Today we salute those who travelled to war, not to fight it, but to entertain those who did. For some, it was no less dangerous.
Imagine the scene. It’s an August day in 1966. The charts have been written, the band has rehearsed, the set list is ready, the sound checks have been done. Pop singer and bandleader Col Joye and his Joy Boys walk onto the stage with Australia’s sweetheart, popular teenage chanteuse Little Pattie. They’re there to entertain Australian troops stationed at Nui Dat during the Vietnam War and the soldiers cheer enthusiastically, looking forward to some great music, a touch of home, a moment’s respite from the horrors of the jungle and brutalities of battle. They walk onto the stage to do their last show of the day. Suddenly, the performance is abruptly brought to a halt, the band members are quickly whisked from the stage into a jeep and then a waiting helicopter.
Little Pattie, the stage name of Patricia Amphlett, remembers the haste, the sirens, and not quite knowing what was going on. The Battle of Long Tan was underway, the most recognised battle of the Vietnam War according to the Australian Army. Eighteen Australian soldiers lost their lives that day and 24 more were injured. Entertainers were not usually this close to the battlefield. For the most part, performers who made the trip to Vietnam during the conflict there had a much easier time of it than Little Pattie and Col Joye.
But it wasn’t just the battlefield itself that posed dangers. In July 1969, 19-year-old singer Cathy Wayne, who had also worked with Col Joye, returned to Vietnam having first performed there two years earlier. Part of a group called Sweethearts on Parade, she’d just finished her set on the American base in Da Nang when she was shot dead. A US Marine was found guilty of her murder but later released and the truth is that her killer remains unknown. Cathy Wayne was the first of three Australian women killed in Vietnam during that bloody conflict.
So why go to a war zone when the risks are so extreme? What draws performers to want to go to such dangerous places to sing a few songs or tell some jokes?
Australia has fought in more than its fair share of wars mainly in places far from home. Keeping up the morale of the armed forces has always been recognised as being important and in days gone by, soldiers were given leave to attend concerts, dances, stage shows and the cinema. This helped their mental wellbeing, reminded them of the good things back home and helped them remember the values for which they were fighting.
Many entertainers (…) speak with great affection of the friends they made in Vietnam. These interactions on soldiers had a hugely positive effect, giving them a moment of “normality” in a fraught environment.
As time went on, the powers that be in the military realised that bringing live entertainment to the troops would be a positive way to maintain and reinforce group spirit to help offset the harsh realities of battle. As for the entertainers themselves, they were often motivated by a desire to contribute to the war effort in their own way. Musicians, singers, dancers, actors, comedians—they made the trip to Vietnam to bring a little pleasure into the lives of those who served. This was, and remains, their way of thanking the armed forces for what they do.
Entertaining troops with live performers was far more focused during the war in Vietnam than it had been prior to that. In World War I, the duties of Australian military bandsmen were to play for recruiting drives, funerals and official and sporting occasions, but one of their other jobs was to entertain their fellow soldiers when time and the situation permitted. This was probably the extent of live entertainment for Australian soldiers while on base or in the field.
During World War II, the First Australian Entertainment Unit was established. It was made up of non-combatant soldiers, men not physically fit for battle: they received some training but had to mostly fend for themselves. Based in New Guinea, country singer Smoky Dawson was one such soldier whose duty it was to raise morale. He performed as often as possible for his fellow soldiers, helping them to escape for a moment or two from the relentless humidity, the insufficient rations and the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. Popular Australian soprano Strella Wilson was another entertainer who travelled to New Guinea to sing for our troops stationed there. It must have been rather startling to hear opera in the middle of the war-torn jungle.
By the time we went to Vietnam, entertaining the troops was a much more organised business and some of the biggest names in Australian show business made a point of travelling there to do their bit for the armed forces, both Australian and American.
Actress and singer Lorrae Desmond travelled to the country five times between 1967 and 1971 and was hugely popular with the diggers not just for the fabulous shows she put on, but also for going the extra mile. She made a point of spending time with the soldiers, eating meals with them, visiting the wounded, listening to their stories. They dubbed her “the blonde goddess in the golden dress”. She wasn’t the only performer to establish firm bonds with the soldiers. Many entertainers did the same, spending their free time conversing with service personnel and sharing meals with them. Many speak with great affection of the friends they made in Vietnam. These interactions on soldiers had a hugely positive effect, giving them a moment of “normality” in a fraught environment.
