Remembering: A Vietnam Christmas
In 1966, yours truly was commanding an airmobile infantry company. We looked forward to the times when a chaplain could be flown into our position to hold services. We decided we might attract more chaplain visits by cobbling together a make-shift altar out of mortar shell boxes and palm fronds. Our theory was: If we build it, they will come more often. They did. As the hymn goes: “They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps.”
Serving in a foreign land, separated from loved ones at Christmas or Hanukkah, is an emotionally charged time of year. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, our military makes every effort to provide our forces with turkey and all the trimmings. But nothing takes the place of a letter or a package from loved ones.
This soldier’s most memorable Vietnam Christmas (my second) was in 1969. On Christmas Eve, a helicopter dropped me off at Fire Support Base Ike. There I met one of the finest officers I’ve ever known: then, Lt. Colonel John R. Witherell.
At dusk, Colonel Witherell and I walked the inner perimeter, pausing at each firing position to exchange greetings with each trooper. Our location was no secret to the North Vietnamese. Until darkness descended, small warming/cooking fires were permitted. In the fading light, some of the troops were reading religious materials. As we moved along, a refrain sounded in my head, “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.”
Later, Colonel Witherell introduced me to “Red,” our intelligence officer and to Doug, our artillery liaison officer. We descended into the sand-bagged and timbered bunker where I would lodge with Colonel Witherell, “Red” and Doug until February, 1970, when we closed Ike in preparation for the battalion’s eventual move into Cambodia. Huddled together around a candle, Colonel Witherell led us in prayer. We sang some Christmas hymns. Our four radio operators, who shared the bunker, joined in.
Colonel Witherell, “Red,” Doug and I spent an hour or so getting acquainted. We recited where we were from, previous places of service. That sort of thing. We spoke of those back home. I thought especially of my son, John, and others whom I might not see again. I recalled singing: “Oh, Danny Boy,” to John, only I had changed the lyrics to “Oh, Johnny Boy.” One of the verses came to me:
“And if you come, when all the flowers are dying and I am dead, as dead I well may be, you’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and pray and say an ‘Ave’ there for me. And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me, and all my dreams will warm and sweeter be…”
In a world with no TV, civilian radio or other media distractions, poetry was readily remembered. Sometimes, we “entertained” each other with the poems of Robert W. Service, Joyce Kilmer and Rudyard Kipling. Occasionally, we got word from home about anti-war protests. Kipling’s “Tommy” came to mind: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ chuck him out the brute!’ But it’s Savior of ’is country,’ when the guns begin to shoot…”
If a chaplain flew in with a field organ, we often requested Kipling’s “Recessional.” “God of our fathers, known of old – Lord of our far-flung battle line beneath whose awful hand we hold dominion over palm and pine. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget – lest we forget.”
This Christmas, as the winter sun dies in the West, one can imagine a lonely and far-off bugler playing the haunting notes for: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the sky. All is well, safely rest; God is nigh.” Let us not forget.
Syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, William Hamilton, is a retired U.S. Army officer who served two tours with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia.
©2008. William Hamilton.