LIFETIME FRIENDS: Barbara Guerrero last year with her friend Keith Payne VC, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, to which she often donated floorshows and is an honorary member.
LIFETIME FRIENDS: Barbara Guerrero last year with her friend Keith Payne VC, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, to which she often donated floorshows and is an honorary member.

Barbara's gig of a lifetime

PERFORMERS often speak about dying on stage, meaning their act failed. But in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early '70s, death was never far away for touring Aussie entertainers.

We have all seen archival film of Bob Hope entertaining the US troops at that time.

But what few people realise is there was also a large contingent of often lesser-known entertainers, including a host of Aussies, who toured Vietnam on an ongoing basis and kept up the morale of frontline troops.

From 1967, Gosford's Barbara Guerrero (nee Cohen) found herself working as a booking agent and living for five years in Da Nang.

She'll be returning this year to celebrate her 80th birthday, and says the experience of a lifetime also made her friends for life.

Barbara really was flying a C130 Hercules somewhere over Vietnam back in October 1968 (the captain was nearby).
Barbara really was flying a C130 Hercules somewhere over Vietnam back in October 1968 (the captain was nearby).

Always with a taste for adventure, having worked as a clerk general in the air force and training Citizen Military Force (now Reserve) personnel for the army, Barbara said she jumped at the chance to travel overseas at a time when plane travel was extremely expensive.

Her friend, jazz singer Shirley Simmons, told her troops in Vietnam were starved for entertainment and asked her to set up the agency with her.

At 29 Barbara, then working as an accountant, had her bags packed and was on the plane within days.

Together they contracted acts for three-month stints with a three-month option.

 

Long Tan Day march past several years after Barbara returned home when she organised a concert of past Vietnam entertainers at Gosford RSL.
Long Tan Day march past several years after Barbara returned home when she organised a concert of past Vietnam entertainers at Gosford RSL.

The attraction was the acts were paid far more than in Australia.

The downside was "where we were in Da Nang we got rocketed and mortared just about every second or third night".

On arriving in Vietnam, Barbara said she was told at these times to get under the bed and pull the mattress over her.

But within months "it didn't worry you; you just got on with it or slept through it".

 

Barbara on her only mode of transport in 1967-68 to go out booking floorshows in Vietnam.
Barbara on her only mode of transport in 1967-68 to go out booking floorshows in Vietnam.

Generally during the day she felt quite safe in the city, it was only as night fell that the sky would light up with gunfire and explosions.

But Barbara still experienced several close calls.

She was shot at by a Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive as she came around a corner on a scooter on her way to a friend, was confronted during the Buddhist monk uprising (practising self-immolation over treatment by the South Vietnamese Government), and was huddled into bunkers by American soldiers to escape mortar fire on the way home from a gig.

When visiting hospitals, where entertainers often gave free concerts, she was confronted by the horrific death and injuries suffered by soldiers.

She also admits to being scared every time she had to cross Da Nang's then single bridge from one side of the city to the other.

 

A sizeable difference between Barbara at 160cm and the American soldiers at Phu Bai in April 1967.
A sizeable difference between Barbara at 160cm and the American soldiers at Phu Bai in April 1967.

"Every time you got to the other side of the bridge you blessed yourself because the

Viet Cong were always floating explosives down the river trying to blow the bridge up and the South Vietnamese guards would shoot at anything to stop them," she said.

Still, there were the good times, such as the excitement of travelling in helicopters and C130 planes, water-skiing behind a helicopter, the beautiful beaches, friendships and parties which went on long after the shows "and the audiences; you would never find an audience like that back home, they were so thankful to have us there".

Both the Vietnamese people and the soldiers, she said, were wonderfully friendly and welcoming, although it was her first experience of racial tension, with some American soldiers unimpressed by the Aussies speaking to black soldiers as equals.

Returning home to Coogee in 1973, Barbara said she soon found the city too bustling and moved to Gosford in 1974, returning to her old standby of an accounting career.

Retiring at 67, she spent nearly five years volunteering for Marine Rescue before signing up with community station 93.3FM Radio Five-O-Plus, where she has worked as support staff and treasurer, as well as calling in a few old friends, including Lucky Starr, to star in last year's successful fundraising concert which she organised for the station at Gosford RSL.

She says it's a case of "keeping the brain going", but it seems that life for Barbara is just meant to be lived... every minute.


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