Christmas in Vietnam by Jim Oliveri

December 13, 2015 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

 

During 1964, I served with a military advisory team based in the city of Quang Tri, South Vietnam, although we seldom spent much time there. Many of us were assigned to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) outposts in the dreaded A Shau Valley. I was a radio operator, and usually just an American officer and I were attached to an ARVN unit, living in crude log bunkers along the Laotian border. We often spent weeks at a time in the Valley, subsisting on boiled rice and greens, and C-rations when we were lucky enough to get them.

The A Shau Valley was a primary infiltration point for North Vietnamese soldiers just beginning to travel south on the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. Most mornings there started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. Afterward, the valley floor would literally steam for hours. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau was truly the most primeval place that I have ever seen.

And, of course, it didn’t help that we were subjected to frequent harassing attacks. Once I had been sent racing for the cover of a trench as bullets kicked up dust at my heels. Several times, in fact, I had ducked behind a mound of dirt to exchange fire with enemy snipers who blasted away at us from the cover of the thick undergrowth just outside the barbed-wire perimeter. I doubt that I ever hit anything, but it made me feel better to retaliate. On another occasion, an ARVN patrol was ambushed at sundown just outside the camp. I joined the relief team that extricated them from the trap, and helped carry a wounded soldier back to the medical bunker. By the time the holidays came, most of our group had endured seven or eight months of this sort of thing, and we were all looking forward to going home.

As Christmas week approached, it brought with it mixed emotions. We all came in from the field for a couple of days, one of the rare but much-cherished occasions when the entire team was together. Yet, this would be my first Yule away from my family, and I was feeling homesick. The penetrating heat of the dry season was gone, but it still seemed far too warm for Christmas. There was probably snow back home by now, I thought. To get everyone into the holiday spirit, we planned a big party for Christmas Eve.

My buddy Ken Keller and I went to the PX and bought beer, soda, pretzels, and a box of foot-long cigars that smelled like they were made from equal parts of stinkweed and horse manure. Two other radio operators, Richard Maxwell and Tony Thompson, purchased some hard liquor and additional snacks. We set up everything in the tiny cubicle that I shared with Thompson. The advisory team was housed in small, one story wooden barracks. Our room measured only about eight by ten feet, but that seldom mattered, since we were rarely there. It was going to be cramped, but we’d manage. We were all determined to make this a holiday to remember.

Just after dusk, we began to gather in the cubicle. We used Tony Thompson’s recorder to play a tape I’d recently received from my friend Richie, featuring many of the latest hit songs in the States. He used a clever disk-jockey style, complete with folksy chatter and one-liners. “And this song is dedicated to our boys in Vietnam,” it went. “Stay alert, guys, and don’t let any Viet Cong through the lines!” That drew a hearty laugh from us. If only Richie knew that there were no lines in Vietnam. The enemy was everywhere. That thought quickly flew out of my mind. There would be no time for negativity this night.

We enjoyed the tape so much that we played it over and over again. I opened the box of cigars and handed out a few. We lit up the unusual stogies and puffed away until the room filled with swirling clouds of rotten-smelling smoke. For some reason I found that hilarious and broke into uproarious laughter.

Keller opened a letter from his wife and read parts of it to us. We all savored this personal connection with home and normalcy. If anyone had a right to feel down that night it was certainly Ken, the only married man in the group. Yet here he was trying to cheer up the rest of us. I felt a glow of affection for the tall, lanky Ohio native. Thompson and Maxwell took out Christmas cards they had received from home and passed them around. It was a bittersweet moment, but we all felt better for sharing it. I guess maybe we were becoming a bit maudlin, because Keller finally cracked a joke to break the mood.

A knock on the door interrupted our raucous laughter. I opened it to find two Australian warrant officers, Dave Walner and Anthony Morrissey, standing in the hallway. Walner roared, “Merry Christmas, mate! Can we come in?”

I was delighted. “Hell, yes! Come on in and have a cigar! They stink so bad none of us want to smoke them anyway!”

We all liked the happy-go-lucky Aussies. They were always friendly and full of fun.  Although considered officers, many of them were actually career enlisted men, and felt more comfortable among us than with the American brass. Walner and Morrissey squeezed onto Tony’s bunk, opened cans of beer, and joined in the uproarious laughter. I sliced up a pepperoni I had gotten in a package from home and passed it around.

There was another rap on the door. Tony opened it this time and found a young Marine corporal and a PFC from the motor pool outside. “We heard you guys laughing,” said the Marine. “Sounds like you’re having a good time in here.”

Tony gestured toward the others. “Come on in!”

Between guffaws I bellowed across the room, “Hey Tony, you better leave the door open!”

Thompson brought out a fruitcake that his family had sent him and sliced it up with his bush knife. Nobody back home ever actually ate fruitcake, but here it was a welcome delicacy. I took a piece and thought that it was the best thing I had ever tasted. I guess Christmas can do that to you.

Before long, several more lonely advisors drifted in to share the holiday cheer. I looked around the room in disbelief. It was wall-to-wall GIs. I never would have imagined that our tiny cubicle could hold so many. Soldiers sat everywhere with their arms around each other’s shoulders, drinking beer, nibbling on the modest Yule fare, and just enjoying the fun. For one night, at least, the horrors of war were forgotten. At one point we spontaneously broke into a chorus of “Silent Night”. It was one of the most poignant Christmas moments I have ever experienced, before or since.

I reached over and grasped Ken’s hand. “Merry Christmas, buddy.”

He nodded gently.  “You, too, man. Let’s hope the next one will be in a better place.”

“Amen to that,” I replied.

As our party reached its peak, Viet Cong terrorists were carrying out an attack against U.S. personnel in Saigon. Two Communist agents disguised as ARVN soldiers drove an explosives-laden vehicle beneath the Brinks Hotel, where American officers were housed. A timing device triggered a powerful blast at 1745 hours, just when the building figured to be most crowded. Army personnel suffered two dead and fifty-eight wounded. When we heard about it the next day I felt quite guilty for having partied while that was happening. The war raged on, uninterrupted by the holiday or the humble celebration of a few homesick soldiers in Quang Tri thankful just to share some Christmas joy together.

 

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