Courtesy of Loyal Campbell

Vietnam Christmas

It is a day like all the others in South Vietnam, with one difference.  It is Christmas.

Waking up in my bunk, the first impression of the day is, as usual, the overwhelming heat.   Although it is only a little past dawn, it already shows promise of being another hot one.  And I would give anything to hear birds singing.  It has been a long time since there were any birds in this place.   I look around the cubicle I share with my hooch roommate, Mike, and notice the few meager Christmas decorations – a few cards from loved ones back home, a couple of garlands draped over the bed and around the door. 

I notice, again as usual, Mike’s rhythmic snoring, coming from the lower bunk beneath mine.

Mike is from Iowa and works with me in Flight Operations.  As the junior clerk he has had the night duty the previous night, Christmas Eve.  Even though things have been rather quiet lately, Operations has reports to complete even far into the night and calls to be exchanged with battalion headquarters a few miles away.  So, Mike is tired out and I try to get up and dressed without waking him.

The office is only a few yards away up the hill from our hooch, so I’m there in a few minutes, after a cool shower and shave.  After seven months “in country” I am still not used to shaving with cold water.  I have a cup of coffee and talk for a few minutes with the guys in the radio room.  A quiet night and no sorties scheduled for today.  After all, it is a holiday, whatever that means.

This is an assault helicopter outfit I am with now, here in Ninh Hoa, not far from Nha Trang, and a few chopper pilots drift in and out, to drink coffee and chat.  Larry, a young officer from California, comes in and sits on the corner of my desk.  We have recently become friends, which is a bit unusual for an officer and an enlisted SP/5.   Most nights after a busy day flying the unfriendly skies, the pilots pass through Flight Operations quickly, needing a shower and a drink, not necessarily in that order. 

One night a few weeks earlier Larry had stopped at my desk and said, Doc, can we talk? “Doc” was my nickname, and I guess I should explain about that since it had a lot to do with Larry’s striking up this conversation.  My having a Master’s degree somehow got around – it had become elevated by rumors to a Ph.D., hence the nickname.

Got a new assignment from the Old Man.  I think you can help me.   Larry went on to explain that the Old Man – the Major, our commanding officer – had put him in charge of writing citations and commendations, for awards and medals.   Larry needed some assistance with the writing.   I had told him I’d be glad to help and we have been working together.

Now, it is Christmas morning and Larry is sitting on my desk and smiling.  With black hair and blue eyes he has a wide grin and somehow reminds me of James Dean – but with more confidence.  This is probably because he loves to talk about car racing.   For a few moments we chat about what we would be doing if we were home now, then we walk up the hill to see what’s for breakfast, as if we didn’t know.  Our tree-less compound is laid out on several layers carved out of the rough landscape;  long enlisted men’s hooches on the bottom, then the headquarters, operations and supply buildings, and on the top layer the officers’ quarters and our common mess hall.  Our flight line lies on the plain below the compound.  When we reach the mess hall we are in for a surprise.  Overnight the inside has been transformed with garlands, lights and small artificial Christmas trees.  The mess crew evidently worked most of the night to make this happen.  But in spite of the decorations, it still doesn’t feel like Christmas to me.

What’s Christmas like in Nebraska, Doc?   Larry asks.  Since he is a native of sunny California I know what he’s expecting, and I don’t disappoint him.  I tell him all about the cold weather.  And I tell about the one year our family went out together to a farm to pick out our tree, and then drove home through falling snow.

What would you be doing, Larry? 

Working on my cars, I’ve got a couple I’m rebuilding for drag racing.  My mother’s always after me to get them out of her garage.  When I get back, I will.

We separate – Larry to get some sleep – and myself to get back to Operations in case anything is happening.  By this time Mike is there at his desk.  He pulls out the latest letter from his wife and begins to read – censoring out the “good parts” he says, with a laugh.   He’s been married less than two years, has a baby son, and as he puts it, the “new” has not worn off.   Mike gets a letter (and shares it) every few days – more mail than anyone else and is proud of it.

Lunch is Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, turkey, stuffing, pies, and for a special treat, ice cream and cake.  In the background, coming from someone’s tape deck, is music of the season.  I try not to listen.  There’s nothing sadder than the lyrics of Christmas songs when you’re far from home.  The Old Man gets up, makes a little speech, and raises his glass in a holiday toast.  It only makes the whole scene seem more unreal. 

