Christmas in Khaki

Post date: Jan 20, 2016 1:52:9 PM

Christmas 1971

Ron Pickett


As I drove along the perimeter road I felt a sudden surge of pleasure, pleasure at simply being alone. Such a rare and wonderful treat in this hyperactive life. I pulled off the road into the grass that kept back the jungle and turned off the engine of the stolen Holden and sat watching the sun set through the thick rice straw smoke. It grew into a yellow then orange and almost brown ball before it disappeared over the horizon. It was quiet, peaceful for a while. Then the sound of a helicopters rotors exploded into the early evening, my quiet time was dashed.

It was December 25, 1971 in the Mekong delta village of Bien Thuy on the outskirts of Can Tho, the fourth largest city in South Vietnam. My day had begun early but I had allowed myself a little sleep-in since this was a partial holiday. A holiday for us, but that meant an added concern about an attack on our base and the outlying very small bases that it had become our primary mission to protect. However, the Viet Gong liked to find times when our guard was down to launch their mortar or rocket attacks. But by this stage in the long war, they were weak and impotent in this area. Most of our time was spent flying low over the U Min forest trying to get them to show themselves so that we could blow them up.

Christmas in the Eastern Hemisphere, but on the other side of the International Date Line it would be twelve hours before Santa’s gifts would be discovered by the children. My wife and our 12 year old daughter and 10 year old son were in San Diego; this was the first Christmas that I wouldn’t with them. They would drive to LA later in the day to have Christmas with my parents. The distance couldn’t be greater; we were really on opposite sides of the world.

This was an agricultural and fishing area where the jungle had to constantly be held at bay. Many of the houses were built on stilts over the water and refuse of all kinds, including human was carried away by the river. The river, the Ba Sac was a wandering section of the Mekong that dominated the countryside and ruled the lives of the local population. Our interaction with the locals was limited; the girls that did the laundry and cleaned our quarters, the nuns at the orphanage we helped and an occasional bar girl or waitress at a local restaurant. There were not many reasons to leave the base. Their religion was a strange, to us, mixture of Catholic Christianity, Buddhism and some traces of animism – “Don’t give up on the old gods too soon or you might run the risk of making them angry.” But the occasional Christmas lights in a window or a fake Christmas tree were strange and yet not totally out of place.

The scenes of snow covered New England homes with wreaths and candles in the windows that graced the Christmas cards that were posted in the Ready Room were a stark contrast to the hot, muggy, steaming, muddy jungle. But I was raised in the desert and was accustomed to seeing the incongruous at this season - a string of Christmas lights strung over the arms of stately Saguaro, or shiny ornaments attached to a prickly pear cactus, and tinsel flowing everywhere in the sand and over the rocks. So the discontinuity was not as outlandish for me as for many of our troops.

This morning I listened to carols on AFN radio from Saigon, the station that Robin Williams made famous in “Good Morning Vietnam” and yesterday, to pass the time on a long flight I tuned in Christmas music on Radio Australia on the short wave/HF radio so I was somewhat in the mood for the season. Just before noon there was a non-denominational Christmas service that military chaplains do so well. The chaplain was a circuit rider who was flown in by helicopter. It always takes them some time to recover after a trip in a helo; you would think being closer to God would be refreshing and stimulating. I don’t recall the subject of the sermon, I seldom do, probably about God. It continues to surprise me how religious many military people are, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Navy cooks can always come up with a great feast for a holiday and Christmas was one of their specialties. I had lunch/dinner there, in part to be seen by the troops and to ensure the quality of the food and the preparation. The mess hall was decorated with some garlands and colored lights; just enough to highlight the fact that it was Christmas and we were a very long way from home. It is amazing how comfortable the U. S. armed forces can become after a few years in a foreign country. Even a base cut out of the jungle can become unbelievably like a similar base in the US. Ben Thuy had been in operation for almost three years and was the home of two navy squadrons, HAL 3 Seawolves, a UH1 squadron supporting the riverine forces, and my squadron, the VAL 4 Black Ponies, flying the twin-turboprop OV10 Bronco. Life was pretty comfortable and stable and the flying was great. Then, suddenly, we would lose an aircraft to hostile fire, or to stupidity and the seriousness of our mission was brought back into laser sharp focus.

