Thanksgiving Dinner On The Ground.

Copyright 2002 Bill Johnson

, like any year, had its remarkable events. Congress created PBS. A fire in their space capsule killed Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Israel and the Arabs fought the Six Day War. Green Bay beat Kansas City in the Super Bowl.

Closer to home, Tennessee conquered Alabama and went on to win the SEC football championship.

And on a personal level, early in the year a sign went up on the fraternity house bulletin board. It was a Life Magazine picture of men in green uniforms and helmets, and under it was a caption, locally added, reading, "Study, or meet the VC." I hadn’t done enough of the former, so I was destined to do the latter. I got drafted.

I arrived in Vietnam, a newly-minted private with infantry skills, in late September. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, and sent to their area of operations in the Central Highlands of that southeast Asian paradise. Our company was mostly green, newly-arrived troops, so we spent a few weeks on easy missions getting used to the heat, the rain, and the 80 or so pounds we all carried on our backs. Headquarters called our missions "search and destroy" – but we treated them more like "wander and avoid." Our platoon leader told us we were using the North Vietnamese Army as "live training aids," and to enjoy it while it lasted.

It didn’t last long. In early November we got moved – quickly and in large numbers – to a place called Dak To, very near the point where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. The NVA were pushing east from the border in force, in an attempt to reach the coast and cut the country in two. Our job was to be part of the effort to keep them from doing that.

We got lucky. The NVA chose to mix it up with other units close by, but not directly with us. As the Battle of Dak To (that was the state-side newspaper name for what was going on) progressed, we became accustomed to moving from one hilltop to another as a "blocking force", supposedly to make the bad guys go where we wanted. RIGHT!!!

As Thanksgiving neared, the NVA were on a hill the US Army wanted. The place was called "Hill 875" for its height in meters. The Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade bore the brunt of the fight, and the papers back home followed it closely. It proved to be a very large and difficult fight, and we grew anxious as days went by that we would be called on to do what they were paying us for. More units were poised to join the fray – parts of the 101st Airborne, and the 1st Air Cav, and other parts of the 4th Infantry Division. As Thanksgiving grew even closer, we wondered if we would be tasting turkey or the mud of Hill 875 on Thanksgiving Day.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving, we got the word. The next unit to be sent up Hill 875 might be us. Thoughts of turkey and dressing receded, replaced by the cleaning of weapons (again) and the handing out of more ammunition. This was NOT fun. Before dawn on Thanksgiving Day we packed all our stuff and got ready to move out. If we were to go into action, they would come pick us up in helicopters, the ubiquitous "commuter bus" for the US Army in Vietnam. We sat on our packs, fidgeting, cleaning our weapons and thinking about the irony of getting ready to go try to shoot somebody – and more importantly, avoid them shooting us – on a day reserved, under normal conditions, for the joys of family and communal gluttony. The irony was heightened by the fact – strange as it may seem to civilians back home – that the war was supposed to "STOP" for the day. See, it was a strange war, and one of the strangest things was a phenomenon called "standing down." That was when the war was supposed to be artificially stopped for a special day, and it was generally understood that neither side would initiate any hostilities on those days. We "stood down" for major holidays (Christmas, and Thanksgiving (or so we had been told!), and New Years – both ours on January 1st, and the Vietnamese New Year, called "Tet" that occurred in late January or early February. But here we were, bright and early on what was supposed to be a "stand-down" day, thinking some about what may be ahead but mostly trying not to think about anything.

Then we got the word, the WONDERFUL word, that the battle on Hill 875 was over and that our side had won, and that instead of having the helicopters come get us to carry us into battle, the choppers would begin to resupply us. First the guys on Hill 875 would get water, and mail, and food, and whatever else they needed. Then we would get some stuff brought out to us, too. First would be the basics – more C-rations and other ordinary stuff we used in the field, and mail, and then, if possible, hot chow for Thanksgiving dinner. In all this, the guys on Hill 875 would come first, and after them would come us and other units that were out in the woods, but who hadn’t been in combat in the last few days.

In those days the Post Office always made a very big push to get everyone who was mailing holiday stuff to Vietnam to MAIL EARLY because of the distance. We knew of this, of course, but we had no idea what it would really mean to us. We began to learn when the helicopters arrived carrying our resupply. Instead of the usual one bag of mail being tossed out along with the C-rations, fresh uniforms and other stuff, the chopper began to disgorge mail bag after mail bag after mail bag. The pile on the ground next to where the choppers landed seemed to grow like some weird monster in an old Japanese horror flick….it just kept getting BIGGER and BIGGER and BIGGER.

With all the combat stuff the last few days, ordinary resupply had been put off whenever possible. Lots of mail had been stacking up back in base camp – and here it all came, much to our grinning delight. Some folks had sent stuff especially for Thanksgiving, and others had really been early with their Christmas stuff – all in truly amazing quantities, and from some unexpected sources. Regular family, of course – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, children - ….but also included were distant cousins and aunts and uncles, and across-the-back-fence neighbors of Yankee aunts and uncles, and little sisters of barely-remembered high school classmates, and on and on and on. We changed into clean uniforms – another joyful cargo of the resupply choppers – and began to graze our way through the bounty while we read all the printed, ordinary mail. I remember thinking how great it was that table manners were not an item of concern out there in the woods – it’s awfully hard to keep your mouth closed while you chew, when you’re grinning from ear to ear at the same time.

Not long after the mail was distributed the rest of the good news arrived by way of the head medic, who passed the word from the company commander that there would, after all, be hot chow coming out from base camp later in the day. Just like back home, we were cautioned not to ruin our appetites for the main event! And in a little while the sound of approaching helicopters reached our anticipating ears. This time it was not mail bags, but green (of course!) metal insulated food containers, sort of like picnic coolers but bigger, that came off the chopper. Lots of food containers.

We lined up (this is still the US Army, remember!) and went down the line, holding out our paper plates while our officers and senior NCO’s, plus a few senior folks from base camp, ladled out turkey and dressing and gravy and ham and roast beef and more gravy and rolls and butter and sweet potatoes and green beans and green peas and mashed potatoes and more gravy and pecan pie and pumpkin pie and apple pie. And there was more, but I get a belly ache just thinking about how much there was, let alone trying to name it all. And not one morsel was "left over"!

So the day came to an end. It had started in uncertainty and fear about the probable coming battle. It ended with our bellies full from a magnificent feast, and our hearts warmed from all the goodies – and the encouraging notes that came with them – from folks, family and strangers alike – back home. It was a very special Thanksgiving then and, 35 years later, the memory of it is still fresh, and still special.

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