Christmas in the Vietnam War


By Vivian Blevins

Contributing Columnist

U.S. military forces are scattered around the world, and many men and women will not be home for the holidays. As you eat your meals this holiday season, ask the military and ex-military persons at your table to talk about a special holiday when they were serving their country and wishing they could be with family.

On Dec, 25, 1967, Penny Adams of Piqua was aboard the USS Repose, a hospital ship in the South China Sea off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam. She and the staff had decorated all the doors of the medical laboratory and cut and smashed 7 Up cans, made a three-foot tree, and nailed it on a board. They enjoyed a huge lunch with treats from home and candies they purchased when they were onshore. The cooks aboard ship had prepared a special meal of honey-glazed ham decorated with citrus fruits and turkey and dressing with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes loaded with gravy, corn, and green beans.

On the day before, they sang Christmas carols and had a service provided by the Lutheran chaplain aboard the ship. On the afternoon of Dec. 25, her crew visited Chu Lai Air Base where they had a second meal and sailed lightning-class sailboats in flooded rice patties. Adams says, “It was a good day.”

While Adams was having a day off in 1967, Jim Miller of Troy, was in the Mekong Delta flying Hueys, supplying Green Beret outposts with food, water, and ammo, and thinking about getting home and marrying Janice.

In 1968, John Looker, originally from Sidney, was in the mountains of midwest Vietnam at Christmas when a chopper came in and brought ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, pound cake, and warm beer and soft drinks.

That day the chopper also brought Looker chocolate chip cookies sent by his maternal grandmother, Edith Comer. The soldiers couldn’t sit or congregate in case of an attack. Looker knew, however, that his buddies Earl and Billy were nearby. And the next day it was down the mountain to a firefight where Dale from northern Ohio was shot in the leg and a crew medivacked him to a medical facility.

Ted Jones of Piqua writes, “It’s Christmas 1968, and I’m sitting by myself on watch on the bridge of the U.S. Coast Guard Five Fathom Light Ship WLV530. The light is beginning to come over the horizon, and the wind and sea are in perpetual motion, causing the 125-foot ship to pitch and roll as the ocean dictates.

“A week before a relief crew of 8 men brought an artificial tree and decorations aboard. On this day, things are quiet and the crew gathers on the mess deck and turns on a radio. Christmas music comes on, and it’s holiday routine for all the men except those responsible for the mandatory operations of the ship. Some guys are saying, “Merry Christmas”; others are not. No one is saying he wishes he were home; however, the look on faces shows they wish they had been granted Christmas leave.

“There is nothing merry about this Christmas, but the men performing this duty have something in common: They carry Christmas in their hearts, and that’s where their loved ones are. That’s how they get through Christmas when they are at sea, serving their country.”

Using his powers of persuasion, Mike Jackson, Tipp City, managed to get his two-week leave at Christmas in 1971 to travel from Vietnam to Hawaii. It was the honeymoon he never had when a year before he had married Karen, and following the wedding, he was right back to training.

He was at Camp Eagle, and after packing swimming trunks and a few civilian clothes, he got a buddy to fly him in a helicopter to Hue Phu Bai where he boarded an O-2 to fly to Da Nang. From Da Nang, he flew in a C-130 to Saigon and from there took a commercial flight to Honolulu. On Dec. 25, he and Karen spent the day at the beach, eating well, and as Mike says, “I savored not getting shot at for a week and a half.”

POW Guy Gruters from Sidney, spent six Christmases (1967-1973) in Vietnam prison camps. Without a moment’s hesitation, he, however, can reveal his best Christmas in the military. In November of 1970, a group of America’s fighting best launched a raid at Son Tay called “Operation Ivory Coast,” killed the guards and others and soon learned that the American POWs they intended to rescue had been relocated to another of the 14 North Vietnamese prison camps. Gruters had been at one such camp since his capture in 1967 and says,” I was living in an enclosure the size of a closet, no windows, no exercise, freezing in winter, burning up in the summer with a peephole in the door that a guard checked regularly to see if I were trying to escape.”

He continues, “The Son Tay raid was deemed a ‘tactical success’ but a failure in that the American POWs to be rescued had been moved, but it was a success.

Weeks earlier, the North Vietnamese Army commanders had determined that a new mode of confinement was essential and had moved all POWs to Hanoi where there were dungeons with 40 to 50 Americans in each dungeon. In that locale, we could move more freely about and talk. It was like heaven on earth, and we owed it to the brave men who raided Son Tay.

“To imagine what being alone was like those first three years when I was a POW, just go into your bathroom or a closet at 9 a.m. and stay there until 3 a.m. with no books, no sleeping, no air conditioning no anything, and imagine living that way year after year, 24 hours a day.

“To celebrate Christmas in 1970, we talked, told the Christmas story, and celebrated His birth together.”

To those who served or are serving in the military, thank you. To all of you, whether you are celebrating a few days off work, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas, know that I wish you resilience, hope, peace, and love.

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