Being entertained by Australian artists was like finding water in the middle of the desert. It was a relief, an escape from the routine and the stress and a way to feel connected to what was going on back home.
Among other musical performers to go to Vietnam were the all-girl pop band The Vamps in 1967, the all-girl Indigenous singing group The Sapphires in 1968, and rock and roll star Johnny O’Keefe in 1969. Pop singer Bev Harrell went twice. Patti McGrath Newton, Ian Turpie, Lucky Starr and rock bands Xanadu, the Beaumarks, the Rajahs, the Delltones and over the years many others—some 50 different ensembles of musicians, comedians and actors—all made the trip to help raise the spirits of our fighting forces.
It was strenuous work. Just getting to the bases could be dangerous. First of all, the transportation was rough, entertainers travelling either by army helicopters or in open trucks, each with its own set of potential dangers and always with the chance that scheduled transport times would change at the drop of a hat as the war took its course.
The weather was hot and steamy and the mosquitoes were constant companions. Entertainers usually did three shows a day, six days a week, often using inferior instruments and equipment and performing on rough stages. They performed on the backs of trucks, on boats, in hospitals. They slept in tents and ate at the mess. Some performers found this so very gruelling that they only went once, but as we’ve seen, others returned on multiple occasions. The soldiers deeply appreciated this, feeling that the entertainers stood with them, empathising with their pain and trying to alleviate that pain for the short time they were there.
A generation or more later, Australian troops fought in the Middle East—Afghanistan and later Iraq—and once again, Australian artists were engaged to entertain them, giving them a break from the atrocities of battle. Those wars were unpopular with large sections of the Australian population. Richard Gehrmann from the University of Southern Queensland has written not only was it dangerous to be there, but some entertainers risked damaging their reputations back home because the situation was so politicised. It was a bitter time and a number of performers who were invited to go refused on political grounds.
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- Diva, foodie, serial exiter: A salute to our Nellie Melba
- Lest we forget our own: Why I’m boycotting ANZAC Day, and why you’re lucky
But for those who made the decision to go, there was a sense of discovering something about the everyday lives of the soldiers and what they endured in these war-torn places. Many entertainers have spoken about the satisfaction they felt at bringing a little cheer to the serving men and women. For the soldiers, being entertained by Australian artists was like finding water in the middle of the desert. It was a relief, an escape from the routine and the stress and a way to feel connected to what was going on back home.
Among the musicians to perform in Afghanistan and Iraq were country artists the McClymonts and Allan Caswell, singers Angry Anderson, Doc Neeson, Jenny Morris, Ami Williamson, popular bands Amy Meredith, the Wolverines and many others. Comedians including Tom Gleeson, Dan Ilic, Fred Lang, Hamish and Andy, Mick Molloy and others also made welcome appearances.
One performer who visited Iraq in 2005 and again in 2006 was Patricia Amphlett. Almost 40 years after entertaining troops in Nui Dat, she was in the Middle East doing it all again. Her experiences in Vietnam coupled with the friendships she forged there made her more than willing to make the journey to the Middle East. As patron of the Forces Advisory Council on Entertainment, she now actively encourages other performers to go to war zones to bring some joy to the soldiers fighting there.
From the word go, Australian musicians and entertainers have supported the efforts of the young men and women who fight in our nation’s name. When World War I broke out, Dame Nellie Melba, then visiting Australia, was unable to return to her home in England, so she spent the next few years performing in charity concerts in Australia, the United States and Canada, all funds raised going to the war effort. If she’d been allowed to, it’s probably fair to say she would have gone to the battle zone to sing for frontline troops.
It’s not glamorous to go to war as an entertainer, to be placed in an unpredictable environment surrounded by danger, but those who’ve made that journey are grateful for the experience and happy to have supported serving soldiers. For their part, soldiers have official permission to feel light-hearted for an hour or two, enjoy a joke and listen to some music. In a brutal place, they are allowed to experience a moment of joy.