by Don North
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Trinh Thi Ngo - Hanoi Hannah
Her name was Trinh Thi Ngo. We called her Hanoi Hannah. She called herself Thu Houng, "the fragrance of autumn". (Note: The alias -- Thu Huong -- or Autumn Fragrance, was easier for her non-Vietnamese listeners to pronounce.
Her job was to chill and frighten, not to charm and seduce. Her voice was as smooth as silk, her English impeccable, and as North Vietnam's premier propagandist, "Hanoi Hannah" tried to convince American G.I.'s that the war was immoral, that they should lay down their arms and go home.
In a 1994 interview with the New York Times she said:
My work was to make the G.I.'s understand that it was not right for them to take part in this war, I talk to them about the traditions of the Vietnamese, to resist aggression. I want them to know the truth about this war and to do a little bit to demoralize them so that they will refuse to fight.
In 1955, Ngo was admitted to work at VOV (Voice of Vietnam Radio). They had been looking for an announcer for English broadcast. She thought of volunteering to do something for the revolution.
Ngo studied and loved English through music and movies, including Gone with the winds. Becoming an announcer was actually a turning point in her career. She began to practice how to present news in English so that listeners could understand the message delivered.
Already having a good command of English, I can work comfortably at VOV. But the training played a great role. Experts taught me how to pronounce correctly and properly. The way we present news should be different from presenting commentaries or stories.
Some Vietnamese who are good at English but foreigners dont understand what they said because of wrong intonation. Listeners from Southeast Asia and Northern Europe very much loved VOVs English broadcast and loved the voice of announcer Trinh Thi Ngo (Thu Huong).
In 1965, when the large number of American troops were sent to southern Vietnam, Radio the Voice of Vietnam cooperated with the Department for Propaganda of the Defense Ministry to broadcast a program particularly for American soldiers. A small talk to American GIs gave them a correct insight into the war in Vietnam waged by the US. Since then, Trinh Thi Ngos fame was associated with this program, which was broadcast at night after a long day of fighting. The opening sentence was: This is Thu Huong, talking with American soldiers in southern Vietnam . Initially, each program had been 5-6 minutes long and broadcast twice a week before it was extended to 30 minutes and broadcast three times a day. So each day, Ngo spent 90 minutes to have her voice broadcast to hundreds of thousands of American servicemen.
Trinh Thi Ngo (Hanoi Hannah) with her husband in 2006 at age 77
On April 30, 1975, Trinh Thi Ngo was the first person to read the news in English announcing to world Vietnams historical event: Saigon is liberated, Vietnam is completely independent and unified. After the liberation day, Ngo accompanied her husband to move to the south to live. And she worked at the Ho Chi Minh TV Station until her retirement.
Ngo impressed people with her resolute, strong voice hidden in gentleness and softness characterized by a Vietnamese. She said Reading English is my passion. As time goes by, I have come to realize that I chose the right job. I love my job, which brings joy to me. If there was a second life, I would choose to be an announcer of Radio the Voice of Vietnam.
In the history of Radio the Voice of Vietnam, announcer like Trinh Thi Ngo helps make information more powerful and introduce Vietnam to the wider world. During her 87-year lifetime and 20-year dedication to radio, she set a bright example to the younger generations, including staff of Radio the Voice of Vietnams world service.
For eight years GIs tuned in to her daily radio broadcasts in Godforsaken outposts with names like the Rockpile, Ben Het and Con Thien. Although virtually no one took her seriously, they did wonder if she was as lovely as she sounded, and many considered her Hanoi's most prominent Communist after Ho Chi Minh.
A Captive Audience
Hanoi Hannah could always be assured of at least the American prisoner of war (POW) audience authorized to hear her broadcast in prisons like the Hanoi Hilton.
Sen. John McCain, a Hanoi Hilton inmate for over five years, recently remarked:
I heard Hannah every day. She was a marvelous entertainer. Im surprised she didnt get to Hollywood.
Lt. Commander Ray Voden of McLean, Virginia, shot down over Hanoi on April 3, 1965, endured her broadcasts for eight years:
Hannahs broadcasts often stirred up arguments among the POWs. There were nearly fist fights over the program. Some guys wanted to hear it, while others tried to ignore it. Personally, I listened because I usually gleaned information, reading between the lines. She always exaggerated our aircraft losses, often claiming hundreds of our planes shot down when we hadnt heard anti-aircraft fire in weeks.
Music was the best part of it. Sometimes playing American tunes that were supposed to make us homesick had the opposite effect. One time they played Downtown by Petula Clark and everyone started dancing and yelling for an hour, just went wild. Another one that gave us a hoot was Dont Fence Me In.
Ive no hatred for her now. She was doing her job and I was doing mine. But no, I wouldnt go out of my way to meet her today if given a chance.
