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24 December 2019

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Larry Mitchell

COL Lang,

Stories of Christmas in a war zone always capture my attention this time of the year, and I enjoyed your story. I thought you might enjoy this one as it describes a couple SF officers making Christmas 1967 a little better for my leg infantry battalion at Katum near the Cambodian border in War Zone C. I am not Catholic, so I didn't attend the service but I was at Katum as a rifleman with B Co.

A few short weeks later, we did grieve the death of MAJ Roush, the SF officer who was Bn S3 and a man respected by everyone in the batallion.

I'm not sending this necessarily for you to post but for mainly for your enjoyment. Merry Christmas and thank you for your web site.

Larry Mitchell


Christmas in War-Torn Vietnam
Jim Peterman (Green Beret Priest Memoir, 1/04/2002, at website: http://www.greenberetpriest.com/)
On Christmas Eve 1967, throughout the Vietnam countryside, all was quiet and peaceful. Not a bullet had been fired; at least not yet. In the spirit of Christmas the war had been put aside for a day. The Viet Cong (VC), under the control of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and the US military had agreed to a truce. But none of us trusted the VC and they didn't trust us.
Looking out of the helicopter, as we flew high above the jungle, I had a panoramic view of the green countryside below. I couldn't believe a war zone would look so peaceful. This led me to reflect on why I was here. Since I was a priest, a chaplain in the United States Army, the soldiers with whom I'd be celebrating this Christmas would be my parishioners. I was here to bring them God's blessings of peace from that holy night when Mary gave birth to the Savior of the world.
As we whirled above the countryside, I spotted the City of Tay Ninh three thousand feet below and farther away Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain. Tomorrow afternoon I'd be celebrating Christmas mass on top of that mountain. In fact, tomorrow I'd be celebrating masses from dawn to dusk in a dozen different places. The brigade Commander had approved my request that a helicopter be set-aside on Christmas Day to fly the three battalion chaplains and myself to every area where our soldiers were assigned.
These troops out here, near the Cambodian border, sweltering in the heat of the jungle, wouldn't see a single decorated Christmas tree and certainly not the inside of a church. But, if the VC didn't surprise us with an attack, these weary soldiers could at least come together under the open sky to hear the gospel story of Christmas.
When the helicopter began its descent I reached for the mass kit under my seat and prepared to disembark. Phil Zapata, my chaplain's assistant, was not with me. He would go with me tomorrow when we made the rounds, like Santa Claus flying across the sky, bringing the gift of Christmas joy to all the troops.
Lt. Col. John Henchman, who had just taken over command of the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, had requested Christmas Midnight Mass for his men. His troops kept close surveillance on activity along the border of Cambodia where enemy soldiers with their SKS rifles stealthily moved across the border, hiding in the thickets until they could sneak past the American forces. Most of the enemy here were hard-core North Vietnamese soldiers who lived in comfortable safe-havens only a few miles across the border. Cambodia, off limits to American soldiers, was not only a safe-haven for the NVA who trained and fought with the underground VC forces, but was the main supply route for weapons and explosives from Communist China and Russia trucked down through Laos and Cambodia.
Hurrying away from the Huey with head bent down to stay beneath the circling blades I spotted Bill Roush, the executive officer, talking with a group of soldiers.
"Hey, Padre", he said, waving his hand in greeting. Walking toward them, I returned their salutes shouting, "Merry Christmas!"
Among the infantry officers I knew in Vietnam, Major William Wakefield Roush stood out as one of the best. He also was an outstanding Green Beret. Both of us wanted to be with the 5th Special Forces Group in Nha Trang, but higher headquarters had assigned us to the 25th Infantry Division. Both of us had graduated from the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. Both of us had served tours with Special Forces in South Vietnam during earlier days when the role of US forces was limited to being advisors to the South Vietnamese military. Now that President Lyndon Johnson had escalated our involvement to defeat the communist-led North, we found ourselves together in the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. No doubt about it, our mission was totally defensive.
Like defensive linebackers in a football game, the challenge for our troops was to defend the goal line. Saigon, the goal line, was only thirty miles from Cu Chi, where the 25th Infantry Division had set up headquarters. Our military mission was to block the NVA and VC, who were determined to sneak weapons and explosives across the Cambodian border. Bill Roush and I both understood that this war was being fought not for terrain, but for the minds and hearts of the indigenous Vietnamese. We both had many concerns about the complexities of this war; but our main concern always came to looking out for the welfare of the young soldiers whose lives were constantly at risk.
