Christmas in Vietnam

During the thirteen years I was trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support U.S. combat units, I spent a good many Christmases on the battlefield. It seemed to me at the time that the soldiers and Marines I was working with missed their families less than I did, but, unlike most of them, I was married with children.

But between 1963 and 1965 and again in 1974, my family was with me at Christmas in Vietnam. In both cases I was on an ”accompanied tour,” that is, my wife and my children went with me to Vietnam. In the sixties, I had one child, my daughter, Susan. In the seventies, I had four children, Susan, Sarah, Meghan, and Paul. My wife, a former NSA employee who spoke French and Vietnamese, loved it. My children, much more sensitive to the poverty and misery of war, barely tolerated it.

The second accompanied tour, 1974-1975, was “a gentleman’s tour.” The U.S. had bought into the notion that the 1973 peace accord ended the war and that U.S. presence in the country—minus the military who were withdrawn as part of the agreement—would be concerned with diplomatic matters, not war.

Intelligence specialists knew differently. The first flaw was that the peace agreement required the withdrawal of U.S. forces but not North Vietnamese forces. And intercepted North Vietnamese communications made it clear that they were preparing for major offensives in Phuoc Long Province, some 60 miles north of us, and in the northern half of the country.

On Christmas Day, 1974, I, like the character of Chuck in Last of the Annamese, went to the office. And like him, I reviewed the evidence that the North Vietnamese were about to launch an offensive in Phuoc Long. Towns were falling to the North Vietnamese, and it was obvious that Phuoc Binh, the provincial capitol, would be next.

I considered sending my family home right away. Then I reasoned that the U.S had promised that if the North Vietnamese violated the peace accord, the U.S. military would return in force. Surely that threat would prevent the enemy from pushing further in the conquest of Phuoc Long.

When I got home from the office, my youngest daughter, Meghan, asked me when it would snow. “We always have snow on Christmas,” she said.

The North Vietnamese did pursue their offensive in Phuoc Long and did take Phuoc Binh in January 1975. The following March they launched major attacks in the northern half of the country. The U.S. did nothing. For the American people, the war was over. I evacuated my wife and children on 9 April, one day after a renegade pilot bombed the Presidential Palace near our house, and 20 days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

My children have vague memories of Christmas, 1974, but they vividly remember escaping from Saigon as it came under attack.

5 thoughts on “Christmas in Vietnam”

  1. My first Christmas there was in 1962, a very pleasant affair in Vungtau. Excellent mess hall meal. And of course Judy and Brenna, and Lou Wildman I think, spent most of the day of 8 April in your office waiting for the PanAm flight which had been delayed due to the bombing. She often tells the story of walking through the gate of TSN, passed the guards with Brenna and their carry on bags. TSN was essentially closed but they just walked on in. The flight arrived very late in the day.

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    1. Thanks, Dallas. I remember 8 April 1975 because that was the day the Presidential palace was bombed. And I remember the dependents in my office suite waiting for the flight out. It comforts me to know that someone shares my memories—it wasn’t just a nightmare after all. Thank you.

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  2. My first Christmas that I did not have to work was 1974. A bunch of us got together and got gifts and went out to an Orphanage and gave each a Christmas present for Santa Claus. that was a good day and the children were so happy.

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    1. Mark Marquez, John Beltz, myself and a few others went to the Orphanage each week in 1974 and would help clean the kids and feed them. I always remember the children lined up at the barwire fence waiting for us. It was so fulfilling to help them. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them and wonder if any of them made it out of Vietnam or how they turned out.

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  3. I remember that, Don. Wasn’t it just the comms guys that went to the orphanage? And if I remember right, you were at our house for some gathering or other during the holidays. Thanks for sharing.

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