Hanoi Hannah at age 67
Hearing this during a 1998 interview with David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times interview, 67-year-old Hanoi Hannah--whose real name is Trinh Thi Ngo--giggles, feigning surprise. she said:
Oh, my, I wasn't a celebrity. I did love that time in Hanoi, but I was just an ordinary citizen trying to contribute to my country. I only heard the name hanoi Hannah later, Hanoi begins with an H; Hannah begins with an H. The Americans like nicknames. I didnt care what American soldiers called me. What mattered was that they listened to our radio programs for which they were the target audience.
Although she earned a First-Class Resistance Medal for her work and still does occasional translation and voice-overs for the Voice of Vietnam, Ngo has slipped quietly into anonymity, surrounded by young Vietnamese who have never heard of the Rockpile, much less Hanoi Hannah.
I always preferred American movies to French films, The French talked too much. There was more action in American movies. I remember "Gone With the Wind" with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. It was so popular in Hanoi. I remember we took bread and sausages with us to the theater because it was such a long film.
Mrs. Ngo joined the Voice of Vietnam in 1955, the year after the Communists under Ho Chi Minh ousted the French and took power in Hanoi after years in the jungle. She was selected as an announcer on the radio's new English-language shortwave service, which was beamed overseas. She said:
I wanted to join the Voice of Vietnam because it was a good opportunity to help my country. I was not political. I was patriotic.
Her work did not take an anti-American turn until 1965, when the first American ground troops landed in Vietnam and the Hanoi Government decided to begin special broadcasts to them. Using scripts prepared by the North Vietnamese Army, Mrs. Ngo said, she was never tempted to alter a word, no matter how strident the tone. She atated:
I agreed with these scripts. We were trying to make the Americans understand that it was not right for them to be in Vietnam, that they were an aggressor, that this was a problem for the Vietnamese to sort out.
Her 30-minute programs, which were repeated several times a day, were not known for their subtlety. Mrs. Ngo announced the names of the American troops who died in battle the previous month. She said:
We wanted to make them a little bit sad.
She also read clippings from American newspapers and magazines about anti-war demonstrations in the United States to remind the troops of how unpopular the war was back home.
We thought if we used the American magazines, it would be more convincing.
Mrs. Ngo said her goal was always to project a soothing, convincing voice. She said she never felt aggression toward Americans as a people "except during the bombing" -- the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, when she and her staff were evacuated to a remote station 20 miles from the capital. She said:
When the bombs came, I did feel angry. To the Vietnamese, Hanoi is sacred ground. But even then, when I spoke to the G.I.'s I tried always to be calm.
And if she did once feel anger toward the United States, Mrs. Ngo insists that she put it behind her years ago. Like many northern Vietnamese, she expresses little but fascination today for the land of her former enemy, and she hopes someday to visit "New York, Washington, many places."
Her enthusiasm for things American also extended to music, she said. To entice the American troops to tune in to her show, the propaganda was intercut with music from records and tapes taken to Hanoi by visiting anti-war protesters from abroad. She said:
We had Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and I always liked Elvis Presley. He's 'the King,' yes?
This is Thu Huong calling American servicemen in South Vietnam,
Then she'd play a melancholy song ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was a favorite), read news of antiwar protests back in America and, on Fridays, recite the names of Americans killed in action from the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
My motto is that presenting news should persuasive, not too friendly and not too tough. Wording should be appropriate. Addressing American servicemen in southern Vietnam. My goal was to tell GIs they shouldn't participate in a war that wasn't theirs. I tried to be friendly and convincing. I didn't want to be shrill or aggressive. For instance, I referred to the Americans as the adversary. I never called them the enemy but adversaty instead. The military staff wrote the news in Vietnamese and I translated them in English. When mentioning the wars developments, I often quoted American newspapers to make the information more objective. The message that I wanted to send to each American soldier is "You are fighting for an unjust war and will die in vain.
Her scripts were written by propagandists in the North Vietnamese army who lifted their material from articles in Time, Newsweek and the New York Times that North Vietnamese diplomats abroad had sent home. Sometimes members of the antiwar movement brought the articles to Hanoi.
Ngo smiled as she recalled those activists she befriended, among them Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. She says:
They were very helpful, in helping us explain to the GIs why the war should be solved by the Vietnamese themselves, not Americans.
She paused, perplexed during the 1998 interview and asked:
You know, Jane Fonda never came back at all after the war. I wonder why. She'd made a tape I played that was very good. I heard that some years ago she made an apology in the United States for coming to Hanoi during the war. Is that true?
Note: Ten years ago, Fonda made a televised apology to Vietnam veterans and their families for her 1972 visit, during which she was famously photographed at a North Vietnamese gun emplacement.
