By Jim Bracewell

I arrived in Vietnam on 6 December. The prospects for a merry Christmas seemed a little grim … poor me! My wife and I learned three weeks earlier that she was expecting our second child. Up until then, I had been pretty excited about a tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. I had pretty much justified in my own mind being separated from my family for a year. My wife was very supportive, even though she knew I wouldn’t be there to help with our toddler son. Then, as we say in aviation, we learned that we now had “one on the ramp, and one in the hangar.”

On the long flight to Vietnam, I had plenty of time to think about the coming Christmas season. I began to feel a little guilty about leaving Sonja in her delicate condition, about not being there for my two-year old-son, and the fact that I had volunteered (sort of) to go away for a year.

My little bout with self-pity didn’t last long. My Christmas season in 1966 was a busy time. As a brand new Huey pilot, I had to fly “ash & trash” missions until I learned the Area of Operations. That involved hauling supplies, including hot chow, to troops in the field. As Christmas neared, I learned that we would be taking a special Christmas dinner to the units in the boondocks. I scrounged a Santa Claus suit, but our company commander wouldn’t let me wear it to the boonies. I whined enough to get a slight compromise … he let me tape the hat to my flight helmet. So there I was flying around most of the day with a bright red hat on my head. The reaction from the troops was good … lots of smiles, and even a few photos. I was having a pretty good Christmas, after all!

Then two hours after the “truce” ended at midnight, all hell broke loose at Landing Zone Bird. That was my “baptism of fire,” and I really got a good dunking! I wasn’t scheduled for combat missions for another few days, but that night we needed all the crews and aircraft we could muster. I don’t know how many sorties we flew on that mission, but we flew reinforcements into the fray, and the wounded out with each sortie. I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect that most of our aircraft were hit by enemy fire that night.

On our last trip out of LZ Bird, we transported the last of the wounded. One was a baby-faced buck sergeant whose arm was in a bloody sling. When we landed, he leaned forward, patted my shoulder, and yelled “Merry Christmas, Santa, and thanks.” It was then that I realized that the red hat was still taped to my helmet!

In retrospect, my self-pity disappeared shortly after I saw the hardships and misery endured by our ground troops. What a lesson for me!

As I near the age of seventy, I can remember many special Christmas Days, but Christmas 1966 will always rate as one of my favorites.


By Jim Bracewell

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