Minutes later, Major Roush and I arrived at the command post. Several soldiers sat at a folding table, monitoring radios to keep headquarters in contact with all units in the area. Radio frequencies were changed regularly to confuse the enemy. They listened in on us. We listened in on them. Code words were used by both sides to shorten and conceal the content of messages. Since the Christmas truce was being respected up to this moment, the radios were quiet. There stood Lieutenant Colonel John Henchman, who smiled when he saw us.
"Merry Christmas, Father," he said. "I overheard the copter pilot on the radio saying he was landing with Victor One Niner on board, so I knew you were here." "Hey, Colonel ... Merry Christmas. You guys sure are on top of things, " I replied. Standing next to my Green Beret buddy wearing my flack vest and steel helmet, the mass kit dangling at the end of the straps slung over my shoulder, I thought to myself: This seems just like any other day around here. The only difference is that the calendar says it's Christmas Eve.
"Come, let's go outside and chat a bit," Colonel Henchman said, giving a nod of his head to Bill Roush to follow. The colonel wanted to discuss how we could handle security for tonight's Midnight Mass.
"My concern is that, if we allow the troops to assemble in a tight group, Charlie could surprise us," the colonel said. (Charlie, a shortened version of Victor Charlie was the call sign on the radio for VC.) "Charlie knows we are here," he continued.
As it turned out, Major Roush had foreseen this problem and discussed it with the colonel earlier that day. Together they had worked out a plan. The troops, spread out in a single file, would walk quietly to a clearing in the jungle that would be secured by three concentric circles of sentries on the perimeter. No lights would be used, except a shielded flashlight that Major Roush would handle. Noise, talking, any unnecessary sounds must be kept to a minimum. "Father, so that you won't have to yell to be heard, we'll let the troops huddle close together around the altar when mass begins," Colonel Henchman explained.
When we had finished our meeting, Bill Roush took me to the area where I'd be spending the night. "Here's an air mattress so you won't have to sleep on the ground," he said. "That's my gear over there."
"Just like the Waldorf Astoria," I said. We both laughed. John Henchman, Bill Roush and the troops spent many nights out here. Tomorrow morning I knew a helicopter would pick me up at dawn and I'd be on my way to much more comfortable and safer places.
"There's a couple of things I've got to do," Bill said. "Why don't I meet you here at 2300 hours and we'll go set up the altar." "OK with me," I said. "All I'll need is a folding field table. Everything else is right here in the mass kit."
Bill Roush headed toward the command post. I went looking for Chaplain CJ Benner, the Protestant chaplain assigned to Lt. Colonel Henchman's battalion. As twilight faded to darkness CJ and I walked together, chatting with the troops, wishing them Merry Christmas. Not a man in that jungle wanted to be there that night. Their thoughts were thousands of miles away back home to where family and loved ones were celebrating Christmas. One of the soldiers I stopped to chat with was looking at a picture of his wife. He was a medic. When I came out here in the forward area without Phil, my assistant he often served mass for me. He responded cheerfully to our Christmas greeting. Then he added, "Father, I'll see you later at Midnight Mass."
Around half past twenty-one hundred hours (9:30 PM), I headed back to our bivouac area to reflect on my Christmas homily. Major Roush showed up at the appointed time. Shortly after midnight, the troops had gathered around a simple altar, in the peacefulness of Christmas, for one of the most special masses I would ever celebrate. The altar candles hardly shed any light because they were in containers to shield them from the wind. I could not see the soldiers in the dark, but I knew they were there. God knew they were there, just as He knew shepherds stood around the infant's crib in the stable at Bethlehem.
My Green Beret buddy, Major Roush, an Episcopalian, held the flashlight and turned the pages of the missal as we offered prayers of adoration and thanks to the God of us all, joining with the angels who sang, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of good will." When everyone had filed up to the altar and received Holy Communion and the mass had ended, I suggested to John Henchman that we all sing a couple of verses of "Silent Night." "OK," the colonel whispered.
Then as the troops filed back to their sleeping bags, with hushed voices they sang, "Silent night, holy night." For a few moments heavenly peace filled the dark jungle. Major Roush and many of the men who served in that battalion didn't know it, but this was to be their last Christmas.
During the Tet offensive, a few weeks later, nearly all the soldiers who participated in that special midnight mass died bravely, defending their position at the border. Bill Roush (*) was shot in the head while reloading his weapon. The young medic was killed by an exploding mortar as he ran across an open area to drag a wounded soldier to cover. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
Memories come flooding back of that special Midnight Mass celebrated in the jungles of war-torn Vietnam with my Green Beret buddy and the brave men he led. In their memory, I celebrate the peace, love and joy of each Christmas as if there might never be another.

