The teenage pop star from Australia ignored the warnings and embarked on a tour of military bases in Vietnam. Things were going well with her “Sweethearts On Parade” tour until one night, 50 years ago, at a U.S. Marine Corps base in Da Nang. Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham chronicle how the unthinkable happened: Someone got away with murder.
by Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham
Cathy Wayne, a pretty teenage Australian pop star, made history on July 20, 1969. Fifty years ago, on the day Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, Cathy Wayne became the first Australian woman to die in the Vietnam war. She was nineteen years old. She was killed by a bullet.
She died onstage.
CATHY WAYNE was the stage name she adopted midway through her successful run on Australian television. She was born Catherine Anne Warnes in Arncliffe, an outer suburb of Sydney, on December 7, 1949, eight years after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, just short of six years before the official start of the conflict in Vietnam. She began taking singing and dancing lessons as a child at the Athelstane Public School. By the age of twelve, she was appearing on stage in community shows and school concerts. Cathy wasn’t yet sixteen when she was spotted by a talent scout and landed a gig as a dancer on The Wonderful World of Leslie Uggams, a Seven Network television variety show taped in Sydney. This led to a steady gig, dancing on TCN 9’s series, Opportunity Knocks.
It was the following year, when she was sixteen, that Cathy Warnes took flight. Winning second prize in a talent competition led to a role on another Nine Network show. Bandstand was a live pop music variety program, a combination of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and those 1960s variety series in which performers sang other people’s hits of the day (Cathy’s deracinated Aussie soul versions of “The Name Game” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” survive on YouTube and illustrate her perky, little girl-in-makeup appeal). Bandstand was hosted by a radio presenter and television newsreader (“deejay” and “anchorman” in the States) named Brian Henderson and featured its own stable of homegrown performers known as the Bandstand Family. The family would record their songs at Natec Sound Studios on Bligh Street and lip synch them in one of the TCN 9 television studios in the northern suburb of Willoughby.
The group included only-in-Australia stars like old rock ‘n’ rollers Col Joye, Digby Richards and Johnny Devlin (“New Zealand’s Elvis Presley”), and country acts Judy Stone and the De Kroo Brothers, along with future superstars the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John and Peter Allen, who performed with Chris Bell as the “The Allen Brothers,” though they weren’t related. (Allen, a protégé of Judy Garland, married Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli in 1967, came out as gay after their divorce seven years later and died in 1992, one of the first well-known Australians to fall to AIDS.)
Along the way, Cathy Warnes became Cathy Wayne. She made records and recorded advertising jingles. She toured around Australia with the Bandstand Family, and though she was under the legal age to enter the joints, performed in nightclubs.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. Australia had recently begun increasing its troop commitment alongside United States forces, and the war was a constant presence in Sydney. The city’s Kings Cross nightclub and red-light district, full of bars and whorehouses, was not only the first stop for sailors from the Royal Australian Navy’s nearby Garden Island Fleet Base, but one of the places opened to R&R (rest and recreation) for American servicemen given a week’s respite from the war zone.
In the first half of 1967, Cathy and a group of entertainers embarked on a concert tour of military bases in South Vietnam. The trip was an official government project, sponsored by the Australian Forces Advisory Committee on Entertainment. Because she was still months away from the age of eighteen, tour organizer Bruce Webber had to get approval from Cathy’s parents. They weren’t keen on the idea, but according to Webber, Cathy had “leapt at the chance.” The performers weren’t paid outright, but were handed daily expenses, and promised security.
The planned three-month tour was not sanctioned by the government, which made it all the more risky.
In 1969, Cathy Wayne was working the nightclubs. She was no longer a girl but not yet seen as a woman. Her style of overproduced, assembly-line, black and white television pop was passé, and her television career seemed to be in the suddenly distant past when another opportunity knocked. Jimmy Taylor, the bloke who played the piano, had one of his brainstorms.
“I was working a club and Cathy was singing in the club with us,” Taylor recalled for a documentary. “I said we’ve only got to put a little bit of a show together and we can earn some money in Vietnam. So we formed a band, we got loaded up with a couple of girl dancers. The show was quite good. Everyone liked it. She was a good-looking little girl, Cathy. She looked like a little doll. The Yanks just loved her. And she sang great.”