In many ways, Ngo seemed an unlikely candidate to become the voice of communism. She grew up in Hanoi, under French colonialism, the daughter of a prosperous glass factory owner. She took private English lessons and perfected her command of the language watching French-subtitled Hollywood movies, among them "Gone With the Wind" (which she has seen five times).
Soldiers listen to radio broadcast in Vietnam
After working as a volunteer at the Voice of Vietnam, in 1965 she was chosen, largely because of her unaccented English, to begin broadcasting to U.S. troops as Thu Huong. She recalled:
Yes, I wanted to make them a little bit homesick.
It wasn't until several years later that she learned through news clips that GIs had nicknamed her Hanoi Hannah.
The trouble for Hanoi Hannah--as for other wartime propagandists such as Tokyo Rose, Seoul City Sue and Baghdad Betty--was that her broadcasts weren't very credible. The reports were also wildly exaggerated, announcing the annihilation of entire U.S. divisions and the loss of hundreds of U.S. planes in a single engagement.
Even the North Vietnamese themselves did not trust the news they heard on the Voice of Vietnam. If they spoke English, they tuned in to the Voice of America, the BBC or Armed Forces Radio, a network run by the U.S. military, for their news of the war.
With her broadcasting career winding down and having recovered from a motor scooter accident that had laid her up for two weeks, Ngo says she hopes one day soon to visit the country she spent eight years talking about. She said:
San Francisco has always been a dream, And the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood, I'd love to see them too.
And if she could make one final broadcast to former GIs, what would she say?
That's easy. I'd tell them: "Let's let bygones be bygones. Let's move on and be friends."
Petite and lovely, Ngo did the last of her 30-minute broadcasts in 1973, when the bulk of the U.S. military withdrew. She moved to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1975 with her husband, an engineer now retired. They live in a modest three-bedroom apartment, near the former Presidential Palace she used to call the "den of puppets," and listen faithfully to newscasts on the Voice of America.
How are you, GI Joe? It seems to me that most of you are poorly informed about the going of the war, to say nothing about a correct explanation of your presence over here. Nothing is more confused than to be ordered into a war to die or to be maimed for life without the faintest idea of what's going on. (Hanoi Hannah, 16 June 1967)
The wartime words of Hanoi Hannah, part of the loud soundtrack for the Vietnam war. It may have been the first war fought to a rock n'roll background, but for American GIs, along with the beat came the message: disinformation from the enemy in Hanoi and misinformation from the US Army in Saigon. Even so, radio brought music and messages with a familiar sound to soldiers who thought the war was the end of the earth, and to many it didn't matter who was broadcasting; Radio Hanoi or US Armed Forces Radio.
It was during my first return to Vietnam since the war and mixed into the list of economists, generals and journalists I asked to interview Thu Houng, the lady known as Hanoi Hannah. The meeting was arranged. They met on the roof cafe of the Rex Hotel in Ho Ville for coffee at ten.
Don North with his recorder
As an ABC News correspondent during the war I tuned into her broadcasts regularly He reported:
Like attending the "five o'clock follies" (USMACV's daily briefing), Radio Hanoi's broadcasts in English were just another source of information or disinformation to be checked out and sorted in the communications pudding of the Vietnam war. Some days on Radio Hanoi you just might hear useful information like a message from a US POW or the first hint of a policy shift in Hanoi's Politburo, but mostly it was highly exaggerated reports of the war and curious messages to American GIs from Hanoi Hannah. Not much news worth reporting.
A sample broadcast of Hanoi Hannah, 12 August 1967:
American GIs don't fight this unjust immoral and illegal war of Johnson's. Get out of Vietnam now and alive. This is the voice of Vietnam Broadcasting from Hanoi, capitol of the Democratic republic of Vietnam. Our program for American GIs can be heard at 1630 hours. Now here's Connie Francis singing "I almost lost my mind".
In Vietnam you habitually tuned into whatever newscasts your transistor radio would pick up. It was reassuring to know that you were not missing a big offensive somewhere in the next Province and that you could spend another few days on that elusive pacification story in Xuan Loc. BBC was the first choice for radio news and most reliable, but often hard to pick up. On US Armed Forces Radio even a major battle could sound like a minor skirmish if it didn't favor US or ARVN forces, but you learned to read between the lines of their newscasts. Sometimes you would hear your own TV or radio reports from Stateside broadcasts, picked up and rebroadcast over US Armed Forces Radio, as long as they didn't mention American setbacks or were critical of Washington policy.
Radio Hanoi could be heard in most areas of South Vietnam, particularly at night and I would often join groups of American Gi's around 10:30pm having a few beers before bed and setting the dial for Hanoi Hannah for a few laughs.
