Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in Vietnam

Recollections from a Thanksgiving day forty years ago, from the website Common Ties.

Thanksgiving 1968, a hill near the DMZ and Laotian border, South Vietnam

By Norman Milliken (second from left)

It was 1968. Thanksgiving Day in Vietnam. We were dug in on a ridgeline, about a thousand meters from the DMZ, close to the Laotian border. There was talk of hot food for the holiday, flown out from LZ Stud in thermal containers. These rumors gained wide currency in a place where food and sleep were the only obsessions worth having. Food, sleep, and rotating back to the world after 13 months in the bush.

The ground was hard digging, and I was tired beyond description. The mountains, the pack I carried, the machine gun, mortar shells, and thousands of rounds of gun ammo - it was all too much. The thought of hot food, real food, tailed off in my mind like a dream. Everyone wanted that food. Potatoes, we imagined. Potatoes with gravy and turkey with stuffing. Cranberry gel and bread. Maybe even butter. Once, in the summer, milk was delivered out in the field. It was sour, but so cold it made your head ache. So, we imagined cold milk, too.

As the day stretched out, we waited for the choppers. Arguments broke out over who would win the game in Detroit. The captain ordered a perimeter sweep. We took a reinforced squad and moved quickly up one side of the ridge and down the other. We were so far from anywhere that we went fast. The NVA weren’t too active this deep in the hills. We finished our sweep and set in. The choppers were late.

I remembered other Thanksgivings. We all did. Mine were filled with memories that probably weren’t real. I constructed the past as I wished it to be, and that was just fine. In a place where there was nothing but present-tense life, we created a past with a truth all its own. And we waited for the helicopters.

Deep in the afternoon we heard them.

There were two Chinooks bending over the horizon, cargo nets hanging beneath them. We wanted those nets to have hot food containers. Thanksgiving dinner there in the hills, 10,000 miles from home. An unloading party was organized. We all wanted to be on it for a change.

The nets were landed and cut loose. The choppers flew away, and the silence closed in on us again. There was ammo re-supply. C-rations and a huge bag of heat tabs. Thanksgiving dinner would be c-rations as hot as we wanted them. You could’ve cut the disappointment with a knife. Thanksgiving came and went.

Five years before I had been a senior in high school. Five years hence, I would be a senior in college. In less than a month, I would be lying in a hospital in Yokohama, Japan, my right leg under imminent threat of amputation. Yet, I remember that Thanksgiving in detail I could never muster for other days. The hills and the jungle and the infinite fatigue in my legs. And the smell of my Thanksgiving dinner, a hot little can against my fingers, filling me up against my will.

Norman Milliken is a retired school teacher who served with the United States Marine Corps in South Vietnam in 1968. A combat infantryman, he carried an M-60 machine gun.

via Common Ties, 2008-11-23