Christmas: A time for remembering
Like Charles Dickens’ “the Ghost of Christmas Past,” the memory of a particular Christmas in Vietnam haunts me to the degree I’m compelled to write about it once again. The place was Fire Support Base “IKE,” about ten miles south of a downward dip in the Cambodian border called: “the fishhook.” The time was Christmas Eve, 1969. My request to rejoin the 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment had just been approved.
While lugging my rucksack from the shell-pocked helipad toward the battalion headquarters bunker, a line from the King James Version of the 23d Psalm came to mind, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
There was no shortage of bravery. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had attacked IKE so many times that seeing a sign that read: “FSB IKE, The Fire Base Too Tough to Die,” came as no surprise.
Shortly, one of the finest men I have ever known met me: Lt. Colonel John R. Witherell. In the failing light, the battalion commander and I walked the inner perimeter together, pausing at each firing position to exchange Christmas greetings with each trooper. IKE’s location was no secret to the North Vietnamese, so small warming/cooking fires were permitted. Some of the troops were reading the Bible. As we moved along, a refrain sounded in my head, “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.”
Some of the sand-filled ammo boxes surrounding the firing positions were decorated with the Cross and with the symbols of Christ’s birth. “They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps.”
Our tour finished, Colonel Witherell introduced me to “Red,” our intelligence officer and to Doug, our artillery liaison officer. We descended into the sand-bagged and timbered bunker where I would lodge with Colonel Witherell, Red, and Doug until February, 1970, when we closed IKE in preparation for the battalion’s eventual move into Cambodia. As we huddled together around a candle, the battalion commander led us in prayer. A cappella, we sang some Christmas hymns. Our four radio operators, with whom we shared the command bunker, joined in.
Colonel Witherell, Red, Doug and I spent an hour or so getting acquainted. We recited where we were from, previous places of service. We spoke of those back home. I thought especially of my son, John, and others whom I might not see again. I recalled singing: “Oh, Danny Boy,” to John, only I had changed the lyrics to “Oh, Johnny Boy.” One of the verses came to me: “And if you come, when all the flowers are dying and I am dead, as dead I well may be, you’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and pray and say an ‘Ave’ there for me. And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me, and all my dreams will warm and sweeter be…”
Sometimes, if an Army Chaplain choppered in with a field organ, we would request Kipling’s “Recessional.” “God of our fathers, known of old – Lord of our far-flung battle line beneath whose awful hand we hold dominion over palm and pine. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget – lest we forget.” We were long on palms, but short on pines.
This Christmas, as the winter sun dies in Iraq or Afghanistan or South Korea or whatever our far-flung troops happen to be, imagine, if you will, the sound of a lonely and far-off bugler playing the haunting notes for: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the sky. All is well, safely rest; God is nigh.” During this Christmas season, let us not forget them.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, a retired infantry officer, served two years in Vietnam and Cambodia with the 1st Air Cavalry Division as an infantry company commander, a battalion operations officer, and as the division’s G-3 operations officer.
©2010. William Hamilton.