|THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER
In November of 1969, I decided to extend my tour in Viet Nam for another six months. I did a lot of thinking on the subject before actually doing it. I came up with three reasons why I should.
One, I didn’t think that after having been through what we had been through I could play soldier in the states for the next year and a half. Two, I hoped by my staying it would keep a man with a family from being sent to Vietnam. Three, If I planed it right, I could be home for Christmas. It wasn’t until I received my orders for my next duty station that I made up my mind. I really didn’t want to go back to Fort Sill, and I did want to be home for Christmas. At this point, I went and signed the paperwork that would allow me the opportunity to be home for the holidays – I extended my tour of duty in Vietnam.
A week or so later after I got my new orders, I was to report to 90th Replacement on December 21st to start my trip home. On the nineteenth, I and E-5 Armsted, who was also extending, went to the terminal at Quan Loi to catch a flight to Ben Hoa. We waited for several hours, but there was nothing going that way. Finally at about 2:00 there was a Huey helicopter making a laundry run that we could catch a ride on. In the eleven months I had been in country I had never ridden in a chopper. I had been on C-130’s and Beavers, even Caribous, but no choppers.
We got to Ben Hoa, then walked about half the way to Service Battery when someone finally gave us a ride. Once there we had a good hot meal, a good hot shower, and a good night’s sleep. The next day we started getting our paperwork in order, ready to head for home. Armsted was going to Korea where his wife was, so he headed for Saigon and Ton Son Nhut. I was able to talk the guy in supply into giving me a new set of fatigues and a new pair of boots to take home with me and then I was ready to head out.
December 21 I got up early and had a good breakfast before heading out. They provided me with a ride to 90th Replacement Battalion, and as the driver let me off, he wished me luck and happy holidays. I walked to the gate, and showed the guard my orders. He gave me directions where to go to sign in. I followed his instructions, and after signing in was told where I could grab a bunk. I thought, “Why would I need a bunk?” I was told to be here later so I could leave today.
I soon found out there were guys that had been at 90th for several days, and they were ahead of me on the list to leave. As I settled onto my bunk, I saw Mike Clements. He and I got to HHB 6/27th Artillery about the same time; however, he was transferred to “F” battery after about four months into his tour. He said he had gotten in the day before, and explained how it worked here.
He took me to where they would gather for the manifest readings and noticed a sign stating the next reading would be in about two hours. This gave us a little time to catch up on how each other was doing. We visited for a while, and then we just sort of walked around getting used to the new environment.
I went to the next “gathering” and listened as they read off the names of the lucky individuals. With each name came a loud response from that person making sure they knew he was there. As I looked over the people standing around, I noticed a guy I had gone through AIT with. After all the names for that flight were called out, I walked over to Steve and asked how things were with him. I could see he was with the 25th Infantry Division and was sporting sergeant stripes on his collar. I asked if he had been in contact with anyone we had gone through training with.
I asked how long he had been a sergeant. He looked at me and said, ” I’m Not.” This sort of confused me, but soon he explained that he was wearing them to get into the NCO Club and so he could get hard liquor. That sounded like a good idea to me so I went to the PX and got some sergeant’s stripes for myself and joined him. We went in, and I ordered a Screwdriver.
Steve looked at me and said, “I see you still haven’t learned to drink.” With that he downed a shot of “Jack Daniels”. Not to be out done, I downed a shot myself. Not long after, things got pretty fuzzy, but I’m sure we had a good time. That was the last I saw of him, as he left on the next flight.
December 22nd was spent mostly going to the “gatherings” and listening as others were called to go home. I did make a few new friends while sitting around. I recall one we called “Rabbi”. I’m not sure why, other than he was Jewish. I think we had about three “gatherings” that day, and I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to make it home for Christmas after all.
December 23rd started off just like the previous day. Go to a “gathering“ and wait around the rest of the time. On the second “gathering” Mike Clements’ name was called. He and I said our good-bys, and before long he was gone. We had heard there would be no more “gatherings” that day, and everyone was a little disappointed. I figured maybe tomorrow I would get out. Then around 7:00 they had another “gathering”. I definitely had my fingers crossed on this one. They had called out about 100 names, when I heard “E-4 Mallory”. It caught me a little by surprise, and I yelled out “HEAR! I’M HEAR!”. Now I knew I have a chance to make it home before Christmas Day. I ran to where I had been bunking, grabbed my stuff, and headed for the flight waiting area.
