History Archive
Volunteering For Vietnam: African-American Servicewomen

In March 1971, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun interviewed COL (Dr.) Clotilde Bowen, US Army Medical Corps, about her experiences in Vietnam. “What is it like to be black and female in the mostly white, male U.S. Army?” he asked. “Rough, often,” she replied. “Many assume you are weak and inferior, not very capable. At best, you are patronized. At worst, there is just outright discrimination. But it’s not so much because you are black, but because you are a woman. The Army is learning, often painfully, how to accept blacks as people. But it is still uptight about women.”1

African-American women who volunteered for military service during the war in Vietnam served under racial and gender related policies established during the early years of the Cold War. These policies were put into place to alleviate military manpower shortages by encouraging women and minorities to enlist and make careers in the service. Unfortunately, these policies were less than successful. Personnel shortages continued to plague the armed forces throughout the Cold War, and neither women nor minorities rushed to volunteer.2

 

SP4 Esther M. Gleaton served as a clerk-typist in WAC Detachment, Long Binh, Vietnam, from 1968-69. Esther M. Gleaton Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation

 

Although the US Armed Forces finally realized its goal of guaranteeing equal treatment and opportunity to all persons regardless of race by the end of the Korean War, opportunities for African-Americans to rise to leadership positions were minimal, causing many to leave the service after one or two terms of enlistment.3 Meanwhile, misguided regulations pertaining to gender strictly circumscribed servicewomen’s job assignments and promotions, so that many of the most talented and ambitious opted for careers in the civilian sector.4 These restrictive policies remained in place through the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and exacerbated recruitment and retention problems for the armed forces during the war in Vietnam. Male draftees and volunteers questioned the military’s commitment to equal opportunity and wondered if the proportion of minority soldiers in infantry units in Vietnam was too high.5 At the same time, servicewomen, both black and white, were often denied the opportunity to serve in Vietnam, and the relatively few women who were assigned there were relegated to traditionally feminine jobs to keep them safe.6 Regardless of these constraints, however, some exceptionally brave and determined African-American servicewomen succeeded in gaining assignments to the battle theater.

Early Integration Efforts
The early Cold War policies that stymied servicewomen’s military careers were institutionalized in 1947 and 1948 with the passage of the Army Navy Nurse Act and the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.7 The first piece of legislation gave military nurses permanent commissioned status equal to that of male officers in the regular and reserve components of the Army and Navy, while at the same time imposing strict limits on the length of nurses’ careers and their promotion potentials.8 The 1948 Integration Act established a permanent place for non-nursing women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force–both regulars and reserves. The Coast Guard was not included in this act because during peacetime it was part of the Department of Transportation rather than the Department of Defense.

In an attempt to facilitate the management of women, the 1948 Act constricted servicewomen’s assignments and careers. It placed a 2 percent ceiling on the number of women in each service, prohibited women from serving in combat or commanding men, limited the scope and variety of their assignments and narrowed their promotion opportunities.9 The legislation also set age limits that forced women to retire earlier than men so that they would not be in uniform during menopause. Finally, if a servicewoman became pregnant or married a man with children, she was immediately discharged.10 These restrictions were still in place by the time of the Vietnam War. The essential spirit of the US Armed Forces remained wholly masculine during that war.

One month after signing the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, President Truman took a third step meant to encourage recruitment when he issued Executive Order 9981, mandating an end to racial discrimination and segregation in the US Armed Forces. Of course this order did not immediately end all racially discriminatory practices in the military. Initially, some military leaders, such as Army Chief of Staff GEN Omar Bradley and Army Secretary Kenneth Royal, were reluctant to implement the President's order. Less than total support at the top of the chain of command made it easy for some commanders to drag their heels for as long as possible.11

The Truman administration formed an executive committee headed by former US Solicitor General Charles O. Fahy to prepare and submit a plan for desegregating the services. Almost two years elapsed before the committee submitted its final report. Fahy believed that the purpose of the committee was not to impose racial integration on the services, but to convince them of the merits of the President's order and to agree with them on a plan to make it effective.12 The committee members used the concept of military efficiency to demonstrate to the services that racial integration was a desirable goal. They contended that the increasing technical complexity of war had created an increased demand for skilled manpower, and the country could ill-afford to train or use any of its soldiers below their full capacity. With logic understandable to the President and public alike, the committee stated that since maximum military efficiency demanded that all servicemen be given an equal opportunity to discover and utilize their talents, an indivisible link existed between military efficiency and equal opportunity.13 Equal opportunity in the name of military efficiency became one of the committee's basic premises; until the end of the committee’s existence it hammered away at this concept.14

