This article by F. Gerald Downey was originally published by Leatherneck Magazine.
It was late afternoon Dec. 24, 1970, and I stood on the low ground that was to be our night defensive position. I looked up at the mountains and ridges which were fast disappearing into the heavy fog that had unexpectedly descended upon us.
The change in weather had canceled out our normal resupply choppers but I wasn’t too concerned about it. The previous night we had discovered a rice cache and one of our mechanical ambushes had bagged a large, wild pig. If necessary, I knew we could feed the whole company for two more days. The worst of it was that the failure to resupply meant no delivery of the item we valued above all others—the mail. Infantrymen will always grumble. It comes with the first issue of boot and brass polish, but on this particular Christmas Eve, the grumbling was louder and a little more bitter as we dug in for the night.
We were “Charlie” Company, 2nd Battalion of the 1st Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade, U.S. Army, and I was the company commander. Naturally, when the word was sent out, I was the first to get it. “Christmas truce tonight,” the battalion S-3 informed me over the radio. “You know the rules of engagement.”
“Roger,” I replied in a voice that must have betrayed my cynicism. “No offensive actions, all patrols are to be defensive in nature and avoid contact whenever possible.”
“You got it. Have a good Christmas Eve.”
“Roger. Enjoy your mail.” I couldn’t resist that last little dig. What line officer could?
It was only 4 p.m. and already the fog was nearly at ground level. We were in the Antenna Valley, west of Da Nang, in what used to be the tactical area of operations of the United States Marines. Oh, the Marines were still around, but they were gradually standing down, and during those times, except for some advisory teams to the South Vietnamese, they were generally much closer to Da Nang. Years of Marine Corps campaigning in the valley were much evidenced by the scores of well-chosen and well-policed old defensive positions in the area. A Marine officer had given me my pre-operational briefing on the valley a few days before. It wasn’t my first tour, and I was pretty salty myself, but I was impressed at how well he knew his business.
Night came fast in I Corps and by 5 p.m. it was dark. The truce went into effect at 6 p.m. At 6:20 p.m. I received a call from the 1st Platoon. “A platoon of NVA just marched across our front, about 200 meters out.” The 1st Platoon was sitting on a small knoll 10 grid squares closer to the valley’s mouth. “How’d you see ’em in this weather?” I asked skeptically.
“We spotted them when the fog broke for a minute,” the platoon leader answered. “They walked right between us and our ambushes. But that’s not all.”
“The last guy in line actually turned around and waved at us! Some of the guys swear he wished them a Merry Christmas!”
“He probably wished them something,” I said as I went off the air, “but I doubt if it was a Merry Christmas.” I was worried that our mechanical ambushes had been spotted, that maybe our guys were in too much of a hurry to get back before the fog and night set in and had been a little careless.
Since the claymore mines were detonated by the tripping of a strand of nearly invisible fishing line (which caused the completion of the electrical circuit of a 9-volt transistor radio battery and thus set off the fuse), once the mechanical ambushes were in place, they were too dangerous to move until morning light. Then again, maybe that platoon of NVA had just been lucky.
At 7:30 p.m. one of the claymore ambushes in front of our position exploded. As required by regulations, I reported it to the battalion headquarters and went on about my business, expecting to check it out in the morning as was the established routine. I was shocked when the S-3 came back with, “Check it out. We may need proof that it was a defensive action in case we get charged with violating the truce.”
“It can wait until morning,” I answered with customary defiance.
The battalion commander came on then. “I want it checked out.”
So much for defiance. The squad that placed the claymore was sent to survey their results. Even in the fog I felt their glares as they trudged by in the darkness. The last man out, Private First Class Robinson, paused long enough to lay a hand on my shoulder and whisper, “Don’t sweat it, Captain. Ain’t no biggie.”
Twenty minutes went by with no report from the patrol. I grew more anxious by the moment, worrying that they had gotten lost in the muggy darkness and might well be unknowingly wandering into the kill area of another squad’s mechanical ambush. I reached for the radio to call them back when suddenly the night was pierced by bursts of M16 fire, a short return blast by an AK-47, more American shots and the explosion of a fragmentation grenade. Filled with angry thoughts at those men who forced me to order young men out unnecessarily on Christmas Eve, I sat holding the microphone, calm on the outside while fuming within.
The call came quickly from an excited PFC Robinson. “The squad leader’s been hit! We need a Dust Off [helicopter] right away!”
“Hold on, I’ll send a medic out to you right now. Can you move your wounded man?”
Robinson was calmer when he replied, “No, I don’t think so. He’s bleeding pretty bad.”
My radio operator scurried off to chase down the platoon medic, Doc Ybarra, who was already coming on the run. He hunkered down beside me as I talked to Robinson. “Are you still in contact?”
“Okay, tell me your situation.”
Robinson’s voice was well-composed now, He was clearly becoming more comfortable with being the man in charge. “Roger. First, I just sent Hale and Fergy back to the perimeter to guide the Doc.”
“Good thinking. Now, what happened?”
“We walked right up on three NVA. They were dragging a body away from the ambush site. Harder than hell to see out here and we were on them before we saw ’em. Luckily, they didn’t see us either. Sergeant Gray fired first and got one of ‘em. The others fired back and took off. Gray went to throw a grenade and it went off just as it left his hand. He’s really hurting, Captain. You better get the Doc out here fast.”
