On Donner, On Blitzen
Quang Tri, Vietnam
- 1970
Vietnam, Santas Sleight: On Donner, On BLitzen

by Jack Stoddard, WS LM-37
© 1998

Hi Don, this is my Christmas story taken from my book "What Are They Going To Do, Send Me To Vietnam?"

Jack Stoddard

On Donner, On Blitzen

Check out Jack Stoddard's new book!It's December and only weeks away from that special morning when Santa arrives. As I watch my two young sons, Chris and Billy, playing on the floor, I'm trying to recall the events that took place on that special day some twenty-eight years ago at our base camp in Quang Tri, Vietnam. That's where the crew of the Double Deuce and I celebrated our first and last Christmas together.

Our tanks were slowly moving onto the outer perimeter road of Quang Tri on the morning of December 25, 1970. All of B company had been in the field for more than two weeks as our commanders remembered what had happened during Tet 1968. They wanted to make sure the surrounding area of Quang Tri was not being infiltrated by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). We were planning on continuing our search and destroy missions until after the first of the year, but last night I was informed we would be moving back into base camp the next morning.

The twenty tanks of B company departed our jungle NDP (night defensive perimeter) around 5:00 a.m. and it had taken us three hours before we finally turned onto the paved road just four miles from the base camp main gate. The early morning air seemed extra cold and damp and I had Stick, my loader, locate my field jacket for me. I was actually getting cold riding up on top of the Double Deuce as we pushed our way through the thick, prickly jungle twines hanging out over the narrow trails we followed out of the mountains. Jim and Chris were all excited about going back to base camp, if only for a single day. It would be a nice break from our normal routine of the past few weeks and a time for us to relax a little.

Jack Stoddard, ARPS

Stick had tied down his small eighteen-inch decorated Christmas on top of the Double Deuce right behind our main gun tube and I watched the tiny ornaments blow in the wind. We turned onto the hardball road and our long column started picking up speed, throwing large chunks of mud high into the air behind our tanks. It was hard for me to relate the strange surroundings to Christmas. Even though the radio had been playing Christmas music off and on for the past week, it wasn't going to be a white Christmas for us, that was for sure! The weather was still very hot and humid during the day with only the mornings being a little colder giving us a sure sign that it was supposed to be winter.

As we pulled our tanks into the motor pool, I had to remind my guys that we still had two hours of maintenance to pull before we could head for our hooches. They had already begun to act silly as soon as we passed through the main gate into the relative safety of our base camp. As I aligned our tank next to Bravo Two-One, I told Chris to shut her down and get started with the maintenance. I heard the Double Deuce shut down and saw Stick and Jim already climbing out through the loader's hatch. My guys knew exactly what had to be done, I never had to tell them, and they just went to work and got the job done. I cleaned my 50-caliber machine gun before covering it up for the rest of the day. Like I've said before, we had no days off in the 'Nam and today was no exception.

By 10:00 a.m. we had finished our tasks and we all grabbed our bags of dirty clothes to take to the wash women for cleaning. The local Vietnamese seemed to be moving around working as normal. I don't know if they celebrated Christmas or not. As I climbed down from the Deuce I said to it, "Merry Christmas girl," and headed for my rarely occupied hooch. We didn't get to spend much time in our base camp, maybe twenty days out of the whole year.

I hollered to my crew who were now almost a hundred yards in front of me approaching our company area, "You guys stay out of trouble, I'll see you at 3:00 p.m. for dinner!" They all yelled back, "Okay Jack, we'll see you then," and ran off toward their hooch.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just talking and joking around with the other NCOs. We drank a few cold beers, played some cards and waited for that big Christmas meal that would be served in just a short while. The songs of the season were being played on the radio in the background and I couldn't help but think of how depressed I was getting. It seemed like the more I heard that Christmas music the more homesick I got. That was the last thing I wanted to feel. I knew tomorrow would find me still in Vietnam and back into the bush as if today had never even happened.

Around 2:00 p.m. Jim stuck his head inside my hooch and asked if he could talk to me outside. I said sure and wondered what kind of trouble he had gotten himself into now. I walked outside and found Jim, Stick and Chris all standing there. Jim then handed me a small wrapped gift and said, "This is from all of us. Merry Christmas, Sarge."

I was feeling a little guilty about not getting them anything as I opened the package. It was a Zippo lighter and it had some writing on it. It read To The Deuce and was signed, Jim, Chris and Stick. Then below their names it read, The Crew Of Double Deuce, 1970. Tears came to my eyes and I thanked them for their special gift. They just nodded, looking a little embarrassed and said, "It's no big thing, Deuce." Deuce was my nickname because I was the commander of Bravo Two-Two. It was really special to me when they called me that. I really did, and still do, love each one of those three great guys. We were even closer than brothers. We were brothers of the 'Nam. I went back into my hooch and proudly showed all the guys my present.

