Secret of the Red Rose

By David Wesley Chapman

On the night I met her, she saved me from the deepest, darkest despair I had ever known, in my 22 years of life.

The secret war in nearby Laos was winding down, and communist forces had taken control of the country. But a few American aircraft had gone down and a number of our Special Forces troops were still missing. So the pressure was on us, in my combat intelligence group, to find them.  

We’d worked long hours, week after grueling week, examining every inch of our reconnaissance photos, looking for prison camps, downed aircraft, or any sign of our missing people. But the jungles of Laos had gone dark. Even our ground intelligence and radio traffic reports had stopped, since our people had to lay low, keep quiet, and do their best to get out alive.

After working so hard, for so long, we’d found nothing—not a clue.

Desperate for some distraction and comfort, I took the risk of walking off-base after midnight, looking for an open bar. With so many airmen still hard at work, most of the bars had closed early. But I saw lights at the north end of the strip, so I began to walk that way.

I’d never gone in the place before. It was bigger than the other bars, but it looked a bit shabby on the outside, and its name seemed too sentimental—the Red Rose. I walked in anyway.

The place was quiet and nearly empty, but my eyes were captured by the radiant beauty of the Asian woman who stood behind the bar. With her perfect hair, flawless make-up and an elegant, jade green silk gown, she looked more like a professional model than a bartender. 

Her friendly smile, shining eyes, and cheerful chatter all conspired to lift my mood. By the time she handed me my second beer, life was looking better.

Then she surprised me. Gliding out from behind the bar, she walked to the jukebox with the graceful moves of a trained model on a fashion-show runway. She punched up her favorite song and my eyes enjoyed her every move, as she slid into a nearby booth.

She leaned far back in the seat and held her arms out, as if she were on stage, performing for a large audience. And her clear, strong voice blended beautifully with Karen Carpenter’s, as she sang, in perfect English:

Long ago…and, oh, so far away,
I fell in love with you,
Before the second show…

So I became a regular at the Red Rose Bar & Grill. The more time I spent there, the better I liked it…and the more I learned about the beautiful woman who owned the place.

From her usual position, behind the bar, her lovely eyes were always active, watching the customers and her serving girls, as they moved around, bringing drinks and food. Unlike so many bosses I’d seen in Asia, she always spoke gently to her girls, with kindness in her eyes, like she was their older sister, instead of their supervisor.

She always made sure that her girls were nicely dressed, with their hair and make-up done well. She had trained them to smile and move among us with grace and beauty seldom seen in places like this. Of course, all the young servicemen were impressed…and we were charmed into our best behavior.

Something I didn’t realize at first, because she was so subtle about it—but she always watched very closely whenever one of her girls sat down, with a shy smile, to talk and sometimes flirt with a lonely, young G.I.  And I noticed that, in the presence of such beauty and grace, those young men’s faces would glow…and they’d come back to life again.

As the weeks passed, I often told people how much I enjoyed the Red Rose…and I brought her several new customers. I even persuaded a few non-smokers in our squadron to buy their cigarette ration and take their two cartons per week to the Red Rose, to barter for drinks or food. And so, she often had American cigarettes to sell to customers, for a little extra profit.

After that, from time to time, a free bowl of her delicious stir-fry would mysteriously appear beside me, or a free beer, now & then, after my cash ran out.

I also learned why she disappeared into the back for 20 minutes, every 2 or 3 hours. She went to breastfeed her 6-month-old baby boy. The baby’s father was an American helicopter crewman whose chopper had gone down in Laos, a few months before the baby was born.

About that time, communist forces in Cambodia had taken control everywhere, except in the capital city of Phnom Penh. We worked day and night, to co-ordinate the final evacuation of our embassy and our CIA people. Then we used every plane, helicopter, and boat we could find, to help our friends and allies escape. But only a few got out, before the communists came in. 

By then, I’d heard a number of stories about the personal horrors of that war…by talking with some of the bar girls at the Red Rose, who were refugees from Laos and Cambodia. When the communists first came to their villages, they took everyone outside and forced them to watch, while all the men were killed. Fathers, uncles and brothers—all males, from age 10 to age 60—were murdered, in open view. Some were shot, but more often, they were hacked to death with machetes…to conserve ammunition.

Then, the women ran for their lives. To survive a journey to Thailand, they had to be strong enough to walk for weeks, through jungles and grassland…smart enough to find food & water, but avoid the communist troops…and finally, to swim across the Mekong River at night.

Most refugees who made it to Thailand were strong, healthy women, teenagers to age 40 or 45. They were safe, but they had to endure a difficult life in a refugee camp, for several years. Only a few ventured out to look for work, since jobs were scarce in those troubled times.

A few of the most attractive and confident young women went to places like the Red Rose…to try their luck with American servicemen. But they were not hookers. Their goal was romance, to capture the heart of a young GI, marry him, and go to America for a new life. And unlike hard-core sex workers, their hearts were open and their hopes were high.

Of everything I learned about the woman who ran the Red Rose, this impressed me most. She did so much more than run our favorite hangout. She used the many rooms in the back of her place to take in female refugees and care for them like family. She fed and clothed them; she gave them shelter; she took care of their injuries & illness. And—as I would learn later—she often held and comforted those girls, when they woke up, screaming, in the night.