Lurch

Do as you see fit Colonel, but I would urge you to continue the tradition. Tradition is important for soldiers. It is an institutional memory, and no man truly dies as long as he is remembered.

Leila

Perhaps I was not reading you yet last Christmas, because this is the first I've seen of the Huron carol and the war at Christmas sketch. Thank you.

Leila

Too rushed - going to Christmas Eve early (children's) service in five minutes.

Should have wished you and all a Merry Christmas from the Left Coast Republic of Berkeley-Oaklandistan. Quasi-socialist peacenik tree-hugging feminist that I am, I hope all of you are blessed with the peace of Jesus Christ tonight and every night to come.

taters

Merry Christmas to all.
Col.Lang,
Lurch speaks for me,too sir.

Larry Mitchell,
Thank you.

505th PIR

Merry Christmas...Peace to all men and women of goodwill.

Nancy Kimberlin

Col. Lang, I want to take this time to thank you for Sic Semper Tyrannis and to wish you a Merry Christmas and may you have health, happiness and peace in 08.

DH

Sir, I hope you will continue to post your sketch every year so that new readers will be able to see it. Merry Christmas to you and all my fellow posters. This site is a treasure.

J.T. Davis

I second DH's wish, Colonel Lang. And Larry Mitchell's comment. I hope you keep posting this story and the Huron Carol every Christmas.

anon

The Huron Carol is a staple of Canadian Christmas ceremony. It reminds us of the hard fact that our country is winterbound at least half the year. Or in the words of another anthem, "Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver".

Fr. Brebeuf died for his beliefs near Midland, Ontario at the hands of his aboriginal flock. There is a large shrine to his memory at the site.

Jim Meade

Ref: Christmas in War-Torn Vietnam http://www.greenberetpriest.com/
Dear Pat, I forwarded the comments to an old friend that was at Tay Ninh & Katum at the time. Here is his reply: Thanks for making me cry, I remember that Christmas well at Katum. Wonder if that Chaplain was the one who came around just after 1800 when the cease fire was to take effect and gave us a T.S. card with one punch. Attached is a picture of Major Roush (hand on hip looking down) taken just before we departed Katum, about 2 or 3 days before he was killed. One hell of an officer he was.

Maureen Lang

Thank you for posting this again this year, Pat. I was hoping you would. I always send a link for it to everyone in my address book.

I've visited the memorial site at St. Marie au pays des Hurons, which includes a replica of the original Huron village/compound. Interesting historical reenactment of the attack on the compound that led to Fr. de Brébeuf's death. There is a reliquary in the nearby church/shrine dedicated to these martyrs in which part of his cleaved skull & that of fellow Jesuit Gabriel Lalemant are enshrined. Morbidly fascinating, that stuff, isn't it? We stared at the relics for a long time, trying to imagine how the event had transpired so long ago.

