Christmas Eve at Khe Sanh

By Dennis M Mannion - Originally Published December 1988

Like weary travelers who finally get to rest in the comfort of their own homes after a week of constant motion and movement, the members of "Kilo" Company, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines spread out into the foxholes and bunkers that made up the company's perimeter.

It was Christmas Eve 1967, and we had just returned from a four-day operation that took us into the rugged hills of Vietnam's Khe Sanh Plateau. Despite minimal creature comforts, it was a relief to know that we didn't have to hike those hills for a while. That by itself was a legitimate Christmas present.

In terms of the physical setting and the expected sounds and colors, this was sure to be my bleakest holiday ever, but it remains the Christmas that stands apart from all the others and the one which memory doesn't confuse, even two decades later.

My radioman Dave Kron and I headed straight for the position that we had constructed the previous week. Even though it was just two connecting foxholes covered with a tent-like affair of scrounged parachute silk, we felt elated to be home for the holidays. At midday, a rumor which had been circulating since the previous day turned into reality. An arriving helicopter touched down just outside the company area, and mailbag after mailbag began to spill out onto the ground!

The distribution of our Christmas mail, which had been held in storage for nearly two weeks, required the work of a score of Marines as there were thousands of letters and hundreds of "care packages." More than anything else, it was the sheer volume of these packages that brought a festive, holiday atmosphere to our war zone. Denied a chance to be in the real world, it was as if its realities had been sent to us, and each package opened helped to reduce the tensions and fears accumulated in the previous week. By late afternoon, "Kilo" Company was almost giddy with child-like happiness and Christmas spirit.

Since Dave and I had not drawn perimeter guard that night (another present), we settled in under our parachute hootch to feast from our collective packages and to recall Christmas memories from earlier years. With our military gear relegated to the sides of the tent, the war seemed almost to have been replaced with plentiful food, laughter and friendship. Considering how the previous four months had been spent, we had another gift to be thankful for. . .we were still around for the holiday while a number of our companions were not. Sometime after midnight, wrapped in a poncho-liner and surrounded with comforting memories of home, I drifted off to sleep thinking of my family and most of all my mother.

I was jolted out of my sleep on Christmas Day by the sound of "Jingle Bells!" Two helicopters with Santa painted on their sides were making repeated passes over the base, and loudspeakers mounted in the doors were playing one Christmas song after the other. It was incredible! Within seconds, people from all over were up, out, and on their feet to cheer and to wave. The show didn't last more than 10 minutes, but it was enough to get our day off to a magical start.

At noon, a Catholic chaplain celebrated Mass out in the open, and as I sauntered over, I was suddenly struck with the thought that noon on Christmas Day in Vietnam corresponded exactly with midnight on Christmas Eve in Connecticut. While I knelt with rifle in hand in the red dust of Khe Sanh, my family was kneeling in the pews of St. Mary's Church in New Haven for Midnight Mass. It was the only time in my 13month tour when I knew exactly what members of my family were doing at a given moment.

I used to wonder and guess at their actions from time to time, but in this short period of Mass and remembrance, I was linked to them with a bond that stretched over 15,000 miles. In spite of the distance, I never felt closer to any of them than I did at that moment, and the simple act of closing my eyes seemed to move me out of the war and into the comfortable surroundings of family and home.

By nightfall-Christmas morning back in Connecticut-I was strapping on the weapons and gear of an infantryman and preparing to move to an ambush position outside our protective barbed wire. Our route took us directly across the very ground where Mass had been said earlier and where, through the miracle of Christ's birth, I was permitted to stand for a brief moment at a window to the world.