In early 1966, as the war raging in Vietnam dominated the American psyche, a newlywed civilian named Lauri Meno watched Martha Raye perform in Las Vegas.
Raye, the famed comedic actress and singer, had not only entertained troops overseas but often served shoulder to shoulder with them as a nurse on the battlefield throughout the Vietnam War. The night Meno and her husband came to see Raye’s show in Vegas, the star had a message for the audience.
“(Raye) said, ‘If you want to do something positive, these guys (in Vietnam) are lonely, and if you’d be a pen pal that would really help,’” said Meno, who has since changed her name to Danielle Vachon.
As soon as the then- 21-year-old got home to Los Angeles, Vachon listed herself as a pen pal in the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, as well as the Marine Corps’ Sea Tiger.
From 1966 to 1967, she corresponded with 49 Marines and Navy men who served in Vietnam.
Although she’s held on to the letters for over 50 years, the now-Camarillo resident hopes to donate them to a museum or archive—an idea she got last month after visiting the Moving Wall during its recent stop in Ventura. The wall is a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
‘Letters from home’
Vachon said she remembers turning on the television in 1966 and seeing the staggering numbers of Vietnam casualties on the news.
“It was horrible numbers all the time and I would just cry,” she said. “So when I heard Martha Raye, I just thought ‘I’ve got to do something,’ because I just felt so helpless.”
Vachon initially received about 100 letters in the mail. Overwhelmed by the response, she gave about half of them to girlfriends who said they’d write back to the correspondents.
She kept 49, all from Marines or Navy men who wrote about their backgrounds and described their experiences in the war. They asked about Vachon’s life and how things were going in the states. She responded to every single one.
“I was just social, so I wrote like a young girl would write: ‘Oh, the latest fashion is this, my girlfriends and I did that, my husband and I went here, oh and this is what’s going on in the World Series.’ That’s what they wanted; home, letters from home.”
‘My fellas, my guys’
A few of Vachon’s pen pals became real wartime friends, each writing a dozen or more letters over the course of the next two years while they were stationed abroad.
“They were my fellas, my guys,” she said. “I felt like a mama, even though I was their age.”
Staff Sgt. Calvin Carter of Los Angeles once sent her a copy of a poem by an unknown Marine that, according to war correspondent Tom Tiede’s 1966 paperback “Your Men at War,” had become popular and circulated throughout the Corps in Vietnam.
“You lucky guy, you giggle and sneer/because you have never known fear,” the third stanza reads. “But the men over here face death each day/for freedom and the American way.”
Another pen pal, Staff Sgt. Harold Magness from Laramie, Wyo., wrote one of his letters on a flattened C-ration (prepared meal) box because he was out in the jungle and had no paper.
“Right now we’re on a defense mission for special forces—the Green Beret,” the September 1966 letter reads. “The battalion I’m with now is expecting the 324B North Vietnam Army division to hit us tomorrow afternoon, then all heck breaks loose.”
There was also Gunnery Sgt. John Young, a married rancher from Florida who wrote a total of 22 letters over the course of 11 months.
A few others wrote back and forth with Vachon a handful of times. But the majority, she said, she never heard from again after sending a response.
“The big thing for me is that, except for a few of (the 49), I don’t know if these guys survived. I don’t know if they became POWs. I don’t know anything,” she said. “They just stopped writing.”
Vachon hopes that by sharing the letters she’ll be able to connect with some of her former pen pals or their families.
“I would dearly love to contact either the soldiers themselves to know they’re OK or if their families are interested in their letters, I’m more than happy to give them to them. But either way this year, I’m going to find a home for them where they’ll be honored and appreciated.”
IN A NUTSHELL
From early 1966 to mid-1967, Danielle Vachon (formerly known as Lauri Meno) corresponded with at least 49 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines and Navy personnel, who were serving in Vietnam.
She possesses letters written by the following: Johnny A. Armstrong, William H. Ausley, Robert C. Baker, Frank Baldwin, F. Benischeck, David Berg, Calvin Carter, Manuel Chaviro, Manuel Cruz, Larry M. Doss, Kenneth J. Dupre, Fred Fernandez, Thomas Fortenberry, Stanley Gill, John Gray, B. A. “Tony” Heisler, Jay Hendershott, Robert E. Jackson Jr., Gene Lambert, George M. Lane, Robert Lavaricere, David W.T. Lawton, William T. Litton, William “Willy” Lockwood, Martin J. Lopez, Harold A. Magness, Winters McComos, Gerald A. Minoth, Luis Mosley Jr., Cai J. Nielsen, C.L. “Sonny” North, Bob L. Owens, Melvin K. Parsons, Robert Press, Percy Bently Price, Robert Reid, Ronald L. Schram, James A. Shannon, Willie Monish Shipp, Neal Shull, Antona Trusty, Grady Ussey, Roger F. Vardon, John C. Waldrop, David Wharton, Jerry Williams, Murray Williams, Ray Wrench and John H. Young.
The listed veterans or their families may email Vachon at firstname.lastname@example.org.