This is a story written by my friend, CMSgt Walter Stolpa, USAF Retired, about Christmas 1966 in Vietnam. It’s always good to remind ourselves of what it was like for those troops, and to also realize that there are US troops going through the same thing right now. He posts this story on his Facebook page each year, and I like to share it a little farther and wider because it’s an important thing to understand what a lot of life is like for our military personnel who put themselves between us and those who would do us harm.
(There are a lot of military-specific terms in here, most of which can be understood by context. The “AP” in the title is for Air Police, one of the older terms, along with Military Police, Law Enforcement, and Security Police, for what is now known as Security Forces in the US Air Force.)
An AP Christmas Eve in the NAM
By Walter M. Stolpa Jr.
Monsoon rains danced off the tin roof of the guardmount area. The troops were lost in thought and subdued as they assembled for guardmount. It was Christmas Eve and most were focusing on sweethearts and family back in the world. “Fall in!” the flight chief barked and the men quickly and noisily fell into their squad positions. “Squad Leaders Report!” and the Staff Sergeants rattled off in turn, “All present or accounted for!” Roll Call was taken and the men responded with their post assignments. “Open Ranks, March!” and the ranks opened for inspection. The old Master Sergeant did an about face and faced the young LT, saluted and reported, “Shadow Flight is ready for inspection.”
The inspection was just a formality, just the lieutenant shaking hands and wishing each a Merry Christmas. The guys were swathed in ponchos and assorted rain gear so there was not much to inspect. There could have been a few whiffs of alcohol on some but nothing was said; after all, it was Christmas Eve. “Close Ranks, March!” and the troops once again merged into a flight. The LT commented that OSI says we could be having hostile visitors around, and stay alert. He sheepishly wished them a Merry Christmas and departed the guardmount area.
The old sarge surveyed the troops and knew none of them were motivated to commence the twelve-hour grind in the miserable rain, and he sought to improve their spirits but had trouble choosing the words.
He growled, “We’re 7,000 miles from home, lonely, and feeling sorry for ourselves. While we are here, our families are gathering to celebrate Christmas. Your presence here allows them to do that. Tonight you are not alone; you are with your brothers who share this moment in time with you. Years from now when you are old and grey, you will recall this Christmas Eve with clarity and tell your grandchildren, ‘I spent Christmas Eve in 1966 with my brothers in the Republic of Vietnam at Nha Trang Air Base, fighting for freedom.’
“I want you to be especially alert because our intel says something may be brewing. The local VC units are active and there is an NVA battalion within a day’s march. Focus on your job. You are here to protect your buddies — those here in ranks and everyone on this base.”
I thought, what the hell would we do if we got attacked by a battalion?
The Flight Chief closed with words that tempered our spines. “If the cost tonight involves the loss of life, then let it be mine and not of any of you, for it is you I will fight and die for. Take care of your brothers. Post!”
Sobering at the Flight Chief’s words, we loaded up our gear and hoisted ourselves up into the trucks and jeeps for transport to our sandbagged defensive positions. We sloshed through the muddy trails, picking up and dropping off troops at their assigned posts. My post number was announced and I jumped off the truck with my two buddies for the night and stumbled into the drenched bunker, shining my flashlight looking for rats and snakes. Thankfully, there were none visible for the moment and we laid out our gear to prepare for the long night ahead of us.
The night passed agonizingly slowly, and try as we might to prevent it, the cold seeped into our core. The temperature had to be in the 70s but we were shivering. The relentless rains splattered against our ponchos and bounced off our helmets. Flashes of lightning eerily illuminated the concertina wire, allowing us to survey the claymores forward of our position. My buddy peered through the sights of his M-60 machine gun into the darkness and was humming “Jingle Bells.” From the bunker 50 feet on our left, lyrics were added to the tune. “Jingle bells, mortar shells, VC in the grass, take this Merry Christmas and shove it up your ….” The radio squawked and the Flight Chief boomed out, “Knock it off! Maintain noise discipline!” and all went quiet. Evidently, someone had keyed a mike during the carol.
Later, the unmistakable drone of “Spooky” appeared circling overhead. As per normal procedure, the aircraft was not illuminated so as to make it a lesser target. Flare kickers commenced dropping flares over the distant rice paddies. Shortly thereafter, mini-guns opened up, spraying arcing red tracers through the floating flares. A nervous troop in a far-away bunker slapped a flare, adding to the Christmas festivities. I thought to myself that despite the misery of the rain the aerial display was quite impressive. Thankfully, there were no green tracers searching us out. My partner wondered aloud if the chaplain would be making the rounds this Christmas Eve. I replied, “I don’t think so. Probably too tired from saying midnight services.”
