Two old war horses recall their service to the troops in WW II, Korea and Vietnam
With her wispy white hair, her frail body and her tiny voice, Harriette Moore is the epitome of someone’s grandmother. Looks can be deceiving.
The 81-year-old Englewood retiree was attached to the U.S. Army’s Special Services. She oversaw the management of service women and military clubs in the Far East for almost three decades during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Truth is, in her day, she was tough as nails and damn proud of it.
After graduating from college with a degree in education and recreation, Moore joined the Woman’s Army Corps (WACs) in 1943, during the height of WW II. At first she was assigned to Army Intelligence (G-2).
“Initially I was put on surveillance with G-2. We were watching for people slipping into this country that were going to sabotage the war effort,” she said. “I caught one spy through fingerprints.”
A few weeks before she shipped overseas, Moore got married. “Hell’s bells, I tried to get pregnant, but I didn’t get anywhere,” she said.
The would-be mom went through overseas training before boarding a ship for the war.
“I learned to swim through burning oil and climb cargo nets when they were swinging like hell on the side of a ship,” she said.
Her husband was a 1st lieutenant in the Marines. He saw considerable action in the Pacific.
“When I came back to the states after the war I found out he had some head problems that were service connected,” she said. “He had to cut several of his men down that the Japanese had left hanging on trees.
“His mind snapped. I had to put him in a veterans’ hospital. He killed himself there in 1946,” Moore said.
Years earlier, she had to face her own war injuries when she was sent to the Pacific Theater, too. Moore arrived in the Philippines in 1943. The war was beginning to swing in favor of the Allied side.
She had command of 800 WACs in and around Manila. These young women filled soldiers’ shoes in 87 different occupations.
“My girls were cooks, truck drivers, telegraph operators, they were medical types who parachuted in,” she said. “We weren’t liked by the soldiers because my girls would relieve them to go to the front.
“I have something to prove I was there,” Moore said as her right hand reached for her billowing white hair. I have a plate in my head right here from a Japanese sniper’s bullet.
“Three of us were coming from the mess hall. I had just told my two buddies I got a letter from home. I heard bang, bang, bang. My friend on my left was killed instantly. My friend on the right was hit and lost her mind from the trauma.
“I got shot in the head and lost some of my hair. What I didn’t lose turned white,” Moore recalled. “It took me almost a year to recuperate in a Manila hospital.”
After being discharged from the hospital she was sent to Sydney, Australia. She did the same thing in Australia, mother henned a bunch of WACs.
Moore was sent back to the Philippines where she wrapped up her WW II overseas service. In 1946 she was discharged from the Army at Fort Knox, Ky.
For a short while she went to work as a civilian recreation director for the city of Houston, Texas, where she had been born in 1919. She was in charge of 15 playgrounds.
In 1948 Moore decided to sign up once more with the U.S. Army’s Special Services as a civilian employee this time. She began her new career by designing service clubs on paper. Eventually, Moore was sent to Korea later that year where she began training new service club directors at her facility in Seoul.
That’s where she met Bernice Alexander. The young woman was running away from a failed marriage. She had been employed by the YMCA in Massachusetts before becoming a U.S.O. club director in Korea in 1956. Born in Rosston, Pa., a little town outside Pittsburgh, she had an educational background in recreation and computers. She also has a master’s degree in business administration.
“Harriet trained me to become a program director for a U.S.O. service club in Korea,” Alexander recalled. “We set up places for soldiers: ‘A home away from home,’ is what we called it,” Alexander said.
Her first assignment was a U.S.O. Club for the First Infantry Division near the Demilitarized Zone in the northern part of South Korea. She was there a year before she returned to the states and served a year at a club in California. Then Alexander was reassigned to a U.S.O. Club in Pusan, Korea.
“We had a snack bar where we served lots of hamburgers, French fries and shakes,” she said. “They were hard to come by any place but there. We also had cards, pool, ping-pong and a library at my club for the soldiers.”
Throughout her service in Korea and later in Vietnam, she always had a German shepherd at her side. These dogs were more than pets, they were her friend and protector.
“The thing with Korea and Vietnam, you never knew,” she said. “There was always the element of who your enemy was. You could be riding in a taxi cab and someone could throw a bomb in the thing. You might be eating in a restaurant in Seoul and the enemy might blow up the restaurant. You never knew,” she said. Her companion in Korea was a tan shepherd born under the general’s “hooch.” She called her Cindy.
“The general told the sergeant, after the puppies were born, ‘They’d have to go,'” Bernice said. “So the sergeant gave me one of them. The Koreans wouldn’t come near me because they thought Cindy was an attack dog.”
