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At the heart of the three million square miles that form the contiguous United States is the town of Salina, Kansas. In the early days of World War II, the U.S. government carved out four thousand of its flattest acres and constructed the Smokey Hill Air Base, a fortress charged with training young men in the art of aerial warfare. The military closed the base in 1948 and reopened it in 1951 as Schilling Air Force Base. Ironically, the government shut down the base again in 1964 as the first B-52 took flight in what would become America's longest combat mission, the Vietnam War.
But that is not the end of the story.
What was once Schilling Air Force Base, one of the hundreds of military strongholds created for brave men and their mighty weapons, became Schilling Manor: The Home of the Waiting Wives of the United States Armed Forces.
Schilling Manor was remarkable in that it was the only base in the history of the United States set aside for the wives and children of soldiers assigned to Vietnam; a Brigadoon community emerging from the breast of the prairie at the first sign of war, then disappearing with only a handful of people knowing that it had ever existed. I know about this exclusive settlement because I lived there with my mother and two sisters for thirteen months while my father served in Vietnam. My family was one of only seven thousand military families that called Schilling Manor home.
Schilling Manor existed when death tolls were a part of a military family's daily language, when Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley became virtual uncles to wives desperate for information about their husbands. It was a time when it was normal to see flag-draped coffins, sometimes dozens of them at once, resting on tarmacs across the country, waiting for wives and children and mothers and fathers to claim the remains of those inside. These young men perished for a country that was being ripped apart with every sortie flown into North Vietnam, with each report of another village destroyed, with the photographs of American soldiers weeping beside their dead buddies, and with the perpetual sound of taps carried on the wind to every military base, town, city, or college campus across our country.
No one escaped the melancholy refrain that became America's national anthem.
The sixties generation blossomed with flower power and free love, wilted from protests and rebellion, drugs and confusion, and ended with disillusionment and deep mistrust in our government. And through it all, the wives of the Vietnam War, like Penelope, the loyal wife of Odysseus who waited twenty years for him to return from Troy, struggled to pass the infinite minutes until their husbands returned from war.
Some wives waited successfully, others floundered under the pressure. Many of the women living at Schilling Manor thought their survival depended upon the return of their husbands. Yet these same women held together single-parent households and made important financial decisions long before the women's movement. They traveled across the country and across the world by themselves, some with as many as eight small children in tow. Often they organized and held together entire communities where none existed before.
Waiting Wives is the first book to focus on this other, hidden side of the Vietnam War. It is a narrative investigation of an extraordinary group of women who lived in an incomparable community located in the heart of America during its most turbulent decade. Military wives fought on the emotional front of the war. Their enemies were fear, loneliness, depression, isolation, destitution, lack of information, and the slow tick of time. In his book Dispatches, Michael Herr writes, "We came to fear something more complicated than death, an annihilation less final but more complete...." For the women of Schilling Manor, that annihilation could destroy dreams and devastate futures. It threatened to unravel families and cancel the lives they had with the men they had promised to love forever. For some wives, facing that enemy entailed a quiet day-to-day struggle to maintain a status quo. For others, it triggered change and independence. Whether it was learning how to pay bills, publish a newsletter, or write a petition, most of the wives came away from Schilling with a better sense of themselves and of their roles in a world that had changed forever because of the Vietnam War.
Waiting Wives: The Story of Schilling Manor, Home Front to the Vietnam War is part memoir, part history, and part portrait of three women Lorrayne, Bonnie, and my mother, Beverly. These women were members of the last generation of hat-and-glove military wives called upon by their country to pack without question, to follow without comment, and to wait quietly with a smile. The stories of these waiting wives begin in the period immediately before their arrival at Schilling Manor and end when they drive out of the gate for the last time stories graciously shared with me by the women, children, husbands, commanders, teachers, and other personnel who lived at or were involved with Schilling Manor.
Their personal memories and anecdotes, along with those of my family's, are the foundation for the book.
In addition to Lorrayne's, Bonnie's, and Beverly's story, I have created chapters called "The Committee" that I thread through the book to tell the many heroic, funny, and tragic tales involving other women. The stories, told in different versions by many people, are based on actual incidents that occurred at Schilling Manor, and have become Schilling lore. The anecdotes are impossible to corroborate with the people involved, but are essential in animating the internal life of the home for waiting wives.