The GI's radio was, after his rifle, his most valued possession. Like his rifle butt, the radio was usually wrapped in frayed black tape for protection. GIs would laugh and hoot over Hannah's attempts to scare them into going home or her suggestions to frag an officer. If their unit was mentioned a great cheer went up and they pelted the radio with empty beer cans.
We would ask each other how the hell could she know what she did. Inevitably, the stories of her insights and military intelligence grew with each telling and she was often credited with broadcasting Viet Cong offensives in advance and within hours of battle knowing the names and hometowns of dead American soldiers.
Hanoi Hannah, September 15, 1967 broadcast:
Now for the War News. American casualties in Vietnam. Army Corporal Larry J. Samples, Canada, Alabama... Staff Sergeant Charles R. Miller, Tucson, Arizona... Sergeant Frank G. Hererra, Coolidge, Arizona.... (Hanoi Hannah, September 15, 1967)
After Saigon was overrun in 1975 and renamed for Ho Chi Minh, she moved here with her husband, a southerner who had been sympathetic to the Communists since student days. He is a retired engineer, while she still works in broadcasting, now at Vietnamese television.
Their home today is a simple, spotless apartment a few blocks from what used to be South Vietnam's Presidential Palace -- the "den of the puppets," as it was called by the North Vietnamese propagandists during the war.
Reared in Hanoi during the French occupation, Mrs. Ngo was sent to private tutors in the early 1950's to study English, a language that Hollywood had made her eager to learn.
In May 1978, I returned to Vietnam and requested the Foreign Ministry arrange an interview for me with Trinh Thi Ngo. By then, Hanoi Hannah had left her beloved Hanoi and moved to Ho Chi Minh City, the renamed city of Saigon, with her husband who was a southerner and Vietnamese Army officer.
Former US Marine Ken Watkins joined me on the Rex roof for the meeting with Hanoi Hannah. Ken is now a counselor at the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Houston, Texas. He had returned to join a group of veterans from Garberville, California to build a health clinic in Vung Tao. Ken had been confronting many old ghosts of his Vietnam duty in the past weeks. Hanoi Hannah would be yet another phantom to encounter face to face. Ken was a regular listener of Hannah's during his time as a Corpsman with the U.S. First Marines based at Marble Mountain in 1966. Ken recalled:
The signal was pretty good around Danang and we would tune in once or twice a week to hear her talk about the war, a war I was beginning to question and wanted to hear discussed. U.S. Armed Forces Vietnam Radio didn't talk about the war really, they ignored the issues or public attitudes at home. Hanoi Hannah didn't necessarily make sense and there was a certain awkwardness; she used American English, but really didn't speak our language in spite of her hip expressions and hit tunes, even tunes that were banned on U.S. Army radio. The best thing going for her was that she was female and had a nice soft voice.
While waiting for Hannah to arrive, I asked Ken were there any of her broadcasts that he particularly remembered. He replied:
Whenever she named our unit, the First Marines, and where we were, that always stands out in my mind. Some of us thought she had spies everywhere or a crystal ball.
I then asked Ken "Do you still feel anger toward her?" He repsponded:
Sure, some antagonism, add it to the Vietnam list, but this trip back is about coming full circle on a lot of things and she is another voice from the past I want to confront in person.
So an old Marine and an old journalist waited that sunny Saigon morning on the roof of the old Rex for the real Hanoi Hannah to appear, waiting for reality to sweep away years of bitter old images in the mills of our minds.
Dragon Lady? Prophet? Psy-warrior par excellence or what? Like so many of the phantoms encountered in Vietnam she was not what she seemed.
Trinh Thi Ngo (Hanoi Hannah) with Don North
She was no phantom. She didn't look like a dragon lady and she was on time. A pleasant looking woman, slim, well groomed and attractive showed up at 10:00am sharp on the Rex roof accompanied by an escort from the External Affairs Press Office. The wartime sounds of Radio Hanoi came flooding back.
We Gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place, surely there's a better life for me and you. (An Eric Burden song... regularly heard on Radio Hanoi, banned on US Armed Forces radio.)
Don: Thu Houng, you played a lot of American rock music, where did you get it?
Hannah: Yes, yes, we bought the music from progressive Americans who came to visit Hanoi. We also have our own music, but I think that the GIs like to listen to American music, it's more suitable to their ears.
Don: Have you ever heard from those GIs who heard your broadcasts and to whom you became a household name?
Hannah: After the war we received one letter from an ex-GI who said he listened to our broadcast and now that the war was over he is back home and wanted us to know about it. I am sorry that I forget his name, it has been quite a long time now.
Don: What prompted your government to begin your broadcasts to American soldiers?
Hannah: Because the GIs were sent massively to South Vietnam, maybe it's a good idea to have a broadcast for them. It wasn't a new idea. During the war against the French we had this kind of broadcast for the French soldiers.
Don: What about the foreigners who helped you during the war?
