The diary of a wartime entertainer
Lorrae Desmond spent the weekend honouring the Aussie soldiers who went to Vietnam. She was at the wreath laying ceremony in Sydney’s Martin Place on Saturday, Vietnam Veteran’s Day and drove up to the Blue Mountains on Sunday for another commemoration.
Today she is meeting a veteran visiting Sydney from South Australia. He is one of the many former soldiers who have sought her out in the decades since she first performed with the ABC Big Band in Saigon in 1967.
Desmond is Australia’s first female Gold Logie winner – she won for the Lorrae Desmond Show in the 1960s. She has won numerous awards since including a “best supporting” Logie for her beloved character “Shirl” in the long running Seven drama, A Country Practice.
In her early career she lived in the UK for a decade during which time she entertained British troops in Africa, the Middle East and Asia but she says, “Vietnam was special because it was the first time I had entertained Australian troops.”
“Being there, you were their little touch of home. There was really nothing nicer than standing in front of a sea of young men and watching their faces turn from sad to smiling.”
I only met Desmond recently and was curious to hear her recollections of being a war time entertainer after the hugely successful release of the movie, The Sapphires about four gutsy and talented Aboriginal girls who went to Vietnam to entertain US troops shows (seen it, loved it).
Desmond had been performing live in Vegas and Chicago when she was first asked to perform with the ABC Big Band in Saigon in 1967.
I read an article by a former soldier from that time: “Vietnam was all dull green and brown to us. When Lorrae Desmond, this blonde goddess in a gold dress, stepped out on stage it took our breath away. I can say those of us who were there will love Lorrae always.”
After a second trip with the ABC Big Band she sought out a small group of musicians and singers “because when you are with a big band you can’t do enough or get out [of the city].” Her Vegas sequinned gowns were replaced by “drip dry” dresses more suited to the extreme heat and humidity.
The chaos and danger seen in The Sapphires is familiar to Desmond although she says she was never really nervous despite “a lot of running, jumping in and out of helicopters” and diving for cover at least once or twice after hearing someone scream out ‘in coming’.”
“I don’t scare easy. My attitude was ‘if I am going to die, I’m going to die’. Besides, if you are going to be nervous, don’t go to a war zone,” she says.
“I was so impressed with their skill of the Australians but also the way they kept their sense of humour. One trip took us to ‘Horseshoe’ [near Dat Do] where the boys were all sleeping in trenches topped with sandbags. They sat up on a hill while we performed on a stage at the bottom.
“I liked to take the microphone and wander into the crowd but had to step over people and nearly stumbled on a soldier’s gun.
“I said, “Oh, I’m sorry darling, I nearly stepped on your weapon?’ You can imagine the reaction that got.”
Another time Desmond had to use a make shift loo with canvas walls that stretched to a height that meant when someone sat down their head was still exposed to all and sundry.
“I went in and there was a little hand basin and a cake of soap and a hand towel and I thought, ‘how nice’ however, just as I was seated with my head still visible a troop of men marched by and on the command, ‘eyes left’ their heads all snapped towards me and they saluted,” Desmond recalls.
In 1972 Desmond won an MBE for services to entertainment and to Australian forces in Vietnam but she has never stopped supporting Vietnam vets with events, personal friendships and understanding. Former soldiers even gave her a plaque describing her as the “mother of all Vietnam veterans.”
My favourite story of then and now involves a man Desmond first met in the UK when he was still a child.
“I was asked to see off a group of orphaned children going to Australia [through Barnardo’s]. I gave each of them a bank book with a little money in it, a soft toy – a kangaroo or koala – and a signed fan card [a postcard sized photo of Desmond].”
I look at the photo from that day and in the front are two boys about nine or ten. The two boys moved to Australia, grew up and joined the army. One of them walked up to Desmond when she was in Vietnam and pulled out the fan card and asked, “do you remember me?” They have been friends ever since.
“I hate war but you have to look after the soldiers. It really pisses me off we are in Afghanistan but the soldiers are doing what is asked of them and they need our support as everyone comes back from war damaged.”
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