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reached the mess hall, the cooks were still there, preparing
for Christmas Day. The mess sergeant replied: "Do you
have a truck with you? We have a surplus of food because so
many guys went home early." One pilot went to get the
maintenance truck while the rest of us checked dates on cans
and cartons of food. Then we drove to the infantry mess hall
where we accepted four cases of freeze-dried foods. The medic
at the dispensary gave us bandages and dressings.
down the pile of booty in the Huey. After returning the truck,
the four pilots walked together back to our hooch. One looked
at his watch and said, "Hey guys! It's midnight. Merry
clock startled me out of a deep sleep. A check with my wristwatch
verified the time, but something was wrong. There was no shouting,
no rumble of trucks, no roar of propellers and rotors. Mornings
were usually bustling with the sounds of men and machines
preparing for the daily business of war, but today there were
no such sounds. I thought to myself, "Is this what peace
In the shower
building, Mike and I talked about what our families would
be doing today on the other side of the world. As all short
timers do, I reminded Mike that in just two weeks I would
be going home, my year in Vietnam over. My wife promised me
another Christmas celebration, with decorated tree and wrapped
presents. I would be also be meeting another Mike for the
first time, my son, now only a few months old.
the others went to the flight line while I called for a weather
briefing. When I reached the helicopter, Mike was doing the
preflight inspection and had just climbed up to the top of
the Huey. Together, we checked the main rotor hub and the
"Jesus nut" that holds the rotor on the helicopter.
Everything was fine; we were ready to fly. We took off and
headed for the mountains.
felt good to fly with this crew; we were a finely tuned team.
The rugged and muscular Lee looked every bit like a cowboy
from his hometown in Bascom County, Wyoming; hence his nickname
"Bad Bascom." He was the crew chief of this Huey
and did all the daily maintenance on it; it was his "baby."
With Mike as copilot and Dave as door gunner, we had taken
that helicopter into and out of many difficult situations,
from landing supplies on a windy mountain top to extracting
recon teams from small clearings while taking enemy fire.
The radio call sign of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company
was Polecat; we were Polecat Three Five Six and proud of it.
This day was beginning to feel even better because we were
going to use our combat skills for a mission that seemed so
unrelated to war.
to climb higher than usual in the smooth morning air. As we
left the jungle plains along the coast, the green mountains
of the Central Highlands rose up to meet us. On the plateau,
a thick blanket of fog lay like cotton under a Christmas tree.
It spilled over between the peaks in slow, misty, waterfalls.
In the rising sunlight the mountain tops cast long shadows
on the fog. The beauty and serenity of the scene were dazzling.
Had I noticed this before? I think I had, but today the gorgeous
scenery wasn't a backdrop for the unexpected horror of war.
hall had been quiet. The airfield was quiet. The radios were
quiet. We weren't even chattering on the intercom as we usually
did. Our minds were all with different families, somewhere
back home, thousands of miles away. Everything was quiet and
peaceful. It felt very, very, strange. Was this the first
day of a lasting peace, or just the eye in a hurricane of
As our main
rotor slowed down after we landed at Da Lat, a gray-haired
Lieutenant Colonel walked up to the Huey. "Merry Christmas!
I'm Colonel Beck. We have a busy day planned, my men are spread
out all over this province, and we're going to take mail,
hot turkey, and pumpkin pies to every one of them!" He
handed me a map that had our cross-stitched route already
carefully drawn on it. His distinguished look turned to a
big grin as he added, "Oh would you guys like
to have some Donut Dollies with us today?" Four heads
with flight helmets were eagerly nodding "YES" as
the two young ladies got out of a jeep.
were American Red Cross volunteers, college graduates in their
early twenties. Although no longer distributing donuts like
their namesakes of World War I, they were still in the service
of helping the morale of the troops. At large bases they managed
recreation centers but they also traveled to the smaller units
in the field for short visits. For millions of GIs they represented
the girlfriend, sister, or wife back home. Over the Huey's
intercom, Colonel Beck introduced Sue, with the short, dark,
hair and Ann, a brunette, the taller one.
were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail,
food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women. For the
soldiers who had been living off Vietnamese food and canned
Army rations at lonely, isolated outposts, these touches of
home would be a welcome surprise.
As we approached
the first compound Colonel Beck, by radio, told the men on
the ground that we were going to make it snow. Sue and Ann
sprinkled laundry soap flakes out of the Huey as we flew directly
over a small group of American and Vietnamese soldiers who
must have thought we were crazy. Several of them were rubbing
their eyes as we came back to land. I will never know if it
was emotion or if they just had soap in their eyes.
Americans came over to the Huey as we shut it down. Ann gave
each of them a package from the Red Cross and Sue called out
names to distribute the mail. After about 15 minutes of small
talk, Colonel Beck announced, "We have a lot more stops
to make" and got back into the Huey. The soldiers stood
there silently, staring at us as we started up, hovered, and
then disappeared into the sky.
At the next
outpost, Colonel Beck left us so he could talk privately with
the local officials. The crew and I didn't mind escorting
the Donut Dollies. It was easy to see how happy the soldiers
were to talk with them. I wondered how Sue and Ann were feeling.
Their job was to cheer up other people on what may have been
their own first Christmas away from home; if they were lonely
or sad, they never let it show. Throughout the day, the same
scene was replayed at other small compounds. Some soldiers
talked excitedly to the girls, while others would just stand
quietly and stare, almost in shock to see American women visiting
them out in the boonies.
with the official Macvee work finished, we were above the
hospital at Dam Pao. Mike landed us a few hundred feet from
the main building. Several men and women came out, carrying
folding stretchers. They first showed surprise that we were
not bringing an injured new patient, and then joy when we
showed them the food and medical supplies. Mike opened the
ammo can full of money and said, "Merry Christmas from
the Polecats and Tigersharks of the 192nd Assault Helicopter
Company." One of the women began to cry and then hugged