Hannah: The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett helped us from time to time and a French woman, Madelaine Riffaud. We did several interviews with Cora Weiss and Jane Fonda. We asked Jane Fonda if she would like to meet American pilots in Hanoi, but she refused, she didn't want to. I saw the pilots sometimes and we broadcast statements but I never interviewed them either. They were authorized to listen to our broadcasts. And we broadcast tapes sent to us from Americans against the war. These were most effective I believe. Americans are xenophobic, they will believe their own people rather than the adversary, even a friendly enemy voice.
Don: Did you ever evaluate the effects of your broadcasts?
Hannah: No, during the war it was difficult to get feedback except through foreign news reports but we knew we were being heard.
Don: What were your main aims?
Hannah: We mentioned that GIs should go AWOL and suggested some frigging, or that is fragging. We advised them to do what they think proper against the war.
Don: But there were few, if any, defections of Americans, did that surprise you?
Hannah: No, we just continued our work. We believed in it. I put my heart in my work.
Don: Many American soldiers think you received excellent intelligence on their unit positions and battle readiness and casualties. What was the main source of your information on US troops in Vietnam?
Hannah: US ArmyStars and Stripes. We read from it. We had it flown in everyday. And we also read Newsweek, Time and several newspapers. We could also intercept the AP and UPI wires and of course we had the news from our Vietnam News Agency and we rewrote it. We had many sources of news. We took remarks of American journalists and put it in our broadcasts, especially remarks about casualties...high casualties. There was the list of Missing in Action, those who were killed on the battlefield, we read the news with the native place.
Don: Sometimes the North Vietnamese Army when they killed Americans would find letters to their families. Did you ever get such letters and read them?
Hannah: No. Maybe the Army, but not our radio station.
Don: Do you remember any articles in particular that you used?
Hannah: Yes, Arnaud DeBorchegrave in Newsweek. I remember we used his articles. And Don Luce about the tiger cages in South Vietnam. We would often say to the GIs that the Saigon regime was not worth their support.
Don: Did you ever announce attacks before they took place? Many soldiers in Vietnam thought you did?
Hannah: No, but, um, I don't think...for example, if we made a sum-up of war news maybe the GIs will guess something. I don't know. We never informed that such and such a battle would take place. That we would not do.
Don: You never gave any hints of what would take place?
Hannah:Well, in our talks we said that if they were in Vietnam, how could they avoid the war zone and maybe they will get bad chance, maybe killed. But it's not that such and such a battle took place.
Now for our talk. A Vietnam Black GI who refuses to be a victim of racism is Billy Smith. It seems on the morning of March fifteenth a fragmentation grenade went off in an officers barracks in Bien Hoa Army Base killing two gung ho lieutenants and wounding a third. Smith was illegally searched, arrested and put in Long Binh Jail and brought home for trial. The evidence that clearly showed him guilty of all charges and specifications was this: being black, poor and against the war and the army and refusing to be a victim of racism. (Hanoi Hannah, 30 March 1968)
Mike Roberts, 41, Detroit, Michigan remembers Hanoi Hannah. Mike was a Marine, in a Hawk Missile Battalion just outside Da Nang through 1967 and 1968. He summed up the black veteran's attitude to Hannah's broadcasts:
I remember June 1967, I was sitting in a tent with about thirteen guys from Charlie Company. We were all on mess duty and we were gambling, drinking and having a good timeshootin' craps, talking about the world, man, listening to music and you know one guy kept saying, 'Sshh, sshh, be quiet,' and everybody says what, what, and he says 'There's a riot in Detroit!' I guess the governor called in the troops... there was some loss of life. There was no feeling of, you know, what were they rioting for? What possibly could they want? We all knew what they wanted, you know what I'm saying. So of course we would feel some sort of empathy for the folks back home...the guys in the street who were struggling or rioting.
Hanoi Hannah comes on soon after that, and she knows what guard unit was called in, what kind of weapons were used...you know what I'm sayin'. That's when it starts to hit home.... We knew what kind of fire power and what kind of devastation that kind of weapon can do to people, and now those same weapons were turning on us, you know, our own military is killing our own people. We might as well have been Viet Cong...you know what I'm sayin'? It was just bad news, but Hanoi Hannah picked up on it and she talked about it. And clearly if she knew about it, Armed Forces Radio did too. They knew more than they had broadcasted. That was really the first time I started hearing Hanoi Hannah call upon Blacks, you know, to rethink their situation there. Why are you fighting? You have your own battle to fight in America. We were smoking herbs, you know, and we decided to listen to Hanoi Hannah. Now most of the guys that I hung out with didn't stay up all night waiting for Hannah to come on. But there were times when...like during bunker watch at night...we wanted to listen to Hanoi Hannah...to see what she had to say. But we didn't really see her as our friend...someone who is looking out for our best interest and would keep the Viet Cong from killing us if they had a chance.