 

Demonstrating their skill in drilling, as PVT Elnora Hegmon (right) gives the commands, are (left to right) Privates Margaret Keels, Anna Lewis, Grace Green, Ellen Walker and Mary Burns, WAC Center, Ft. McClellan, AL, June 1955. US Army Photo, Ellen (Walker) Harris Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation

 

Integration Realities
Racial integration took place unevenly, with each service setting its own pace. Because women comprised such a small percentage of the force, the number of training facilities, bases and posts to which they were assigned was also small, and the majority of these were integrated quickly and without fanfare. The first two black women Marines entered basic training in 1949, while the Navy integrated its 25 black enlisted women and two black women officers in 1950.15 The Army and Air Force also integrated basic and advanced training classes for women quickly, the Air Force in 1949 and the Army in 1950.16 The integration of women’s barracks and quarters sometimes took longer. For example, an Army nurse who served in Korea during the war remembered that quarters were integrated while she was there.17 The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the Army Nurse barracks at the 98th General Hospital in Germany were integrated in 1951, however, it was 1953 before the nurses’ quarters at the Army’s Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, MI, were integrated.18 According to historians within six years of the issuance of Executive Order 9981, “the tradition of racial segregation had collapsed throughout the armed forces.”19

Left: USMC PFC Annie Graham visits PFC Ann Lamb at the Post Supply Office, Henderson Hall, Arlington, VA, March 24, 1950. National Archives (127-N-313656)
Above: New USAF Privates (left to right) Geraldean Moore, Bettyjean Kinniebrue, Eleanor Jackson and Corinne Gogue-Cook are issued their service uniforms for basic and extended training, Lackland AFB, TX, February 1949. US Air Force Photo

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the military services assigned non-nursing servicewomen, both black and white, to detail-oriented desk jobs that involved typing, filing and high-speed communications.20 During that era, it was widely believed that women were particularly suited for such assignments because they had more patience than men.21 This pervasive belief was not new, during both World War I and World War II (WWII), for example, proponents of women in uniform insisted that women could handle boring, repetitive tasks such as switchboard work and transcription better than men because they had more natural patience and would not become careless out of boredom and frustration.22 At the same time, many of the nontraditional jobs that servicewomen had performed during the WWII manpower emergency were no longer open to them. The usual explanation was that because of the small number of women in each service, it was more efficient to train them for a limited number of jobs.23

Challenging the Status Quo
The 1960s were a time of dramatic and intensely public social ferment in the United States. Challenging authority–the authority of parents, the courts, the government, social traditions and history–was seen as healthy. For example, many people did not believe that the United States should be involved in the war in Vietnam and objected strongly to the military draft, which had been in place since 1948. Anti-war demonstrations were seen frequently on television, as were grim scenes of devastated villages, mutilated Vietnamese women and children, and increasing American casualty counts. Draft calls soared from 100,000 in 1964 to 400,000 in 1966, and many of those called had little enthusiasm for a tour of duty in Vietnam. Some chose to resist the draft, others chose to challenge the political institutions that supported the draft. Some resistance became violent and the reputation of the military suffered.24

Although the US Armed Forces claimed to be integrated, African-Americans wondered why black servicemen, both those who had volunteered to serve in the military and those who were drafted into the service, were promoted to higher ranks infrequently and why so many appeared to be serving in infantry units in Vietnam.25 In reality, although the enlisted ranks of the services were integrated by the 1960s, the military did not yet provide equal opportunity for promotion to its black officers, leading to legitimate concern on the part of African-American soldiers and commentators.26 Unfortunately, the military services, increasingly sensitive to what appeared to be criticism from all sides, clamped down on uniformed personnel and treated every soldier with a complaint or question, legitimate or not, as a disciplinary problem.27

