Each year as Christmas approaches I am reminded of my Vietnam Christmas experience. This story takes place toward the end of my tour when I had moved up to II Corp and was flying Cobras for an Air Cavalry Troop up there.
Being away from friends and loved ones during wartime is especially tough at Christmas, my thoughts and best wishes are with every one of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen (and women) out there.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!!!
White Christmas in Vietnam
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the land known as Vietnam an unpopular war had raged on for many years. Men died every day in the fighting, never to see their loved ones again. As the final days when the war would come to an end drew closer, no one wanted to be the last soldier to die.
Each rare day off was a cherished occasion, as it would be one less day to fight before the tour of duty would be over. Christmas day traditionally was a day when truces were called and everyone on both sides of the conflict took the day off from the fighting. We were all anxious to kick back and enjoy a day when we could just relax, think of our loved ones at home and dream about better days to come.
1972 had been a long ugly year in the war with heavy losses for us and the enemy following a large offensive that launched by the NVA during the Easter holiday. The North Vietnamese Army had made a last ditch effort to seize victory over the South before any negotiated deals could be struck in Paris. Despite the drawdown of many U.S. fighting forces, the war had grown in its intensity with the introduction of many new sophisticated weapons not used in the war up to that point.
As December 25th approached we were working 7 days a week, often from sunup to sundown and many times into the night. Usually we could only count on one day off a month to take care of any personal business and do a little R&R. The reduction of troop strength during that late period of the war meant that we all had to work harder to makeup for the shortages in manpower and lack of replacements. Everyone was tired and looking forward to the Christmas truce for an extra day of some much needed rest.
I was assigned to an Army Air Cavalry Troop in the central highlands of Vietnam, based in Pleiku. I was a seasoned 20-year old Cobra pilot in the Weapons Platoon and my job was to be team leader in a hunter-killer “Pink Team”. Two AH-1G Cobras along with an OH-6 LOH (we called them Loaches) made-up a Pink Team. Originally when the concept of a U.S. Air Cav. Troop was developed the Gun Platoon with the helicopter gunships were call-signed “White” and the Scout Platoon with the observation helicopters were call-signed “Red”. Red with white makes pink, so that’s how the term “Pink Team” came to be.
The mission of a Pink Team is to seek out the enemy wherever they could be found and eliminate as many of them as possible. This was accomplished by putting the LOH down on the treetops moving slowly through an area looking for signs of enemy activity while the Cobras stayed at about 1,500 feet above and behind the LOH as security for the little bird. Finding the enemy forces was not very difficult at that time of the war, fading away and being shadow warriors had pretty much gone away. Once the enemy was located, the LOH gunner/observer would dispatch a smoke grenade on top of the bad guy’s and the little helicopter would pull back out of the area so that the Cobras could do what they do best. The nature of this mission meant that we all spent a good amount of time being shot at by hostiles who were very serious about trying to kill us. The tension and stress from performing this job took its toll over time and it would be good to have a little break in the action on the coming holiday.
We all knew the war would be coming to an end soon, the bombings in the North had been intensified in order to urge the North to accept the U.S. proposals for a Treaty, but they were stubbornly resisting as the year neared its end. Because of previous truce violations by the NVA, as Christmas Day approached in this year no one in Command at Headquarters was willing to trust that the enemy would honor their commitment to a truce for the holidays, so the word came down on December 24th that we would be flying our missions as normal on December 25th, no truce would be observed. We were very unhappy about the news of that and the idea of killing people on such a sacred holiday just seemed wrong even if they were our enemy. Being good soldiers though, we accepted our orders and made ready for the event.
On Christmas Eve the weather in the highlands was cool. Even in this normally very tropical location, there were times at those altitudes when it got downright chilly. It sure felt like the Yuletide season and although we were away from home and at war, the Christmas spirit was upon many of the folks back at base. Christmas music played, people exchanged small gifts and many care packages from home with goodies galore arrived in the daily mail. I’m pretty sure I even saw a small tree or two meagerly decorated for the season. Our thoughts were of far away at home with family and loved ones enjoying the occasion.
