Most military strategists agree that, aside from actual firepower, nothing means more to an army than the morale of its men. And since the days of GI Joe, the American fighting man has seldom appeared on the frontiers of freedom without an abundant supply of that most time-honored of spirit-lifting staples: the pinup. From the shores of Iwo Jima to the jungles of Vietnam, the pinup queen has remained a constant companion to our men at arms; but the long-legged likenesses of such World War Two lovelies as Grable and Hay-worth have given way to a whole new breed of photogenic females better known as the playboy Playmates. It was only a matter of time, therefore, until centerfolddom’s contemporary beauties would be asked to do their bit for our boys in uniform. That time came last November, when Second Lieutenant John Price—a young airborne officer on duty in Vietnam—sent Editor-Publisher Hugh M. Hefner the following letter:
“This is written from the depths of the hearts of 180 officers and men of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) stationed at Bien Hoa, Republic of Vietnam. We were the first American Army troop unit committed to action here in Vietnam, and we have gone many miles—some in sorrow and some in joy, but mostly in hard, bone-weary inches. …We are proud to be here and have found the answer to the question, ‘Ask what you can do for your country.’ And yet we cannot stand alone—which brings me to the reason for sending you this request.
"The loneliness here is a terrible thing—and we long to see a real, living, breathing American girl. Therefore, we have enclosed with this letter a money order for a Lifetime Subscription to playboy magazine for B Company. It is our understanding that, with the purchase of a Lifetime Subscription in the U. S., the first issue is personally delivered by a Playmate. It is our most fervent hope that this policy can be extended to include us. …Any one of the current Playmates of the Month would be welcomed with open arms, but if we have any choice in the matter, we have unanimously decided that we would prefer the 1965 Playmate of the Year—Miss Jo Collins.
"If we are not important enough…to send a Playmate for, please just forget about us and we will quietly fade back into the jungle.” Deciding that only old soldiers should fade away, and deeply touched by the paratrooper’s plea, Hefner immediately began drawing up plans for the successful completion of Project Playmate. “When we first received the request,” Hef recalls, “we weren’t at all sure how the Defense Department would feel about Playboy sending a beautiful American girl into Vietnam at a time like this, but lieutenant Price’s letter was too moving to just put aside and forget. The lieutenant had obviously been a playboy reader for quite a while, since he remembered a special Christmas gift offer the magazine published several years ago, which stated that a lifetime subscriber from any city with a Playboy Club would have his first issue delivered in person by a Playmate. Of course we don’t have a Playboy Club in Vietnam at the moment, but we figured we could overlook that little technicality under the circumstances.”
Along with the usual complications and military restrictions any average civilian encounters when attempting to travel to Vietnam these days, many more technicalities had to be ironed out through the proper channels before Jo received the necessary Government clearance for a late-February flight to the front lines. “The fellows in Company B said it would be a privilege if I could visit them,” remarked the Playmate of the Year when asked how she felt about her upcoming tour of delivery duty in the war-torn Far East, “but the way I see it—I’m the one who’s privileged.”
Her call to arms came much sooner than expected, however, when word was received that Lieutenant Price had been wounded in action on January 3, and that her morale-boosting mission might have to be canceled unless Jo could reach the injured officer’s bedside at a Bien Hoa combat-zone hospital before his scheduled evacuation from Vietnam on January 13. All additional red tape still pending prior to Jo’s departure was quickly bypassed: On Sunday afternoon (January 9), Playmate First Class Collins and her party—which included playboy’s Playmate and Bunny Promotion Coordinator Joyce Chalecki as acting chaperone and staff photographer Larry Gordon—departed from San Francisco on a Pan Am jetliner bound for Saigon. Commenting on some of her own last-minute logistic problems before take-off, Jo later told us:
“Things were so hectic those last few days before we left that I was sure we’d never make it. For openers, I was away visiting friends in Oregon when the news came in about Lieutenant Price being wounded. The original plans called for my flying to Chicago in mid-February, where I would team up with Larry and Joyce, get my travel shots and clear up all the final details for the trip. Hef phoned me about the sudden switch in Project Playmate, and I spent the next five days flying back and forth—first to Seattle for my passport when I found out Oregon doesn’t issue them; then to Los Angeles, where I got my smallpox vaccination, checked out some last-minute details with my agent at American International Studios and raided my apartment for the clothes I figured I’d be needing. As it was, I managed to meet Larry and Joyce at the San Francisco airport and board our jet to Vietnam with all of about fifteen minutes to spare.” (In typical above-and-beyond-the-call fashion, trooper Collins—an aspiring actress whose recent film credits include minor roles in Lord Love a Duck and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?—neglected to mention that, in reporting for duty on such short notice, she’d had to bypass an important audition for a principal part on TV’s Peyton Place.)
