Christmas Sunshine

Hill 51: Republic of Vietnam

Christmas of '67 was my first Christmas away from home, and even if I wasn't alone, I was lonely.  My home that warm December was 6 by 12-foot sandbagged bunker that I shared with Sgt. Houk, Sgt. Mac, our radio operator, Hetherington and Doc, our corpsman. 

I was a green lieutenant, barely a month in-country; and even though I was in command of nearly 100 men on that hill, I was still feeling my way around. 

Capt Bruner barely trusted me, and my troops were friendly but wary.  I was 13,000 miles from home and not feeling much like John Wayne.

The worst part of my situation that year was that my mail had not caught up with me.  Since leaving home at Thanksgiving I had traveled to Texas, a couple of days at Edwards Air Force Base in California, four days in Okinawa, a day or two in DaNang, and finally Quang Tri, where I joined the "The Walking Dead" of Bravo 1/9. 

I had written home every other day, sending my love and my address, but mail for Christmas was only a dim hope.

We had been on Hill 51 for about a week. We were only about 3,000 meters from Camp Evans, the home of the Third Division, but we were completely alone on a 10-acre hill that sat 150 feet above some of the most beautiful rice paddies in the world. 

The weather had been pretty good; into the 70s when the sun shone, and dipping into the 40s on watch at night when the wind whipped that cold rain into your face.

We had had no real contact with the enemy though we ran patrols each day that went out three miles, nearly to the base of the mountains. 

Each twilight we would watch the sun set behind Hill 650 and wonder what dangers lurked in those dark, mist-shrouded hills.

On Dec. 23 we were resupplied by helicopter and received our usual rations of Cs, water and ammo, as well as bags and bags of mail. 

The company had been holding our mail for some time in the rear, and it was like watching Santas in marine-green unload that chopper.  With so much mail there was great excitement, and I hoped against hope that there would be something for me in those orange and red mailbags. 

Mail was handed out in small groups near the command post so as not to draw NVA artillery fire.  I stood by and watched and waited as squad after squad received its mail. 

When the last bag had been emptied I felt as if it had also been emptied of hope.  Bravo Company had radioed that this would be the last resupply until after the Christmas cease-fire.

At chow time that day Sgt. Ward's third squad invited me to share in their feast.  We ate off sandbags and sat on the ground; our plates were C ration cans and our silver was plastic, but it was one of the most gracious meals I have ever eaten. 

Ward, a big black Georgian with marshmallow eyes and a tough manner, ran his squad like a family and he invited me in. 

Everyone had received packages from home, and they all shared to create the feast; ham and pineapple, cheese and crackers, brownies and fruitcake.  Talk was soft, and so was the sunset.  Even without mail, I went to sleep that night feeling peace in my heart.

Christmas Eve was another beautiful 70-degree day.  We ran one short patrol and sat around playing cards, reading or writing letters home. 

At 3 o'clock Sgt. Houk listened to the "Grand Ole Opry" on Armed Forces Radio.  It wasn't my type of music, but it was fun to watch Sgt. Houk and Sgt. Mac enjoy it so much.  

After the show we fell to discussing Christmases past and came to the conclusion that we needed a Christmas tree. 

All my life we got our trees from the church lot.  Where could we get a tree out here? 

We had received a case of Schlitz beer with the last mail, and I guess we had had a warm beer or two because we were feeling inventive.

We borrowed an ax from Sgt. Leon, and Mac took his shotgun, and I took my M-16, and we set out on a two-man patrol in search of a Christmas tree.

We had only gone a few hundred yards beyond the wire when I began to feel naked without a radio and 14 Marines to back me up.  It was nearly dusk and very quiet out there, and I was a little relieved to spot a small pine tree standing all alone on that tropical hillside. 

It was only about 4-1/2 feet tall and was a bit scraggly, but, by God, it was a Christmas tree!   I stood guard as Mac hacked at the tree and we carried it home in the gathering dusk. 

All we lacked was snow and maybe ornaments. But that was quickly solved; 24 empty Schlitz beer cans gave our tree a festive air.

When dark came a cease-fire was to take effect, but we still had to stand watch just in case.  I went to bed early but then got up for the second watch which would include the midnight hour.  I can remember going out in the darkness and pausing to let my mind go back to the previous Christmas at home with my family and friends. 

As I walked and checked the lines I would pause to talk to the young Marines who were missing their own homes so far away. It was as quiet and peaceful a night as it ever was after midnight Mass; a soft velvet night, one to remind you of Christ's birth. 

I had reached the northern side of the camp when stillness of the night was shattered by all the guns from Camp Evans opening fire in celebration of Christmas. 

Red tracers lit up the night sky like streamers on the Fourth of July; illumination rounds, green and white burst, and swung dizzily from their parachutes.  It was deadly, but also eerily beautiful. 

When the last light flickered out I went on checking the lines.  All was secure and I went back to sleep feeling warm.

Christmas day dawned bright and warm. It promised to be a peaceful day even if I didn't have any mail.  I can remember toasting a slice of C ration bread over my two-inch stove, and I was warming up a cup of hot chocolate when I heard the distinctive "whoop, whoop" of a chopper coming our way. 

Sgt Leon popped a red and green smoke grenade to show wind direction so the helicopter could land.  Behind me in the command post I could hear the radio squawk, alerting us to an unscheduled resupply.

I laughed out loud when that big CH-46 landed amid that red- and-green smoke, and out of the back stepped a Santa in full costume with a big black cigar clenched between his teeth. 

It was our company commander, Capt. Bruner, out to pay us a visit. 

Over the roar of the blades he gave me a five-minute pep talk, but my eye was on those red and orange mail sacks that were being unloaded. 

He took off with a hasty "Merry Christmas!"  As the smoke cleared there was Sgt Leon calling out names for mail call.  I stood off to the side, steeling myself for disappointment.

He called out about 10 names when he said, “Lieutenant, here's one for you."  I tried to act cool, but it is tough to play it cool when you are grinning from ear to silly ear. 

It was a letter from my old college buddy, Fox.  He was fine and full of gossip from home as well as a photo of himself playing Santa at Strawbridge's.  I didn't get to finish the letter when I heard my name called again and then again. 

Twenty-nine times I had to get up to get another letter.  At officer training school I was told it was definitely not appropriate to giggle in front of the troops, but what the hell did they know?

After 20 years, I can still see it.  I was sitting down on the sun-warmed dirt of that Vietnamese hill, leaning back against a sandbagged wall with a small pile of letters in my lap and cup of hot chocolate cooling beside me. 

I can remember thinking that I had never received a present as moving as those letters. Each letter was like a kiss, a hug from home, I knew the feeling would only last a day.  Tomorrow the cease-fire would end, my letters would be carefully wrapped in plastic, and maybe it would be rainy and cold. 

But for that hour that I sat there in the midst of that war-torn land, I felt the spirit of Christmas as I have rarely felt it before or since.                                                            

It didn't matter that there would follow a year of death and malaria and occasional fear. Of the many terror-filled moments I choose to remember this one. 

Talone writes from Court House.