Christmas could be a lonely time for a soldier deployed in Vietnam.
For many, this holiday would be the first time that they were away from their families. Deployed to a strange country, and in the middle of a war zone, the holiday period could bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened of troops as they remembered their families’ celebrations back home.
The music on the Army Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) often did not help. As the holiday approached, their radio stations across the country and on ships in the area would play a variety of Christmas music. According to some, Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song” were often on the playlist. However, while others remember hearing Bing Crosby or Johnny Mathis’ versions of “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” in some areas and on some stations, the song was banned as bad for morale.
The services – Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines – all attempted to make the day special. Their most visible effort focused on the Christmas Day meal that unit mess or dining halls prepared. For those back in “the rear” or onboard ships, the meal could be outstanding. Highlights on the menu included shrimp cocktail, roast turkey with gravy, cornbread stuffing, rolls, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and a multitude of cakes and candies.
For those in the field, the meal often lacked the glamour of those served in the mess halls. If lucky, those in the field received their Christmas meal that was transported in insulated mermite containers. One local Field Artillery Soldier remembers receiving his Christmas meal on his firebase served on paper plates. Ammunition crates served as his dinner table. He appreciated his “feast” for he knew that many of the infantry troops outside his firebase, the least fortunate, consumed cold C-Rations, if their food could not be flown to their location.
The public back home also helped those deployed to Vietnam enjoy the season. Families would often send “care packages” that included cassette recordings of Christmas music, small artificial Christmas trees and tins of homemade cookies. The American Red Cross, schools and other civic organizations, public and private, would send notes, cards, letters and packages to those assigned in Vietnam. These small packages, often shared with others in the units and with Vietnamese orphanages that units’ sponsored, enhanced the morale of the troops at least for a few days.
While many USO shows traveled to Vietnam, the most notable and well-known program of the holiday was the Bob Hope Christmas Tour. A tradition that he started during World War II, Bob Hope visited Vietnam each Christmas season from 1964 to 1972. Soldiers in combat units and forward positions often received preference for the shows, and an opportunity to attend was always high on everyone’s wish list. His annual trip brought some of the more notable stars of their day to perform.
Hope would open his show with a monologue that often poked fun at the unit’s leadership. Then he would bring forward his female stars that brought smiles to those in the audience and often, by today’s standards, inappropriate cat calls. Celebrities such as Joey Heatherton, Raquel Welch, Ann Margaret, Connie Stevens, Jill Saint John and Nancy Sinatra would join Bob Hope in song and dance routines. Miss American or Ms. Universe would also frequently visit, and with Les Brown’s Orchestra providing the music and Dean Martin’s Gold Diggers’ dance routines, the event was memorable for all.
Each year, from 1965 until the withdrawal of combat troops in 1972; the United States, South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese government announced a Christmas truce. These truces lasted 24 to 48 hours, and for U.S. forces, only defensive actions or artillery fires to defend American troops were permitted. The war, however, was never far away even during these Christmas holiday truces and for those service members in combat units that remained in the field or forward firebases, the Christmas holiday could be surreal.
Carlisle resident, Don Bender, a retired special-forces sergeant, said his most enduring memory of the Vietnam War is a gruesome one. While waiting for the truce to begin “two of my people (were) killed on Christmas Eve.” Another veteran recalled his Christmas in Vietnam and how suddenly when the truce began the constant background noise of gunfire stopped at midnight. He remembers that it was so quiet that people actually woke up from the silence. In the distant valley, he could hear children singing.
Today our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines can pick up the phone, call home, or FaceTime or Skype home, and join in the families’ celebration. Those who served in Vietnam were not as lucky. We should appreciate our Vietnam Veteran’s sacrifices and service and, at the same time, remember all the men and women of our Armed Forces who are far away from home this holiday season.