Airborne tradition alive and well for South Vietnamese female veteran
by Dennis Anderson, special to Aerotech News & Review
ARLINGTON, Va.—Jumping from a perfectly good airplane as a pioneering paratrooper in Vietnam was not what Germaine Loc had in mind when she learned to type 60 words per minute.
In her late teens, she needed a job to help support a family that joined the million refugees who fled to South Vietnam in the 1950s at the end of the French colonial period in Indochina after World War II. Her step-mother admonished her, “Germaine, you don’t want to go to school anymore, so you should learn how to type.”
A French army officer hired her into the military typists’ pool. Later, she would become an army nurse. Becoming a paratrooper happened along the way. “I wanted to be a soldier, and I wanted to wear that uniform.”
A 1954 Geneva Conference agreement split Vietnam in two, communist North, and non-communist South, a Cold War divide that left South Vietnam needing an army, hastily formed from the traditions of the departing French military.
“The men did not want to jump,” she said, remembering early efforts to create an airborne unit in the earliest years of the Republic of South Vietnam.
The training officer, she recalled, said, “Bring me a dozen women.” The idea was to shame the men into volunteering for the paratroopers.
Of the 11 women the trainer recruited, four completed jump training. Germaine Loc was one of the four. She was among the originals of the Nhay Du — Vietnamese for Airborne, their motto, Nhay Du Co Bang! It translates to the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division’s motto — “Airborne! All The Way!”
“I wasn’t scared,” Germaine Loc recalled. “I was willing to try anything. That is just how I am.”
Photographs of a young Germaine Loc show her marching off the drop zone, canopy bundled, like any paratrooper since soldiers began dropping from the sky.
From the late 1950s, until South Vietnam collapsed on April 30, 1975, more than 20,000 South Vietnamese paratroopers died defending their doomed republic. Their legacy was of a hard-fighting unit that joined in combat with the more than 58,400 Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
Germaine Loc Swanson was 10 years old when the defeated Japanese army left her girlhood home of Hanoi at the end of World War II, signaling the return of the French. In her 80-plus years she has seen war, and peace, socialized with U.S. presidents and Vietnamese heads of state, government ministers and military chiefs. As a journalist and freelancer, she broke scoops for news agencies, and for 20 years operated one of Washington’s finest Vietnamese haute cuisine restaurants. Her fondest memories include her life-long membership in the airborne elite.
Many Vietnamese who survived the war, among them hundreds of thousands who arrived in the United States as refugees, started again with nothing, rebuilt their lives and thrived. One of the proudest groups is the Society of the Vietnamese Airborne, the Nhay Du.
One of their senior leaders is Dr. Nguyen Quoc Hiep, president for all Vietnamese Red Berets. A medical military officer when he volunteered for Vietnam’s Airborne Division, he jumped from the full array of aircraft the U.S. provided — the C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” the C-123 Provider, the C-130 Hercules, even the World War II vintage C-47 Skytrain. But his longest leap would be to the United States.
His trip from Vietnam to America began on a Navy ship, the voyage starting on the day South Vietnam fell in 1975. Hiep was soon helping fellow refugees from the dispensary at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The earliest refugees arrived at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base on the West Coast.
“Most of us my age had a background in French, and the study of English was very difficult,” he said during an interview at the Red Berets’ annual reunion. The words for “Red Beret” are Mu Do, and they are a proud association.
In the 46 years since the fall of South Vietnam, the “Red Hats” who made it to the United States stuck together, holding annual get-togethers. In a joyous sea of camouflage jackets, jump boots and jaunty berets, they revel in re-connecting with their American counterparts who formed the Society of the Vietnamese Airborne.
“We stay together,” Dr. Hiep said. “The airborne tradition is to share the blood, the tears, the sweat. We call it the ‘Family of the Vietnamese Airborne.’”
As the juggernaut of North Vietnam’s Soviet and Chinese-built artillery and tanks advanced on Saigon in 1975, the only troops in the fight to the end were Vietnamese Airborne, Marines and Rangers. In the end, they had to escape capture, or enter “re-education camps” that were really concentration camps.
“If I had not been young, I would have died,” said 77-year-old Capt. Tran Hong Minh. He survived eight years in the camps, on a starvation diet while cutting bamboo. “If I had not come to the United States, my sons would have been left in the road to die.”
Hiep noted with pride the dedication of a handsome white stone monument at Fort Benning, Ga., that commemorates the sacrifice of the Vietnamese Airborne and their American counterparts of Team 162 of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Thirty-nine of Team 162’s advisers were killed during a decade fighting alongside their Vietnamese counterparts, and that sacrifice is memorialized at the Infantry Museum, and Arlington National Cemetery.
“We were there to support them,” retired Army Lt. Gen. John LeMoyne said at this July’s reunion. “We supported with aircraft, artillery, communications,” he recalled. “They taught us how to fight. The ‘Red Hats’ are the reason I decided to stay in the Army.” LeMoyne went on to command Fort Benning and its School of Infantry. Many MACV-Airborne advisers served with distinction, including LeMoyne and the late Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, the officer leading Operation Desert Storm. Also, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led the largest air assault in history during the first Gulf War.
“Those of us privileged to serve with (Vietnamese Airborne) were awestruck by their courage and tactical aggressiveness,” McCaffrey said in a published appreciation for The New York Times. “The senior officers and non-commissioned officers were extremely competent, and battle hardened.”
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a reunion of the Vietnamese Airborne veterans and their American counterparts. In late July 2021, the two groups joined at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., along with “Red Marker” brothers, Air Force forward air controllers who coordinated air strikes and artillery. Barry Schupp, president of the Society of the Vietnamese Airborne, called his ranks of “Covan” (advisers) to attention. They stood in ranks next to the smartly turned out, camouflage clad Vietnamese paratroopers they shed blood with.
“We gather to commemorate our fallen, the 39 ‘Red Hat’ advisers, the Vietnamese who lost more than 20,000 (paratroopers), and the 58,400 American men, and women, killed in action,” Schupp said. “We believed in good over evil, in right over wrong. We share a bond that exists only among combatants.”
Later, speaking at the joint Airborne Society dinner held near the Pentagon, retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, author and military intelligence expert, spoke of the sacrifice of the Vietnamese people, and the Airborne troops who championed them. He shared that South Vietnam’s fall prompted him to join the Army.
“For the Vietnamese heroes in this room … although Saigon fell, you fought so long, and so hard you delayed the triumph of communism,” Peters said. “It was an empty triumph (because) 14 years later, the Berlin Wall comes down. Sixteen years later, the Soviet Union comes apart. You saved the rest of the free world with your sacrifice, because my brothers you were not simply fighting for South Vietnam. You were fighting for civilization.”
“Vastly more of this world is free than was free in 1975, so I salute you,” Peters said.
Author’s Note: My own bond to these warriors got tied nearly 50 years ago when I met a young captain in Cold War Germany, Capt. Stuart Watkins. Watkins, served in Vietnam as a Team 162 “Red Hat” adviser and was awarded the Silver Star in combat with the Vietnamese paratroopers. As a recent enlisted jump school graduate in 1972, I was the most ‘All The Way’ inspired of young paratroopers. Watkins coached me and a few rookies in the art of free fall parachuting. We recently held a reunion of our own, and are planning commemorative C-47 jumps at Fort Benning, Ga., for Airborne Day, and Normandy, France, for D-Day 2022. Every time I see a C-130 Hercules circling Air Force Plant 42, I am transported back to the skies on jump run, waiting for the green light for door exit.
Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is an Army paratrooper vet who embedded as a journalist to cover Antelope Valley troops in the Iraq War.