"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff



Saturday, December 6, 2014

One Christmas in Vietnam 1969

Lee "Bad Bascom" Pearson, Jim Schueckler, Dave Lissow

A True Story 

by Jim Schueckler 

It was Christmas Eve, but didn't feel like it in Vietnam.

The mess hall had been unusually quiet. Although Christmas music was playing, nobody was talking. 

Later, in the first platoon pilot's hooch, the mood was the same.

The recent deaths of four pilots and four crewmen seemed to overshadow any chance of holiday spirit. 

Several pilots were sitting together, and one finally piped up, "We have to do something happy to get out of this mood." Another offered that we should sing Christmas Carols, but nobody would start the singing. 

I announced that, after almost a year of flying in Vietnam, I was not going to sit around there on Christmas Day watching twenty long faces; I had to fly tomorrow. 

After more silence, someone blurted out, "Let's take up a collection for the hospital at Dam Pao!" The thought was met with excited approval.

I suggested that I would ask to fly the Da Lat MACV mission tomorrow to take the money that we could collect tonight. Mike volunteered to fly with me.

First stop: the crew chiefs' hooch. I asked Bascom if he would like to fly the Da Lat MACV mission. He and Dave quickly agreed, to also escape the prevailing sad mood.

The company commander was in the operations bunker. I explained our plan but he answered: "We don't have the Da Lat MACV mission.  In fact, we don't have any missions tomorrow. There is a cease-fire on."

I decided to beg: "Please, Sir, could you call battalion and see if some other company has Da Lat MACV?"

The CO picked up the phone and then started writing on a mission sheet form. He handed it to me and said, "Da Lat MACV helipad, oh seven thirty. We took the mission from the 92nd." He took out his wallet, and handed me some money. "Here's something for your collection."

When we reached the gunship platoon hooch, three pilots looked on sadly as one man raked a pile of money from the center of a table towards himself. We made our sales pitch about the hospital. The generous gambler pushed the pile toward me and said: "I would just end up losing it all back to these guys anyway."

In one hooch, we were given a gift package of cheeses.

We decided to make another pass through the company area, asking for cookies, candy, and other foods.

As we left one hooch, the men inside started singing "Deck the Halls," and soon those in other buildings were competing. It wasn't clear whether the competition was for the best, worst, or just loudest singing; but it was easy to see that the mood of the company had changed for the better.

We next went to the mess hall. The mess sergeant and cooks were still there, preparing for Christmas Day. The sergeant replied: "Do you have a truck with you? We have too much food right now because of all the guys who went home early. And we have some canned foods about to expire." One pilot went to get the maintenance truck while the rest of us checked dates on cans and cartons of food.

An infantry unit mess hall was not far away, so we went there next. We accepted several cases of freeze-dried foods.

At the dispensary the medic gave us bandages and dressings. We tied down the pile of goods in the Huey.

After dropping off the truck the four pilots walked back to our hooch. One pilot looked at his watch and said, "Hey guys! It's midnight, Merry Christmas!"

My alarm clock startled me out of a deep sleep. A check with my wristwatch verified the time, but something was wrong. Mornings were usually bustling with the sounds of aircraft, trucks, and men preparing for the daily business of war. Today there were no such sounds. Is this what peace sounds like?

In the shower building, Mike and I talked about what our families would be doing today, half a world away. I reminded Mike that my wife promised me another Christmas celebration, with decorated tree and wrapped presents, in just two weeks. I would be meeting another Mike, my four-month-old son. 

After breakfast, the others went to the flight line while I called for a weather briefing.

When I got to the helicopter, Mike was doing the preflight inspection and had just climbed up to the top of the Huey. Together, we checked the main rotor hub and the "Jesus nut," named because, if it came off, "only Jesus could help you." Everything was fine; we were ready to fly.

We took off and headed for the mountains. It felt good to fly with this crew; we were a finely-tuned team. Lee, who preferred the nickname "Bad Bascom," was the crew chief of this Huey; he did all the daily maintenance on it and flew every mission. With Mike as co-pilot and Dave as door gunner, we had taken that helicopter into and out of a lot of difficult situations.

Our company radio call sign was Polecat; we were Polecat three five six. I decided to climb higher than usual in the smooth morning air. As we left the jungle plains along the coast, the green mountains of the Central Highlands rose up to meet us. Fog on the plateau spilled over between the peaks, looking like slow, misty, waterfalls. In the rising sunlight the mountain peaks cast long shadows on the fog. The beauty and serenity of the scene was dazzling.

The mess hall had been quiet. The airfield was quiet. The radios were quiet. We weren't even chattering on the intercom as we usually did. Our minds were all with different families, somewhere back home, half a world away. Everything was quiet and peaceful; it felt very, very, strange.

We landed at Da Lat, shut down the Huey, and walked into the bunker. The new MACV senior advisor, a lieutenant colonel, agreed that we could stop at the hospital at Dam Pao after we finished his planned route of stopping at every one of his outposts. But we first had to meet a truck at Phan Rang Air Base.

Donut Dollies - Polecat 356
When we got close to Phan Rang, the whole crew listened as the colonel talked by radio with his contact on the ground.

Not only was there food and mail to pick up, but the colonel was asked if we also wanted to fly some Donut Dollies around! The helicopter was filled with young men eagerly nodding their heads and flight helmets, "YES."

Donut Dollies were American Red Cross volunteers, college graduates in their early twenties.