In the civilian sector, African-Americans began demanding equal treatment at the ballot box, in the courtroom and in the classroom. They challenged all forms of segregation, in housing, transportation, restaurants, restrooms and colleges. Black women played a pivotal role in the battle for civil rights at the local level from the 1950s forward, and when white college students joined blacks in the movement in the 1960s, they saw black women functioning in key grassroots leadership positions. This “experience of women’s leadership,” wrote one historian of the period, “would contribute to the gradual emergence of the feminist agenda.”28

The Women’s Movement
Hard on the heels of the movement for racial equality came the women’s movement. Women, like minorities, demanded equal treatment in the eyes of the law and sought expanded economic and educational opportunities. Many resented the assumption that their career options were limited to secretarial work, teaching, and nursing and they decided to become doctors and lawyers instead. Others demanded the opportunity to work in automobile assembly plants and steel mills because wages were higher there than in beauty parlors and grocery stores.29 Frequently, however, when a woman worked in a man’s job, she was paid far less than a man would be. This was another extremely significant point of contention among feminists determined to change the system and with it women’s economic status.30

Women who volunteered to serve their country during the war in Vietnam were products of this new philosophy. Although servicewomen’s job assignments were distinctly limited, women and men of the same rank, be they officer or enlisted, were paid the same. This well known “perk” drew many ambitious, goal-oriented women into the service. These women expected challenging assignments and wanted to be allowed to contribute to the best of their abilities. Many women volunteered to serve in the theater of war because that was where they believed they were needed. The military, which had been one of the first sectors of society to officially end racial segregation, had a harder time accommodating the expectations of servicewomen. Although they were not legally prohibited from assigning women to Vietnam, deeply imbedded cultural beliefs bolstered the military’s reluctance to send women to the battle theater. Furthermore, ever since 1948, the services had trained women for a limited number of administrative-type jobs which were accomplished behind desks at headquarters, not in the field. As supervisors, women officers were in most cases limited to supervising other women. Overall, these restrictions limited the number of assignments to Vietnam available to servicewomen and had an adverse impact on servicewomen’s morale.31

 

The first five enlisted women in the Air Force (WAF) and the fourth WAF officer to be assigned to Vietnam arrive at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, June 1967. The women (left to right) are: Lt Col June H. Hilton, A1Cs Carol J. Hornick and Rita M. Pitcock, SSgt Barbara J. Snavely and A1Cs Shirley J. Brown and Eva M. Nordstrom. National Archives (342B-VN-143-103323)

 

When the war in Vietnam started, the maximum number of women in each service was still limited by law to 2 percent. Most military women served as nurses, secretaries or clerks. Very few women other than nurses held supervisory positions. It was very difficult for women who were not nurses to get an assignment to Vietnam. Ironically, at the same time many young men resisted the draft because they did not want to go to Vietnam, military women, both black and white, viewed assignment to Southeast Asia as a privilege. Members of the WAC and women in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps pressured their chains of command for assignments to Vietnam with little success. One African-American Air Force lieutenant colonel who had completed a highly classified counterintelligence course in preparation for assignment to Vietnam saw her orders abruptly cancelled. Initially, she was uncertain whether her rejection was based on her race or her gender. She eventually learned that her race had nothing to do with the decision to hold her back. It was simply that her superiors were uncomfortable with the idea of sending a woman to Vietnam.32

 

USA CWO3 Doris Allen served as a senior intelligence analyst in Vietnam from 1967-70. Courtesy Doris Allen

 

Sister Soldiers
During the Vietnam War, approximately 700 WACs served in theater and as many as 75 of them were African-American.33 One of whom was WAC CW3 Doris “Lucki” Allen. Early in her military career, she asked for a transfer out of a dead end job in public relations at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, and went to the Army Language School in California because “it was the only place they would send me.” CW3Allen had encountered a typical problem women faced in the workplace during the 1960s. She was good at her job, so her supervisors did not want to lose her; however, they did not want to promote her either. “Had I gone out with my boss,” she said later, “I might have been promoted.” But because she spoke a foreign language (Spanish) and the Army needed linguists, she was able to devise an escape route that did not compromise her dignity. Allen left the Army Language School with a working knowledge of French, trained in military intelligence, and ultimately ended up in Vietnam stationed at Long Binh from 1967-70. She recalled, "As a senior intelligence analyst in Vietnam, I was recognized for having been responsible through production of one specific intelligence report, for saving the lives of 'at least' 101 U.S. Marines fighting in Quang Tri Province." In an interview, she said that she initially had difficulty getting her chain of command to take her report seriously. If she had not been persistent and pushed her report forward, it would have been buried.34