After the church service I spent some time doing administrative stuff and went back to my room to write a quick letter home. I had a single room which was rare, and when I opened the door, the blast of cold air from the air conditioner was almost a shock after the hot air outside. If you have been to a tropical resort and entered your room to find that the maid has set the thermostat too low, you can understand the feeling. Everything was cold and damp and unnatural, but also delightful.

You may have wondered about the “stolen Holden” I mentioned earlier. The Holden is a small Australian built sedan. The history of the one that I drove was questionable to say the least. It must have been brought in-country by the Australian forces, that’s all that was certain. When I had a little extra time I tried to discover the provenance of this vehicle and how we had become the owners, or I suppose possessors is more accurate. It was painted in our squadron colors with our emblem on the sides but after talking to a few people who I thought might know something, “ You know, XO, I don’t think you are going to find out much, and you may not want to.” I got the message that a further investigation would not be a great idea and would lead nowhere. All of the sailors who were there when it was acquired had rotated back to the states. Sailors can be incredibly imaginative given a permissive and “target rich environment.” I heard that it was traded for an airplane, an L19 Birddog, but no one knew where the L19 came from or how it had been acquired. Others said that it was traded for two small refrigerators and an A/C unit or a jeep. I also heard that it had been airlifted by a helo onto our base, and I even saw a photo reported to show the small sedan on a helo hoist. It was a fine little car, and it would be left here when we left in a few months. I assumed it’s barter value would be much less as our departure date came nearer. In the navy it’s called cumshaw a term that was “stolen” from Chinese.

I Googled Bihn Thuy recently and found that the airfield is now the Can Tho International Airport. The runway in the satellite photo looked to be in pretty rough shape, although there seemed to be a lot of work going on. Years after my time in Vietnam while traveling in Turkey I saw pieces of Greek statuary that had been incorporated into the construction of a large underground water storage tank and thought about how the material we had left in Vietnam must have been extremely useful in building homes and other structures.

When I got to the bunker that served as our ready room, there were four pilots on alert. There were a couple of bent and limp Christmas cards on the bulletin board that waved in the cold breeze from the air conditioner. “Merry Christmas Guys, Did Santa find you down here?” We chatted briefly, wished each other Merry Christmas and I went back out into the blast of heat. I walked over to the ready aircraft in the revitments and thanked the crew who were standing by the planes loaded with rockets and ready to be launched in less than five minutes. Then I wished a merry Christmas to the maintenance crews who were working on some broken airplanes and thanked them for their contribution and told them how important their work was to our safety and success. I had only been onboard for a couple of months and was still building a reputation and setting a personal style.

Later, in the evening I would have Christmas dinner in the Commodores Mess. It was in a trailer and had a fairly full bar. Our Commodore was Capt. Paul Gibbons who I would later work for in London. He was in charge of the operations of the two squadrons and the Riverine force of Swift Boats that patrolled the waterways. Even though he was a “Surface Officer,” He really enjoyed flying with us; there is something about putting on a flight suit, survival vest and helmet that seems almost like putting on a coat of armor from Medieval Days. And some of our flights were like a “Jousting Match,” but using rockets instead of spears. We always treated him to a little aerobatics on the way back to the airfield. The Commodores Mess was for the most senior officers on the base, eight or ten of us, COs, XOs and senior staff, and it was a pleasant way to spend the evenings.

I think I’ll fly three hops tomorrow to make up for missing today. Looks like only four more months before we are pulled out of here. I’ll miss this place.

The quiet was broken so I started the engine and drove the Holden back to the barracks area.