By Bryan Painter
On a museum wall in the far northwestern Oklahoma community of Laverne is a framed thank-you. It was sent to Jane Jayroe, in appreciation of a trip in 1967 to Vietnam that delivered smiles to U.S. troops but still draws tears to her green eyes.
As she turned and looked to the thank-you from the 87th Engineer Battalion, her voice weakened. “I can't talk about it without getting emotional,” said Jayroe, who was Miss Oklahoma and Miss America in 1967. “What affected me the most during that year was going to Vietnam. It was such a little thing that we did to spend two weeks there, but it meant so much to those who were serving there.”
She and others traveled all over South Vietnam. She knew what some Americans thought of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. She also knew the members of the military she had been sent to entertain “weren't politicians; they were just serving their country.” In fact, two of the men she took photos with were very familiar to her—Claude Roach, who had graduated the year after her at Laverne, and Mike Smith, her cousin from Turpin. The goal was to bring a sense of home to a place that was anything but home.
Never before had Miss America toured a combat zone.
“Miss America has always been a thread in the fabric of patriotism in this country,” Jayroe said. “She was a big part of selling war bonds, she has often been invited to the White House, she has visited troops in hospitals, but Miss America had never been to a combat zone before 1967.”
Jayroe never thought about being the “first,” but she had long thought of, or dreamed of, being part of a USO show and entertaining U.S. troops. Her father and uncles served in World War II.
“We were a very patriotic family,” she said.
The graduate of Laverne High School attended Oklahoma City University, in great part, because their performing group, Surry Singers, went on USO tours every year to entertain U.S. troops in different parts of the world.
Whether in the U.S. or Europe, almost every news conference included a question regarding her thoughts on Vietnam.
“I never had a good answer about the politics of the war. I just supported our troops,” she said. Each time she was questioned about whether she'd like to go, Jayroe would answer, “Yes.” Her repeated requests to “go” brought a lot of publicity, and eventually the pageant linked that with USO and Pepsi as sponsors. They created a musical show and included Miss America representatives of other states who could sing and dance.
On the way, there was singing on the plane, until they landed in Saigon. “It was a different world than we could ever have imagined: filthy, barbed wire, guns and dangerous,” she said.
In South Vietnam
The entertainers were the same age as most of the young men who came out in the thousands to see the shows. The men stood in the rain and the blistering sun. Some climbed trees for a better view.
“They were the most appreciative and responsive audience a performer could imagine,” she said. “We left our college world of sorority songs, football games, and superficial concerns. They lived in the mud, fought an enemy they often couldn't recognize, and heard from home that they were the enemy. The whole thing was heartbreaking.”
The day after arriving, the group visited a hospital and met a friend of Miss Tennessee, a young man who had lost both legs 10 days earlier.
“I was just so proud to be an American, and so amazed at how much I took for granted about our freedom and way of life,” she said.
The group flew in helicopters with armed guards hanging out the side. They went out to be with the Navy and were met by fighter jets and escorted to the ship. It was the aircraft carrier Intrepid's 24th birthday and she jumped out of the cake. Celebrations and tears were never far apart.
The next morning, they watched the catapulted jets take off over the blue water and into a crystal clear sky. However, that night two planes didn't come back, “and the reality took our breath away, such young, outstanding American men gone.”
At varying times the group was with the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. They delivered smiles and their personal appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices. And they fought off tears—as much as possible.
“We saw a lot,” Jayroe said, “and we were forever changed. “The men and women we met didn't make the decision to fight in Vietnam, they just answered the call of their country to duty. They served; they sacrificed. Some paid the ultimate price.”
Reprinted with permission from the Oklahoman newspaper.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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