“The G.I.s loved the shepherd. She was their mascot at the U.S.O. The dog use to drink coffee with them in the morning as long as it had cream and sugar in it,” Alexander said.
Moore’s favorite Korean War story had to do with a group of starving lepers, their struggle for survival and a little kindness.
“I saw a leper child along the side of the road in Korea and stopped my Jeep. Part of her little face was eaten away,” she said as she gazed into her past life while sitting in her bedroom at an assisted living facility in Englewood.
“I wanted to shake her hand, but she told me ‘No. Just pat me on the back’ she said in broken English.
“I had a couple of sandwiches with me that I gave her,” Moore recalled. ‘This is the first food I’ve had in days,’ she said. The girl told me she would take some of the food back to her family.”
A rapport developed between the American Special Services worker and the 11-year-old Korean leper girl. Over the winter of 1953 Moore helped not only the girl, but scores of other lepers who lived in a squalid colony near Wonju. They were hardly subsisting on handouts and what little rice they could grow until she came along.
“I had a Texas friend who sent me 500 pounds of raw rice for them to grow,” she said. “They planted the rice and before I left, the colony was pretty much self-sufficient, as far as food was concerned.”
Word of Moore’s leper friends got around. Soon ministers back in the United Sates began sending her clothiers for them. As winter approached she decided she was going to hold a Christmas party for everyone in the leper colony.
All of her work with the lepers was done on the side. It was over and above her daily job as director of Army Special Services in he part of Korea.
She needed toys for the leper kids for Christmas. Moore requested help from Sears and other major retailers in the U.S. She was flooded with gifts from companies in the states.
Her biggest problem was convincing 15 G.I. buddies to help her with the Christmas Eve party she was planning for the lepers. The soldiers would do almost anything for Moore. But this was asking a bit much.
“They were afraid. They thought they would catch leprosy,” Moore said.
I n those days most people knew little about disease, she said. Moore had to assure the soldiers they would not contract the disease.
They came reluctantly. They brought an Army truck filled with goodies. One G.I. dressed up as Santa Claus.
“I wanted that Christmas to be the same for the kids as if they lived in the United Sates,” Moore said. “I paid my cook over-time and he baked many, many hundreds of cookies. We had punch and cookies along with the wrapped Christmas presents.
“At first the kids were a little reluctant,” Moore said. “Most of them didn’t know what to make of it. Most were Buddhists, so they knew nothing about Christmas or Santa Clause. However, there were a few Christians leper kids, too.”
After an interpreter explained to the lepers about Christmas and gift giving and what Santa was all about, the party-goers began to warm up to what Moore and her G.I. buddies were doing. They started singing despite the bitter cold and the deep snow on the ground.
“We sang Christmas carols,” Moore said as she looked longingly into her past. “We sang them in Korean. It was wonderful.”
“‘You don’t know how happy you’ve made all of us,'” the interpreter told Moore. “That is what the lepers told him, he said.
“After some of the G.I.s went home to the states, they wrote me letters about that Christmas,” she said as her eyes misted over. “In their letters they told me, ‘It was the best Christmas they ever had.'”
Moore would go to serve four tours in Korea. In 1958 both Moore and Alexander returned to the U.S.and went to work for a state operated mental facility in Pennsylvania.
A few years later, in 1963, Moore returned to the Army attached to Special Services again. She was 42 and it was Vietnam. She was in charge of a half dozen service centers in the southern part of the country, below Saigon.
“There were almost no civilian American women there when I arrived in Vietnam in ’63,” she said. “They kept the fact that we were in the country pretty quiet in the states.”
It would be two years later that the Vietnam conflict got on most Americans’ radar scopes. Several years after that, protesters took to the streets in the U.S. sounding off against the war making the TV news almost every evening.
It was about that time, ’65, that Alexander signed up with the U.S.O. for a tour in Vietnam herself. Again she and Moore crossed paths. Alexander was assigned by Moore and the U.S.O. director for the club in Saigon. Five months after she arrived the enemy attacked.
The main headline on the front page of the April 14, 1966 Saigon Post read: ‘VC Shell Tan Son Nut Base, 12 Killed, 108 Wounded: 20 Aircraft Damaged.’
Alexander was awaken by the raid on the air base. She lived a short distance from the runway near the club. She was not injured.
“It was the first time during the Vietnam conflict that the airfield had been attacked,” Alexander recalled. “And it was the closest attack to Saigon up till then.”
