"The war went on in the central highlands. At Christmas time I decided to hold a detachment Christmas party. I mentioned this to the battalion commander of 3/525, MI Group, LTC Paul Langford during a visit by Langford to Song Be. As we discussed this, a five gallon water jug of home made “hootch” bubbled happily in a corner of my office under the beneficent warmth of an electric light. Pineapple juice, brewer’s yeast and a daily “feeding” of sugar were creating something within that obviously was alive. The application of sugar invariably produced a tempest in the bottle. The men began to think of it as a pet.
Langford ignored the bottle. “Are you going to leave someone to man each station?” he asked. “That’s all right then,” he said when assured. “Let’s not tell Group. They already think you and I are nuts.” I bought cases of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge and other goodies in Saigon, and on the appointed day mysterious personages began to arrive from all over the Border on Air America’s scheduled service. All in all, there were about twenty party goers. The province senior advisor, LTC Ray Suarez and the local CIA boss attended. There was much singing of Christmas carols, as well as a ham, a turkey and such cooked by the kitchen in the Special Forces "B" camp in town. The bald headed, middle aged light weapons man in the team was also mess sergeant. He had been a feldwebel in the Grossdeutschland and later an adjutant-chef in the 2nd REI. Like most of the men in that B Team he felt sorry for me in my exile from SF. He and several others from the B Team were at the party.
The guests sang the "Huron Carol" (in English) to humor me.
“For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames. For a child is born to us, a son is given...”
Isaiah, 9:1-3, 5-6
At midnight, celebration was interrupted by the sound of machine gun fire in the distance. The revelers trooped outside to see if they were going to have to fight on Christmas Eve. There were hard words concerning the ancestry of the enemy. Across the wire, across the outpost line, across the valley of no-man’s land were the crests occupied habitually by the “opposition.” From these heights there rose a stream of green, Soviet made “tracer.” The celebrants contemplated this for a minute, and then Suarez suggested a reply. An M-60 machine gun emerged from the house, and while one man fired red tracer into the air, another held the bipod above his head and another fed the gun its belted ammunition. The streams of bullets crossed in the black, star-studded sky. The VC gun fell silent, as did the American. There was a hush as warriors waited for some sign that the hope of common humanity yet lived. The VC fire resumed. Now there were three guns shooting green stars into the blackness. The MI men’s gun chattered merrily, spilling a river of shell casings into the street. Red and green filled the night. "
Every Christmas I post this excerpt from an autobiographical sketch I wrote once. This incident is reminiscent of the legendary football game in no man's land in 1914. The men at the party were of the Third Combat Battalion, 525th Military Intelligence Group, MACV CORDS Advisory Team 94, the CIA and the 5th Special Forces Group. The place was Song Be, Phuoc Long Province. It was 1968.
There is a statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. On the pediment is inscribed, "Love makes memory eternal."
The party-goers are long gone. Some never saw another Christmas. Some died a couple of months later when the men across the way nearly took the town.
They tried for what seemed an eternity but was actually less than a week. We killed six hundred of them in repelling their valiant effort. Some died around my house and in the street in front of my gate. We buried four hundred bodies found in front of and in our (US and Vietnamese) positions. The Second Brigade of the First Cavalry Division was ordered into the fight halfway through the battle. Without them the VC would have killed or captured us all. PW survivors told us how many the enemy lost. They were of the 211th, 212th and 165th VC battalions under VC Military Region 10. By that time these units were mostly North Vietnamese in their manning. They were "foemen worthy of our steel."
"Near-complete surprise was achieved by a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance. The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions, which grounded the Allies' overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive around Elsenborn Ridgeand in the south around Bastogne blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This and terrain that favored the defenders threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops. Improved weather conditions permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line." wiki
Long ago and far away I served with a man named Bill Harris. This was in Turkey in a big NATO headquarters. Harris was a full colonel and a WW2 paratrooper. I was a very young major just back from Vietnam.
Bill was from Missouri, had attended the University of Missouri and had left that institution in the mid-30s when he ran out of money. He joined the pre-WW2 US Army and had reached the rank of sergeant before the Japanese attacked the fleet at Pearl Harbor.
He spent a few months improving the training of National Guard troops as they mobilized for war and then was sent to the Infantry Officer Candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia. To his surprise he was assigned to the emerging paratroop force at graduation. He served with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division throughout the war in Europe.
Bill jumped into; Sicily and Salerno in Italy, Normandy and Holland with the 505th Regiment. He was the only man I ever saw who had four stars embedded in his parachute badge, one for each of his combat jumps. At the end of the Market Garden operation in Holland the 82nd Division was pulled back to a rest and training area outside Paris. There, the division built itself a camp and settled down to wait for spring and an anticipated jump across the Rhine. By that time, Bill Harris was a major and the chief operations staff officer (S-3) of the 505th.
