Sharon (Vander Ven) Cummings
~American Red Cross, SRAO
April 1966-67

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Sharon (Vander Ven) Cummings
© All Rights Reserved
Written 8/23/90

Red Cross Uniform©1966 by Sharon Cummings
          "Class A's"

  APRIL - NOVEMBER 1966

I was a member of the first class of Red Cross SRAO girls sent from Washington, DC, to Vietnam. Centers had already been started by girls transferred down from Korea in: Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Di An, Cam Ranh Army, Cam Ranh Air Force, Dong Ba Thin, Phan Rang, Qui Nhon, An Khe, Lai Khe, with two more planned for Cu Chi and Long Binh.

After an 18-hour plane trip, we arrived in Saigon at 2 am and were hit in the face with 98-degree heat, water rationing, and a very nosy generator right outside our window at the Meyerkord Hotel. I remember the MAC-V and ARC were located in an old perfume factory in Saigon . On the roof, they had a beautiful rock garden formation with little houses and scenes around it. Such a contrast to the city itself.

My first assignment was at Cam Ranh Bay, Army, the sand capitol of the world, where our home was referred to as the "Doll House," and was surrounded by triple concertina wire and an armed guard. Outside the base was Cam Ranh Village, which we visited frequently. Dong Ba Thin was across the bay (another ARC center). Occasionally, we visited the city of Nha Trang for the weekend, where we would go "shopping." We also visited the village of Ba Ngoi, where our light skin and blond hair caused quite a commotion with the children.

Finding "privacy" was difficult when you lived in a place surrounded by men, but we did manage to find the most beautiful cove at the beach where we girls could be alone. This area would have made the most beautiful resort area ... the South China Sea, tropical fish, and sand so white it squeaked when you walked on it. If there wasn't a war going on, it could have been a paradise.

While stationed at Cam Ranh, I took several trips to visit other Red Cross centers in An Khe (home of the 1st Cavalry), Bien Hoa (173rd Airborne), and Di An (home of the Big Red One), to see how their living conditions compared to ours, and how they ran their centers. Since Cam Ranh was mainly a support area, our center was much more active than those in areas that were designated as "combat" zones, and was open from early in the morning through the late evening, seven days a week. However, we had to cope with unique morale problems specific to support areas.  Centers located in combat zones were more "mobile" oriented. At Cam Ranh Army, we ran the center, ran a regular mobile program to those areas unable to visit the center (which included Cam Ranh Navy), and wrote "hospital books" which we took over to the very large convalescent hospital. I especially enjoyed the one-on-one with the guys in the hospital.

It was at the hospital where my folk-singing group, the Sandpipers, had one of their best and largest audiences!

Red Cross Sandpipers singing group

The performers were (bottom, left to right): 1st Row: Skip Stiles, Sharon (Vander Ven) Cummings, Barry Curtis 2nd Row: Tom Appleby, Bill Bates 3rd Row: Bobbi (Hudson) Crocker, Sara (Yapple) Varney

 

"Once Upon A Time,
In Another World,
And Another Time"

"The Sandpipers" started as an informal group of Red Cross girls and GI's who use to pick and play folksongs at the ARC recreation center in Cam Ranh (Army) Bay. This group developed into an actual clubmobile program as "The Sandpipers" and toured and performed for different military units (Army and Navy) and the convalescent hospital (on the Air Force side of Cam Ranh).

We did have the privilege of being welcomed onto the U.S.S. Salisbury Sound while it was docked at Cam Ranh. It was such a luxurious treat to eat off real china, silver, and in an air-conditioned room!

NOVEMBER 1966 - JANUARY 1967

In November, I was transferred to the center at II Field Forces, Long Binh. The girls stationed here all lived in Bien Hoa, at the Honor Smith Compound, Conley 10-A, affectionately known as the Pink Palace. This French villa even had a flush toilet and a bathtub! Definitely different than Cam Ranh where we had an outhouse (called the "Rose Room") and "showers" hooked up to huge water drums on the roof!

