Today’s article is written by Tom Keating. Tom is a fellow Vietnam War veteran and author. Tom writes stories based on his experiences while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969.
Holidays were a special time for GI’s in Vietnam, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas. The military hierarchy made an effort to make those days special. Thousands of turkeys with all the trimmings were flown in from the states, and prepared fresh for as many troops as possible.
Entertainment was also a priority, and many entertainers from the U.S. gave of their time to go to Vietnam and entertain the troops, all through the war. The biggest name of all, of course, was Bob Hope. Bob had been entertaining troops since WWII, and never missed an opportunity to provide a great show for all those who served. Bob’s show included many other entertainers as well and the troops loved him.
Tom’s story revolves around one such show at the Long Binh Army facility during Christmas of 1969. Please enjoy Tom’s story.
A Time of Hope, amid The Reality of War
The mess hall was crowded as usual at 0700 hrs. I had just finished guard duty on the perimeter, driving the officer of the guard around our sector for the last 24 hours, checking the guys in the bunkers along the wire, making sure they were alert and not potted out.
It was hot though not too humid as I entered the chow hall, still wearing my flak vest and helmet. Some overzealous sergeant saw me and told me to take them off or leave.
“This is a mess hall, trooper, lose the combat gear”
I followed his orders, putting the offending gear down in the corner of the mess hall, then I got in the chow line. The ceiling fans were blowing the hot air around, and it seemed to make some difference.
I was hungry, and grabbed some toast, bacon, and asked for three eggs, sunny side up. The young cook on the line was happy to do so, he always took pride in giving us what we asked for, if he could. Today, he had fresh eggs from Taiwan, instead of the powdered stuff we usually get.
The three eggs were put on my metal tray, their yellow centers smiling at me. I turned to find a table to sit down.
I noticed Collins sitting at one, so I walked over and joined him.
“Hey, Keats,” he greeted me.
“Hey, Jeff, how’s it going?”
“Pretty good.” Collins was lucky like me, assigned to a job on the large base, much safer than humping the bush. He worked at the communications center, while I typed contracts at the main supply and logistics office.
“Any news about Bob Hope?” I inquired. The base was full of rumors about his show coming here.
“Not yet, security is tight. No details about when or where he is coming, but he is going to be in country around Christmas. It would be cool to see his show, my Dad saw it in Korea back in ’53.”
“Yeah, that would be cool. My Dad saw him in the South Pacific before he got wounded.” My Dad was in the Army then.
“Hey,” Collins said, “speaking of wounded, I hear that Powell got hit last week and is over at the EVAC hospital.”
“Billy Powell? Jee-sus! I thought he was at still at Officers School in Georgia?” I finished my breakfast.
“I guess he washed out” was his reply as I left.
Powell! I hadn’t thought of him or the others in my infantry company back at Fort Jackson. We had a weird platoon there; a mix of draftees and enlisted, of college guys like me Collins and Powell, and West Virginia kids from the hollows.
Powell was a buddy of mine at Jackson. He was a clumsy soldier, and I looked out for him, trying to help when I could. He wasn’t a good shot. He would screw up when on maneuvers, get us lost on the map reading course, fall off the log ladders on the obstacle course. I had his back and tried to keep the sergeant off him when I could. He never lost his enthusiasm or cheerfulness though.
On weekend pass, Powell would buy the cheap bourbon and we would go to the movie theater in town and drink while watching Dean Martin spy movies. We laughed a lot. After training, I got Vietnam and he got OCS in Ft. Benning.
I always felt guilty being in this large safe base while buddies like him were out there, somewhere outside the wire, humping in the jungle, shooting at an elusive foe, and getting shot themselves. I had to see Powell, had to see how bad he was hit.
Off to Find My Friend
The 24 Evacuation Hospital (EVAC) was a mix of large tents, some semi-permanent buildings, and a helipad for the medic choppers to land with wounded. I parked the jeep. I showed my Identity Card to the guard and told the admin clerk that I wanted to visit one of their patients, Spec 4 (specialist 4th class) Powell. I gave him my name.
“Yes, please go through there to the recovery ward.” He pointed down a hall. “A ward nurse will show you where the patient is.”
I did as I was told, and a pretty nurse smiled at me as I explained my visit. She was a blue eyed blonde, a real Doris Day look-a-like. I followed her down a row of beds and stopped when she did.
“Specialist Powell? You have a visitor”. She stepped back.
Powell turned his head to look at me. I hardly recognized him. His hair was almost blonde from being in the sun. His face was deeply tanned, and he lost a lot of weight. Jungle combat will do that. He grimaced as he turned. He had a tube attached to his arm from a bottle hanging on a stand. He looked like he was in pain, his eyes were bright.
“Hey Keats,” he said, a small smile on his face. “How did you know I was here?”
“Collins told me. You remember him, he works for the comm center now.”
“How you doing, you stationed around here?”