Somebody came up with a name that sex-starved soldiers would go for: Sweethearts on Parade. Jimmy would handle the keyboards and bass. They hired a guitarist, a compère and comedian, and a pair of go-go dancers. Clive Cavanagh was on drums. He was Cathy’s fiancé. A promoter and performer named Ingrid Hart arranged the details of the Vietnam jaunt. The planned three-month tour was not sanctioned by the government, which made it all the more risky. This time, Cathy’s parents and Col Joye, who’d moved into managing acts and promoting tours of his own, made a big push to dissuade her.
Cathy told them she wanted to make some money to get her recording career back on track. Ingrid Hart sold a more romantic view. She said Cathy “wanted to be there with her boyfriend. They were going to get some money together and get married.”
The troupe set off on June 26, 1969, and lodged in Saigon between performances at bases for Australian and United States troops.
SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE arrived at the United States Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion base, four miles southeast of Da Nang, on July 20. That evening, they performed at a club for non-commissioned officers. This meant that the other enlisted men on the base — the grunts, the infantrymen — were not allowed to be among the 75 higher-ranked soldiers and staff members enchanted by the charms of sweetheart Cathy Wayne and the go-go girls.
Corporal Robert Stockham was one of the Marines who wasn’t invited. “We’d known about Cathy Wayne’s show and everybody was pretty excited about it because we didn’t see that many Caucasian women,” he recalled years later. “A lot of us enlisted people were a little bit upset because the show was just for staff and officers, and we’d had a pretty hard time down in An Hoa. We were living in tents, we were getting shelled almost every day, and we were the ones going in the bush, so we felt that we deserved entertainment also.”
He remembered the night, and the events that transpired in his barracks. “There were several people in the hooch and we were in there talking, drinking beer. Sgt. Jim Killen came in. We referred to him as ‘Pappy’ because he was so old. He was twenty-eight years old and the rest of us were nineteen or twenty. He had heard that I had a .22 high standard automatic with a silencer. This was the type of pistol that we’d taken out on patrols with us to do prisoner snatches. Pappy asked me if I still had the gun, said he wanted to use it. I asked him what he was gonna do with it. He told me that he was going to go down to the perimeter and shoot at some feral dogs that would hang out around there.”
Sgt. James Killen headed out with Cpl. Stockham’s gun and silencer. Not far away, the Sweethearts on Parade were giving the noncoms and staff members some good old Caucasian stimulation.
It was around 9:15 pm. Inside the officers’ club, Cathy Wayne, wearing a pink miniskirt, had finished a song and was introducing some of the other Sweethearts when she stopped short — and suddenly dropped like a marionette with severed strings.
“We were halfway through the show and I was playing the organ and all of a sudden she fell down!” Jimmy Taylor said. “And I thought she’s got an electric shock from the microphone, and I thought, ‘Hang on’ — and I knew then that she’d been shot. And, of course, I just fell to pieces. I wiped all the beer off the top of the organ — there was about twelve cans of beer that went everywhere — and I said, ‘My God!’ I just lost control. There was no lights on. Everyone was running around screaming and it was just awful.”
Cathy Wayne had been shot in the chest. Blood spread across her breasts and seeped though her sexy costume. She died almost immediately because the bullet had severed her aorta. Clive Cavanagh, who’d climbed over his drum kit as soon as Cathy collapsed, now cradled his lover’s body in his arms, his tears splashing across her ashen face.
What made the scene even more chaotic was that nobody heard the shot. No one knew where the bullet came from.
WHO SHOT CATHY WAYNE? An investigation revealed that the bullet had been fired from behind a Jeep about 35 yards away from the club and had passed through the insect screen of an open window before entering the left side of Cathy Wayne’s body and exiting the right side. No one heard the shot, Marine Corps investigators explained, because the .22 caliber pistol that was fired outside had been equipped with a silencer. So who did it? The finger pointed to Pappy, Sgt. James W. Killen of Winter Haven, Florida. He allegedly had been trying to kill his commanding officer, Major Roger E. Simmons, who was inside the club, watching the show from the front row.