We had a small center at Long Binh, but this unit concentrated on "mobile" programs. We took our programs all over the place ... Xuan Loc (where we watched the guys fire off 105 howitzers), Ba Ria (where a special "powder room" was constructed just for us girls), Vungtau, Black Horse, and Gia Ria (on top of a mountain where all supplies had to be flown in, including us).

Later in November, I took a much needed R&R to Hong Kong. It was a real pleasure to have a clean bed (not an army cot), and to have my hair done at a beauty shop. The beautician took me for a private tour of the island and showed me places I would have never found on my own.

Christmas was celebrated while at Bien Hoa. We managed to get a small tree for both the center and our hooch, which we decorated with hand made ornaments. I put together some books of Christmas Carols, and we went around to various units caroling. During Christmas, Cardinal Spellman came to Long Binh, and we all celebrated Christmas Mass in a huge amphitheater erected for the occasion.

On Christmas Day, two of us flew into Tay Ninh and had Christmas dinner with the "Rattlers." Dinner was served out of big field mess cans, but the company was marvelous. Later in the day, we loaded up into several helicopters and flew over to Cu Chi where Bob Hope was performing for the troops. It was a memorable day, and one I will probably never forget.

FEBRUARY 1967 - APRIL 1967

In February, I finally was transferred to a "combat" unit, the 25th Division at Cu Chi. This unit was a strictly "mobile" unit, except for the times we would welcome the new guys arriving on base, or would go to one of the units in camp and help serve chow. The question asked most often of us was, "Why are you here?" My usual reply was, "Because you are." No matter how tired we might get, there was always another smile and a wave for the guys.

Although we traveled to many locations when the guys were out in the field (Soc Trang, Go Da Ha and Dau Tieng, where they had scout dogs), one of the places that stands out in my mind was Dau Tieng. This had once been a French plantation, and as such had beautiful grounds, buildings, and even a swimming pool, which the guys used when they were off duty. We went up to this area weekly, and gave our programs to whatever troops happened to be in the base camp that day. If  programming was impossible, we would do other things, like help fill sand bags or just sit and talk with the guys.

Once, after completing our programming, one of the Generals stopped in his helicopter and told us to get in, which of course we did. He had some troops digging in somewhere, and decided we should go down and see them. So there we were, in "war zone C," in our powder blue uniforms, smiling and being our cheerful selves while the guys were in camouflage and digging in for a battle. Both the guys and us wondered what we were doing there that day!

Tay Ninh was one of our favorite places to go and program. This involved an overnight stay, so a special place had been built for us. We made a lot of friends at the 196th, so it was really hard when they were pulled out and were sent up to Da Nang. However, we stayed up for three days, shared c-rations and kool-aid with the troops, and said good-bye to all the guys in all the units as they loaded onto the planes and headed north with their equipment, gear and pets (which included owls, as well as monkeys and puppies).

On four separate occasions, after arriving at a unit and setting up to do the program for that day, I had to adapt and let someone else do some real "performing." That someone was Martha Rae. She was all over Vietnam, and for a while, it seemed she was following me wherever I went. To say the least, there was no way I would ever have tried to compete with her!

Shortly before I left Vietnam, I took a second R&R to Bangkok.  However, the air conditioning of Bangkok (and probably my exhausted physical condition) left me fighting bronchitis. I ended up in the hospital at Cu Chi, where they were not equipped to handle "female" patients. I was given an area in the recovery ward, blocked off from view by a couple of privacy screens. It was here that I saw some of the horrors of war ... Vietnamese left as "examples" by the Viet Cong, and interrogations of suspected Viet Cong by the Vietnamese Regular Army. I was psychologically getting ready to go home.

I saw air strikes, and the bombing of our perimeters; I saw Viet Cong prisoners of war and visited with the Green Berets outside of Saigon; I saw both Vietnamese civilians and our own men both at their best and as casualties of the war. I saw the strengths of our young men, and learned to appreciate their humor and their caring sides. And if asked to do it again, I would. I often say that I am sorry there was a need for my job, but I am glad that I was able to do it!

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