Intelligence (as long as it could be conducted behind a desk) appears to be one of areas to which women were routinely assigned. This is not surprising when one considers that the vast majority of intelligence work entails sifting methodically through large amounts of data, where success demands patience and persistence. Army WO Ann M. McDonough, assigned to the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, worked as a polygraph examiner. She wrote, “I used my polygraph training to assist the South Vietnamese in their investigation of suspected double agents.”35

 

WAC Director COL Elizabeth Hoisington meets cadre members of the WAC Detachment, Vietnam, October 1967. (Left to right) SP4 Rhynell M. Stoabs, SFC Betty J. Benson (acting 1st sergeant), COL Hoisington, CPT Ready, SSG Edith L. Efferson and PFC Patricia C. Pewitt. US Army Photo

 

The Tet Offensive of 1968, a surprise attack on US forces in South Vietnam coordinated by Vietnamese communist guerilla fighters and the North Vietnamese Army, was one of the most dangerous time periods to be in Vietnam. Army SSG Edith Efferson was stationed at Long Binh as a supply sergeant during the Offensive. The ammunition depot at Long Binh, approximately 27 miles northeast of Saigon, was a primary target of the enemy, who attacked regularly with mortars. WACs on duty in the orderly room hit the floor frequently during the months of January and February to avoid the shattering glass, flying gravel, and other debris kicked up by the explosions. SSG Efferson's calm demeanor throughout this difficult period helped the younger women in the office deal with their own concerns. WAC Director COL Elizabeth Hoisington later congratulated SSG Efferson, her commanding officer, and the rest of the women at Long Binh for keeping cool heads throughout the Offensive.36

Another Army woman, SPC Grendel Alice Howard, arrived in Vietnam in January 1968 in the middle of the Offensive. She was assigned to 1st Logistical Command Headquarters at Long Binh as the administrative assistant to the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge. One aspect of her job involved traveling to subordinate units, interviewing soldiers, and writing stories about them for publication. By the end of SPC Howard's extended 34-month tour, she had been promoted to sergeant first class. She was awarded the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for her work in Vietnam and ended her military career as a sergeant major.37

 

Army nurses, 93rd Evacuation Hospital, Long Binh, Vietnam, 1968. B.J. (Greenway) Rasmussen Collection, Women’s Memorial Foundation

 

Nurses Needed
Although it was difficult for many military women to gain an assignment to Vietnam, the services almost always sent those medical personnel who volunteered to go because they were so desperately needed. One of these volunteers was Army nurse MAJ Monica Crossdale-Palmer. MAJ Crossdale-Palmer served at the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Quin How during the military buildup in Vietnam in 1965 and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. When her 12-month assignment ended, she extended for an additional six months and was transferred to the 17th Field Hospital in Saigon. In March 1967, MAJ Crossdale-Palmer returned to the United States and was assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC, where she served 18 months in the operating room before she volunteered to return to Vietnam. During her second tour of duty, she served as operating room supervisor of the 45th Surgical Hospital at Tay Rinh, seven miles from the Cambodian border.38

 

Marie L. Rodgers joined the USA NC in 1952 and retired as a colonel in 1978.  In December 1967, she received the Bronze Star for distinguished service in connection with group operations against a hostile force in Vietnam between October 1966 and September 1967. Women’s Memorial Register

 