Tom Walles spent eight years in Vietnam and Thailand with the US Army Special Forces. During his time in the Central Highlands Tom particularly remembers one broadcast.
We had a young Lieutenant who had just turned twenty-two years old and we wanted him to come down and celebrate his birthday at headquarters. He got in a sampan with a couple of security guards and they started down the river. One of the enemy reached out and handed them a grenade and killed two of them in the boat. We found the boat later and there was a birthday card bought at an American PX pinned to his chest that said 'Happy Twenty -First Birthday Lieutenant...this will be your last.' A day or two later we picked up Hanoi Hannah saying that, uh congratulations to Lieutenant so and so, it's too bad he won't make his twenty-third birthday.
Jim Maciolek served at Lai Khe with the First Division in 1966. He remembers:
When we heard Hannah mention our unit we would give a toast to her and throw our beer cans at the radio. If she knew where we were, so did everybody else. But Armed Forces Radio was on constantly, too. It was run by the U.S. military so we heard what they wanted us to hear. I think I would have liked to hear about opposition to the war that was being staged back home. That way I would have been better prepared when I got back home...seeing hippies, people chanting slogans, people with black arm bands...that was all new to me.
Hanoi Hannah could always be assured of at least the POW captive audience "authorized" to hear her broadcasts in the Hanoi Hilton. A speaker wired into every room made Hannah's commentaries impossible to ignore, although some tried. Lt. Commander Ray Voden, of McLean, Virginia endured her broadcasts for almost eight years after being shot down over Hanoi on 3 April 1965.
Hanoi Hannah's broadcasts often stirred up argument among the POWs, there were near fist fights over the program. Some guys wanted to hear it, while other guys tried to ignore it. Personally, I listened because I was never influenced and usually gleaned information, reading between the lines. They always exaggerated our aircraft losses, often claiming hundreds of U.S. planes shot down around Hanoi when we had not heard anti-aircraft fire for weeks. Once they piped in the BBC news by mistake and for once we really heard what was going on in the world. The music was the best part of Radio Hanoi and sometimes playing American tunes that were supposed to make us homesick had the opposite effect. One time they played "Downtown" by Petula Clark and everyone started dancing and yelling for an hour...just went wild. Another one that gave us a hoot was "Don't Fence Me In"...by Ella Fitzgerald I think. I taped Christmas messages for Radio Hanoi a few times, most of us did...it was not big deal, but they would make life miserable for you if you didn't. I've no hatred for them now. They were doing their job and I was doing mine. But, no, I wouldn't go out of my way to meet Hanoi Hannah if I was given the chance today.
Gerry Clark, Detroit, had been in country just two weeks when he heard Hanoi Hannah.
After welcoming our unit Hanoi Hannah said she had a surprise for us. She said that in honor of Ho Chi Minh's birthday there would be an enemy attack. Just then I heard small arms fire in the distance. It grew steadier and louder until it became a full -scale attack on the Da Nang Air Base.
George Hart, Boston, remembers Hanoi Hannah's broadcasts that mentioned specific GIs by name and said their girlfriends were sleeping with someone else back home. A few days later he remembers the soldiers named got "Dear John" letters from home confirming what Hannah had said.
They had been at the Mekahn Restaurant that Tung was talking about in his broadcast. The Mekahn was a floating restaurant tied up on the Mekong River dockside in Saigon. The bomb went off about ten o'clock when it was full of customers, many of them Americans. A Claymore mine tied to a tree was detonated three minutes later aimed at the survivors of the first bomb as they clambered down the gangplank toward shore. I arrived about 45 minutes after the blast, just in time to see 40 mangled bodies being loaded into ambulances and the Saigon Fire Department washing rivers of blood off the sidewalk with firehoses. Yes, Hanoi Hannah and her partner Nguyen Van Tung often knew how to invoke the images of war most painful to Americans in Vietnam.
The combination of his Peter Lorre delivery and the fact he hit the right buttons for me at the time in his psy-war commentary made him an enigma for twenty-five years. He didn't sound Vietnamese and many of the Special Forces Team listening that night guessed he was a turncoat Frenchman affecting an Oxford accent. I was to hear him many times during the course of the war, but never as clear as that night in An Lac and never with the same impact as that first broadcast.
Don North with Vietnamese cameraman
I played the tape in Hanoi. They recognized his voice. Nguyen Van Tung was retired but known to be living in Hanoi. An address was found and I set off with my cyclo driver on a Sunday afternoon to face another voice from my past.
If I had been a man from Mars dropping in for tea, Nguyen Van Tung would not have been more surprised. He turned up his hearing aid and I played the tape of his broadcast heard in An Lac 25 years ago.
