“Murphy, Schumacher, distribute your C rations and ammo. A helicopter is inbound. You’re going to the Bob Hope show,” bellowed my platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Joshua Carney, a lean, second-tour veteran we all admired.
Thus began my Christmas Eve journey, December 1970.
I was serving as an infantryman in the Americal Division in the mountains of I Corps, just a short helicopter ride from the Laos border, with my brothers, a resilient group hailing from all walks of life and the four corners of the United States. Most of us were 19- to 20-year-olds, draftees and enlistees with low draft numbers like me. I just had completed four months in triple-canopy jungle, with all the benefits of sleeping on the ground in the rain, including putrid smells, mud, hunger, and, yes, the North Vietnamese army.
What we all had in common was that we wanted to be home for Christmas. But that would only be in our dreams.
As our helicopter lifted from the jungle floor, I could see my buddies looking up as we sped off to the rear area. I felt a bit guilty leaving them behind, but I knew they were happy that somebody was going to spend the most important eve of the year in what we substituted for comfort, the “rear.”
Upon landing at Hawk Hill base, I was given a new uniform, a hot shower (first one in a month), and good old Army hot chow. Then I was off to Da Nang with other GIs, all of us collected by helicopter, much like the Polar Express did for the children on their way to the North Pole.
We made it to the show and it was just as I had watched for years on TV, except I was right there with Bob Hope, Ursula Andress, and thousands of exuberant GIs and Marines.
After Hope ended with his signature song, “Thanks for the Memory,” we were back on our trucks speeding to base before nightfall. On arriving I asked if I could attend Christmas Eve Mass, a tradition in my Irish Catholic family. I served for years as an altar boy, dressed in my cassock and surplice with a starched collar and bow tie.
I was in luck again. A Vietnamese priest was saying Mass in a small chapel.
With 20 or so GIs cramped into the chapel and a sermon in a language I could not understand, it was not like being home for Christmas, but for an hour I was with my God. The war, the incessant anxiety, the physical exertion all melted away as we sang “Silent Night.”
As I walked out into the yard, I looked up and saw a shooting star race across the heavens. What a sight for a homesick grunt.
With no place to stay, a bunker that housed helicopter pilots answered our call for a place in the “Inn.” We slept on the wooden floor.
Dawn came too soon and we returned to the jungle and our unit. Our Christmas Eve journey was but a memory.
Within three months, Spec. Bob Schumacher and Staff Sgt. Carney were killed in action. I was on an Air Force Medevac plane back to the States and a six-month stay at Valley Forge Army Hospital.
Whenever I hear the first carol of the Christmas season, my mind goes back to Vietnam. I thank God for my blessed life and family and remember Carney, Schumacher, and the others who sacrificed all. I say a prayer for peace on Earth.