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A Christmas Past

It was the end of a particularly bad night at Firebase Carole. The first light of dawn illuminated the six body-bags lying in a straight row on the hard bare earth. The fixed bayoneted M-16s were jammed in the ground at the head of each lifeless body with the camouflaged helmets seated on the stocks. Dog tags, draped over the helmets, were clanging in the slight breeze like wind chimes.
Outside the cons tine wire was a pile of bodies in bloody disarray. The expressionless faces were contorted and twisted in death. A Marine private with a clipboard was oblivious to the horror in that heap of flesh as he furiously took notes. The other Marine standing next to him was taking Polaroid pictures of the corpses. It was the war of body counts and the number of dead enemy would be tripled by the time the numbers were reported to the Pentagon. Spotters were kneeling a short distance away, peering towards the tree-.line, with weapons at the ready. .
The firebase had been carved out of the jungle by Seabees. It was strategically located three miles from KCB headquarters in a place called Khe Sanh. It served as the first line of defense. Defoliants had cleared a.kill-zone with a one-hundred-fifty yard circle from the perimeter of the base. Claymore mines were planted and covered to ward off the inevitable assaults that lay ahead.
I was now the NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer in Charge) after our Captain had his head blow off by a sniper. I had been there from the moment the first sandbag was filled and the first hooch was carved into the red clay and dug deep-shelter to ward off the 122mm rockets and motor rounds. There were lengths of steel, used to pave airstrips acquired and cut-to-fit as roof material. They were piled high on top of the dug-out and topped with sand bags. Fifty-caliber machine gun emplacements were mounted like bride and groom statues on the top on a wedding cake.
These were my Marines and morale was particularly low. It was Christmas-eve night
and the base had been under siege for over a week. Bad weather and intense enemy
ground fire had kept air drops or choppers from landing. There was no mail and
Christmas dinner would likely be “C” rations. Until now I had tried to keep spirits up by
making normalcy of military life out of the insanity and death around us.
Formations were held, as usual. Colors were raised at 0800, as usual. Rifle inspections
were scheduled, as usual. Admonishments were given to squad leaders for minor
infraction by his charges, as usual. I wanted them to think I was the meanest and craziest
sergeant since boot camp.
Yesterday I had threatened a court-martial for a Private that was found dead at his post in
the morning. He had a bullet hole between his eyes and a marijuana joint in his dead
hand. The charge was to be destruction of military property. I made each squad leader
take his men to see the corpse as he was found. They needed to fear me and think I was a
little crazy . It was working up to now.
Christmas Eve away from home and family, many for the first time, was another matter.
Now, with no mail, no hot Christmas chow as promised, and another deadly night of
danger ahead, put a gloom and sadness over all. I called my squad leaders together and
to their surprise I started to plan holiday festivities.
My plans started with two bottles of Scotch whisky and three bottles of gin I had
confiscated on my footlocker inspections. I assigned two privates to add gallons of water
to all the Kool- Aid. they could find and mix the alcohol with it in the empty Water
Buffalo (a large tank mounted on a trailer to store water). Next, I assigned one squad
leader to prepare his men to lead the rest of us in singing Christmas carols that evening.
Then, as if a miracle had occurred, other Marines started adding their ideas and
volunteering to participate in the festivities: One Marine was a lay-minister and offered to
read the story of the wise men from the bible. A Private, who was a baker in civilian life,
thought he could make something resembling cookies out of some pancake mix hanging
around. Our machine gunner thought he could decorate by draping belts of ammunition
over the hooch’s.
My plan had worked. The stagnant apathy of another day in country had just become a
buzz of excitement in the camp. A boom-box radio was tuned to the military station
playing Christmas music instead of Mo-Town. In the early afternoon we heard the
familiar eggbeater sound of a Huey helicopter and soon saw it skimming over the tree
line. I became convinced the break in the weather was part of the miracle of this special
Christmas eve.
The Huey hovered over the LZ and the crew immediately began to unload supplies into
arms of the job detail. Within seconds the Huey started drawing small arms fire from the
tree line. The fire was answered with the two fifty caliber machine gun emplacements on
the roof tops of the hooch’s. Tree tops were shattered as the rounds sprayed the area
where the incoming fire had come from. The tracer rounds arched like a flaming fountain
and assured the aim.
The miracle continued when two large mail bags were dumped on the ground with four
cases of good old Budwiser beer as the Huey made its escape to the sky and made one
sweep of the parameter with its machine-gunners laying down a rain of bullets at the
sightless enemy. Cheers emerged from all corners of the camp. It was certainly turning
out to be a special day.
Corporal Wagner, my clerk, wasted no time in holding mail call to those not at their duty
station. Chatter soon turned to silence as each Marine settled down to read their mail and
open the packages with stale home made cookies from Mom, wives.,or girl-friends.
Corporal Wagner asked permission to distribute mail to the Marines on watch as he
handed me a stack of letters. I nodded and pointed at his bare head. He smiled a put his
helmet that he had discarded while sorting the mail. He took off with his half full bag of
“home” for the rest of those on the line.
Camp Carole fire base took on a magical glow as the night shadows covered the base
and the black sky showed a glitter of stars and a bright moon. The jungle sounds of
the night gained intensity. The clear sky probably meant Charlie would not storm
the wire tonight-it would be a silent night-I prayed. The smell of pancake cookies drifted
across the camp and flashlights were hung on a only branch of leafless chared stump that
was onetime a proud eucalyptus. A few hand-grenades were dangling like ornaments.
Some creative Marine had them in neon paint we used to mark LZs” at night to serve as
ornaments.
“That is one ugly tree, Sergeant!” I growled as I refilled my tin cup with the cool aid
junglejuice later in the evening.
“Yep, you got that right Gunny.” The Sergeant replied and added, “Bet we could loose
our stripes for allowing the troops to paint them grenades.”
“You can bet your pension on that Marine!” I said as we laughed so hard we almost cried,
“I think there is something missing on our tree there Sergeant.”
“Oh ya, what’s that?” He asked as he drained his cup.
Without saying anything else I drew my Colt 45 pistol from its holster and ejected the
clip. I then pulled back the chamber slide and a cartridge ejected into my lap. I then laid
aside the empty pistol and the clip on a sandbag. I held the shinny cartridge with in one
hand and walked toward our tree. I looked around and saw all the eyes of the camp upon
me. I asked a young private nearby to cut me a strip of duct tape. In a moment he
approached me with my request. Without hesitation I took the tape and used it to wrap
the shinny cartridge to a twig of our barren bush.
“Marines,” I said. “This isn’t the first time our brothers have celebrated Christmas far
away from home and in harms way. An old Master Sergeant taught me about this symbol
of those that protect and serve. What we have here is a cartridge in a bare tree!
The sound of Christmas carols filled the darkness of the jungle. There was laughter and
there was joy. The night truly sparkled and there seemed to, just for a moment, to be
peace and joy on earth.
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

Downloads: 3127

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