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December 21, 2006

The Ghost of (A) Christmas Past

RF/PF -- “Ruff-Puff” -- was the acronym for Regional Forces/Popular Forces, the South Vietnamese militia. Most units were composed of a mixed bag of farmers, frog hunters and former VC who had developed a hankering to be on the inside of a Huey looking down at the landscape, rather than being on the outside of a Huey looking up and becoming part of the landscape. Some units were independent strikers, but most were attached to a major unit of the South Vietnamese Army and were used as scouts and flank security troops. For some reason known only to Buddha, most of them wore purple helmet liners as the war-hat-of-choice...

Earlier in the morning, we’d inserted five ships'-worth of Ruff-Puffs into a warm LZ (scattered, inaccurate ground fire) about fifteen klicks west of Bac Lieu in the ‘way-south part of the Delta; we’d refueled, opened our cans of breakfast and were now enroute for the extraction, listening to Christmas carols on AFVN-AM (the nice thing about your ADF nav radio is that it will pick up commercial radio stations). I was flying Chalk Two, which tucked me right next to Lead.

Late December is two months after the last of the monsoons, so the paddies were still thigh-deep in water, the treelines were thick with fresh understory growth and the indigenous bad guys had their minds more on growing enough food to stash for the dry season than on mounting any decent-sized offensives. And besides, the Annual Christmas Truce (“Don’t shoot back unless they’re getting really, really accurate”) was in effect. At least it was in effect on our side -- the VC were either Buddhists or good little Fraternal Socialist Peaceloving Anti-Imperialists and couldn’t care less, a fact which seemed to have passed over the heads of the galaxies in Saigon (“I dunno, sir, maybe MACV figgers they’re all Presbyterians ‘er sumpthin’…”)

So, the local 21st ARVN Advisor had decided it was the perfect opportunity to give his attached (and newly-minted) Puffs some training in real, live Enemy Territory, searching for food and weapons cached in the area. The theory was that the Puffs’d be on the qui-vive on patrol due to the possibility of contact and in sufficient numbers to take out whatever stragglers were foolish enough to initiate contact.

Good training.

In theory.

Three miles out, fifteen hundred feet up, not a sign of the Puffs, who should have been assembling in the PZ (the former LZ) after completing their patrols -- the PZ was a large paddy sandwiched between a shallow river to the south with a dozen wooded islands in it and a good-sized patch of jungle to the north. I flipped the nav monitor toggle switch off in the middle of “Deck the Halls” so I could listen for any radio calls from the ground. We were on short final to the PZ before one of the gunners spotted them forming up in the treeline.

“Little People at nine o’clock, sir -- along with a zillion chickens.”

Oh, Balzac. They’d been foraging instead of patrolling. I remember hoping that they’d found at least one weapons cache and blown it…

“They’re taking their own sweet time about catching the bus -- cripes! They went fishing, too!?!”

Sure enough, the Puffs who weren’t loaded down with scraggly chickens were loaded down with the local version of catfish. I shrugged and flipped the nav monitor toggle switch on.

Siiiiilent Night, Hoooooly whumf

Mud-dirt-smoke a hundred yards south. The Ruff-Puffs started trotting toward the ships.

“Hey, Copperheads, Lead -- are you guys popping rockets to suppress?”

“Negative. We’re just orbiting about three klicks north.”

Allll is calm, allll is whooompf!

Mud-dirt-smoke fifty yards north. The Puffs are now pelting for the ships, fish flapping, chickens thrashing, purple helmet liners bobbing.

“Hey, Lead, Chalk Four -- Flight’s taking mortars in the PZ.”

“Yeah, looks like they’ve got a really decent bracket on us, too.”

"Hey, they broke the truce!"

"Why are you surprised?"

"'Cuz it's supposed to be *our* turn to break it!"

‘Round yon viiiiirgi BAAMPF!!

Mud-dirt-smoke-flying debris-pting-zizzz! right through my door. The Puffs pile inside, to the accompaniment of the Copperheads flashing overhead, screaming south to look for the mortar team.

“Lead, Two -- they’ve got the range. Next round’s gonna land in my lap.”