Christmas approached and the division prepared to party. Officers' Class A uniforms were brought over from storage in England so that they would look resplendent for an anticipated grand Christmas gala to be held a few days before the holiday. The front was far to the east and the intelligence people thought the Germans would be inactive for a while, certainly long enough for the 82nd to celebrate. The division's engineers built an amphitheater made of canvas and wood in which to hold the officers' party. The structure had concentric circular platforms on which tables for four were placed at higher and higher levels as one moved away from the center. In the very center of the big tent was a dance floor. The division's band combined forces with part of the Air Corps' Glenn Miller Orchestra to provide music. "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "American Patrol" sounded through the wintry night for the party. Women and booze were pre-requisites for such an event. Paris was an easy source for the liquor. Army nurses, Red Cross girls and French women from the city were invited and eagerly accepted.
The seemingly endless time of cold darkness crept past in a succession of grey days and long nights.
In its camps, the Army of Northern Virginia once again experienced the religious fervor that came to them when they were not busy. At such times, men of all faiths sought solace in prayer and gathered in revival meetings where many found the inner peace that war denied them.
Families came to the winter camps to spend the season with their men. Most boarded with local families. Bearded warriors held in their arms for the first time tiny folk who had not yet been seen. The children brought joy to them all, but in the evenings the soldiers brooded over their families, their thoughts unreadable in the light of the fireplaces.
Amateur theatrical productions were a natural gift of this army, something so familiar from home that the men expected them. Wooden theaters sprang up in the snow and frost caked mud. These were crude structures of field sawn boards, each with its glowing pot bellied iron stove. The programs were filled with familiar plays, but some of them were only a year or so old in London or New York. One of these was entitled "Our American Cousin."
Balthazar was fond of the theater. At school in England he had been prominent in Christmas pantomime and Shakespeare alike. Now, he did all a commander properly could to interest his men in this activity, thinking it a healthy diversion from the boredom of the winter. The Stephen Foster songs he had heard in Richmond appeared on the boards as renditions by his battalion chorus. Soldiers' singing groups were a tradition in the French Army. He followed the custom in America. The foreigners in the battalion made up the backbone of the soloists and Joseph White played the piano to accompany. His skill was yet another of Clotilde Devereux's gifts to the Whites. Balthazar played the role of Falstaff in a Second Corps' officers’ production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." His English accent and baritone were praised around sentry fires for weeks after the play's run.
“He’s a plasterer,” we used to joke, “unless he’s plastered.” The subject of our youthful mirth was a guy named “Joe.” I’m not sure I ever knew his other name. Some called him “wino Joe.” He was a fixture in the area around our little town. He had a two-wheeled wagon, a tall thing that we often saw mounded up with bottles. Joe scoured the highways for empty bottles. The two-cent deposits added up, he said, and often enough for his needs, I guess, he was able to buy a bottle of wine with the proceeds.
I think the stuff might have been called “Golden Pheasant.” It came in flat-sided pint bottles, and I recall seeing Joe hold a full one up to the rising sun one morning. “Breakfast,” he said appreciatively.
There were times, however, when the supply of empty pop bottles was simply insufficient. In those times Joe fell back on plastering. My dad said he was an artisan. I never knew exactly what he meant, but one night late Joe came to do a job and he was so drunk my dad had to hold him on the ladder. The house didn’t have sheetrock then, but rather real plaster with thin, hand-hewn strips of lath behind the uneven, discolored plaster. Sometimes when big chunks fell off we were able to extract long strips of yellowed newsprint with dates from the early 1870s.
When Joe finished the job my dad took out a ten-dollar bill and Joe said, “Nope. That is the ten-dollar bill you loaned me last week. I’m payin’ you back.” My dad shrugged and folded the bill into his pocket.
The next morning Joe was back. He had a sheepish look and he said, “I’d kinda like to look at the job I did last night, I might have had a skinful.”
My dad ushered him inside and they checked the work. I stood in the back of the room and watched. Joe finally turned around, He had an embarrassed smile, “Yeh, that don’t look half bad. Yuh know that ten-dollar bill? I wonder if I could borrow that again?”
It was snowing heavily in Alexandria, Virginia when I first wrote. The moment reminded me of the time in the '80s when I was in Jerusalem and Amman on government business at Christmas time. It had snowed heavily there as well, an unusual but not unknown event. People were trying to cope with the white, slippery stuff. In Amman I was staying at a very modern hotel with a large circular atrium that went way up into the distant heights surrounded by the balconies that led to bedrooms. The coffee shop was tiered around the well of the atrium. I think the hotel was the Marriott. I arrived at night. In the morning I went down to the lobby to meet the Jordanian Army driver who was to take me to army headquarters. An enormous, decorated Christmas tree filled the atrium. It must have been fifty feet tall. It looked a lot like the tree in the picture. After looking at it for a bit I went to the Qiyada. Among the people I met with there was His Highness, Field Marshal Zeid bin Shaker, Commander in Chief of the Jordanian Army (al-jaysh al-'arabi). When we had finished our business, I told him what I had seen in the hotel. He said he must see it. We got into his car and drove back to the hotel so that he could.