At 3:00 p.m. I joined the long line of fellow troopers outside our mess hall. Soon the doors opened and the aroma of freshly cooked turkeys filled the air around us. We entered a room that had been transformed into Christmas itself! The walls were decorated with banners proclaiming the Christmas season and in the corner was a brightly decorated tree. Where that came from I'll never know. It reminded me of the other five Christmases I had spent in the Army. I could even remember seeing much of the same type decorations in my Dad's mess halls many years before when I was a small boy and our family attended Christmas dinner with the men of my Dad's outfit.

The tables were all covered with white table cloths and plates full of nuts, candy and a fruit cake had been placed in the center of each one. The food looked almost too good to eat as we slowly moved toward the chow line. I had made sure my crew was in line in front of me. Even on this special day, I was still looking out for my guys. The Chaplain and all of our officers were standing in the front of the line shaking the hands of their troopers. It was really quite moving. A lot of the younger soldiers were amazed at the effort our cooks had gone to make this a day to remember.

As I sat down to enjoy this fantastic meal, I couldn't help but think of all the other men who wouldn't be eating this kind of food today. They'd be eating C-rations and stuck far away from any Christmas trees or decorations. I thought to myself, we're the lucky ones, and I silently raised my glass of Kool-Aid in a toast. That was the best I could do.

A few of the men brought in a small record player and started singing Christmas carols next to our tree. I must admit, I did enjoy watching my guys having such a good time. Much the same way I enjoy watching my kids today.

Before I left the mess hall I reminded Chris about the special church services tonight at 7:00 p.m. I spent the rest of my day just lying around as I had eaten way too much of that fresh turkey. I couldn't even sit up to play some cards!

Our wake up call came too early for me the next morning, but I soon found myself loading up our tank with my freshly cleaned clothes and getting ready to head back out into the boonies. It wasn't very long before the tanks of B company were cranking up and clouds of black smoke filled the motor pool. The ole Double Deuce started to move out and I called down to Chris, "On Donner, on Blitzen." I saw our little Christmas tree laying on top of the motor pool trash can and I thought, well I guess that means Christmas is officially over for another year. Little did I know it would be the last Christmas for one member of my crew.

As soon as our tank company got to our pre-arranged destination, we broke into platoons and continued driving for about another hour until we, the second platoon, found ourselves high on the side of a grass covered mountain. This was to be our home for the next week. Bulldozers came to the foot of the mountain by truck, unloaded and then slowly drove up the steep side. They spent almost one full day cutting us a series of tank firing positions. Even with the huge mounds of fresh dirt pilled in front of our tanks, we had a great view of the jungle and rice paddies below. If I looked through my binoculars I could just barely see our base camp back at Quang Tri, some thirty miles away.

During the day we would go on patrols, taking our tanks out a little further each time. The senior NCOs and officers had already begun to warn us that on New Year's Eve there would be no outbursts or firing of weapons at midnight. If they told us once, they told us a hundred times! Of course we all counted down the days until it was December 31st . Nobody made a big deal of it and around 8:00 p.m. we started our guard duties as normal. It was just like any other night except for the little more than average whispers heard around the NDP.

It was now five minutes to midnight and I could see all the crews of the second platoon were sitting on top of their turrets. We listened to our muffled transistor radios as the count down began. At the very same instant the voice on the radio cried out, "Happy New Year, Vietnam," the whole sky above our small isolated perimeter lit up as pop-up flares, regular flares, smoke grenades and rifles went off! It was completely crazy as everyone was yelling and running around firing their M16s. Those were loaded with nothing but tracer ammo and sent a solid line of red colored bullets flying high into the air. All the guys were cheering it up as we all knew this was the year we'd be going home. Well, so much for the warnings. Boys will be boys you know.

I looked out into the valley below us. It was an unbelievable sight, looking like the whole country was lit up! You could see where every one of the small fire bases were located in a thirty mile radius by the green and red flares going off high above their perimeters. Even our own base camp looked like they were fighting World War III! The firing must have gone on for at least fifteen minutes and you know we all got our butts chewed real good the next morning. But you know what? I saw not only our platoon leader, but also our platoon sergeant standing side by side firing off red flares from the inside of our perimeter! Men will also be men!

Well, that was what it was like for me at Christmas and New Years in Vietnam. This Christmas, just like the past twenty-eight years, I'll stand up at the dinner table and give my normal toast. It's normal to me, but isn't completely understood by my friends or relatives. I don't think they really understand who the "us" is but I really don't care. I just stand up and say, "Here's to those who wish us well and those who don't, can go to hell!"

Vietnam, Santas Sleight: On Donner, On BLitzen.


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