Some 8000 miles and 18 hours after their Stateside rendezvous, Jo and her playboy staffers landed at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where 400 American troops and a regiment of newsmen and photographers had turned out to greet them. After a brief review of her assembled admires, Jo was introduced to Lieutenant Clancey Johnson and Private First Class Marvin Hudson, two of Lieutenant Price’s friends in the 173rd Airborne Brigade who had ever-so-willingly volunteered to serve as a stand-in reception committee for their wounded buddy back at Bien Hoa. Mindful of his guerrilla training, Private First Class Hudson put on a one-man camouflage display when, after handing Jo her Company B (for Bravo) tribute of red roses, he subsequently blushed a deep crimson and succeeded in concealing the telltale lipstick print she had just planted on each of his cheeks.
Following the deplaning festivities, the three playboy recruits were taken to a nearby “chopper” pad and given a whirlwind aerial tour of Saigon and the outlying districts aboard the “Playboy Special"—a Brigade helicopter especially renamed in honor of their visit. "That first chopper ride really started things off with excitement,” reports GI Jo. “It seemed as though we’d hardly even arrived, and there we were over hostile country being given our first taste of what they call 'contour flying.’ That’s where you skim the treetops to prevent possible enemy snipers from getting a clear shot at you and then, suddenly, shoot straight up at about 100 miles per hour to 3500 feet so you can check the area for Viet Cong troop movements from outside their firing range. After our stomachs got used to it, we figured we were ready for just about anything.”
Back on terra firma, the Playboy troupe was joined by Jack Edwards, who took time out from his regular duties as Special Services Director for the Saigon-based press and military officials to act as the trio’s liaison man during its forthcoming three-day tour of the surrounding combat areas. As Jo later told us: “Jack was so concerned about our running into a V.C. ambush after we left Saigon that he wound up worrying enough for all of us. He managed to get us rooms at the Embassy Hotel in Saigon after our original reservations at the Caravelle somehow went astray; he kept press conferences down to a minimum so we could spend most of our time with the men at the front, arranged a first-night sight-seeing trip to some of the Saigon night clubs in case our own morale needed bolstering and, in general, watched over us like a mother hen. By the end of the first evening in Vietnam, we were all so pleased we’d come that, when one reporter reminded me I could end up getting shot during the next three days, I told him that the only shot I was still worried about was the one for cholera I was scheduled to get the next morning.”
The following day (Tuesday, January 11), Jo and her colleagues got a chance to test their calmness under fire. Arriving at Tan Son Nhut at 0830 hours, dressed in combat fatigues, they were issued bulletproof vests before boarding the “Playboy Special” with their MP escorts for an initial front-line foray. “I realize it was a question of safety before beauty,” says Jo, “but I couldn’t help feeling a little insecure. After seeing some of Saigon’s Vietnamese beauties Lieutenant Price referred to in his letter and catching a glimpse of myself in combat gear, I was afraid the guys wouldn’t be nearly as homesick for an American girl once they had a basis for comparison.” Flying low over enemy-infiltrated territory and encircled by three fully manned gun ships flying escort, the “Playboy Special” made its first stop at the 173rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters in Bien Hoa. Here, any fears our pretty Playmate might have harbored about her uniform appeal were summarily dispatched by the parade of smiling paratroopers waiting on the airstrip to greet her.
