A tale of two Christmases

Every year on this day, December 25, I find myself haunted by the ghosts of two Christmases past.

Through no fault of my own, I spent two Christmases in Vietnam. It was merely a matter of bad timing. The tour of duty for Marines at that time was 13 months. I arrived “in country” in early December of 1966, which meant I couldn’t rotate back to “The World” — as we called the States back then — until January of ’68.

My mother naively thought that, surely, I wouldn’t have to stay in Vietnam for two Christmases. The Marine Corps, however, didn’t see that as a problem. I celebrated that first Christmas “in the rear with the gear” in Da Nang and the second “out in the bush” near Dong Ha.

I was especially fortunate that first Christmas. I got to go to Bob Hope’s show on Marble Mountain. I have to hand it to Hope. He and his USO-sponsored troupe went all out to remind us of what we were missing. His headliners that year were Joey Heatherton and Ann-Margret.

I still remember one of Hope’s corny jokes. There had been talk of defense cutbacks even then, despite our continuing buildup in Vietnam. Hope warned that we could soon expect coin-operated machine guns.

It had rained that morning, causing Heatherton to make a false start with her dance routine. Some lucky Marines-turned-stage-hands pushed most of the water off the stage with push brooms. Heatherton launched right back into it, dancing her heart out in a suitably skimpy outfit. I don’t remember what Ann-Margret did other than look beautiful.

For the finale, Hope got all the performers on stage and had us all join them in singing “Silent Night.” There was hardly a dry eye in the audience, mine included. But I wasn’t just feeling homesick. I was feeling guilty.

My gaze had been fixed on the guests of honor in the first few rows—the guys in bandages and wheelchairs or holding crutches. I felt I had no right to be there. I hadn’t yet paid my dues.

By that second Christmas, I still felt as if I hadn’t paid enough dues, but at least I was out in the field. I had become a rifleman with the Corps’ Combined Action Program. We were 12 Marines and one Navy corpsman assigned to the village of Cam Hieu five miles south of the DMZ and halfway between Dong Ha and Cam Lo. Ours was not to search and destroy; ours was to try to win those elusive hearts and minds. We were there to train and inspire the village’s self-defense force, called Popular Forces or “PFs,” and to try to ingratiate ourselves with the villagers.

It had not gone well at all that fall. The villagers remained aloof. We endured a serious flood. We had been strafed by one of our own planes. Our PFs wouldn’t patrol with us. One of our patrols had been ambushed. To add insult to injury, on Christmas day, 1967, we had to watch a platoon of North Vietnamese soldiers saunter past our position with impunity. The Christmas truce was on.

I felt frustrated by that. I don’t remember feeling or missing a thing about Christmas. I was in the zone by then. I had made my accommodation with the world of war, and the last thing I needed was any reminder of what I was missing at home.

Unlike today’s troops, we didn’t have the Internet, email, Skype, or cell phones. We could only write letters. But I really think that was for the best. What a mixed blessing it must be for today’s troops to be able to call home regularly. In addition to worrying about dying themselves, they have to worry about checking in at their appointed times lest their loved ones die a thousand deaths assuming the worst. It must keep them continually off balance, trying to straddle two worlds.

Still, were I in their place, I suppose I too would call and email home, trying to hang on to some semblance of normality. But knowing what I know now, I doubt I would be better off for it.

Contact Ed Palm at majorpalm@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Ed Palm: A tale of two Christmases