The hotel had covered the tree with star shaped ornaments each inscribed with the name of one of its staff. There were stars with names of all kinds. There were; Marys, Gunters, Muhammads, Seans, Josephs, Ahmads, 'Issas, Pierres, Ivans, Abdullahs, Muhsins, etc. There were hundreds of names.
The prince and I sat at the foot of the tree, drank coffee and chatted. He sent for the manager of the hotel to tell him what a good idea the tree was. His bedouin soldier driver sat a couple of tables away staring at the tree.
Zeid bin Shaker was one of nature's noblemen. He was also an 'Alid, a descendent of the Prophet, a Hashemite cousin of King Hussein, and a Muslim gentleman.
On this day in 1776, General Washington led his cold, ill fed and ill equipped army across the Delaware River to attack and decisively defeat the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. It was a morning of bloody footprints in the snow and supreme audacity.
My son captioned the image above after we joked about the idea. Some may find this inappropriate black humor, but we like it. There are a number of inaccuracies. The Hessians were not sleeping off a night of holiday merriment. They were stone cold sober. Washington crossed the Delaware in the dead of the night, not in the light of dawn. That particular flag was not created until six months after the battle. Nevertheless, I like it. It stands for the Army that I remember and love. The Army of the FIDO attitude. (Look it up if you don't understand.) This is the Army that Churchill aptly described when he said, "We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us."
Okay. I couldn't resist. It's been bouncing around my head since I set up the nativity this year. Besides, my younger son works for the ad agency that handles Gieco. He's pretty much responsible for their dancing caveman ads. It runs in the family.
I fervantly hope this brings a smile to all. I wish Colonel Lang, his family and the entire SST committee of correspondence a Merry Christmas and the peace and joy of the season.
Pastor Nazir Alam smiles as he
talks to a journalist at the church
This Christmas, pastor Nazir Alam will stoke up a fire, lay a fresh
cloth on the altar and welcome parishioners as they arrive at his church in
Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal area known as an al-Qaeda haven.
"The lights are all up, and the choir boys
are ready. The church is looking its best," said 60-year-old Alam, a former
missionary who has celebrated his last ten Christmases there. "There's not much
left to do but to pray and rejoice."
Outsiders might see little cause for joy.
Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities, says
London-based watchdog Minority Rights Group International. Christians, Shiite
Muslims and Ahmadis are victims of a rising tide of deadly attacks.
But Alam's church, and the homes of most
of his 200 parishioners, are nestled inside a Pakistani army base in South
Waziristan, a mountainous region that was a hotbed of militancy until a military
offensive in 2009.
"When the US went into Kabul, things
became bad for everyone. But we are safe here. The army protects us," says Shaan
Masih, who helps clean the church and likes to play the drums and sing carols.
"Wartime Christmas" by Paul E. Akers, Free Lance-Star opinion page editor, Fredericksburg, Virginia
Christmas is a time, the songs say, when hearts long for home. It is so during peacetime; how much more it must be for soldiers far away from their loved ones and all the comforts of hearth and home. Often, poignant letters open windows into their hearts. One hundred forty-nine years ago, a young man from South Carolina named Tally Simpson penned these words:
Camp near Fred'burg, Dec 25th, 1862, My dear Sister
This is Christmas Day. The sun shines feebly through a thin cloud, the air is mild and pleasant, [and] a gentle breeze is making music through the leaves of at the lofty pines that stand near our bivouac. All is quiet and still, and that very stillness recalls some sad and painful thoughts…. Will another Christmas roll around and find us all wintering in in camp? Oh! That peace may be restored to our young, but dearly beloved country and that we may all meet again in happiness.
I have often read of sacked and pillaged towns in ancient history, but never, till I saw Fredericksburg, did I fully realize what one was. The houses, especially those on the river, are riddled with shell and ball. The stores have been broken open and deprived of every thing that was worth a shilling…. Such a wreck and ruin I never wish to see again…. Yet notwithstanding all this, the few citizens who are now in town seem to be cheerful and perfectly resigned. Such true patriots are seldom found. This will ever be a noted place in history.
Tally Simpson was killed at the battle of Chickamauga in 1863; his descendent Edward W. Simpson Jr. found his letters along with those of his brother, Dick, in an old chest and transcribed them. They're published in a book aptly titled "Far, Far From Home," edited by Guy R. Everson and Edward W. Simpson Jr. (Oxford University Press). How grateful we are for the record of their thoughts--and for the sacrifice of all soldiers who have spent their Christmases far, far, from home.
This editorial, along with the Thomas Nast illustration, appeared in my local paper. I wanted to share it with the SST committee. Merry Christmas to all and may this season's spirit of peace inspire us all to be better men and women.