Feeling guilty, I said, “Yeah, I got assigned here to type all day and run errands for the big shots. I got it made.” I tried to frown as if I was disappointed. Couldn’t do it though. Powell didn’t seem to notice. He was trying hard to smile.
“How about you?” I asked.
“I was our FO (Forward observer) calling in arty support when we got into trouble.”
“Couldn’t read a dam map at Jackson, but you learn things fast there. I was pretty good, too. His smile disappeared as he glanced down at his bed.
“Well, I guess I won’t be doing that anymore.”
I followed his gaze. There was a frame over the sheet where his right leg should have been.
Oh, Jesus! I thought. The leg.
I quickly changed the subject. “Hey, you know Bob Hope is coming with his show. Lots of round-eyed women we can drool over.”
“Yeah, the nurses were talking about it. Gee, I’d love to go, but it looks like I’ll be here a while.” The smile returned. “You know, my Dad saw him in England just before D-Day. Wouldn’t that be cool to tell my Dad I saw Bob Hope, too?”
“Cool” I said. My face froze into a smile. I couldn’t help thinking it would be cool if you even saw your family again. The blonde nurse came over.
“Time for some pills and a dressing change, Bill. And visiting hours are over,” she said, looking at me. I nodded.
I held out my hand.
“You get well, Bill,”
“Thanks, Keats. You keep your head down. Be safe buddy, you hear?”
“Sure.” We shook hands, me still smiling like a fool.
I turned to leave. I had to take a deep breath. The nurse looked at me. She spoke softly as we walked out of the ward.
“Your buddy has an infection in his right leg. He stepped on a mine, and they had to amputate to the knee. His infection is keeping him here till we get rid of it.”
“Will he make it?” I asked. Another deep breath.
“He should” she said, “we got to knock that infection out though.”
“Thanks” I pulled out a pen and piece of paper from my pocket, and wrote down the phone number where I could be contacted.
“I work over at HQ (headquarters). Please call me and let me know how he’s doing.”
She said she would.
Holidays Can be Tough, for those Who Serve
Christmas got closer and base security was tightened. Suddenly we had more military police checks at the gates than usual. I kept checking on Powell, but the Doris Day nurse said there was no change in his condition. The infection hadn’t left.
On Christmas Eve, I came off guard duty and entered the mess hall for breakfast. It was decorated with colored lights hanging from the ceiling, and Christmas dinner menus on the tables. Standing in the food line, I noticed Collins and joined him.
He gave a furtive glance around the mess hall, then leaned in,
“I got the word. Hope is coming here in three days, December 27th.”
I nodded, waiting for more.
“Where they going to do it. The Amphitheater?”
“Yeah, but they gotta make it bigger.”
I agreed with that. Our base was big, thirty-five thousand strong, working supply and logistics.
Christmas Day was a workday for me. It was quiet as most of the officers were off celebrating somewhere. I stayed in the office reading a Travis McGee thriller, then knocked off at 1700 hours. The next day, all of us enlisted men on the logistics staff were called into the large conference room. The General’s aide called us to attention. He began his announcement,
“We will be having a special visitor tomorrow. He will be bringing entertainment to us. Seats will be limited to our hospital patients and to combat troops. You are ordered not to attend. Stay in your hooches and listen to the show on AFVN radio. Or go to the EM Club. That is all, dismissed.”
We looked at each other in disappointment. Collins was especially upset, but I knew he would figure out a way to see the show. I got back to my desk a bit glum. I started to write a letter to thank my Mom for the cookies she sent, when the phone buzzed.
“Specialist Keating?” It was the blonde nurse.
“Yes,” I took a deep breath. It had to be Powell.
“This is Lieutenant Moffat over at 24th EVAC. I’m happy to tell you that your friend, Specialist Powell, has improved and the infection is gone. We will be sending him home in a few days. By the way, he wanted me to tell you, he will be in the front row at the Bob Hope show.”
“That’s great! Thanks, lieutenant. Give him my best.”
Sometimes even in War There’s a Happy ending
I wished her a Merry Christmas and hung up. Suddenly I felt much better. Smiling to myself, I started typing the letter to my folks and finished the cookies. In the distance you could hear Silent Night playing on someone’s radio. It was a Merry Christmas after all.
Tom Keating is a Needham, Massachusetts resident and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He served in the US Army at Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Logistical Command, and Headquarters Company, US Army Vietnam, (USARV) 1969-1970. His service earned him two Army Commendation Medals for his work.
Tom’s book “Yesterday’s Soldier, A Passage from Prayer to the Vietnam War” is the story of his journey from Infantry Officer Candidate to conscientious objector, and is available on Amazon.
After his military service, Tom attended Boston University and completed his master’s degree in Education, and taught high school in Burlington, MA for eight years. A career in corporate communications and learning with companies like Wang Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, and EMC Corporation followed. He also produced news and public affairs broadcasts for local Boston television and national cable television programs
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