It was getting to be about nine or ten o-clock. We are herded into a building to keep us separate from the rest of those waiting to go home. Here we put our bags out, and showed anything we had to declare. The flight inspectors went around to make sure no one had any contraband items, and checked our shot cards to be sure they were up to date. All this was taking a long time and we were getting tired, but no one was able to sleep.
December 24th. I was starting to drag by now, and the lack of sleep was making everyone a little giddy. We started screwing with each other, and acting a little stupid. Finally they had us get on those dumb green buses with the bars on the windows and we soon headed for Ben Hoa to catch our flight home.
As we sat in the terminal, I looked around and remembered what it was like only eleven months earlier. There had been a lot of changes here, like now there were seats for us to sit in while we waited. The terminal had been enclosed rather than wide open, and the place was all lit up inside.
As we sat there waiting, we all heard it at the same time - Our Freedom Bird was landing. A cheer broke out at the sound, for now we knew it was only a short time to wait. The plane landed and taxied to the terminal. My excitement grew, for not only am I going home, but today is my birthday. Twenty years old, and leaving the war behind. Yes, I had to come back, but for the next month I would not have to think about it.
After the plane was off loaded and refueled, we started boarding. By now it was getting to be daylight, and I could see just how beautiful the plane really looked as I climbed the stairs to the cabin. Once inside I grabbed a window seat and sat back, making myself as comfortable as possible. After a while I hear the door close and the engine started to whine. We started to move and everyone got very quiet. I watched as we taxied down the runway and soon we started to climb, leaving the ground behind. Still the plane was quiet, like every one was expecting something to happen. As we continued to climb, the Captain came on over the loud speaker and announced, “We have just left Vietnam air space.” At that announcement, every one started to cheer, whistle, and clap. We were actually away from that place. Now I could relax and get some sleep.
Our first stop was Japan for refueling. We had been there about half an hour when over the P. A. they called for several guys to come to the counter. I was within earshot of the counter, and discovered these poor guys were being bumped to allow room for someone else. Needless to say they were not happy about it. In fact, one guy started screaming at the person behind the counter, and they had to call the MPs to get him calmed down. I just kept thinking, “Please don’t call my name to be bumped.” I couldn’t wait to get back on the plane, and back in the air where I could feel safe again.
Our next stop was Alaska for another refueling. When we left Ben Hoa the temperature was around 85 degrees. Now we were landing on a runway that had snow and ice on it. When we came to a stop at the terminal everyone ran to get inside and keep from freezing. WOW, what a change. After leaving Alaska, we were on our last leg of the journey home. This would take us over Canada to Fort Dix, NJ. We landed there and were finally home, at least the military part of the trip.
At Ft. Dix, we were greeted with having our orders cut, and were given a set of dress greens and a shower. With new dress greens on I went to be processed. There I was given my orders and a round-trip ticket to St. Louis from Philly. I didn’t think about it at the time, but those people had given up their Christmas Eve so we could get home. I would like to offer a belated thanks to them for that now.
A couple other guys and I grabbed a limo from Ft. Dix to the Philadelphia Airport and when we arrived we went to our different gates. I found what gate I was to leave from, and saw it was going to be about five hours before the plane would leave. Nothing to do now except call home and tell them what time my plane would get in.
December 25th. Well, here it was, Christmas Day. My flight left Philly at around 5 a.m. and landed in St. Louis at about 6:30 or so. As I looked around the plane, there were only a few people on board. Then I realized it was Christmas. My parents lived about 45 minutes from St. Louis and would probably be waiting for me when we landed. The plane landed, I walked into the terminal and to the baggage claim area. As I was waiting for my bag, I looked around. Then, I saw a site I will never forget, my Mom running through the deserted terminal towards me with my Dad close behind. Seeing how happy they were made it worth the extra six months I would be spending back in “ The Nam .“ As for then, it was good to be home.
Every Christmas I think about that year, it helps to put everything in proper prospective. My Mom is no longer with us, but I will always have the memory of seeing her run through that baggage claim area to see and hug her only son. It was the best Christmas ever.
HHB, 6/27th Artillery
(Click Photos to Enlarge) All Photos by Roger Mallory