“Lead, Five. Flight’s up.” Good. Everybody’s on board and it’s Time To Git Outta Dodge.

Five Hueys come unstuck and nose over to gain speed as multiple mud-dirt-smokes erupt from where we had just been.

Sleeeeep in heav-- I flick the nav toggle off.

* * * * * * *

Seven hours later, in the 'way-north part of the Delta (which is nonetheless still the 'way-south portion of Vietnam), we were proceeding inbound to pick up an ambush patrol from Moc Hoa. Just as I reached down to flip the nav toggle switch off,

Siiiiilent Night, Hoooooly pok! pok-pok!

Green tracers everywhere, coming from about thirty muzzle flashes right out my door.

Allll is calm, allll is pok!pok!pok!

“Chalk Three’s goin’ down. Our engine's gone.”

“Chalk Five’s right behind you. Don’t forget to grab the radios and shoot the battery when you leave.”

“Hey, sir, there’s fluid on the deck. I think it’s oil, but it might be tranny fluid. It’s too dark to tell for sure.”

Oh, joy to the world.

pok!pok!pok!pok!pok!

“Lead, Two’s got fluid on the deck. My gauges are still normal, but I don’t think that’ll be the case in a couple of minutes.”

“Roj. Break off and head for Moc Hoa. Four, you hang with me and we’ll cover Five when he lifts off and pick up Two if he goes down enroute.”

I made it to Moc Hoa, barely. Oh, yeah -- it was tranny fluid.

* * * * * * *

Thirty-odd years later.

“What did you get for Christmas in Vietnam, Bill?”

“Shot down. For the *first* time.”

Heh. I still flick the radio off when "Silent Night" comes on…

Comments on The Ghost of (A) Christmas Past
AFSister briefed on December 21, 2006 05:39 AM

Somehow, I don't think I'll ever hear "Silent Night" with the same emotion either, SB.

Let's hope that this Christmas is kinder to ya!

V5 briefed on December 21, 2006 07:43 AM

Great story... probably not so great as it happened, but it is now that you can look back and tell it... having made it home safely.

Thank you for sharing.

I have a great (personal) Christmas story from Desert Storm that I tell every year now. :)

My 14 year old son can repeat it verbatim now. Heh!

Gwedd briefed on December 21, 2006 07:46 AM

BillT,

You know, even to this day, I still freeze for a moment whenever I hear rotors. That whup-whup-whup-whup puts a tingle to the back of my neck. My son wonders what it is about them that makes me do that. I think that you have to be a certain age to understand.

I was never in Vietnam. The Army apparently decided I was more useful elsewhere.I did, however, spend a huge amount of time in and around Hueys and to this day can still pick them out from other helos soundwise.

That single aircraft is, to my mind, the over-riding image of Vietnam. It was everywhere. It was new. The Uh-1 was the Jeep of Vietnam, and everyone of a certain age recognises it on sight.

There are few things that I can recognise as easily as it's sound. One other being the P-3 Orion, which I accumulated over 4K hours in after I transferred to the Navy. The other though, is OD canvas.

Is there anyone who has ever served who cannot instantly remember the smell of OD canvas on a hot day? You could blindfold me, stick plugs in my ears, and I could still identify the smell of a deuce and a half's canvas top. Probably also easily identify it by the spinal injuries suffered whilst riding in it, but that's another story.. :)

Seriously, I hear those rotors, and so many thngs come rushing back. Smells and sounds and touch sensations. Well, I'm rambling now, so I'll shut up, but BillT, I'm glad you're here to write for us, and I wish all of you good folks a wonderful Christmas.

Respects,

AFSister briefed on December 21, 2006 08:22 AM

Gwedd,
My Dad cringes at the "whup whup whup" of ANY helicopter after his experiences riding in Huey's in VN. He won't ever tell us what happened though.

BillT briefed on December 21, 2006 09:41 AM

V5 - Things that happened at Christmas assume the status of "Significant Life Event" -- even if it was only getting shot down.

Gwedd - Ramble on. That's what the TINS! are supposed to trigger!

AFSis - Your dad may have gone for a ride with me during one of my more *exciting* flights. These two were kinda ho-hum...

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