Afterwards I feel like being alone.  Mike goes back to our office, and I head down to the flight line where our choppers are lined up.    As I pass through the compound, I can hear a different kind of music.  It is coming out of the open doors of the clubs – we have one for the officers, one for enlisted men, and one for the NCO’s, which is mine.  I’m not in the mood to hear “Hey Jude” or “Sittin’ By the Dock of the Bay.”   After several months, our jukebox tunes are all pretty stale.

I walk up to a small rocky hill where I sometimes sit.  It’s my “thinking spot.”

Down below are the long low, tin-roofed maintenance huts where repairs are made on our choppers by our teams of techs and mechanics.  Behind them in a clearing there is a touch football game in progress.   From the sounds that drift up to me it’s clear the guys are enjoying the downtime despite the oppressive heat.  It must be 100 degrees in the shade, except there’s no shade.

One of the quarterbacks is David, one of my favorite pilots, who is also a fine mechanic to boot.  He’s from Alabama and, like Larry, is a little older than most of the guys in our company.  Also like Larry, he is well liked by the enlisted men, who admire his maturity, mechanical ability, and sense of humor.   Dave is respected not for his rank, but for who he is, and right now he is in his element, playing a game with the guys he works with.

After awhile I reach in my pocket for the letter I’ve been carrying around for days.   It’s from Mom, and although I have it memorized, I read through it again.  She has been worried since my last letter home in which I used the term “god-forsaken” to describe the place where I am.  Guess I was feeling the pre-holiday blues pretty bad at the time.  I feel sorry for what I said.  God knows Mom has enough to think about without my complaining.

…I know it’s rough for you over there, and your Dad and I think of you every day and pray a lot.  Your Dad is so worried he doesn’t want to talk about it much.  But what you said about “God-forsaken” has troubled us.   Son, God is there with you.  You may not sense it because you aren’t receptive to His presence.  Try looking up and not looking down all the time.  He is there.  If you try, you can be more aware of blessings around you.

Christmas.  And here I sit a million miles from home.  The shouts from the game make me look up.  What is around me?  I see lots of guys trying to make the best of a pretty bad situation.  And some people have gone to a lot of trouble to make Christmas happen today.   It could be worse.   Off to my left I see the area some of us call “the swamp.”  For a couple of years before I came, the outfit lived there in tents.   At least now we have decent hooches up on the hills.   And clubs to relax in, with air conditioners, which sometimes even work.  And I have friends, some of whom are officers, which I certainly didn’t have in my previous duty stations.  Most of all I have family back home who will be happy to see my face if and when I get through this.   When you are living day to day, it’s hard to project into the future.   My biggest hope right now is to get to Sydney for my R & R in April.

The sun is sinking lower, finally, but it’s still very hot.   The breeze from the ocean a few miles away will come later.  In the distance I hear helicopters.  Through the slanting sunlight I see three choppers coming in.  On board are the mailbags, maybe with something for me.  And the box with film cans of tonight’s movie.  I get up from the rocky hillside and move on down to the flight line where the choppers will land.  I sure hope the movie is one we haven’t seen before.

     --Epilogue--

Larry was killed a little over two weeks later.  On January 11, 1969.   He was on a routine mission when his gunship was struck by ground fire.  When he was hit, a medical helicopter immediately took him away.  When the news came over our radios, I hurried down to the flight line.   His chopper had been landed by his copilot and nearby was something I can still see in my mind.  Someone had fixed a bayonet to his rifle, stuck it in the rocky red earth, and placed a helmet on it.  It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.   I helped write the commendation for his medals.   The hardest part was to type “Killed in Action” at the bottom of his flight records.

David was killed on April 9, 1969.  Like Larry, he left Operations after a briefing, and I never saw him again.  I also helped write his commendation report.   Nine days later I was in Sydney, Australia.   My first afternoon was spent in a beautiful park, smelling the grass and enjoying the sensation of sitting in the shade and listening to the birds.  Three weeks after that I was back in the USA.

Loyal Campbell , Christmas 2000

Copyright © 2000 by Loyal Campbell

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