The Committee is composed of a group of five waiting wives who volunteer to put on a fashion show as a fund-raiser for Schilling Manor's day-care center. Each woman is a composite of the many military wives I have met during my life. They are a chatty group who, once they have dealt with the business of the fashion show, always has a story to tell about what they heard or saw since their last meeting. I refer to the women by the ranks of their husbands for example, the lieutenant's wife, warrant officer's wife because the group could have lived at Schilling Manor during any of the years it was open as the home for waiting wives.
If geography determines destiny, then living at Schilling Manor became a defining experience for many of the women. It was rumored to be the "lucky place" because of a myth that had traveled around the military community suggesting that if a man's family lived there, then he was sure to come home. There was some truth to the myth, as most of the husbands and fathers returned to their families, but as in all reaches into the imagination, reality eventually diminishes myth. Life at Schilling was intense; the memories everlasting. The construct of people, place, and events never happened before, nor will it happen again. Almost all of the women interviewed for this book agreed: Schilling Manor was a place of light during the darkest, most terrifying time of their lives.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Moreau
Thirty-four years ago I pleaded with my father to take me with him to fight in Vietnam.
My father, then a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, drove himself to the Schilling airfield on the first leg of his journey to war. I sat in the backseat, behind my mother, and pleaded my case: Why not? The war was slowing down. It's a right-on cause. I was sure I had heard of other families going to Vietnam. Besides, wouldn't it be great to have me around to help out? I can't remember his part of the conversation. He was not a man of words and, thinking back, I suspect he more or less dismissed me to the snickers of my mother and two sisters.
My elder sister, Gail, sat in the backseat behind my father and clucked her tongue, a sure indication that anything I said made her sick. My younger sister, Lynn, sat in the middle and sucked her thumb, seemingly oblivious to the deathly consequences of war. My mother snapped at me without ever turning around: Are you crazy? Why in the hell do you want to go to that godforsaken jungle? What do you think you can do?
I was an Army brat born in 1955. On the day that I was born the United States had already committed over $100 million in military aid to South Vietnam and Cambodia, then a part of French Indochina, and a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group had been in country since the early 1950s. When I was four years old, before the decade turned, guerrillas felled the first American soldiers twenty miles northeast of Saigon. I went from training wheels to a two-wheeler as total U.S. military equipment and economic aid approached $2 billion. While I prepared for my graduation from kindergarten, the U.S. Air Force prepared to dump the first of nineteen million gallons of Agent Orange over Vietnam. Nightly news images of soldiers fighting in Vietnam inspired my friends and me to play war with lifelike guns in the woods behind our quarters.
I watched my mother starch Army greens so stiff that when my dad pulled them on in the quiet dawn the sound ripped through the house, alerting us to the start of another day. Every Saturday afternoon, I loyally stood ready to assist my father while he spit-shined his combat boots. If I was lucky he allowed me to help him smear the black cream over his boots with damp cotton balls. I was in awe as he buffed the dull black surfaces to gleaming leather.
The first forty-five record I spent my fifty-cent-a-week allowance on was "The Ballad of the Green Berets," Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler's tribute to his fallen Special Forces brothers. One morning, after Bantam league bowling, I went to the Post Exchange and bought the record. Without stopping to play with friends, I hurried home to my room, closed the door, and played the song over and over again on my plastic record player until I had memorized every word. The next morning at breakfast I impressed my family as I sang along when Sadler's voice came on the radio.
I was ten.
As I grew, the war grew. At dinner, kindly looking news anchors announced death tolls as often as they reported weather forecasts. My Favorite Martian and The Flintstones were interrupted with news of firefights, protests, and assassinations.
I saw the enemy commit atrocities against U.S. soldiers on television. On posters I saw the cages where they kept POWs. I saw hundreds of flag-draped coffins unloaded from cargo planes. I saw weeping mothers faint in despair over a lost child. I saw MedEvac choppers fly over my house in Japan with wounded soldiers inside. War was as familiar to me as reveille at dawn and taps at dusk. I heard the mournful timbre signaling the approach of dusk every day for my entire life. No longer did the music represent the lowering of the flag at the end of the day. The somber tune became Odin's call to the Valkyries to bring forth the souls of the heroes slain in battle to the halls of Valhalla. Taps heralded the death of men, the death of freedom.
