My friend, Lester (Les) E. Scates, CW3 U.S. Army (Retired), forwarded this recollection of a Christmas Day in Vietnam, 1968. He served two tours during the war in both the 336th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), 7/68 thru 7/69, Soc Trang Army Airfield, RVN, and 18th Corps Aviation Company (CAC), 12/71 thru 12/72, Can Tho Army Airfield, RVN. There were severe penalties for breaking the rules during wartime, but sometimes, it was necessary; camouflage worked wonders. Here’s his story:
Soc Trang Army Airfield was the southern-most permanent U.S. military facility in South Vietnam and as such, we were literally at the end of the supply chain. It’s December 1968, the rains have finally stopped but the temperature and humidity are almost unbearable. Most days you can’t buy a breeze.
It’s the dry season and the VC (Viet Cong), supported by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) have increased their activity in the Mekong Delta. Our primary mission is to support the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) – the regulars, the Ruff-Puff (Regional and Provisional forces) – local militias in combat operations against the VC and NVA throughout the IV Corps area of operation. Additionally, we support the U.S. Special Forces who are advisors to the Vietnamese forces and man compounds throughout the Delta region.
The op-tempo is at max effort. Every day we are flying anything that can get off the ground conducting combat assaults and ash & trash missions. The ARVN combat assault missions are exercises in futility, and added to the stress, many of the Ruff-Puffs are soldiers during the day and VC at night, making them more dangerous to us than to the enemy.
Everyone is tired – morale is low, but we’re soldiers, we don’t quit. No one has given a thought to Christmas, at least not out loud. As usual, at the end of the day most of us pilots gathered in the pilot’s longue for a few drinks and maybe a game of cards before hitting the sack. Tomorrow would be another day in paradise.
A few days before Christmas I received an oblong package from my wife, Carole. Tired and without much thought, I opened the package – it was a small pre-decorated Christmas tree about 18 inches tall. I plugged it in and the little tree “lit up like a Christmas tree”. My spirits soared – it was Christmas.
Not wanting to keep this joy for myself, I decided to take the tree to the pilots lounge and share it with everyone. I walked into the lounge and as usual, the noise was loud, mostly with “pilot talk”. I set the little tree on the bar and plugged it in. Almost immediately the noise began to subside, then it got quiet. From somewhere in the back of the room someone began singing, “Silent Night – Holy Night, all is calm…”. Slowly, we all joined in. Then came Jingle Bell and a few other Christmas songs. Sometimes we got the lyrics of the songs mixed up, but it didn’t matter, it was Christmas. With one little pre-decorated tree, only 18 inches tall, Christmas had come to the pilots of the 336th Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang Army Airfield, Republic of South Vietnam. A 72-hour Christmas ceasefire, of sorts, had been declared, starting at 1800 hrs. on Sunday the 22nd thru 1800 hrs. on Christmas day. There were some restrictions as to what we could and could not do during the ceasefire. One of those restrictions was that we could not resupply ammunition to our troops during that 72-hour period. This was made abundantly clear during our pre ceasefire brief on Sunday afternoon.
I had volunteered to fly our post chaplains, Cpt. McSwain and Fr. Burris, on Christmas day out to several of the isolated Special Forces compounds scattered throughout the Delta so they could conduct a Christmas Services for the them as well.
It’s now Christmas Eve. Later that evening there was a knock on my door – I answered the door to find an SF Captain standing there. He asked to come in so I stepped aside and invited him in. He introduced himself and we had a short session of small talk.
After a long pause he said, “Chief, (I was a CW2 Warrant Officer) I need a favor.” He went on to tell me about how the SF troops had just recently been issued the Army’s new M-16 rifles; how there had been a screw-up in their resupply of ammunition for the new weapon and how intel reports in one of the sectors that one of their compounds suspected to be attacked on Christmas night and they were low on M-16 ammunition. He paused again the asked, “Can you take them some ammunition tomorrow on your chaplain run?”
I’m sure my jaw dropped then I responded, “Captain, Santa Claus or not, I could be court-martialed for doing that, I would have to clear something like this at least with my Operations Officer!”
He said, “I’ve already spoken with Captain (name not provided) and he said to bring it to you, that it was your decision.”
“Damn,” I said without even thinking.
We were both silent for a while, then I said, “It would have to be disguised as something other than ammunition. What about C-rations?.
The Captain looked confused and then said, “I don’t follow you?
I said, “There’s no restriction on delivering food. Can you pack C-ration cases full of ammo and load them on my aircraft (I gave him the tail number) before dawn?”
He smiled and said, “Piece of cake. How many can you carry?”
Thinking out loud, I did a quick calculation, assuming that a C-ration case filled with M-16 ammunition would weigh about 75 pounds and 20 cases would equal about 1,500 pounds and that would be about all I needed to load on the aircraft – “How about 20 boxes?”
The Captain stood up, offered me his hand and said, “Can do easy GI. Thanks Chief” and walked out. I never saw him again.
Christmas morning when I arrived at the aircraft I was met by two SF NCO’s who wanted to make sure the “C-rations” were properly loaded and secured. I asked the crew chief if he was okay with the way they were loaded? I could tell that he knew the boxes were not C-rations, but said they were okay.
When Fr. Burris arrived, he said that Chaplain McSwain wasn’t going, so we loaded, cranked and took-off.
The load of “C-rations” was very heavy.
Arriving at the designated SF compound late Christmas morning, troops from the compound quickly unloaded the boxes and took them inside the compound and stacked them in the open yard. I thought it was interesting that the chaplain laid out his paraphernalia on the stack of boxes and used it as his altar. While he conducted his Christmas service I went to refuel then came back to pick him up and go to the next compound.
On the next leg of our route, the pilot and crew chief were curious as to what was in the boxes? I smiled and said, “Christmas cookies.”
The crew chief responded, “Cookies my a@@!”
We got back to Soc Trang about 1800 hrs. (6:00 p.m.), refueled, then parked the aircraft for the night. I thanked the crew for a good days work then helped the crew chief secure the aircraft. As I was getting my gear together to go, the crew chief asked again, “Chief, what was really in those C-ration boxes?” I smiled and said, “Cookies.”
It had been a long day and I was tired. I walked to Operations, closed out my mission sheet, said Merry Christmas to the young sergeant on duty then walked to the pilot’s lounge. There on the bar was the little tree, lights all ablaze. Several other pilots had gathered for the evening. I had planned to take “my” Christmas tree to my room, but was stopped by their protests, “Hey, it’s still Christmas, don’t take “our” (emphasis on “our”) tree yet.”
I smiled, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, then went to my room – without “our” Christmas tree. It had been a good day. It was Christmas.
Thank you, Les, for a fine story. I always said that chopper crews took care of those troops on the ground…no matter what. Thank you, too, for your service, sacrifice, and for taking care of us during your two tours.
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