Vietnam: Christmas long ago and far away
An earlier version of this column was written for Christmas 2008. Six Christmases later, even more than ever, we should remember our troops still far from home. 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. One of the finest officers I’ve ever known: then, Lt. Colonel John R. Witherell, greeted me.
At dusk, Colonel Witherell and I walked the inner perimeter, exchanging Christmas greetings with each trooper. Until darkness descended, small C-ration warming fires were permitted. In the fading light, some soldiers were reading pocket Bibles. As we walked 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 Wetherill 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 shelter with the three of them until February, 1970, when we closed FSB IKE in preparation for the battalion’s eventual move into Cambodia. Huddled together around a flickering candle, Colonel Witherell led us in prayer. A cappella, we sang some Christmas hymns. Our four radio operators, who shared the bunker, joined in. No atheists in foxholes or bunkers.
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 of loved ones whom I might not ever see again. I recalled some of the words to: "Danny Boy.”
“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, we struggled to recall poetry. Sometimes, from memory, 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 brought in his 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 sinks into 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.” In 2014 and in the years to come, let us not forget.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
©2014. William Hamilton.
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