A short time later Alexander was relocated to a U.S.O. in the boonies. She was sent to Qui Nhon, further north up the peninsula. She stayed there for a few months and moved on to Chu Lai, even further north, to replace a U.S.O. director who had just completed a tour in Vietnam.
At Christmas Alexander choreographed a program for the G.I.s. Santa arrived in a chopper and ended up atop the regimental water tower in the military compound at Chu Lai. The old gentlemen chucked presents to the troops from the tower. Each gaily wrapped present had a parachute she had personally made and attached.
Christmas was a big hit at Chu Lai that year, judging from the soldiers’ reactions.
Both Moore and Alexander were in Vietnam during the enemy’s 1968 Tet Offensive.
Alexander had been in Vietnam for three years. She had become coordinator for U.S.O. activities in I-Corps in the norther end of the country. She worked out of Da Nang. Just by chance she was visiting Saigon when the massive enemy offensive struck all parts of South Vietnam.
“I went to the roof-top garden of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, where I staying,” she said. “The sounds of explosions and rifle fire from several areas could be heard around the capital. The streets were deserted, except for military vehicles. It was unbelievable. Saigon was under attack.”
Just before Tet, Moore had been advised about the possibility of an enemy attack throughout all of South Vietnam.
“I was told to go out and worn my girls they weren’t to leave their compounds,” Moore said. “I had 38 girls in service clubs scattered all over the lower end of Vietnam. I borrowed the general’s helicopter and flew out to them.
“I only had one girl that was stupid. She went out in her Jeep and was wounded by a sniper,” she said.
When Moore flew back to Saigon, she was housed down the street and around the corner from Alexander at another hotel. Like all American in the capital city, she had been told to stay put and brace herself for the Tet Offensive.
When it came she was in her hotel room with her .25-caliber pistol and a .30 caliber carbine of WW II vintage.
“All night long I watched the enemy running around in the street with guns,” Moore said. “They had red scarfs tied around their heads for identification. The enemy was taking over the streets of Saigon.”
When the Tet Offensive was finally over, South Vietnam and America were never the same. Both had lost to the enemy and they were beginning to realized it, even though they won the military conflict.
Alexander had become an unhappy “short-timer.” She was convinced that Vietnam was a no-win war for the U.S. armed forces. In November 1969 she came home.
“I was very much opposed to the war in Vietnam,” by then she said. “I knew that our planes were flying into Laos on secret missions. I talked to the pilots because they all came in the U.S.O. We knew what was going on.
“For me, Vietnam was nothing but a political show,” Alexander said. “But I couldn’t do anything to stop it. The best I could do was help the guys that were there. That’s why I went.”
She returned to the states and went to work again for the YWCA in Ohio. She held this position for a decade. Her last job was as records keeper for an international wholesale seed company before retiring.
Moore had one last adventure prior to coming home from Vietnam in 1970. It was almost fatal.
“Our helicopter was shot down by the enemy as I was heading back to Saigon from an inspection tour of my clubs,” she said rather matter-of-factly. “I looked at the ground as we flew over and could see someone on the ground signaling with a mirror.
“Our side-door gunners started shooting at something. Moments later they were both hit by ground fire and killed,” Moore said.
“‘Tighten your seat belt, we’re going to crash,’ the pilot yelled through his head set,” she said. “We hit the ground moments later.”
The pilot broke his arm. The co-pilot almost bit his tongue off he was so scared. And Moore had four broken ribs.
“Someone got the word to headquarters we had been shot down,” she said. “We were picked up by another helicopter within 15 minutes.”
Like the others, Moore was taken to a Saigon hospital. She didn’t stay.
“They taped my ribs up and I left,” she said. “Hell, I had a war to get back to.”
A few months later, her tour of duty in Vietnam was up. She returned to the states and a job with Eastern State Mental Hospital in Pennsylvania. She worked at the hospital until her retirement 13 years later, in 1983.
Just by chance, Moore and Alexander connected some years after she left Vietnam. Alexander was still working for the Y.W.C.A., but by then it was in the same Pennsylvania town where the mental hospital was located that Moore worked in.
They ended up sharing a home.
When Moore finally retired, they decided it was time to look for some Florida sunshine. In the 1980s the two of them talked to a friend who lived in Overbrook Gardens, on the north side of Englewood. A shore time later the two old war horses were renting another house in the same subdivision. They’ve been in the area ever since. Today they live in an assisted congregate living facility a few blocks from Overbrook Gardens.
Looking back on her service days in the Far East, Moore concluded her war stories by observing: ‘I had many sad memories and many good ones. I felt deep down in my heart I had lots of G.I. sons. I gave them my all.'”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2000 and is republished with permission.
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