I’m dragging out one of my favorite Christmas stories because even though I’ve told it before, it stays with me.
It goes back 45 years to my tour in Vietnam. The Christmas holiday and the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet, seem to blend into one another, even though they are weeks apart. I was stationed in Quang Tri, the northernmost of all the South Vietnamese provinces.
In fact we were a mere 15 miles from the demilitarized zone, known as the DMZ. I was there from September 1967 to July 1968 – a month-and-a-half off for good behavior, I guess. I was – as we called ourselves – a low-ranking enlisted swine. That was tongue in cheek for the bottom half or so of the enlisted ladder. So I was a Specialist Fifth Class, known more briefly as a Spec 5.
I was on an advisory team, with a few Marine guards and an ARVN – Army of the Republic of Vietnam – stationed nearby. My job was primarily in an office and because I could type – sort of – and had been an editor in high school and college, I was called upon by various officers to check the letters they were writing to their superiors. I developed almost a bond with our province chief, Lt. Col. Joseph Seymoe.
When Christmas rolled around, Lt. Col. Seymoe wanted to have some kind of sing-along after dinner and he asked he asked me if I could lead a few dozen enlisted men in Christmas carols. I explained that I was Jewish and had a terrible voice, so he might want to find someone else.
He asked if I knew the words to a half-dozen carols and when I confessed I did, he said “The job is yours.” It was fun, because the 20 or 30 guys who sang along knew the words and melodies better than I.
Sadly, that part of the story did not have a happy ending. A few weeks later, Lt. Col. Seymoe was hitching a ride on a UH1B chopper to an advisory district bordering the big Marine base at Khe Sanh. He asked me if I wanted to go along, but – fortunately – Bob Brewer, the actual provincial boss, said, “I’ll need Stevenson for some reports.”
You can guess the rest – the chopper was shot down and Lt. Col. Seymoe and others were killed.
It turned out that that action was the beginning of the famous Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese went all out to kill Americans and our allies. I was placed in a relatively safe bunker in the middle of the compound, but mortar fire and gunfire were coming in all around us. We had one serious offensive weapon, known as a “duster.” It was a tank with two anti-aircraft guns on it. Even though it was “intended” as an anti-aircraft gun, it was very effective as an anti-personnel weapon.
There was one Marine, Sgt. Ed McKim, whom I loved for his heroism. He kept the duster supplied with ammunition, running in the open with mortar and machine gun fire all around him to make his resupply trips.
I guess Sgt. McKim, who was my friend and barracks neighbor, made one too many resupply runs, because they finally got him. The next day, units of the 1st Air Cavalry Division came. First F4 Phantoms dropping napalm, then the Hueys carrying men and firing machine guns.
It turns out the First Cavalry killed almost 1,000 North Vietnamese regulars, who had a map of our small compound with them. No question our compound was their target for that coming night. Bless the men of the First Air Cavalry and especially Sgt. McKim.
And Merry Christmas.
Bud Stevenson, a stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]