Most of the men of Company B were on jungle patrols during Jo’s first visit to Bien Hoa, but the one man most responsible for her being in Vietnam—Lieutenant John Price—was present and accounted for at his unit’s surgical ward. In spite of a severely wounded arm that will require several additional operations before it can be restored to full use, Lieutenant Price managed to muster up enough energy to give his favorite Playmate a healthy hug or two when she showed up to deliver his company’s Lifetime Subscription certificate and the latest issue of Playboy. The lieutenant’s initial reaction to seeing the Company B sweetheart standing there in the flesh was “Gosh, you’re even prettier than your pictures.” Flattered, Jo sealed her Playboy delivery with a well-timed kiss, and consequently convinced the company medics that Price was well along the road to recovery by evoking his immediate request for a repeat engagement. In fact, his condition seemed so improved that the doctors waived hospital regulations for the day to allow him to accompany Jo to lunch at Camp Zenn—the Company B base camp on the outskirts of Bien Hoa.
After lunch, Jo put her best bedside manner to use as she paid a brief call on each of the men in Lieutenant Price’s ward. “A few of the fellows asked me to help them finish a letter home, others wanted a light for their cigarette; but most of them just wanted to talk awhile with a girl from their own native land. A couple of times I was sure I would break down and bawl like a baby, but I managed to control myself until they brought in a badly wounded buddy who asked if he could see me before going into surgery. When I got to his side, he was bleeding heavily from both legs and I didn’t know what to do or say to comfort him. Then he looked up at me with his best tough-guy grin and simply said, 'Hi, gorgeous.’ After that, I lost all control and the old tears really flowed.”
Before leaving Bien Hoa, Jo made additional bedside tours at the 93rd Medical Evacuation Hospital and the 3rd Surgical Hospital, where the doctors on duty decided to add some Playmate therapy to their own daily diet by piling into the nearest empty beds during her final rounds. Not until their day’s tour had ended and their chopper was warming up for the flight back to Saigon did Jo and her companions suddenly realize how close to actual combat they’d been for the past several hours. “We were all ready to go and standing outside the Brigade Officers’ Club when I first heard the sound of shots coming from fairly close by,” explains Jo. “Then a few mortar shells went off, but it still didn’t sink in how near the action we really were. I guess we’d all been too busy meeting wounded soldiers and talking to the men on the base to notice anything before. Then, right before our chopper lifted off, a series of flares went off and lit up everything for miles. I kept thinking how great it would have been if all those boys had been back home watching a Fourth of July celebration instead of out there in the jungle fighting for their very lives.”
Wednesday, the group headed out toward some of the more crucial combat zones in the Saigon military theater. First on the day’s itinerary was a stopover at Nu Ba Den, a strategic communications outpost under the command of Special Forces troops who had long since renamed their precarious hilltop position “Black Virgin Mountain.” Rising some 3200 feet above the surrounding countryside and under continuous assault from Viet Cong guerrillas hidden in the densely wooded areas below, Black Virgin Mountain is defended by a small detachment of Special Forces personnel and the South Vietnamese regulars placed in their charge. But despite the precariousness of their position, these wearers of the famed Green Berets greeted the Playboy group with a typical show of Special Forces readiness: crowning Jo upon arrival with her own green beret, escorting her to various lookout points around the installation and serving as interpreters when Vietnamese soldiers asked to meet her.
From Black Virgin Mountain the “Playboy Special” flew its charges to the Special Forces encampment at Lay Ninth, whose boundaries encompass the majestic Cao Dai Temple—seat of the Cao Dai religion, which combines the teachings of Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism. “The temple itself was right out of a fairy tale,” remembers Jo. “But its presence right in the middle of a combat theater made everything about it that much more strikingly unusual. We entered barefooted and were met by a different world, full of ornate columns, uncaged white birds and young headshaven priests, while just outside men in uniform walked about with their guns always ready at their sides.”
Another 85 miles over enemy lines brought the passengers of the “Playboy Special” to the village of Bu Dop, one of the most strategically critical military outposts in the entire Vietnam war zone. Located on the Cambodian border and protected by the 5th Special Forces Group, this vital base had, only three months earlier, been the scene of an ambush that cost the lives of all the men then assigned to its defense. “The Green Berets at Bu Dop went out of their way to try and maintain a relaxed air around us,” Jo later said, “but you could still cut the tension with a knife. We were introduced to just about everyone there was to meet—from the group commander to most of his American and South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters—but it seemed as though none of them ever left his field position or took his eyes off the surrounding jungle. Some of the edge was taken off our nerves when the village chief and his two wives came by to welcome us, since they all projected the feeling of complete calm by nonchalantly walking about the community with nothing on from the waist up.”