Another Army nurse who volunteered to serve in Vietnam was MAJ Marie L. Rodgers, who received the Bronze Star from President Johnson in a White House ceremony in December 1967. MAJ Rodgers, a 15-year veteran, rendered distinguished service in connection with group operations against a hostile force in Vietnam from October 1966 to September 1967. She was the operating room supervisor in the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh .39 In her words “I got the Bronze Star because of how smooth[ly] my unit ran.” Rodgers volunteered to go to Vietnam because she knew she was a good operating room nurse and wanted to have the opportunity to contribute her skills where they were most needed. She also wanted to challenge herself. The hospital at Long Binh was very busy; operating room personnel routinely handled all types of wounds, including head and face wounds. Rodgers noticed little racial prejudice in Vietnam. She said, “The Army system of promotion really helped. In other situations, as a black nurse, I wouldn’t have gotten the kind of jobs I had. In the Army, they always had to give you the job you trained for, and with that, the rank.” Rodgers said, “There were not a lot of black nurses. Most times I was the only black nurse. I never worked with a black doctor or a black surgeon. I never even had a black nurse on my staff.” The reason for this, of course, was that African-Americans had only just begun to break through the educational and professional barriers that had prevented them from obtaining degrees in medicine. As commissioned officers in the military, African-Americans in theory competed on an equal footing with whites. The problem was obtaining the necessary degrees to qualify for a commission. Rodgers added, “I think I was blessed. I guess I was competent, I was always able to get the job done.” Rodger’s career in the Army Nurse Corps spanned 25 years and she retired as a colonel.40

In her official history of the Army Nurse Corps, COL Mary Sarnecky said that the Nurse Corps did make deliberate attempts to recruit more minority nurses during the Vietnam Era. When the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing was established at the University of Maryland in 1965, for example, administrators encouraged African-American enrollments but struggled with a high attrition rate among minority students because the “less than optimal caliber of their secondary education” had not provided them with “the tools necessary for success in a competitive academic environment.”41 By 1972, there were no minority students at the school, so two African-American nurses, both majors, were assigned to travel around the country interviewing interested applicants and eventually brought 10 African-American students to the school, seven of whom ultimately graduated.42

The Army tried to assign CPT Elizabeth Allen to the Institute of Nursing in 1967. The Nurse Corps had very few officers with advanced degrees, and CPT Allen had master’s degrees in psychiatric nursing and business administration. She also had three brothers in the Navy, however, and she knew that while there were few African-American health professionals in Vietnam, there were a lot of front line African-American troops. She wanted to be there for them. In an interview CPT Allen linked military service to the fundamental obligation of citizenship when she noted, “Everybody who claims to be an American has military obligations. I don’t believe women should be exempt.” She had to be very persistent before she was finally assigned to the Army hospital at Cu Chi, headquarters of the 25th Division. One of her responsibilities involved flying aboard the helicopters used for medical evacuation. In her memoir, CPT Allen wrote that she will never forget her first evac patient, a sucking chest wound. It was a night flight, and the helicopter could not use lights. “The only thing I know to do is find his face and do breathing for this kid, and I do that all the way to Saigon. I keep him alive in the dark. We set down, they take him off, and we’re back up again and moving.” She learned to conduct triage, which involved deciding which patients should be treated first, and which would have to wait because their cases were too complex. Operating on soldiers who needed lengthy procedures would take too much time when resources were limited and there were too many patients waiting for surgery. “We only had three operating rooms. We took first those that would use the least resources,” said Allen. Those that needed long surgeries had to wait until there was a lull. Some died in the interim, others stayed alive and were eventually operated on.

By the time of the Tet Offensive, CPT Allen was at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. She remembered that the hospital was fired on virtually every night, and for this reason they assigned the most experienced nurses to night duty. “There was no place to go. You had to keep doing whatever you were doing. Responding to fear is not always an option. Men’s lives were dependent on me, and my being scared was not useful,” she said. After the war she received a doctorate in nursing from the University of South Carolina and served in the Army Reserve. She is now an associate professor of nursing at the University of Michigan.43

Like the Army, the Air Force also sent some of its nurses to serve overseas in support of the war in Vietnam. One of these nurses was Air Force CPT Olivia Theriot, who was stationed at Clark AFB in the Philippines as a flight nurse with the 902nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron during the Tet Offensive. She made daily trips in and out of Saigon aboard C-118s and C-130s, moving the wounded between Vietnam, the Philippines, Okinawa and Thailand. Most times the flight in carried supplies and the flight out carried patients. During the height of the Offensive, her unit flew in and out several times a day. She recalled many amputees, tracheotomies, and hemorrhages and noted, “I was one of a few blessed flight nurses that never had an in-flight death.” On one assignment, she flew into the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to evacuate personnel from a Navy ship that had been hit. After the war, CPT Theriot remained in the Air Force Nurse Corps and she later retired as a lieutenant colonel.44
                 

