20 February 2013

Reflections On ... 'China Beach'

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I developed a crush on an Army nurse stationed in Vietnam. She was a character on TV, on a show called "China Beach."

The character was Colleen McMurphy, played by actress Dana Delany. A woman in uniform with a sarcastic tone, a bobbed haircut, and Irish name. ("I got a case of unopened beer," goes one McMurphy quote. "It's all formaldehyde but totally free.")

Writing that down, I realize now that she's a partial reflection of a few real-life girlfriends. Some before McMurphy, some after.

The television show aired from 1988 to 1991, during which time I was training part-time to join the Army. I graduated from college just in time to see the bombs drop on Baghdad in January 1991, during the start of Operation Desert Storm. My girlfriend at the time got pulled out of school, and deployed as a Missouri National Guard soldier. I, on the other hand, went to school for my country, learning about Army radios and telephones. By the time I got back, the shooting was over. So was the girlfriend.

The opening credits to "China Beach" featured The Supreme's 1967 hit, "Reflections." (Click here for a YouTube snippet of the first-season opener. While you're watching it ... remember how "broadcast in stereo" was such a big deal in the 1980s?)

Through the mirror of my mind
Time after time
I see reflections of you and me [...]

Pretty girly stuff. Then again, so is quoting music lyrics in blog-posts. And, come to think of it, so was "China Beach."

"China Beach" was a character-driven drama, centered on a location based on My Khe beach, near the major port city of De Nang. Unlike "Tour of Duty" (1987-1990), which was more of an action-based TV drama, "China Beach" included a number of strong female characters. There was an equal male-female ratio, if not an outright matriarchy.

Welcome to the fictional 510th "Five and Dime" Evacuation Hospital and Rest and Relaxation facility!

The female characters included a number of archetypes Donut Dolly, a hard-charging head nurse, a hooker with a heart of gold. There was the ambitious news reporter, and a USO dancer. Cutting edge, I guess, for its times.

On the male side of the barracks, there was also a womanizing male doctor, who, like me, pined after McMurphy. And a bartender named Boonie, who had a dark secret about why he wasn't out patrolling along with his infantry buddies. And an introverted mortuary affairs soldier.

In short, and using the military slang of today, it was all pretty FOBby.

You can always tell when people have been through a traumatic or cognitive crisis when they tell you, "It was just like in the movies" or "It was just like on TV." As someone who fancies himself a word-guy, I try not to rely on such conversational crutches. Still, what's my go-to way of describing my 2003 peacekeeping deployment to Egypt's Red Sea Riveria, along with a battalion of Iowa National Guard infantry soldiers? "It was just like 'China Beach.'"

It was, too. We had a beach, and a squad soldiers trained and tasked full-time as lifeguards. I managed an outdoor movie theater, and an Armed Forces Radio and Television Service station. There were at least five official and semi-drinking establishments on our main base, plus a library, a laundry service, an education center, and a convenience store. We also flew out to our desert Observation Posts in UH-1 "Huey" helicopters, Vietnam-era machines celebrated for the distinctive chop-chop sound of their twin blades. They were purported to be the last Hueys still in the active-duty Army inventory. Other equipment may fly, the saying goes, but Hueys beat the air into submission.

The Multinational Force and Observers (M.F.O.) mission has been monitored the treaty between Egypt and Israel since 1982. Until the United States' contribution to the had been handed off to the U.S. National Guard in the early 2000s, the low-key job had always gone to active-duty Army battalions, who used the time to relax and reset.

The infantry guys went a little stir-crazy. After all, there was a perfectly good war on, only a couple of countries over. When U.S. troops found Saddam Hussein hiding in a spider hole in Iraq, we were kicked back on a beach in B.F. Egypt.

Reflections of ...
The way life used to be

Of course, I encountered the Mother of All "China Beach" Lookalikes when I traveled to Bagram Airfield ("BAF") in 2011. I flew in some Hueys there, too—contract birds that ferried personnel and equipment around Afghanistan.

Coincidentally, a couple of years ago, there was an attempt a "China Beach"-style prime-time drama about Afghanistan, but "Combat Hospital" lasted only one season. You can special-order it
on DVD. Click here for an musical excerpt from that show.

For the first time, "China Beach" will soon be available on DVD. More on that in a minute. Also, for now, I'll save telling the story about a minor part I recently played in the product launch.

Like "Tour of Duty" and other Vietnam-themed programs of its era, the original producers of "China Beach" reportedly didn't lock down the music rights, making producing a DVD after-the-fact very difficult. Time-Life Books, however, has apparently cracked the code. According to press materials, the complete series will be available in boxed sets—and will feature most of the original music.

Using a different strategy a few years ago, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released "Tour of Duty" on DVD
with knock-offs of its original music, including its trademark theme—the Rolling Stones 1966 hit "Paint It, Black." The soundalike soundtrack didn't go over well with online commenters.

Click here for a YouTube snippet of the "Tour of Duty" opening credits, with the original song.

A mil-blogger friend of mine zapped me the good news, however, that the complete "China Beach" series—complete with original music—will soon be available from Time-Life Books, the same people who brought you the boxed DVD sets of "Six-Million Dollar Man" and the "The Carol Burnett Show." Click here for details on "China Beach" DVD sets, or read the advertising link below.

To this day, I can't hear a Huey without humming along with The Supremes.

Or thinking of Vietnam, although I've never been there. Or Egypt, where I have. Or Afghanistan.

The American way of war, after all—the one I finally encountered, with its coffee shops and casualty collection points and modern inconveniences—was just like on TV.


ADVERTISING LINK: Pre-order "China Beach: The Complete Series"! 62 episodes on 21 DVDs plus over 10 hours of bonus features and collector's booklet! Pre-order today for 5 easy payments of $39.99 (Price: $199.95) and get Free Shipping at TimeLife.com!


  1. I, too, fell in love/lust with Dana in China Beach, but her full frontal nude scene in Exit to Eden sealed it for me as my longest running heart throb.

  2. Believe it or not, I've only seen parts of that movie--and not the ones you're talking about!

    People used to say I reminded them of Dan Aykroyd, who is also in the "Exit to Eden" movie, and friends had recommended it on that fact alone. At least at passing glance, however, it looked to me a little too much like the 1987 comedy (?!) "Dragnet." I've never quite forgiven Aykroyd and Tom Hanks for besmirching the original TV police procedural. The one with Jack Webb.

  3. Oh yes... I adored the character of Boonie (well not so much the episode where it was Mardi Gras or something and he was all dolled up)

    It's strange the snippets of episodes that remain with me - looking forward to eventually getting the boxed set so I can relive the good (and the bad... the bicycle!!)



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