By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributor
Reminiscing and then writing about our old-time Italian Christmases was a delight. The joy of those Christmases brings forth so many beautiful memories. I think of the tantalizing aroma of the seven fishes frying, roasting or simmering in delicious homemade sauce. Going to midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child was paramount; then, rushing home to wait for Santa. Having friends and family return to the house to chat, eat more, and play cards until 2 and 3 in the morning was worrisome! What if they stayed too long and scared away Santa. Memories never to be erased.
Besides my family experiences, there was never a time I didn’t think of my fellow Soldiers in faraway places, not home with their loved ones, during this remarkable holiday. I recall one happy occurrence during an assignment in South Vietnam in 1968, worthy of mentioning. It was an experience never to be forgotten, and I’m ever grateful I was there to help.
It was with the elite 1st Air Cavalry Division along the Demilitarized Zone of the two Vietnams. The amenities in a war zone out in the middle of no man’s land weren’t great, but not nearly as punishing as the combat soldiers hacking their way through the jungle, or stuck on an isolated, desolate “Firebase” along the Cambodia border.
On this particular Christmas Eve day, a group of us were sitting outside of our foxholes eating lunch on MCI’s (predecessor of the awful c-rations) when we spied the Division Deputy Commanding General approaching. We jumped to our feet and snapped a salute. “At ease,” the general said. He pointed to me and ordered “Major, follow me.” “Uh oh”, I whispered to my fellow officers. “Who ratted me out?” I hurried to the General’s tent. He said, sit. I sat!
“Son,” he explained, “We have a problem, and you just volunteered to help fix it. One of our companies on a Firebase has been under fire for days, surviving on cold rations. The “old man” demanded they have a hot dinner. One unit failed to deliver, and damn I’m determined we will succeed. Do I make myself clear!”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied!
Containers of hot grub arrived by plane out of Danang and were loaded aboard a Chinook helicopter. I would lead a team to deliver the food to the threatened Firebase Charlie. “You have 20 minutes to get your gear together.”
Actually, the responsibility for such a mission was that of our support Battalion Commander, but who was I to question the General’s decision. So, I got on the helicopter, as ordered, with a great team and landed on that God-forsaken Firebase. The team NCO, having such great foresight, dressed as a partial Santa and brought a few Christmas decorations for the men.
It was heartwarming, and yet sad, to see the excitement of the weary troops when our copter landed. Since there was no Mess Hall, a chow line was set up outside, and food was served. “Yes, troops, it is real turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy trimmings, and it is HOT!”
The men ate in shifts. The meal had to be over before nightfall. There was no question the Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese regulars, would be eager to lay down heavy fire, if not sooner.
After eating, everyone in camp, including “Moi,” were ordered out on the barbed wire periphery to defend against an attack. As anticipated, there were lots of fireworks that night from incoming enemy fire. No one was killed or seriously injured.
At daylight, a chopper came to pick us up, but not before an emotional send-off from the Commander and his troops.
Although the helicopter pilot, who flew us in, deserves most of the accolades, for without his bravery, we would not have gotten into that camp. I was proud and honored to have been part of that successful mission and to provide a bit of Christmas to these battle-weary, brave combat soldiers.
Believe me, I am no hero, but that day I had the privilege, and honor, of walking among heroes.
For all of us who will enjoy the Christmas holidays, as we should, make it a particular point to remember our military far from home.