Although no longer distributing donuts like their namesakes of World War I, they were still in the service of helping the morale of the troops. At large bases, they managed recreation centers; but they also traveled to the smaller units in the field for short visits. For millions of GIs, they represented the girlfriend, sister, or wife back home.

Soon we were heading back to the mountains with a Huey full of mail, fuel, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women.

We had sliced hot turkey and pumpkin pies for the men who had been living off Vietnamese food and canned Army-issue rations at the outposts.

When we got near the first outpost, the colonel, by radio, told the men on the ground that we were going to make it snow. The Donut Dollies sprinkled laundry soap flakes out of the Huey as we flew directly over a small group of American and Vietnamese soldiers who must have thought we were crazy. Several of them were rubbing their eyes as we came back to land. I'll never be sure if it was emotion or if they just got soap flakes in their eyes.

The three Americans came over to the Huey as the rotor was slowing down. One Donut Dolly gave each of them a package from the Red Cross and the other called out names to distribute the mail. 

After about 15 minutes of small talk between the Donut Dollies, the five MACV soldiers, and the crew of 356, the colonel said, "We have a lot more stops to make" and got back into the Huey. The soldiers stood there motionless, staring at us as we started up, hovered, and then flew away.

At the next outpost, the colonel left us to talk privately with the local officials. The crew and I didn't mind having the task of escorting the Donut Dollies. It was easy to see how happy the soldiers were to talk with them. I wondered how they were feeling. Their job was to cheer up other people on what may have been their own first Christmas away from home; if they were lonely or sad, they never let it show.

Throughout the day, the same scene was repeated at a number of other small outposts. Finally, when the official MACV work was done, we were above the hospital at Dam Pao. Mike landed us a few hundred feet from the main building.

Several American-looking men and women came out, carrying folding stretchers. They first showed surprise that we were not bringing an injured new patient, and then joy as we showed them the food, money, and medical supplies.

One woman began to cry when she saw the price tag on a cheese gift pack. She explained that twenty dollars could provide a Montagnard family with nutritious food for more than a month.

One of the doctors asked if we would like to see the hospital. He talked as we carried the goods from the Huey to the single-floor, tin-roof hospital building. "Project Concern now has volunteer doctors and nurses from England, Australia, and the USA. We provide health services to civilians and train medical assistants to do the same in their own villages. In order to stay here we have to remain neutral. Both sides respect our work, and leave us alone."

One of the women described a recent event. Two nurses and a medical assistant student were returning from a remote clinic in the jungle when their jeep became mired in mud. Many miles from even the smallest village, they knew that they would not be able to walk to civilization before dark. A Viet Cong foot patrol came upon them, pulled the jeep out of the mud, and sent them on their way.  

There were homemade Christmas decorations everywhere; most had been made on the spot by patients or their families. Inside, the hospital reminded me of pictures of Civil War hospitals. There were only a few pieces of modern equipment but the hospital was very clean. The staff's living quarters were very meager.

 As we moved into one ward, a nurse gently lifted a very small baby from its bed; and before I could stop her, she placed him in my arms. He was born that morning. Although complications had been expected, the mother and baby were perfectly healthy! As I held the tiny infant, I couldn't help but wonder how I would feel in just two weeks, when I would hold my own four-month-old son for the first time.

The staff invited us to stay for supper with them, and I could tell the invitation was sincere. But the sun was getting low, and I didn't want to fly us home over one hundred miles of mountainous jungle in the dark. I also would have felt guilty to take any of their food, no matter how graciously offered. 

As we started the Huey the colonel was still about fifty feet away talking to the doctors and nurses. He took something out of his wallet and pressed it into the hand of one of the doctors with a double-hand handshake, then quietly climbed on board.

There was no chatter on the intercom as we flew back to Da Lat. Mike set the Huey down softly. The colonel extended his hand towards me to shake hands. "Thanks for taking us to that hospital, and Merry Christmas."

"Yes, sir, thank you, Merry Christmas."

The flights to Phan Rang and then back to Phan Thiet were also marked with silence. I thought of my family that I would be with in just twelve days, good friends I would soon be leaving behind, and good friends who would never go home. I realized the unusual nature of that day.

In the midst of trouble and strife, I would remember that one Christmas Day in Vietnam as a time of sharing, happiness, love -- and peace.

EPILOG:

At the 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, I had forgotten the Donut Dollies' names. Showing around a picture of them next to Polecat 356, I found Ann and talked with Sue by telephone a few days later. That Christmas Day was also special to them.


Project Concern International, 3550 Afton Road San Diego, CA 92123 is still doing similar humanitarian work in Asia and several US cities.

Copyright 1993, by Jim Schueckler



“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale


Feel free to comment on this post. You are also invited to write about anything you want to share. Memoirs From Nam is YOUR blog. You are writing America's history.




3 comments:

  1. Jim: Excellent piece that captures the true feeling most of us had at Christmastime in Vietnam. Reading this, I welled with tears as the memories flowed, especially when I reached the line that sums it all up: 'Is this what peace sounds like?'
    Very well done. Thanks for writing and sharing it, and thanks CJ for providing the forum.

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  2. And I thank you, Byron, for your constant and thoughtful support -- Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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  3. What a wonderful, heartwarming story. The next time any of us hear someone say, "one person can't do anything or make a difference," a fitting response should be, "watch me!" Yes, it really is that simple, just as Jim demonstrated in his story. One idea spoken aloud, catches on and the "snowball effect" takes it from there. Thank you for sharing your story, Jim and thank you for your service. --Frances Foster Johnson

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