Spooky was drifting off toward the mountains as the expended flare canisters impacted on the ground. I wondered if the mini-guns had targets or just some special Christmas present for the VC? The flares had ruined our night vision, so blackness enveloped us as the steady rain continued to assault our senses. Sirens wailed and the radio squawked, “Incoming! Take cover!” and that answered my question of targets. We hunkered down behind the sandbags as we had clearly heard the mortar shells’ distinct thump, thump, thump as they burst from their tubes. We held our breath as we anticipated the impacts. In the distance, the alert siren wailed as counter batteries searched for the source. Ear-splitting explosions tore into the darkness as three mortar shells — crump, crump, crump — landed in quick succession.
We waited for another volley but nothing but silence ensued. I noted that Spooky had turned to and was on the scene, once again kicking flares and spraying arcs of airborne mayhem. We anxiously wondered if any of the mortar rounds had found a target, but flames coming from the Army helicopter pads answered that. Later we would learn that two Army Hueys got lit up, but thankfully nobody was killed or injured. We also learned that the mortar rounds were just a diversion as sappers had penetrated the Army defenses and destroyed the helicopters with satchel charges. I wondered why the sappers always picked on the Army? We liked to think it was because they knew we would kick their a– if they attempted to come through our wire.
It was 0300 when the Comm/Plotter notified us that the Major and the Chaplain were visiting posts with coffee and Christmas goodies. We were so far out in the boonies that they seldom got this far but we didn’t care much for company anyway. At 0415, the SAT team pulled up and told us to put away all the unauthorized stuff because Santa was a couple of posts down the line. The only thing I had that was not authorized was my little transistor radio, so I made sure it was out of sight. A light flashed from the bunker on our right and that told us we were next in line. Sure enough, a jeep came roaring through the mud to our position. The lights flicked on and off with the proper sign and we allowed it to approach without challenging. I always thought challenging vehicles here was stupid because no VC had a jeep.
Looking uncomfortable and ill at ease, there were the Major and the Chaplain, both in rain gear. They dismounted the vehicle and entered the bunker to get out of most of the rain. “Airman Jones Reports Delta 16 all secure, sir!”
“It is Christmas Eve so we can dispense with that,” said the Major. “Merry Christmas, men. We have hot coffee and chocolate for you and some treats from the mess hall. Help yourselves. “How are you all doing tonight?”
“Business as usual sir.”
“Any damage from the mortars?”
“No, the mortars were off target and hit nothing, but sappers got two of the army choppers. We think the mortars were just a diversion.”
The Chaplain asked us about our families and told us how much the base counted on us to keep them secure. He then produced some Christmas cards sent from children to the soldiers in Vietnam. They were unopened and he asked each of us to take one. “Well, Merry Christmas, men, and enjoy the fantastic Christmas dinner the mess hall is preparing.” I thought, damn if I will be staying up and waiting in line after a twelve-hour mid, as the jeep disappeared down the road.
So we settled in for the remainder of the long dark night, watching Spooky dropping flares and working out the mini-guns, and wondering if Charlie had any more Christmas surprises in store for us. However, the night passed without any further activity.
Thankfully, the rains had ceased and the eastern sun hurt our eyes as it rose into the sky. Relief rolled around and an hour later we had turned in our equipment and were in the hooch. I looked at my rack and it was inviting me to join it. As I climbed into the rack, I remembered the card the Chaplain left us and decided to open it.
Thank you for my freedom and for fighting for me. I will be spending Christmas with my family safe because of soldiers like you. I hope your family has a Merry Christmas and I am sorry you cannot be home. I hope you do not get killed and that you can be with them next Christmas. My older brother Bill was in Vietnam and died at some place called Ia Drang and my mom and dad have been very sad ever since and so have I. I hope your mom and dad don’t have to be that way. When I grow up maybe I will be a soldier like my big brother was. Thank you for protecting us and Merry Christmas to all the soldiers.
My eyes misted up on me as I crawled into the rack and I thought in comparison to a lot of people, I have a lot to be thankful for. I made a mental note to write back to Eddie with how I spent my Christmas Eve with my brothers and how much I appreciated what his brother gave for us. I hoped all Americans appreciate the sacrifices being made for them, but from what I saw on the news I doubted it. The Vietnam War was grinding on and the worst was yet to come.