During her seven years in Vietnam, Tess Johnston was both immersed in the war and removed from it. As a USAID employee, from her arrival in 1967 until she finally left in 1974, she worked as a secretary and lived in government-provided housing. She shopped at U.S. military commissaries and had a flourishing love life. When reading the opening pages of her memoir, it’s easy to dismiss it as an echo of Bridget Jones’s Diary, but that’s far from the truth.
Johnston’s powers of observation and spirit of adventure take her miles away from chick-lit territory and into a corner of history that’s relatively unexplored: the life of a female office worker in a war-ravaged country.
Soon after arriving in Saigon, Johnston attends a lecture given by a man who would later be immortalized in Neil Sheehan’s classic A Bright and Shining Lie, John Paul Vann.
Vann had come to Vietnam as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. By the time Johnston encounters him, he’s a high-ranking civilian military adviser, “either the most hated or the most respected man in Vietnam,” who’s famous for his knowledge and candor. When he tells the truth about the war, people listen, whether they agree with him or not. Johnston not only listens, she decides that she’s going to work for him. Soon she leaves the comforts of Saigon to live outside the village of Bin Hoa, close to Vann’s headquarters and near army and air force bases. This will be her home until Vann’s death in 1972.
Johnston’s description of her new home are vivid and captivating. “I marveled that any place could be so unlovely,” she remarks, while clearly reveling in the life and vitality of Bien Hoa with its constant parade of GIs, bar girls, street vendors, and traffic that includes “the occasional oxcart,” “like a small and dirty Rio in carnival time.”
It’s impossible not to speculate that her enthusiastic acceptance of her new home is influenced by Vann’s wholehearted embrace of the world he dominated. “He loved gutsy females” and when visiting dignitaries balk at accompanying him on a helicopter surveillance trip, he barks at them, “Hell, my secretaries go out with me all the time.” When Johnston is stranded on a locked-down air force base after an ill-fated party that ends with an attack during the Tet Offensive , she calls Vann to say she won’t make it to the office anytime soon, only to be told “get the hell back to work.” And she does, because he sends a military officer who has enough clout to breach the locked gates of the base and who’s able to bring her safely back to her responsibilities.
“I was later and often accused of having developed the “Intoxication with Cordite Syndrome,” when “you truly believe that you’re not going to die.” “After...that first night of Tet I was never seriously afraid again,” Johnston says, and backs up that assertion with stories of refusing to hunker down in a ditch under enemy fire because she doesn’t want to ruin a favorite dress. She’s blithe about the lengthy and potentially dangerous “commissary runs” that she makes to Saigon for food supplies; she’s as untroubled by driving “under random gunfire” as she is by attending a graphic striptease show. And she confesses that one of her favorite things to do is to direct Saigon newcomers to a Southern-style diner where the waitresses serve breakfast while clad only in skimpy aprons.
Johnston’s perspective is unique; the story she tells about her wartime life is tragic one minute, delightful the next, unfailingly irreverent, and, from beginning to end, well worth reading.~Janet Brown