 

USA NC 1LT Diane M. Lindsay, of the 95th Evacuation Hospital, receives the Soldier’s Medal—she had restrained a soldier who had pulled the pin from a live grenade and thrown it. 1LT Lindsay was the first African-American woman to be recognized with the award and the second USA nurse to earn the medal in Vietnam. Army Nurse Corps Collection, Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgeon General

 

After the Tet Offensive
Although the Tet Offensive ultimately failed to push the US Armed Forces out of Vietnam, it shocked the American public, which had, until then, believed that the United States would win the war. In April 1969, as the war was becoming increasingly unpopular at home, Army nurse LT Diane M. Lindsay volunteered for assignment to Vietnam. She was on duty at the 95th Evacuation Hospital when a confused US soldier pulled the pin from a live grenade and threw it. LT Lindsay and a male officer restrained the soldier and convinced him to relinquish a second grenade, thereby avoiding additional casualties. Her bravery earned her the Soldier's Medal for heroism. She was the first black nurse to receive the award, and was eventually promoted to captain.45

 

Cora L. Burton joined the USA NC in 1956 and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1977. From September 1969 to September 1970, she served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, Vietnam, and for her performance in Vietnam, received the Bronze Star. Women’s Memorial Register

 

In addition to the stress of living and working in a war theater, African-American military nurses in Vietnam frequently faced additional stresses related to racial and sexual harassment. Army MAJ Cora L. Burton served at the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai from September 1969 to September 1970. A northern city, Chu Lai experienced almost daily rocket attacks during this period. MAJ Burton served as a hospital supervisor, monitoring patient triage and stepping in during emergencies. Initially, her chief nurse had resisted giving her a supervisory position. She believed it was because she was black, and complained to the hospital commander. The issue was resolved in favor of MAJ Burton, however, this meant that she “owed the commander a favor.” Wrote Burton, “The Colonel found ways to let me know what he wanted from me in return for my support–my body. I learned to duck with such grace and poise, I soon became as fleet of foot as any prima ballerina. I didn’t want to offend or anger him because I had been warned of his vindictiveness. Instead, I called on all the psychology I had learned as well as my intuitiveness to stay out of his clutches.”

The commander repeatedly asked MAJ Burton to visit him in his trailer and even gave her a sexually explicit book to read, saying “Why don’t you read this and think about it, and we’ll discuss it later.” Burton dodged his approaches. She said, “The only thing I wanted to do was finish my tour and get the hell out of there unscathed physically and mentally and without a vindictive blow from the commanding officer via my efficiency [report]. In those days this type of annoyance was called hitting on you. Now its called sexual harassment.”46

In January 1970, MAJ Burton was given the additional responsibility of heading up the unit’s Human Relation’s Council, established by the command as an informal way to resolve racial tensions. She traced many of these problems to stress and overwork, and the fear some people felt in a combat environment. The council mediated race-based confrontations and attempted to educate soldiers about ethnic terms and traditions. In one notable situation, MAJ Burton was asked to talk to a panicked black private holding two white MPs at gunpoint. MAJ Burton convinced the soldier to surrender. She received the Bronze Star for her performance in Vietnam. She spent her entire nursing career in the Army Nurse Corps, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.47

Nurses Rodgers, Allen and Burton all spoke of feeling lonely in Vietnam. Because of the fairly small number of African-American Army nurses, most were assigned to hospitals where they were the only black nurse. Their social lives were further limited by the scarcity of African-American male officers during those years. According to authors Charles Moskos and James Sibley Butler, opportunities for black men to serve as commissioned officers in the Army were “severely constrained” during the 1950s and 1960s.48 Because nurses were commissioned officers and were strongly discouraged from fraternizing with enlisted personnel, the social lives of African-American nurses were also “severely constrained” during their time in Vietnam.

