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Friday, December 26, 2014

A Christmas Eve in Vietnam, Watching

Written by  Bob Baker
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A Christmas Eve in Vietnam, Watching

Editor’s Note: Just hours before going to press with our Christmas issue this week, I received an email from a war veteran and Remnant reader who had served 13 years in the U.S. Army, including Vietnam in 1971 and 72. His name is Bob Baker and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in printing his story of a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass he’d attended in the middle of the Vietnam War. After reading it, I immediately set to work making the necessary layout adjustments needed to feature this beautiful and inspiring story here in our Christmas issue.  Mr. Baker’s account reminds us anew that no matter how many wars tear apart the cities of the world, in the end those that love the Child of Bethlehem will survive so long as we continue to believe and so long as we never lose hope. A merry Christmas to all and a happy and holy New Year to all the friends and allies of The Remnant. Keep the old Faith. MJM

It didn’t do any good to complain and it wasn’t as if there was much else to do. Though I’d been in-country for almost four months, I still had less time there than most, so the job was mine – I had complete charge of our small compound for Christmas Eve, 1971 in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.


Bob Baker, Vietnam
Bob bakerI knew what was going to happen – all of us, so far from home and homesick, everyone would drink a little (!) too much. I also knew if the Viet Cong decided to hit the wire on this night, there would be few who could be counted on to offer any kind of serious resistance. I didn’t think it might happen, but the enemy’s “word” could never be counted on or trusted, even though they had agreed to a 24-hour Christmas cease-fire. I always wondered about this: How does one contact a terrorist organization and agree to something like a cease-fire? How do they, in turn, tell their units across the country, by radio or phone call? Seems very odd, doesn’t it?

I caught the deuce-and-a-half for chow – the MACV and CIA compounds weren’t too far away. If the Viet Cong did, in fact, do something, help would come from MACV, not the CIA. CIA never even responded to communications checks for their own safety. You would never know if they really existed but for their silver Huey helicopter, their Bushmaster aircraft on Da Nang airfield and the locals who would readily tell you where their compound was located, if asked.

After chow, I returned and took over “official” control of our little installation of 4-5 very small buildings - typing the first official entry onto the log sheet.

It was then time to make the rounds. We had two Vietnamese guards – one at the only entryway into the “complex” and one on the roof, next to our water tower. Neither seemed to speak English well, but no one knew for sure. I knew they both had a couple of clips for their M-1 carbines. So between their carbines and my M-16 and a bandolier of ammo, we could probably hold off a regiment or division or so. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell cheap.

It was fairly quiet, though I knew it wouldn’t be long before it was likely to become noisier; the usual game of “combat basketball” had already begun. I just hoped that no one would be seriously hurt – not due for any great humanitarian reason, but because there were no rules in this game. Punching someone jumping to make a shot was normal. The real reason for my concern was if someone was really hurt, then it was paperwork and finding someone to make the trip to the 95th EVAC, across the river, and back. It would be nearly impossible to find someone sober enough to drive a jeep soon.

Virtually every night there was a movie and this night was no exception. Only about half of the guys were in attendance – everyone else was at the meeting/recreation room – a room with a few chairs, tables and a very small bar.

Overhearing talk of home, girlfriends, wives and kids, it didn’t take long to figure out how this night was going to be. This would certainly confirm the expression, “Crying in your beer.” It was time to move on. Moving through the area, I eventually stopped at the roof. Acknowledging my presence, the guard nodded and I did the same. This was always the procedure with both guards – few words were ever mentioned.

The view was at least better than nothing – if you craned your head over one way, you could just make out the water of the bay. A little to the left was the QC (Vietnamese Military Police) compound, which you couldn’t see into. In every other direction were ramshackled houses, made of wood scrounged from who knows where and corrugated tin roofs.

After a few weeks of being in-country, you didn’t notice the mosquitoes and the distinct smells that are Viet Nam. When I first arrived and began exiting the airplane’s stairs to the tarmac, as I reached the plane’s door, the smell made me stop immediately and by the time I reached the pavement, I thought every mosquito in the world had bitten me, bite-upon-bite!

None of this was noticed now, after almost four months, little seemed to change except for the degree of fear at any given time and that usually depended on where you were and what you were doing, but not always. Most times, it was the sound of someone firing a weapon, whether a M-16 or an AK-47. Reaction was immediate if your trained ear determined it was close. If the distance was more than local, you kept note of it, especially if you were headed in that direction. You became wary of everyone but Americans. Even kids were almost feared because of the instances where they were used to deliver grenades and babies were booby trapped. Sometimes it felt like you were always coiled up, ready to spring at a second’s notice for your own safety and the safety of your guys.

This is a sneak peak of the December 31, 2014 print edition of The Remnant.  Also included in this issue are reflections by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Elliot, and John Rao among others.  Don't miss out. Subscribe today!

It was peaceful on the roof. I sat and just looked around and thought of nothing. Odd as it may seem, just “clicking” your brain into neutral can be very beneficial and relaxing. After a few minutes, it was time to go. A quick nod to the guard, slinging my ever-present M-16 behind a shoulder and back down I went. One more stop - our CONEX container, which contained the teletype, all the crypto gear and its army operator. As the CONEX was air-conditioned due to the equipment, you rarely saw whoever was inside unless you had the duty.

A quick knock on the door and a blast of air-conditioned comfort hit you in the face and sent a chill throughout your body. This was really only a courtesy call, so whoever had the duty inside the CONEX would know who had the duty for everything else. A brief exchange of pleasantries and complaints and the door closed once again. Back to where it had all began. The typewriter beckoned: the second entry became, “All posts checked. All secure.” And the time led off the entry in the log.