Killing your superior during a time of war? Not so unusual, Cpl. Stockham admitted. “There were officers that were fragged in Vietnam. If you’re in combat and you blindly follow your leader and he’s incompetent, something’s got to give somewhere. Cathy Wayne was an innocent party who was voluntarily there to provide entertainment for the military.”
When he heard about Cathy’s death in Vietnam, Col Joye remembered the warning he’d offered her. “Don’t go there. It’s not a nice place.”
“But finally she decided,” he said. “The boyfriend was there, so she went – and never came home. Well, she did, but in a box.”
Cathy Wayne’s body was autopsied and then returned to Australia. The body was cremated. There was an Anglican funeral.
Marine Corps Sgt. James W. Killen was court-martialed later that year in Da Nang for the killing of Cathy Wayne. He insisted from the start that he didn’t do it, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of first degree premeditated murder. Two corporals, including Robert Stockham, testified that on the night Cathy Wayne was shot, Killen had entered “Hooch Six” demanding a weapon and ammunition. They said he found the pistol under a rubber air mattress. A sergeant testified that Killen entered his room and pulled up his shirt to show off a pistol in his belt. “Look at what I’ve got,” he supposedly said, pointing to the silencer.
All three witnesses said this occurred around 9:15 pm, the time Cathy Wayne was shot.
Killen, who’d been in Vietnam three years and had received a Purple Heart and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, testified in his own defense. He admitted taking the pistol from the hooch. He claimed that he went out to shoot the dogs that had been running into the barbed wire on the base’s perimeter, but didn’t see any. He said he returned to the Enlisted Men’s Club, where he drank eleven or twelve beers before leaving around 9:30.
Lance Corporal Ronald Prohaska testified, however, that Killen returned to the hooch while the search for a presumed enemy sniper was still ongoing. “Why in the hell did you do something like that for?” Prohaska said he asked. He said that Killen replied, “She was just winged.” When he asked about the gun, Prohaska said Killen told him it was “taken care of.” The weapon was later found in a ditch. There were no fingerprints, and no witnesses.
On October 29, an eight-man court martial panel convicted James Killen of un-premeditated murder in the second degree. Sentencing took place the following day. The panel ordered that Killen receive a dishonorable discharge, be busted to the rank of private, and forfeit all pay and allowances. Then they sentenced him to 20 years at hard labor.
Killen went to prison. A year and a half later, the Navy Court of Military Review looked at the case and found that the two corporals had altered their testimony after an offer of immunity from prosecution. Killen’s verdict and sentence were set aside. On August 4 and 5, a new trial took place at Camp Pendleton in southern California. This time, James Killen was cleared of all charges. He was released after serving two years and nine days in prison.
In the decades to follow, the legend of Cathy Wayne only grew in Australia, right up there with Slim Dusty, Michael Hutchence and Bon Scott. The story, and the questions surrounding her death, became an obsession for a drummer who’d played the Vietnam base circuit with a band called Xanadu. Don Morrisson spent nine years investigating the case, and under the pen name JD Owen wrote a book called Murder On Stage. He concluded that Killen was innocent. Morrisson said he knows the soldier who pulled the trigger, but didn’t have enough evidence to name him.
He told Shane Green of the Sydney Morning Herald: “Were they aiming at Cathy? Well, they may have been aiming in the general direction and pulled the trigger because that was the only real noise in the camp that night, a band playing, and that’s where the lights were.”
When we tried to reach Don Morrisson, we found out he died suddenly in April.
Cathy Wayne — Catherine Anne Warnes — was one of three Australian women killed in Vietnam during the war. The other two, Lee Makk and Margaret Moses, were welfare workers who died in a plane crash in 1975.
BURT KEARNS & JEFF ABRAHAM wrote the book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, which will be published September 3 by Chicago Review Press, and can be pre-ordered at TheShowWontGoOn.com and DiedOnstage.com