I'm glad I made that trip ten years ago with your niece & showed her where Mom's people, our ancestors, originally came from.

http://www.saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca/french/index.html

Sidney O. Smith III

I agree with "Lurch" and "taters" from last year. Makes for a great SST tradition so I hope to see it posted again. Merry Christmas to all.

Nancy K

Col. Lang, I wish you are your family a Merry Christmas and A Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year. God bless you and thank you so much for your wisdom and insights and sharing it with us, your readers.

Charles I

Let me get this straight. The Langs are really expat Canadians? Well then,the Huron Carol obviously stays, its part of our Christmas.

Larry, tremendous story, all you soldiers who soldiered through Christmas wherever, that's where the . . . I'm at a loss, where the rubber hits the road. I salute you.

I've been to the Shrine too - its on the way to the cottage. St Marie Among the Hurons is , or was, elementary school stuff. I'm not to fussy on the religious theme per se as much the missionay meeting the Forest, which is Sacred to me.

Maureen, there's a fair bit of Can Lit dealing with the meeting of the white man with the natives and the forest so long ago. I don't find the shrine too morbid, the replica a tad hokey to my mind, but the pristine boreal forest would have had some very spooky elements to its nature. There are some remaining bits here in northern Ontario and New York which have afforded me direct Communion with the Creator on my own controlled and enhanced terms. I can't imagine, all that Can Lit and tourism later, what it must have been like to be confronted by that undeveloped New World and the Natives' interpretations of it.

If I could see it, be in it, I'd a died and gone to Heaven.

Merry Christmas to you all and many prayers for our soldiers serving away from home this day, and the other eleven too.


rick

I'm with Lurch and Taters.(and as i read further, everybody else)

In a time when signs of humanity are so damn rare, I will never tire of seeing that story on this page. Thanks Col. Lang,(for the story and the page in general) and the merriest of merry days to you.

alnval

Col. Lang:

Thank you for the Huron Carol. I was pleased to see it again this year. It adds another strand to my anchor cable.

God Yul

jonst

Thank you Col...for sharing this memory, and for all you do keeping this website unique, vital, and most of all, enjoyable. Happy Holidays to you and family.

Ranti Makinde

Sir, merry Christmas and happy new year to you and your family. Thanks for providing a place where a person can come to learn.

David Habakkuk

Good to see the story and the carol posted again -- as Sidney Smith says, it makes a great tradition. A merry Christmas and happy new year to all.

777guy

I heard "The Huron Carol" performed recently by the Manistee Choral Society. It is surely a good one.

Merry Christmas

another_David

Merry Christmas to All and a Happy New Year.
Col. Lang, many thanks for the story.

DeLudendwarf

Just dropped by to wish you and your wife, Pat, and Maureen, and all of the commenters here a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

This is a special place.

As Tiny Tim said, "God bless us all, everyone".

You all take care.

mike

Lurch has it right, Colonel. I too look forward to hear it next year.

As for the Hurons and their Christmas Carol, it was pretty, but I much prefer our own Cathy Tekakwitha's poem. Born into the Turtle Clan of the Mohawks 40 miles west of Albany New York in 1656. Converted at 18, died at 24, beatified by John Paul II 300 years later. Recognized by the church as the patroness of ecology and the environment and known as the Lily of the Mohawks.

She is memorialized in a magnificent sculptured relief on the main door of Saint Joseph's Cathedral in Manhattan. And her portrait or sculpture is in the majority of Indian churches throughout the country plus many in Canada and some south of the border. Rome needs to get of the dime and finally canonize her.

"Lord of heaven
I love you so
I've known you since I was eleven.
Your love reaches high and low.
You are my Savior, Lord
How I dearly love you
For you I would take a sword.
You are with me, through and through
"

(Second to last line obviously added by an over-the-top Jesuit at some time after her death)

Cold War Zoomie

Merry Christmas everyone.

Col Lang, how'd the hooch turn out? Tasty? Flammable?

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