A quick look at the radio next to the desk to see if the correct frequency was dialed-in and a flip of the switch to make sure it had power and then it was switched off until it was time for the communication (comm) checks in a few hours. I decided to try to read the book I had been trying to get through. I was able to read for a half-hour or so, stopping every now and then to hear a somewhat louder bunch of guys as darkness fell, halting the basketball game. This small group made its way to the movie or the bar, adding a perceptible change in the overall volume.

All of this generally repeated itself over the next few hours, changed only by the movie ending and almost everyone now in the bar. I discovered in making a later, hourly round that the bar area was jammed, as I tactfully declined a drink from many of the guys.

Completing my rounds, I returned to my office, typed in the log, checked the radio and was about to re-start my book when one of the guys poked his head in and asked if I intended to go to Midnight Mass. I explained that I had the duty, but he replied that, if I was interested, he’d find someone to fill in for an hour or so. I said sure, but it can’t be a drunk though. He understood. There was about an hour and a half before it would be time to go, enough for a quick round in an hour. Varying times was standard procedure anyway.

I then made a comm check. Having had the duty a few times before, I knew what was going to happened – nothing. Trying to contact our headquarters in Saigon and the CIA compound down the street had always been unsuccessful for everyone.

About 20 minutes before Mass was to begin, my friend returned and had the First Sergeant in tow. My surprise was obvious, as the top kick told me to return ASAP.

We jumped in the jeep, both of us armed with our M-16s, waited for the compound gate guard to open things up and then I flew down the road as fast as I could. As it was almost midnight and we were virtually alone on the street, we stuck out like a sore thumb as a target for anyone. (The first time I was fired on was driving a jeep after being in-country for three days – by now Parnelli Jones and Jackie Stewart had nothing on me.)

Arriving at the MACV compound and surprising the guard, who obviously wasn’t expecting visitors, we were let in. A quick right and the small, little chapel was in front of us. There was a rifle rack for weapons just before you entered and a bunch of plastic rosaries just inside the entryway.

The High Mass started exactly on-time – Latin hadn’t yet surrendered to English.

The chapel, being small, captured the incense and retained it as almost a fog that lingered in the air. The words majestic, their emphasis succinct and clear. Both of the soldier altar servers seemed to be as one with each other and the priest, the responses and every note of music. It was awe-inspiring and one I shall never forget.

The time seemed to slip by and then it was done. Not over, just done for it remained vividly imprinted in memory and in what was soon to come. Returning in the same way and in the same manner in which we had come, the top kick seemed irked and before he could speak, I gave him my thanks for allowing us to attend High Mass. At this, there was a softening in his expression and a look of understanding, to which he merely wished us Merry Christmas and moved off to his rack. I suspected he was probably Catholic, which I later found out to be true.

My friend bade me goodnight and I did the same, adding my appreciation to his having set up a replacement to be able to go the Mass. Looking at the log, there was nothing entered, so I walked my rounds once again.

Things were still rowdy, but not as much as I thought it might be. I suspected the first sergeant had laid down a few “suggestions” to the rowdier ones. There was no one who could have passed a breathalyzer test and it was obvious something had to be done, so I turned away and yelled “Last call” in the best first sergeant voice I could.

It seemed to work as the majority seemed headed for the door. It looked like my job would be easy – after most went staggering away and a few stopping to be sick, there only remained a handful of older soldiers who waved to me as if to say they’d be leaving soon.

Waving back, I had to help a few guys into their racks and the snoring could already be heard. It would soon become outrageously loud. It couldn’t be helped – they‘d all have a huge headache in the morning.

I continued to make what had become a long walk around. I had heard some weapon rounds go off in the distance on the way back from Mass and sporadically since. On top of the roof, I heard some again and could see tracers in the distance, too. The tracers arched up from the ground, so there was still some celebrating going on somewhere. In noticing the guard was awake, I wished him a Merry Christmas. Expecting no response, he seemed to know what I said as he greeted me in the same way, in Vietnamese. I reached over and shook his hand and left to finish my rounds that had taken almost an hour to complete.

The last comm check made – this time wishing them a Merry Christmas, too – with not a peep in return. The log typed, I sat back and wondered at all that had happened in the past few hours. The sadness of those far from home, expressed itself it drinking so they could forget home and all it represented. No one I ever encountered desired to be there then or ever said they wanted to return after the war was over. By now, it was after 0300 and the stillness of the night was fully laden on all things. “Sleep, perchance to dream,” I remember thinking. There would be many across the world that were still abed while I was here awake. Funny but I wasn’t tired, not yet at least. So another round I went. No changes from the last time, though quieter. Every once in a while now, an explosive device could be heard far away – probably a flare just to make sure the Viet Cong weren’t sleepwalking up to the wire somewhere.

Making the roof, acknowledging the guard, I sat for a while, thinking about nothing. Putting my hand in my shirt pocket, I felt the rosary I had taken while at Mass.

Fingering it, I began whispering the Rosary. As I did so, my voice must have grown louder as the guard, who I had wished Merry Christmas to, began to recite the Rosary in Vietnamese. I became aware of it and started reciting it normally, but slower so the guard (about 20 feet away) and I could stay in sync with each other.

As we neared the end of a decade of the Rosary, a flare lit the sky many miles away and I couldn’t help but think of the heavenly star the Three Wise Men followed to see the “babe in swaddling clothes.”

I sat for another few minutes thinking of all that had happened, wondering about God’s plans for this warring country, the conflict occurring in the streets of the United States, my friends fast asleep and myself. I said a prayer for all of these that all things would be healed and that all would find the peace we all wanted and desperately needed. ■

Last modified on Friday, December 26, 2014