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thedrifter
10-10-02, 11:42 AM
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Sent to Vietnam to "build up the morale of the troops," Hollywood entertainer Chris Noel - shown here belting out a song for a group of GIs - is also credited with introducing the miniskirt to the Far East. (Courtesy of Chuck Howard)

Chris "Miss Christmas" Noel

Entertainer Chris 'Miss Christmas' Noel earned the right to call herself a Vietnam veteran.

By Chuck Howard

On Christmas Day 1965, a green-eyed blonde named Chris Noel and other Hollywood celebrities visited Letterman and Balboa hospitals with California Governor Jerry Brown. "My roommate Eileen O'Neill and I thought we had been invited because we were pretty and because we could entertain," Noel later recalled. "We worked a routine from Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. I was Marilyn Monroe, and Eileen was Jane Russell.

Doing What She Wanted Most

"We were taken to the gangrene ward, where we were given masks and gowns. Every case was a double or triple amputee. We were told the procedure of scrubbing their open wounds caused excruciating pain. I would see these scenes repeated many times. As much as they upset me, I held back the tears and smiled. Once I saw the power of a smile...I knew what I wanted most."

Veterans Of The USO

Thanks to the USO (United Service Organizations), the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, and Special Services, many servicemen and women enjoyed a brief respite from war on at least one occasion during their tours in Vietnam. The entertainers and musicians who performed in-country offered a standard list of reasons for packing up and heading to the war: love of country, money, excitement, career advancement, and a desire to do something for the soldiers. Chris "Miss Christmas" Noel is one of those who "did it for the guys." She has earned the right to call herself a "veteran."

A Date With Chris

On her way to Hollywood stardom, she would become one of the first (and last) cheerleaders for the New York Giants, a model and a cover girl. With her girl-next-door good looks, Noel seemed literally made for Hollywood. She starred with, dated or befriended such Vietnam-era entertainment favorites as Elvis Presley, Hugh O'Brian, Shelley Fabares, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Rydell, Burt Reynolds, Bruce Springsteen, Don Johnson and Bob Hope. Her film credits include Soldier in the Rain with Steve McQueen, Honeymoon Hotel with Robert Goulet, and Girl Happy with Elvis Presley. Noel, however, discovered her true calling soon after she was offered her own show with Armed Forces Radio. A Date With Chris was broadcast to GIs throughout the world. It was an immediate hit.

The show came about when she was dating singer Jack Jones, who was putting in Reserve time at Armed Forces Radio in Hollywood. "They were interviewing girls for the purpose of putting one on the air," recalled Noel. "So I made an appointment for an interview, answered their questions and did a kind of mock radio show and...a few weeks later I was on the air." First, she co-hosted a show called Small World. "Once the show hit Vietnam," Noel said, "it became so popular they decided they wanted me to have my own show."

Noel's boyfriend was touring Vietnam with Bob Hope. "I talked to him when he was in Vietnam," she recalled. "I wanted to go. Desperately, I wanted to go with Bob Hope. The minute I got this radio show, I volunteered to go, and I was told I couldn't. I was turned down. I just wasn't a big enough star. But then, weeks later, I received a telegram from Washington. It said, 'Chris Noel, we would like you to go to Vietnam to help build up the morale of the troops.'"

Hemlines And Helicopters

Noel is sometimes credited with introducing the then-fashionable miniskirt to the Far East. "The reason I took miniskirts to Vietnam was because I was only allowed to take one bag, and I wanted to have some nice clothes and miniskirts didn't take up much room," she said. "I had no idea what to take. I didn't know that I was going to be jumping on helicopters. I had never been in a helicopter. I soon found out that I was going to go virtually everywhere by helicopter. There was this one small problem, though -- I have this incredible fear of heights." But when I was in the helicopters, I never had this fear. I loved it. And they always flew with the doors open everywhere I went. I loved sitting by the edge, by the door gunner, looking straight down. It may sound strange, but the wind and noise level became serenity to me."

Ad-Libbing Base To Base

Unlike most of her contemporaries, who were restricted to the main bases, Noel spread her unique brand of bubbly cheer from sprawling base camps to small, pinnacled firebases to remote outposts manned by as few as two GIs. She sang, danced, read poetry, consoled, kissed and hugged her way into the hearts of tens of thousands of servicemen from 1966 to 1970. "I don't think many women traveled throughout Vietnam the way I did or as often," Noel said. "It was purely ad lib in and out of landing zones, hospitals and bases."

Sister, Wife, Mother, Friend

Having no political leanings, Noel fulfilled the role of sister, mother and girlfriend for American servicemen, often at the risk of her own life. "I remember one time when we were on top of a mountain and there was incoming and I was flat up against the bunker as they brought in a helicopter to get me out," she said. "I was really scared. As it landed, I didn't get in that helicopter, I was literally thrown into it, and I heard the bullets hitting it as we took off."

Danger Existed

Noel broadcast a radio show from Saigon, countering the voice of Hanoi Hannah (see interview "Hanoi Hannah Speaks Again" in the April 1996 issue). "Of course, I also knew about Saigon Sally, the Vietnamese woman who traveled around the Saigon area broadcasting on portable transmitters," said Noel. "Her morale-deflating show [which supported the North] ended while she was on the air. The last sounds were a crash, gunfire, and a man's voice, 'You have just heard the concluding saga of Saigon Sally.' I knew this could also happen to me." (During the Tet offensive, a bullet entered the American Forces Vietnam Network studio in Vietnam, piercing the ceiling and two pages of news copy and embedding itself in the newsman's typewriter.)

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Chris Noel boards a helicopter for one of her in-country tours. Unlike other Hollywood enteratiners, Noel stayed in Vietnam, visiting the troops in far-flung, front-line locations. (Courtesy of Chuck Howard)


Sempers,

Roger