An Unexpected Christmas Truce
Dec 23, 2018 Updated Jun 21, 2020
It was not the same as the famous WWI Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front, when French and British soldiers came out of the trenches and mingled with their German enemies, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols, to the consternation of their commanders.
The truce in my war was a cease-fire nevertheless. At least for a few hours, or even for a day or two, depending on where you were. The ceasefire had been announced by both the U.S. and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese agreed to it, some what reluctantly. They immediately violated it, firing their ubiquitous mortars at U.S. base camps. That was our version of events. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army said that we were the instigators.
Christmas 1967 was a clear, peaceful, sunlit day. We were set up on a hilltop near the Laotian border west of the 4th Division’s 1st Brigade Base Camp at Dak To in the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The series of bloody hill fights known as the Battle of Dak To had terminated a few weeks earlier.
Like other battles far away and long ago, Dak To is largely forgotten. I cannot forget it, and I am forever sorrowful because too many comrades died.
The North Vietnamese Army mauled the 173rd Airborne Brigade on Hill 875 and the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry of the 4th Division at Hill 1338. The 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry, my unit, had been involved on 1338, and firefights, ambushes, mortar and recoil-less rifle attacks on unnamed hilltops.
Now we dug in, licking our wounds and wondering when the next attack would come out of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos. Soldiers always know it. They had deliberately put us out there. We were the bait to entice the North Vietnamese out of their holes.
But for a short time, the prince of peace reigned. Out of the bright blue sky, a double-rotor Chinook helicopter swooped down and landed at the landing zone we had hacked out of the thick forest. The ramp lowered, and crewmen pushed bulging orange-colored sacks onto the ground. They ran back into the cavernous hold and emerged carrying mermite cans full of hot food. People we never saw out in the field appeared: the company XO, (executive officer) the supply sergeant, the mess sergeant, the company clerk, and the usual shammers and profile-wavers.
These base camp commandos lined up the mermite cans, broke out the paper plates and proceeded to serve the less-fortunate grunt infantry Christmas dinner — turkey with all the trimmings. Others opened the orange sacks and out tumbled cardboard boxes, packages from home.
The Army had come through. We were not forgotten after all.
I got two packages. The smaller one was from my lady love in Mercedes, the little dust-blown south Texas town 5 miles north of the Rio Grande. In 1750, my ancestors had settled on the north bank of the Big River, on “la merced,” the Spanish land grant, which gave the town its name. I remembered my great-grandfather’s land. But he lost it to the American taxes he never understood. How I longed to be back there, dust notwithstanding.
The bigger package was from my Dad, stationed with the Army in Kaiserslautern. The whole family was in K-Town, frolicking with the frauleins.
I could have gone with them, but I chose Vietnam instead. My girl had sent stationery, pens, envelopes, and sweet-smelling lotion-saturated wipes. She was ready for the first kiss and knew that I had not bathed in months.
My father’s box was full of canned Mexican goodies, tortillas, hot sauce, tamales, cinnamon-laced chocolate, all the usual Mexican Christmas delicacies. How did he get all that stuff in Germany?
That must have been some commissary in Kaiserslautern.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.