'Hanoi Hannah,' Whose Broadcasts Taunted And Entertained American GIs, Dies

Oct 6, 2016
Originally published on October 6, 2016 9:13 am

One of North Vietnam's most recognizable wartime voices fell silent last Friday, when former radio broadcaster Trinh Thi Ngo, dubbed "Hanoi Hannah" by American service members, died.

Her former employer, the government-run Voice of Vietnam, reported the news on its website Sunday. The radio service says Trinh was 87 when she died, though there are conflicting reports about the year of her birth.

Trinh broadcast under the pseudonym Thu Huong, or Autumn Fragrance. At the height of the war the Voice of Vietnam aired three 30-minute segments of hers a day.

The North Vietnamese Defense Ministry's propaganda department wrote her scripts, she told the Voice of Vietnam. Their aim was to degrade U.S. troops' will to fight, and convince them that their cause was unjust.

"Defect, GI. It is a very good idea to leave a sinking ship," she advised her U.S. listeners in one broadcast. "You know you cannot win this war."

Don North, a former ABC News reporter, remembers that "members of the special forces A-team would sit around at night and tune in around 10 o'clock to her broadcasts" in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1965.

"They would listen very carefully," he adds, "you know, break out the beers and listen to Hanoi Hannah."

North says that Trinh's broadcasts had a "minimal" effect on her listeners. Part of this, he says, was because the signal strength of her broadcasts was too weak to be widely heard across the country. Because she broadcast in English, she was better known to Americans than Vietnamese.

Nor did most GIs find her message credible, North says.

"As she said herself, when she used interviews or tape sent to her from anti-Vietnam war people in the States, she thought they were more effective than her own broadcasts," he says. Among the anti-war activists broadcast by Trinh was actress Jane Fonda.

Trinh received coaching in her trade from Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, known for his sympathy for the North's cause.

As part of North Vietnam's efforts to demoralize U.S. troops, Trinh read the names and hometowns of GIs killed in action, taken from Stars and Stripes.

To reinforce her message, Trinh played anti-war folk tunes such as Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and rock songs such as "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," by The Animals.

She also highlighted economic and racial inequalities in the U.S., and the Detroit riots of 1967.

"Isn't it clear that the war makers are gambling with your lives, while pocketing huge profits?" she asked U.S. troops that summer. Trinh did not talk about U.S. victories or the horrible losses suffered by North Vietnam.

Trinh was born into a prosperous family in Hanoi, which was then under French colonial rule.

She studied English and loved Hollywood movies, especially Gone With The Wind. She volunteered to join the Voice of Vietnam in 1955.

"Our program served for a cause, so we believed in that cause," Trinh told C-SPAN in a 1992 interview. "So we continued to broadcast."

"She struck me mainly as an intellectual," says North, who interviewed Trinh in 1976. "Certainly didn't remind me of a strident propagandist at all."

After the war Trinh moved to Ho Chi Minh City with her husband, where she worked in television until her retirement roughly a decade later. Her son left Vietnam and moved to the U.S., she told C-SPAN.

Trinh says she never joined the Vietnamese Communist Party, and quickly forgot any anger she had felt against Americans.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, now here's a voice that many American troops came to know in Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRINH THI NGO: How are you, GI Joe?

GREENE: The broadcaster, who the troops nicknamed Hanoi Hannah, died last Friday at 87 years old in Ho Chi Minh City. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has her story.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Trinh Thi Ngo broadcast under the pseudonym Thu Huong, or Autumn Fragrance. Pictures of her show a petite woman with curly hair and a broad smile.

At the height of the war, the Voice of Vietnam aired three 30-minute segments of hers a day. The North Vietnamese Defense Ministry's propaganda department wrote her scripts. Their aim was to degrade U.S. troops' will to fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRINH: Defect, GI. It is a very good idea to leave a sinking ship. You know you cannot win this war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE")

THE ANIMALS: (Singing) Girl, there's a better life for me and you.

KUHN: Trinh played rock tunes such as "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" by The Animals. She read the names and hometowns of GIs killed in action taken from the Stars and Stripes newspaper. She broadcast messages from U.S. anti-war activists, including Jane Fonda. She also highlighted economic and racial inequality in the U.S. and the Detroit riots of 1967.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRINH: Isn't clear that the war-makers are gambling with your lives while pocketing huge profit?

KUHN: She did not talk about the horrible losses suffered by North Vietnam. U.S. troops generally dismissed her broadcast, but she knew that they at least listened to her. She said she found this out years later by watching Robin Williams in the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM ")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Adrian Cronauer) Oh, my God. It's the wicked witch of the north. It's Hanoi Hannah.

KUHN: Trinh was born into a wealthy Vietnamese family in Hanoi in 1931. She studied English and loved Hollywood movies, especially "Gone With The Wind." In a 1992 interview with C-SPAN, she said she believed her own broadcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRINH: Our program served for a cause, so we believed in that cause. So we continued to broadcast.

KUHN: After the war, Trinh moved to Ho Chi Minh City with her husband. She worked in television until her retirement in 1987. She says she never joined the Vietnamese communist party and quickly forgot any anger she had felt against Americans.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.