Do you remember making that broadcast? I inquired.
Yes, of course, I was an announcer at Radio Hanoi. We made special programs for American GIs, he replied in his carefully enunciated style.
Have you ever met any of your American listeners before?
No, sorry but I have not. It is a great pleasure to meet you here in Hanoi.
His eyes glistened with tears. Who wouldn't wonder at a foreign stranger, an American in Hanoi, walking in playing back your words from a night's broadcast 25 years in the past?
Nguyen Van Tung is 67 and in good health except for his hearing problems. He lives comfortably in downtown Hanoi with his wife and son's family. From time to time he teaches English to private students. He had studied French and English as a schoolboy in Hanoi and then his father arranged for him to study English at the prestigious St. John's Boys School in Hong Kong, which explains the Oxford accent fighting against the earlier French.
Nguyen Van Tung remembers well the years when Hanoi was under siege and he broadcast daily to the enemy. Words of conciliation and forgiveness do not come easily to the old wordsmith who used to hector the American enemy daily during more than ten years of war.
To frighten, not to charm and seduce.
How are you, GI Joe? It seems to me that I escaped death many times in Hanoi... the planes, the bombs... the house next door to me was bombed out... even a room on my house was blown down. But my family escaped because they were out of town.
Don: Mr. Tung, what would you say if you had the chance to broadcast again this night to American troops? Go ahead, say what you want.
Tung: We were fighting for a just cause. All people want to be free and independent and do what they like. We know your history, Washington, Lincoln... great men. But those following them, well, we distinguish clearly between the American people and those who made the war. There's no reason the Vietnamese people and America can't be good friends. Our government changed policy and we are now glad to have friends cooperate in mutual understanding and benefit. However, the U.S. government has a responsibility to heal the wounds of war. We didn't make that war and I deem it reasonable that the U.S. government reconsider its policy and shake hands with Vietnam. There will be many benefits if we can be friends together on an equal basis. There is no reason to be enemies, the world should be in peace and we should enjoy our lives.
Today the "Voice of Vietnam" still broadcasts from the same old ramshackle building at 58 Quan Su Street in central Hanoi. The equipment too has survived the war years and generation of patient repair. Only the announcers are new. A new staff of Hanoi Hannahs in their early twenties can be heard on Radio Hanoi's English service today. From 1600 hours Hanoi time until 2:00am, "Voice of Vietnam" can be picked up around the world on 12035 KHZ on the 25 meter band.
The Kampuchean people fully support the new policy of national reconciliation. The Kampuchea United Front for National Construction and Defense says the cessation of all foreign interference must be emphasized in order to guarantee the Pol Pot clique will not be permitted to return to power. ("The Voice of Vietnam," broadcast 1600 hours, Hanoi, 4 April 1989)
The broadcasts are certainly less strident these days, reflecting the fact that Vietnamese are not fighting anyone for the first time in 50 years. There is also a state of shock in the Hanoi leadership these days as "misguided comrades" from Poland to Rumania thunb their collective noses at Lenin.
Another reason for the lower decibel rhetoric being beamed out from Hanoi to the world may be the presence of an American advisor. Ms. Virginia Gift peers sternly over her bifocals at the confusion of Radio Hanoi's newsroom. Antique typewriters clatter in unison and outside the window carpenters pound hammers, shoring up the crumbling building. Ms. Gift is employed by the Government of Vietnam to improve the English skills of Hanoi civil servants.
This generation of Hanoi Hannahs, it seems, learned English from Russian textbooks. Twice a week Virginia Gift attempts to "de-Stalinize" the Radio Hanoi newscasts.
The main problem with their English is they learned it from Russians. They use a lot of Stalinist terms and double -talk that mean nothing to most English listeners. So I try to purge the Marxist gobbledegook and substitute straight English vocabulary. They learn fast and if it helps the world understand where the Vietnamese are coming from today, well then it's worth all my trouble.
There were in fact many Hanoi Hannahs who worked here at Radio Hanoi during the war between 1965 and 1973, but Thu Houng was the senior and most frequently heard Hannah. Together, with Nguyen Van Tung, they wrote and taped three commentaries a day for broadcast to the American troops.
After the war, Hannah, or Thu Houng moved to Ho Chi Minh city in 1976 with her husband, an officer in the North Vietnam Army. Hannah began her career with Radio Hanoi in 1955, when North Vietnam as an independent country began broadcasting to the world in several languages. She had been an English student at Hanoi University and was hired as the first English voice of Radio Hanoi at age 25. Her broadcasts directed toward American soldiers began in 1965 just after the U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang.