Yes, I told my mother as we drove my father to the airport. I will go fight in that godforsaken jungle.
I did not know anything back then.
The month before my father left us for Vietnam in December 1970, while Americans were being assured that the government was seeking a just peace and that the war was slowing down, U.S. bombers attacked targets in North Vietnam in response to the continued attacks on U.S. reconnaissance planes by the NVA the North Vietnamese Army. The Allied command announced an increase in battlefield activity. The North Vietnamese high command called for the armed forces to heighten their determination "to fight victoriously." President Richard Nixon requested an additional $250 million in assistance to aid Cambodia's fight against the North Vietnamese. Lieutenant William Calley, ordered by his commanders to "kill every living thing in My Lai," went on trial. On December 24, two hours before the Allied Christmas cease-fire, U.S. artillery fired a shell into a group of American soldiers, killing nine and wounding nine others. American soldiers were killing their superior officers, fragging them while they slept in their tents or in the jungle on a mission. United States forces in country were down to 280,000, but casualties were increasing due to booby traps, mortar attacks, and sniper fire.
This was the slowed-down war I thought my father was flying into one day after Christmas.
On reflection, I guess I did not want to know the truth about America and Vietnam in 1970 or for many years after. I was an Army brat and war was a path to freedom. For the duration of my father's tour I hung a map of Indochina on my bedroom wall. I had rendered my own Peter Max version of the American flag alternating yellow and blue stripes with Day-Glo pink stars and mounted it on the Cambodian side of the map. I placed a round black bomb like the kind tossed around by the Roadrunner on Saturday-morning cartoons in the middle of the flag. Red-topped tacks dotted South Vietnam, marking the places where I thought my dad was or had been. In the middle of Vietnam, slightly north of the DMZ, I mounted a metal peace sign inscribed with boldfaced black words: PEACE HELL BOMB HANOI.
When my father returned from Vietnam the day before Christmas in 1971, I took down my peace sign. I hid the emblem deep inside a scrapbook, a memento never to lose, and never, ever to brag about.
The symbol represented my patriotism. My belief in my country. I refused to acknowledge any complicity with the government in the disappointment and betrayal many Americans felt toward our country's leaders. The Pentagon Papers and other revelations that surfaced in the ensuing years in the newspapers, on television, within the covers of tell-all books, or in conversations never penetrated my deliberate ignorance. I was an American. I was proud of my father. To protect those things I held dear, I buried my childhood patriotism, like my peace symbol, away.
I pretended that the Vietnam War had no effect on my life.
One year after we left Schilling Manor, the Paris Peace Treaty was signed and America ended its physical involvement in Vietnam. I left for college soon after. The war and my childhood went away innocence lost on a battlefield between protest and patriotism, trust and betrayal not so much buried in my unconscious as a retreat to a quiet zone where the war still existed in a foggy border between denial and acceptance.
One day, when I was older than my parents were when my father was in Vietnam, I thought of Schilling Manor. Long-buried memories descended like an old-fashioned slide show. Women listening to Walter Cronkite tell them about the war. Casualty reports. A friend weeping because her father had gone to heaven. She would never see him again. A sedan with soldiers in dress uniform, one with a cross on his collar, parked at a neighbor's house. Empty mailboxes. Moving vans. Jungle fatigues. Children dressed in black. Barry Sadler's voice in the background lamenting the loss of his comrades while an ice storm blistered the Kansas prairie.
The wives demanded attention.
Needless to say, my pleas in the car that day so many years ago were ignored. My dad walked onto the tarmac, climbed the portable stairs to the threshold of the Frontier Airline turboprop, turned and waved good-bye, alone, without his middle daughter to protect him. As he took his seat by the window, my sisters raised the homemade signs we had designed on neon poster board adorned with crepe paper streamers and Magic Marker wishes for his safe return. My mother, dry-eyed, waved back and stood firm, like a seasoned military wife who had long before resigned herself to a life where she and her children were often placed second to her husband's duty to our country. The engines revved and the plane lifted off.
I burst into tears, certain that my father would never return.
I was fifteen when we drove my father to the airport. Now, over thirty years later, I wonder if I ever stopped crying over the Vietnam War.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Moreau