“This is the voice of Vietnam Broadcasting from Hanoi, capitol of the Democratic republic of Vietnam.”
I fingered the dial of my battery-fueled short-wave radio, to try to get rid of the recurring smatterings of static. In a shack on stilts, up from the coast of the South China Sea, on the Skrang River in Sarawak, Borneo in 1966, I had little to choose from for western entertainment.
But Hanoi Hannah played the best rock ‘n roll of any station I could reach, so I listened to her as often as I could. Atmospheric conditions often intruded. Heavy monsoon rain against the tin roof of my shack rendered the music sometimes un-hearable. I grew tired of Hannah’s lectures about impending American military disaster, or her lists of names of crew members of arriving U.S. military ships to Vietnamese harbors. They were like long sermons or longer laundry lists, and very boring, offered in a monochromatic drone. The music, though, made listening to her wonderful. I understood that American troops in Vietnam listened to her as well, admiring the music, but laughing at the commentary. As exhortations go, I suspect hers were unsuccessful.
But I heard my first Jefferson Airplane recording on Hannah’s show, a band that was part of an extraordinary flowering of new rock ‘n roll in the U.S. I was missing the whole thing, a volunteer with the Peace Corps in a Sarawak government rubber plantation for tribal Sea Dayak refugees who had been displaced by a war being fought between Malaysia and Indonesia. Hannah even knew that the Jefferson Airplane were from San Francisco, thus making me wish to be there, to see them live.
But the short wave was my only real connection to the States at the time, other than the letters that I exchanged with my parents and grandparents, which my mother saved and I still have.
The United States was involved in what indeed became a disastrous defeat in Vietnam. I well remember Hannah’s charming delivery: “Defect, G.I. It is a very good idea for you to desert a sinking ship. Otherwise your army will leave you behind. It will not return to save you.”
I knew a few people who had gone to Vietnam in the military. But at the time they were still there, and I had no opportunity to speak with them about what was happening. The one time I had such an opportunity was in a bar in Kuala Lumpur on the Malayan peninsula. It was a rest and relaxation stop for U.S. Marines serving in Vietnam. I was in the place one night with Peace Corps friends, and everyone there except for the Chinese barmen, the women (all of whom were Asians), and us three white boys, was a black Marine. At first we were treated with complete indifference. I suspect that, at first, that was because we were white, and obviously out of place. But once I had been asked by one of the Marines who we were, interest in our presence heightened.
“What is this Peace Corps s**t?” one of the Marines asked me.
I explained what we were doing, and he immediately asked why was the CIA in Malaysia. The Peace Corps had no relationship with the CIA, but my protestation carried little weight. John (the Marine) called a few of his buddies to our table, and they too suspected us of being part of the U.S. spy network. But I wanted to talk with them about Vietnam, and eventually my questions brought out what was to be my first ever understanding of what that war was actually requiring of these men. Not again until I first read the manuscript of a book by H. Ward Trueblood titled A Surgeon’s War (which my publishing house Astor & Lenox put out in 2016) was I to hear such graphic descriptions of war wounds, fear in war, and the kind of derring do that such fear can cause in those fighting the war. These Marines had lost several friends. They were all tired, and all very angry. There being nothing to do about their plight, they were simply going through their few days in Kuala Lumpur before returning to the jungles, the padi, the monsoon, the bugs and, as one of the Marines put it, “the foolishness, man. The foolishness.”
I asked about Hanoi Hannah, and all these men laughed. “She don’t play no black music,” one of the Marines, a very young man who had only been listening to us, said in response. “She’s as racist as all you white folks.”
So I returned to my shack and turned on Hanoi Hannah again. The Marine was right. Hannah was a fan of white rock n’ roll. Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and all the others. Maybe there was an occasional Otis Redding or some such. But I don’t think so.
I then understood the tiredness of those Marines, and their ultimate reluctance to carry on much of a conversation with us. That had something to do with being tired, for sure, but I suspect it had a lot more to do with deeply felt rage.
For another look at Terence Clarke’s time in Sarawak, see “Borneo” in HuffPost. Clarke’s Sarawak novels, The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai, originally published in the 1980s, will be republished in 2018. His new story collection, New York, comes out this month.