While the cooks in the Mess Hall made their plans for a generous Christmas feast for the troops and checked their food supplies, we checked our personal weapons and made sure our aircraft were loaded with armaments and filled with fuel for the next day’s mission. We would be launching at dawn, our holiday feast would be a can of C’s grabbed here and there when we could.
We awoke on Christmas Day around 0530 as usual and the cool weather was evident, so much so that a jacket was necessary to keep warm. When I first stepped out of my hootch in the morning I saw that while we had slept a miracle had occurred as a thick fog had formed around our base and we were completely socked-in for the time being. There was going to be no flying to anywhere for now. We were told by the Operations Officer to go get some breakfast at the Mess Hall and then standby at the Operations Shack until further notice. By about 0800 (8:00 am for the civilians) the fog at the airfield had started to break-up enough that we were told to go get in our aircrafts and head out toward the area where we would performing our search for any enemy activity.
When we arrived overhead in the designated search area around 0900 the thick layer of white ground fog was still covering the entire area like a fluffy blanket of fresh snow. This was something new to us as no one had among our team had ever seen such thick fog like this while serving in Vietnam. We couldn’t very well put the Loach down on the treetops if he couldn’t see where he was going and we couldn’t see him to protect him, so I radioed the situation to our Operations and was told to circle the area and wait for further developments. Whereupon we happily cut holes in the sky up at altitude and tuned in AFVN radio for some Christmas music as entertainment. We thought to ourselves, maybe we’ll be able to get back to base in time for some of that fancy Christmas feast that was being prepared after all. It sure would be better than those C-rations we normally got to eat while out on missions.
After about an hour and a half of circling later as our fuel began to get low, the fog was still too thick to work, so we were instructed by our Command and Control (C & C) to head over to a nearby airfield at the city of Kontum and refuel. Once done with refueling and back in the air, we were more than a little disappointed to hear that the days search activities weren’t going to be cancelled after all and we were instructed to head to the alternate search area that was further south and more toward the Cambodian border. There was a well known and highly traveled entrance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Vietnam in that area where the enemy would surely be waiting for us.
While we were headed to the alternate area the fog and weather conditions began to further deteriorate. Not only was it still foggy down near the ground, but also the clouds were moving in from the west bringing the cloud ceiling down that forced us to descend in an effort to stay between layers. Not great conditions for a bunch of flyers trying to perform visual reconnaissance. By now, the C & C Huey was tagging along with our formation of aircraft insisting that we continue to attempt to perform our assigned mission.
At the alternate search area we circled around quite a few times and looked for a break in the fog where we could get in and put the little bird down without success. The fog and weather conditions were just not going to cooperate on this day. Finally around 1500 (3:00pm for civilians) the C & C ship finally relented, called off our operation and instructed us to return to base. The weather was still totally nasty as we headed back. Luckily when we got to Pleiku the clouds and fog were broken enough for us to drop down for a quick landing at Camp Holloway’s little airstrip. None of us wanted to have to go over to the big Air Force base and shoot a radar guided approach for landing and get socked in over there. No telling when or if we would ever get out of there anytime soon!
Once we landed back at base we had to refuel, park our aircraft and perform post-flight inspections to make sure our ships would be ready to go for the next day’s missions. All this took time and when we were able to finally get to Mess Hall the Christmas feast was nothing but a few scraps and the dining facility was getting ready to shut down for the day. I must say, the Mess Sergeant was gracious about our arrival and threw together some food for us that was warm and tasted great under the circumstances. We were just grateful to be somewhere warm and safe where we could sit and enjoy each others company and talk about Christmases past and future.
The next day it was still somewhat cool in the highlands of Vietnam, but the fog was gone and the sun was back out, more like normal SE. Asian winter weather. We never saw another day that had the weather like we encountered on that Christmas day. The rumors of a pending ceasefire came true and the Treaty we had all been expecting was signed a month later on 27 January 1973, the war was declared over and we were all sent back to the United States in a big hurry.
Many years have passed since that crazy time, but I’ve never forgotten my own personal Christmas miracle when I had a white Christmas in Vietnam. No shots were fired, no one was injured or died on either side that day and for his birthday Jesus had peace on earth, despite the ill will among men.
Some pictures taken on that foggy Christmas Day: