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Christmas In a War Zone: A Local's Memoir

Millions of veterans have a shared Christmas memory they may not treasure but will never forget: the Christmas they spent at war.

Christmas in a war zone—it’s a memory shared by millions of Americans— whether it was in 1944, 1967 or in the past decade. Patch contributor Brian Bland spent Christmas, 1967, in Dau Tieng, South Vietnam, where, as an Army captain, he headed the 25th Infantry Division’s combat photo platoon.

In late October, the heavy rains of the annual monsoon had begun to slack off. Plans were made for a big dry-weather offensive, and we began moving the 25th Division operations base farther north, from Cu Chi—northwest of Saigon— to Dau Tieng. The huge operation included the many vans of the 125th Signal Battalion and my combat photo operation.

By December, we’d done it, and our first Christmas packages from home were arriving. My folks sent a box containing a small artificial tree, decorations and a large picture of Santa to tack onto the sandbags that protected our battalion’s tactical operations bunker. One guy even received a real Christmas tree!

We also got cards and packages from people we’d never heard of, which meant a lot to us. Suddenly, Christmas decorations were everywhere in this most unlikely spot. Some spontaneous caroling was heard from the newly built mess hall where a giant cardboard Santa swung from a rafter. Cards from home were strung together along tents. Tiny bells hanging from cables tinkled in the occasional breeze, or when the ground shook from our artillery fire.

At that time, the enemy rarely made major attacks on larger base camps, but missed no opportunity to lob mortar shells and rockets into them at night. Despite that, and the heat, we were in a proper Christmas spirit, aided by the avalanche of cookies, brownies and fudge arriving from thousands of miles away.

On Christmas Eve, we manned the vital communication vans with skeleton crews, and as many troops as possible gathered for a twilight cookout. Later, about 15 of us crowded into the main communications bunker to sing carols to those manning vans within Dau Tieng and fire bases (artillery sites) scattered through the surrounding area.

We carolers slaughtered the poor partridge in the pear tree and worked over the three kings from the Orient. Surprisingly, demands for encores came back along the two-way lines. We all felt very close—and lonesome, at the same time. Fortunately, we had an otherwise silent, if not holy, night.

Christmas morning, the battalion commander made a visit to our distant signal sites, bringing fresh milk (a rare treat) and eggnog to the teams who’d be eating their Christmas dinner in the field. I went along, and felt like St. Nick himself as our helicopter hopped from site to site, with MERRY XMAS painted on its side.

Returning to Dau Tieng, someone dressed as Santa gave out gift bags in the mess hall, filled with paperbacks, playing cards, razors, etc., a collective gift from Americans via the Red Cross.

Despite the Christmasy look we’d created for our fortress, our long days and tense, dangerous, nights hadn’t allowed much time for reflection, for thinking that back home the leaves had turned and fallen, the air was chill and that there might even be snow.

After our mid-day Christmas dinner, the afternoon in Dau Tieng was long, warm and quiet. Conversations were few. Most of the men who were off-duty just stretched out on their bunks and made short, private, visits back home.

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