Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I and thousands of other American service members lived in a semi-tropical land known as Viet Nam.
It wasn’t my idea, but somehow America had become involved in a complicated nationwide family feud that erupted after the Vietnamese people kicked the French out. Add that to the Communists, the Cold War and, well, if you grew up in the ’60s, you know the story.
I was assigned to a Marine artillery battalion known as the Fourth Battalion, Twelfth Marines. Our job was to support the infantry units that patrolled the area looking for assorted Viet Cong or North Vietnamese army units. We had a lot of firepower – 18 very big cannons and, naturally, we were placed on the edge of the vast Marine base called Phu Bai (Foo-Bye). It was located south of the old Imperial capital, Hue.
Infantry units, like the one led by Southport Island resident Jim Singer, spent most of their time in the field and slept in the open bush. Artillery units, like mine, lived in dry, fixed quarters called hooches, sort of open bunkhouses made of plywood, 2 x 4’s, with galvanized steel roofs.
It was Christmas 1967 and a time of quiet. Little did we know that the North Vietnamese army planned to hammer Hue and the rest of the country on Jan. 31, 1968, in what became known as the Tet Offensive.
One of the privates in our unit was a slim blond Pennsylvania youngster who was very quiet. He had been “in-country” for almost a year and had turned down a chance to go for a week on “R & R” (vacation) in Bangkok, Thailand, Penang, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or some other exotic place. No, not for me, he would say, explaining he had married his high school sweetheart before he shipped out.
In the fall, a couple of weeks before Halloween, he asked me for a favor. I had just made sergeant, and he thought that new rank gave me a lot of pull with the unit’s administrative staff. As a matter of fact, it did, as the battalion’s chief clerk was a pal, who owed me about $50.
“I would love to spend Christmas in Hawaii,” said the blond Pennsylvania Marine. Could you fix it for me? I have saved enough money to fly my wife from Philadelphia to Honolulu. If you could get me “R & R” to Hawaii, I could meet her there. Please, Sarge,” he said.
Who could say no to a request like that? It just so happened there was an opening for someone from our unit to go to Hawaii. I asked the battalion’s chief clerk to help my guy, and he put in the fix.
For the next two months, when the rest of the unit knocked off work for supper and stopped for a beer afterward, the blond Marine was either writing letters or reading the ones he got that day. His family even sent him a large package of civilian clothing for his Hawaii vacation.
As the Christmas season neared, he got more and more nervous, worrying that something would interfere with his trip. But nothing did, and on the appointed day, I drove him to the airport, and he boarded an elderly Marine Corps C-47 transport plane, flew to Da Nang, and then on to paradise.
A day or so later, I noticed the other guys in our little unit became quiet when I was nearby. I asked what was going on and received the usual reply: “Nothing, Sergeant.”
After about a week, I asked one of the group if he knew what his buddy planned to do in Honolulu with his new wife.
“He ain’t in Honolulu, Sergeant. He went to Philadelphia,” he said and urged me not to tell anyone he spilled the beans.
It seemed our Pennsylvania Marine got off the plane in Honolulu, changed clothes in the airport, bought a ticket to Philadelphia and flew home for Christmas. He spent three days in Philly, then flew back to Honolulu, changed clothes again and flew back to Vietnam.
When he got back to Phu Bai, I asked him if he had a good time in Honolulu. He stammered for a moment as his face got red. Then he admitted he had gone home.
“Did you have a good time?” I asked, and he broke out in a wide smile, which quickly turned into a frown.
“I know I shouldn’t have done it, Sergeant. What are you going to do?”
I thought about it for a moment then smiled.
“I am going to wish you Merry Christmas. And, by the way, never do that again.”