 

COL Clotilde Bowen, the first black woman physician to hold a military commission, gives her farewell speech after turning over command of Hawley Clinic, Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN, Sept. 11, 1978. US Army Photograph

 

COL Clotilde Bowen faced an even more limited field of peers during her year in Vietnam. Traditionally, physicians have held substantial authority, and for years the military refused to commission women doctors. They served on a temporary basis during WWII, but were not accepted as permanent members of the regular Medical Corps of the Army, Navy and Air Force until the middle of the Korean War in 1952. Very few women doctors joined the military during the 1950s and 1960s, however. During this era, women comprised only 4 percent of physicians in the United States, and of these, only a small number were black. The first black woman physician to hold a military commission was COL Bowen, who joined the Army in 1955. By 1970, then COL Bowen, still the only black woman physician in the Army, received orders “to my surprise and dismay to go to Vietnam.”49

“We landed in Bien Hoa after midnight July 6, 1970 in a hail of gunfire, rockets, mortar rounds and unbearable heat,” wrote COL Bowen. Her job required frequent travel in country, and she “always packed my .45-calibre sidearm. I submitted reports about the morale and mental health of troops and civilians in Vietnam, briefed congressmen, visiting foreign dignitaries and ranking officers, and news media wanting to know what was really happening as we were losing the war.” COL Bowen recalled her tour as being very lonely. “My position and rank precluded me from socializing with most officers or NCOs.”50

As the Army’s chief psychiatrist in Vietnam, COL Bowen oversaw the work of 17 other physician psychiatrists, as well as nurse psychiatrists and social workers. She was also responsible for planning and coordinating the Army’s drug and race relations programs in Vietnam. COL Bowen told a newspaper reporter that “Army psychiatry is mostly preventative–treating problems before they start. The main problem in Vietnam and in the service in general is the disaffected state of American youth today. They lack the motivation to be in the service, they certainly lack the motivation to be in Vietnam and I think they lack the motivation to do things in civilian life. This disaffection is the main reason for the use of drugs, for instance.”51

COL Bowen believed that the majority of the discrimination she encountered both inside and outside the Army Medical Corps involved not her race, but her gender. “If America became all white overnight, the most persistent form of discrimination–sexism–would still be there,” she told a reporter.52 “Of course, when you are a colonel, discrimination is much less of a problem in the military. Even black, female colonels rate salutes in ‘this man’s’ Army.” Although the Army relegated most enlisted women to positions as secretaries and clerks and gave few women the opportunity to learn jobs that required mechanical or technical skills, COL Bowen believed that the Army had gone further than many sectors of society in giving women equal pay for equal work. “The Army promotes you on the basis of quality and years of service,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, you get the same pay, the same privileges. The system is trying to be fair.” Still, she said, “Changing laws and restructuring the system doesn’t do much to remove the main obstacle–the male ego and the way women relate to it.”53

In 1977, COL Bowen was assigned to command the Hawley Army Medical Center at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN, making her the first woman to command a US military hospital. She summarized her philosophy to a news reporter, “I know that there have been times when I have been victimized by discrimination–both racial and sexual. But I have refused to allow the fact that people discriminate against me to defeat me or sour my judgment. … Then too, I’ve often wondered if, when it came to assigning military physicians to new jobs, it wasn’t easier for my superiors to pick me than try to deal with a pool of white men–all essentially … the same. I imagine I sort of stood out, gave them something definite to point to that made a ‘reason’ for them to pick me.”54

 

A USAF security policewoman stands guard on the flight line armed with a 5.56 mm M16A2 assault rifle, December1994. Defense Visual Information Center, Photo by MSgt Mike Reinhardt

 

Ultimately, opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft led to the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973. A few years earlier Congress had removed the artificial limits on the number of women who could be in each service, and as the armed forces began accepting the best qualified of all the volunteers, characteristics such as race and gender lost significance in comparison to such differentials as intelligence, physical fitness and commitment. The military rediscovered the link between equal opportunity and military efficiency first set forth by the Fahy Committee in its plan to desegregate the US Armed Forces in 1950. Today, the All-Volunteer Force is comprised of a higher proportion of women and minorities than at any other time in history and because of this the nation has gained a professional, highly trained armed force that is second to none.

By Dr. Judith Bellafaire, Chief Historian, Women’s Memorial (July 2006)

If you are a servicewoman or woman veteran or know one who is serving or who has served in the US Armed Forces, please contact the Foundation at history@womensmemorial.org, so that we can continue to enrich the history of women's service and sacrifice in defense of our nation.

1Michael Parks, “Col. Bowen Says Army More Uptight Over Her Sex Than Her Race,” The Baltimore Sun, 23 March 1971, sec. B.