Whatever tranquilizing effect the sight of a Vietnamese village chieftain and his two topless ladies fair might have had on the threesome was short-lived, however, for the next stopover on their tour took them well outside the barbed-wire gates of Bu Dop and across the same jungle trail they had just been told was often swarming with Viet Cong. “Like most red-blooded female cowards,” jokes the 20-year-old Playmate of the Year, “Joyce and I hit the panic button the minute we caught sight of all the bullet holes in the side of our truck. And we both swear we saw Larry’s shutter finger shake through an entire roll of film, but he refuses to admit it.” As it turned out, the purpose of this overland junket into the unknown was to let some of Jo’s fighting South Vietnamese fans—stationed 15 minutes away in a small Montagnard hamlet—get a glimpse of their green bereted glamor girl before she left.
The final item on Wednesday’s agenda was a flight to Vung Tau, a scenic coastal village on the Mekong Peninsula where American and South Vietnamese troops can enjoy a few days of muchneeded rest and rehabilitation before their next tour of duty in the interior. “At first,” says Jo, “I was afraid to ask any of the fellows how they felt about going back into combat after having a chance to get away from it all. I figured they’d all like to forget about war and just lie on the beach there until everything got settled. It didn’t take me long to find out otherwise. Many of our boys in Vietnam may only be 17-and 18-year-olds who don’t know much about world politics, but I came away from places like Vung Tau convinced that they know why they’re there. Nobody’s going to make them throw in the towel.”
Jo’s last day in Vietnam wound up being the busiest of all. With a gallant assist from Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson—American Airborne Commander in Vietnam—she got a second chance to complete her mission as planned when the front-line troops from Company B were called back to Bien Hoa for a 24-hour lifetime subscribers’ leave and a long-awaited look at the Playmate of their choice. One by one, the combat-weary paratroopers filed off their choppers and hurried over for a hard-earned hello from Jo—a few even produced crumpled-up copies of her December 1964 Playmate photo they’d been carrying in their helmet liners in hope of someday having them autographed. “When I saw all those happy faces running toward me from every direction, I knew we’d finally gotten our job done,” she said.
One more trip to the front was on the agenda before Jo would be ready to head back to Saigon and a Hawaii-bound jet. Landing in War Zone D, Jo was escorted to combat headquarters, where a grateful general was waiting to hand her a farewell memento of her short stay in Vietnam—a plaque upon which had been inscribed the words: “Know ye all men that, in recognition of the fact that Playmate Jo Collins traveled to the Republic of Vietnam to deliver a Lifetime Subscription to playboy magazine to sky soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and demonstrated exceptional courage by volunteering to travel into hostile areas to visit its men and in doing so exhibited the all-the-way spirit typical of true airborne troopers…I, Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson, do appoint her an honorary Sky Soldier, done this 13th day of January, 1966.”
The day after her Saigon departure, Jo received further praise from high places for the job she had done. Between visits in Honolulu to Tripler Army Hospital and Pearl Harbor, she was called on the phone by Ambassador Averill Harriman, who wished to express his and Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s congratulations on all the good reports they’d heard concerning her morale-lifting mission. Needless to say, Jo was highly honored by the tributes of so dignified a brace of statesmen, but, as she put it, “The finest compliments I could ever receive have already been sent in the letters of over 200 fellows I was lucky enough to meet somewhere near Saigon.”
It remained for the men of Company B to pay their Playmate postmistress the highest honor, however, by renaming their outfit “Playboy Company” and thus assuring Jo that her presence south of the 17th Parallel would not be soon forgotten. When asked how she felt about becoming the official mascot for this troop of front-line sky soldiers, a jubilant Jo replied, “I’ve never been prouder.” As the company’s new namesake, playboy seconds that statement.