Ybarra was gone, following the panting guides, Hale and Ferguson, who had made the sprint back to the perimeter in less than two minutes. “Doc’s on his way,” I told Robinson. “I’m going to order up a medical evacuation. Have Doc call me and give me a situation report.”
Behind me, I heard my radio operator curse.
I turned quickly to him, “What’s the matter?”
I couldn’t see him very well, but I knew from the sound of his voice that he was positively livid. “I went ahead and started the Dust Off procedure on the battalion radio, sir. They won’t come out!”
He was right. The S-3, whom I knew to be a good officer, despite the fact that we didn’t much like one another, told me, “Sorry. The CO of the Dust Offs has grounded his birds due to the bad weather.”
I put the S-3 on hold and went back to the other radio. Doc Ybarra was calling in. “Minor frag wounds in the arm and neck,” he reported. “Most of the blast hit him just behind the right wrist. It’s pretty badly mangled but I think we could save the hand if we get him out of here quickly.”
Back to the other radio. “I need that medevac, weather or no weather.”
The S-3 was doing his best. “Stand by. I’ll try them again.” It took him an hour. I looked at my watch. Actually, the whole affair was less than 20 minutes. The S-3 returned. “Still no dice.”
“Did you talk to the CO?” I asked plaintively.
“No, just the duty officer. Everyone else was gone to the company Christmas party. What’s the status of your man?”
I put him on hold again and went back to Doc Ybarra. “He’s gonna live, Sir. But unless we get him out of here, he’s gonna be without one hand for the rest of his life. That ain’t too good when you’re a carpenter like Sgt Gray.”
By this time the S-3 had come on the platoon frequency. “I’ll try again.”
I was about to agree when a new voice joined in. “Hello, Army, this is the United States Marine Corps,” the voice said in a pleasant but twangy Texas drawl. “Call sign, Delta Two-Seven.”
I was in no mood for any interservice fraternization at the moment. “What can I do for you, Delta Two-Seven?”
“I think maybe it’s what I can do for you. Are you the ground commander?”
“Well, we’ve been listening in for a while, and since I’m in your area, I thought I might drop in and give your man a hand—so to speak.”
“Negative, negative!” The S-3 chimed in. “No aircraft allowed in this area due to weather.”
Delta Two-Seven talked right over him. “I think maybe the bad guys are trying to jam you, Army. You hear somebody else on the line?”
“Nothing but a lot of fuzz, garble and static.”
“Me too. Listen, I should be over you pretty soon. When you hear my engines, give a light to guide on, okay?”
“Will do.” I paused to go back to my own people. “Doc, you got a good LZ out there?”
“Roger. And I’ve got my signal light with me, too. But it’s gonna be tricky because we’re awful close to those ridges.”
I was about to reply when the sound of twin helicopter engines came right over us. Damn, he’s really low, I thought to myself. “Delta Two-Seven, you just passed right over us!”
The reply was a little higher pitched but still cool. “Okay, comin’ back around again. Your guy wasn’t kidding about you being close to those ridges!”
“Ah, Roger, Two-Seven. Sounds like you’re directly south of us now.”
“Good. That’s what I figure too. Hold on, be right back.”
“Doc, when you hear the engines get loud again, give ‘em the light.”
A few seconds passed and then he was on us again. “Oh my God,” I thought aloud. “He’s coming too fast—he’ll never get over the ridges!” Somehow, he made it. I don’t know how. There was no way he could have seen them in that fog, but he made it.
“Hey, Army, what happened to the light? I think I saw one flash and that was all.”
“Batteries went dead. Got off one flash is all. What are we gonna do now?”
Delta Seven’s next message made it clear that we had to come up with an answer and be quick about it. “I’ve got just enough fuel for one more pass. No light, no land! Sorry.”
My radio operator banged me excitedly on the shoulder. “Sir, when the patrol left, I saw a trip flare on Robinson’s shoulder harness!”
I had time only to grip that 18-year-old’s hand hard as I grinned into the microphone. “Robby, you still have that trip flare on your harness?”
Ybarra yelled his reply loud enough that I swore I heard him without the assistance of the radio speaker. “Yeah, he’s got it. Oh man, that’s great!”
Delta Two-Seven was with us again. I looked out toward the direction of the patrol and was rewarded by the sudden pop and fog-diffused light of an ignited trip flare. Delta Two-Seven laughed, “I got it, Army, I got it! Heads down, fellas, here we come!”
The guy was good, no doubt about it. The helicopter couldn’t have been on the ground more than five or six seconds when I heard the engines rev and the faster whooshing of the rotor blades. “Got your boy, Army. I’ll have him in Da Nang in about 10 minutes courtesy of the United States Marines.”
The men around me cheered. I was privately thankful that the wetness of the night had dampened my face. “Thanks. I’ll stop by the officers’ club and buy you a drink in about 10 days when this mission’s over.”
“Uh-uh, too late. This is my last flight. I’m homeward bound day after tomorrow. Appreciate the offer.” Just before the sound of the engines faded from Antenna Valley I heard him say, “Merry Christmas, Army.”
We all answered together — me, Ybarra, the S-3, and even the battalion commander who must have been listening in for a long time without saying anything — “Yes, and Merry Christmas to you too, Marine.”
The next time I was in Da Nang I walked into the Marine officers’ club and bought the house a round, paid the bill and left. I didn’t explain, and they didn’t ask.
Feature Image courtesy of Leatherneck Magazine and The Marine Corps Association & Foundation.
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