Vietnam Veterans of America
Joy Smith remembers vividly the years from 1965-72 when she and her late husband, Larry, performed music and comedy for troops in Vietnam. Unlike the big-name performers who flew in for a week or so and then returned home, Joy and Larry were among the entertainers who spent all or most of each year in-country without fancy tours or big publicity.
Joy had met her husband in New Jersey in 1960 when they were performing country pop music and comedy acts up and down the East Coast, including lounge acts at hotels, state fairs, arts centers, and theaters, as well as working on radio and TV. They went to California and then to Las Vegas, where they were married in 1962. Soon after that, they began entertaining overseas. They weren’t sponsored by the USO; they worked as part of a private entertainment company.
“We were in Korea, Japan, Guam, Philippines, doing the military circuit, starting in 1965,” Smith said. Before long they were entertaining troops in Vietnam and living there. At first they lived in tents, then later they and two other entertainment agents rented a villa as a home base.
Each year they had to renew their authorization from the State Department and sign a new contract. “We went through MACV in Saigon. You had to go in and audition, and they would tell you what you could charge. The Army had an entertainment officer for each base or each camp,” Smith said.
As more American troops were sent to Vietnam, more facilities were built. There was no problem finding opportunities to perform, she said, “because they wanted and needed entertainment for the kids.”
Smith remembers it as “a world of America,” where, she said, “we shared with them—and they shared with us—some of the amazing stories they had. The kids were just fantastic. It was like being in America, outside of America.”
“I heard some of the most delightful vocals, instrumentals (Larry plays five instruments, Joy four), and haven’t laughed so hard in years,” San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Bob Burns wrote in 1972 after seeing them perform in Tokyo. He described them as “a cross-section of Charlie Weaver, Smothers Bros., Chad Mitchel Trio, Allen Sherman, Don Bowman, and Rose-Marie.” Burns also praised their comedy, saying that Larry Smith offered fresh material and superb delivery, and that his wife possessed “the greatest talent bestowed on a straight-line handler, that of natural facial expression. She has the audience ready to laugh before the line is delivered.”
Joy and Larry eventually started their own management company and hired bands from the Philippines to perform with them. Joy recalled: “The Filipino bands that we got were fantastic, and the troops really did like them.” The musicians—who called them Mama Joy and Papa Larry—were expert at playing covers of popular songs. The most popular songs among GIs, she added, were those that said “I wanna go home.”
The Smiths’ humor was much appreciated. “It was important in our visits to the hospitals, and it was important in the beginning when we were doing some shows on the back of a deuce and a half. It was important to laugh about the rain and the mud, because they laughed with us and we laughed with them.”
For a while Joy and Larry maintained three bands in Vietnam—one in Saigon, another in Qui Nhon, and a third in Da Nang. The Smiths hired several GIs to manage the operation, including VVA member Tom Ras, who became their general manager. He was based in Saigon, but traveled throughout the country.
The Smiths stayed in Vietnam until November 1972, after they had gotten their bands out safely. The bands “were flown from Qui Nhon or wherever they were to Saigon, and from Saigon on commercial planes back to the Philippines.
Joy never forgot the pain she felt when the troops came back home. “They were treated so shabbily; it still hurts to this day.”
She and her husband returned to performing in piano bars and lounges in the United States. “We went back to work as a duo. We were getting older,” Smith recalled, but “we continued until the late 1980s.”
Then, after twenty-seven years, they retired from singing. “We moved to Florida and started working for senior citizens. Larry passed away in 2003.”
These days, most of her performing is with Karaoke—as well as “some of the bands here that I get up and sing with.” In addition, she says: “I go to veterans organizations where I sit and talk with people who were in Vietnam—or even other people who were in later wars, who just want to sit and talk about Vietnam. And when I see people come along with ‘Vietnam Veteran’ on their caps, we always stop and talk.”
Joy feels the talk does them good: “Some of them have held it in for so long; they didn’t want to talk about it until they saw something like an article by somebody else who understands. I think it helps them.”
Reflecting on her own Vietnam War experience, she considered it “very rewarding. To go through the whole cycle of getting there when the American involvement was starting, and then when it was building up. It’s something that you don’t forget. I can remember the faces, I can remember the places. It stays with you, some of the good and some of the bad—and it has been fascinating. I don’t care how old I get, I can name bases we went to in ’65 in Korea and in Vietnam. In some of them, we were just dropped down into a fire field in choppers, with eight or ten guys there with guns. I remember just using guitars and singing songs with them.
“You just really don’t forget.”
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