She does not like being compared to Tokyo Rose of World War II. Yes, she had read about Tokyo Rose but never studied her broadcasts or tried to emulate her style. Tokyo Rose was Iva Toguri, an American-born Japanese caught in Tokyo after Pearl Harbor and forced to broadcast. (As with Hanoi Hannah, there was no single Tokyo Rose. Twenty -seven different English-speaking Asian women, most Americans, broadcast to American troops during the Pacific War. But it was Iva Toguri who was singled out by muckraking journalist Walter Winchell and with the enthusiastic support of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, she was convicted of treason. Iva Toguri spent eight years in prison before being pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977).
Tokyo Rose had been folksy and down-home American in her broadcasts. Hanoi Hannah maintained a friendly but correct and distant approach with her listeners. There was always a Vietnamese formality just under the surface of her voice as she suggested defection might be a good idea.
Interviewing Hanoi Hannah was like being Dorothy parting the curtains hiding the Wizard of Oz. The great and terrible Hanoi Hannah behind the fašade we constructed turned out to be a mild-mannered announcer who spoke English and read Stars and Stripes.
As they say, in wartime, truth is the first casualty. By zapping the truth through an ostrich-like policycensorship, deletions, and exaggerationsU.S. Armed Forces Radio lost the trust of many GIs when they were most isolated and vulnerable to enemy propaganda. It wasn't that Hanoi Hannah always told the truthshe didn't. But she was most effective when she did tell the truth and U.S. Armed Forces Radio was fudging it. If we didn't know before, Vietnam should have taught us the communications are now so pervasive in this shrinking world that suppression of information is impossible. Accuracy and honesty in broadcasts are essential, not just because it's morally right but because it's practical, too.
After the war there was little recognition in Vietnam of her contribution to the war effort. Few of her countrymen have ever heard of her, there were no medals or honors and she herself modestly plays down her role in the war effort.
Don: You know, you're better known in the U.S. than you are here. Has the government ever recognized your work? Did you ever get a medal?
Hannah: Everybody got a medal.
Don: What did you hope to accomplish by your broadcasts?
Hannah: Well, I think that our earnest hope was the GIs would not participate in this war, that they would demand to go home. That they would see this war is not in the interests of the United States. I mean the people, the GIs, the families.
Don: And what effect do you think you really had?
Hannah: Well, we think the broadcasts did have some effect, because we see the antiwar movement in the U.S. building up, growing and so we think that our broadcast is a support to this antiwar movement. It's been over twenty years now. I am happy with what I've done.
Don: How do you see Vietnam and its place in the world today?
Hannah: It's an interesting stage. We are approaching normality. Things are much improved. There's a policy now of opening the doors to the outside world. It's better for Vietnam and the world. Because our fight has been for such a long time we are isolated from the world, even after reconstruction we don't have much attention from people outside. Things are better now between the U.S. and Vietnam and I hope relations will continue to improve, to normalize.
Don: Do you see any role for yourself to better relations with the U.S.?
Hannah: Well, I'm taking retirement now, but I'd be happy to do something to help relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. I would like to see America some day.
Don: What are you curious about in the U.S.?
Hannah: It's difficult to tell you. I just want to be a tourist and see the people and the land. I have always compared our traditions of liberty, like those of Abraham Lincoln and Ho Chi Minh. I just want to see it with my own eyes.
On October 2, 2016 Trinh Thi Ngo, the legendary Hannoi Hannah of the English service, Radio the Voice of Vietnam (VOV), passed away in Ho Chi Minh city at the age of 87. She was was interred in Long Tri, Chau Than District, Long An province, following the Vietnamese custom of burial next to her husband and his family. Her only son escaped Vietnam in 1973 with the boat-people exodus and now lives in San Francisco.
About the Author
As a features writer for the Hong Kong China Mail , Don North's first assignment as a war correspondent was in North Borneo with the British Royal Marines and Gurkas fighting the Army of Indonesia. For two years he was a freelance cameraman and writer in Vietnam and Indonesia and became Vietnam Staff Correspondent for ABC News in 1966. The Mel Gibson role in the feature film The Year of Living Dangerously is in part based on North's experiences in Indonesia. In 1967 he won the Overseas Press Club Award for his reports of Vietnam combat. During the Tet Offensive in January 1968, his report of the Viet Cong attack on the U.S. Embassy was the first broadcast on television in the United States.
In 1970, North was named Cairo Bureau Chief for NBC News and specialized in covering terrorism in the Middle East. He returned frequently to Vietnam. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he covered the advance of Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and at the Suez Canal. For three years North worked as a producer on the 26-part series, The Ten Thousand Day War, a television history of the Vietnam war which was first broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This series has been shown in many countries around the world and on Arts & Entertainment and commercial broadcast outlets in the United States. North has appeared as news anchor for CBC Montreal, KTTV Los Angeles and as host of numerous documentaries. He established Northstar Productions, Inc, in Washington, DC in 1983 and has produced television news and documentaries about El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
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