miss America USO show, on its sixth annual overseas tour.
“Hot damn!” I thought. “Wait until everybody hears about this!” I was going to enjoy the experience while it lasted. When Avis finished her breakfast and they prepared to leave, I asked if I could have a picture to remember this occasion. The reply was: “Sure! Come on up to our rooms.”
Still thinking that it couldn’t be real, I walked with them down the hallway to their rooms with my carbine slung over my shoulder. Two of them took me by each arm and escorted me. “Nope, this isn’t happening to me!” I said to myself again. But it was!
As we approached their wing of the BOQ, two huge military policemen were not about to let me get past them. They had their orders. Pleas from the Miss America troupe or me were useless. Even pulling rank had no effect. Laurie told me to wait and she would bring a picture to me.
While waiting, two more women, both Southerners, came to meet the “nice major.” They were Linda Jean Moyer, Miss Virginia, and Pam Inabinet, Miss South Carolina. They were all elegant, graceful, friendly and—as previously emphasized—gorgeous.
The military police decided it was time for me to remove myself. I thanked the Miss America group for an unforgettable experience and for coming to Vietnam to see the troops. I left in somewhat of a stupor, not believing I really had a meal with Miss America and four of her court, all by myself!
I returned to my headquarters and told others about my experience. They did not believe me until I showed the poster picture, autographed by five of the women, including Miss America. I made it a point to eat breakfast at the same mess hall every morning for a week, but never saw nor heard about them again.
Thank you, Miss Virginia, Miss Utah, Miss Maine, Miss South Carolina, Miss New Mexico, Miss Louisiana and Miss America for giving me a breakfast in Vietnam I shall never forget. V
Hardy W. Bryan served in Vietnam October 1967-October 1968 and November 1971-October 1972. He retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and resides in St. Petersburg, Florida.
This article appeared in the August 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: