Greetings Area 6 Members!
First, please join me in welcoming yet another new member to Pennwriters Area 6: Larry Deibert. Larry submitted the following Christmas story in advance of the holidays, but yours truly (as in, me, Jade Blackwater) got bogged down with the Christmas spirit and failed to post in time. Better late than never, right?
Please enjoy the following selection written several years ago by one of your fellow writers, with our belated Christmas wishes for peace on earth, and good will toward all creatures of all persuasions.
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A General’s Christmas Carol
Larry L. Deibert
The men were exhausted. After three weeks of patrolling, enduring nearly unbearable heat, insect bites, snipers, and booby traps, they were ready to celebrate Christmas with three days of rest. In about two hours, they would be at the landing zone, where choppers would pick them up and return them to Firebase Terry. The men could then enjoy hot food, hot showers and the comforts afforded the men who lived inside the wire for most of their tours.
Lieutenant Edgar Stone, with six months of combat experience, halted his men for a ten-minute break. As he consulted his map, he called up his three best men: men who had been in Vietnam longer than anyone else in the platoon.
SP4 Johnny Johnson, who carried the M-79 grenade launcher, known as the Blooper, had less than sixty days to go on his tour. At nineteen, he was the ‘oldest’ of Stone’s men. He had seen enough combat to last him a lifetime. He sat down on the ground next to Stone and wiped his brow.
SSG Hector Nieves, a career soldier, with ten years in, at the age of twenty-nine, was the platoon sergeant. He sat down on his helmet on the other side of his lieutenant. Hector would be going home in seventy-two days.
A minute or so later, SP4 Myron Rendish arrived. The twenty-year old machine gunner and platoon prankster seemed to always have a smile etched on his face, even during the stress of a firefight. Myron would be returning to ‘The World’ in eighty-eight days.
Lieutenant Stone said, “Men, the choppers will pick us up in a couple of hours. The map shows the LZ about two kliks away, but the only way to get there in time is to cross the stream. My instincts tell me to take the long way around…”
Rendish interrupted. “Sir, if we take the long way around, there’s a good chance we’ll miss our ride and might have to hump all the way back to Terry. The platoon is beat up pretty bad.”
Johnson agreed with him. “LT, I am plumb wore out and I need to get back to Terry ASAP. I think we should cross. Shit, we haven’t seen any signs of gooks in the past five days. I think we’ll be okay.”
Nieves nodded his head in agreement. “JJ and Myron are right, sir. The rest of the way should be a cakewalk and we all want to be inside the wire on Christmas.”
Stone still had doubts. He trusted his men and weighed their opinions before making a decision. He looked back to his weary, under strength platoon, then back toward the stream and the jungle. The LT even looked up as though seeking advice from God, but ultimately, it was his decision to make. He was tired as well and wanted to get back to the firebase as soon as possible.
“Okay, men. We’ll take the shortcut through the stream and jungle, but don’t let your guard down. Charlie could be out there somewhere, just waiting for us to screw up.”
Stone hoped he wasn’t making a mistake. Seven of his men had already been evacuated due to the elements and the enemy, fortunately with no deaths. He didn’t want to lose any more. It was nearly impossible to get replacements, but he would push hard to get more men as soon as they reached Terry.
The twenty-two men of 1st Platoon, C Company, 29th Infantry Division got to their feet. A few minutes later, they waded into the leech-infested stream twenty-five miles northwest of Saigon. Many of the men smiled with relief as the waist high water helped to cool their overheated bodies.
Suddenly, a heavy volume of fire pinned them down in the stream as Stone directed his men toward the edge of the jungle. Rendish sprayed the area with hundreds of bullets from his M-60. JJ popped 40-millimeter rounds into the trees, sending thousands of pieces of shrapnel into trunks and branches. Many pieces cut through the leaves and the humid air and into the bodies of enemy soldiers. He was rewarded with screams of pain and the sight of dying NVA.
They fought for their lives for about five minutes, an eternity in combat, until they were finally able to form a defensive position at the edge of the jungle. Four of Stone’s men lay dead in the murky water. With the stream at their rear and the jungle to their front and flanks, the twenty-three year old lieutenant orchestrated the firefight, directing his men. He barked out orders.
“Vinnie, Tom and Rick! Take the left flank and get behind them!”
Stone looked to his right and yelled, “Jack, Orville and Larry, get around them on the right and put a hurting on the bastards!”
After he issued those orders, he called his radioman over.
“Plantation One, this is Plantation Six. Over.”
After three attempts, headquarters responded. “Plantation Six, this is One. Go.”
“One, Six. Be advised we are in heavy contact and need gunships. Number of NVA unknown. I have dead and wounded.” He gave the map coordinates and said, “Hurry, One. I don’t know how long we can hold on!”
“Roger that, Six. Cobras and slicks airborne. They should be over you in forty minutes” The radio operator then added, “Hang in there, LT.”
“10-4, One. We’ll be home soon. Have beer ready.” A wry smile crossed his face as he wondered if they would indeed get home.
Stone watched his men as they made their way into the jungle. When a bullet grazed his cheek, he flattened out in the mud and fired two clips into the vegetation. Stone smiled when he heard a scream.
They battled the NVA for nearly forty-five minutes, desperately low on ammo. Stone then heard the humming of multiple rotors. The choppers plastered the jungle with miniguns and rockets until the enemy broke contact and disappeared into the depths of the jungle.
At the end of the firefight, Stone’s command was reduced to fourteen men. Seven survivors were airlifted back to a field hospital. Eight of his men had died on the jungle floor or in the stream. After the wounded and the dead were gone, Stone and the remainder of his men re-crossed the stream to the waiting choppers.
Stone loathed Christmas because three of his men died that day. The doctors thought they would survive, but their conditions deteriorated. They died in a field hospital in Vietnam and the only ‘family’ with them was Edgar Stone, the man they fondly called LT. He prayed to God for hours to save them, but his prayers went unanswered.
The general walked the brick pavement. He knew the memorial was huge, but its magnitude did not hit him until he was actually there. Small lights lit the black granite, mirroring his reflection as he passed by. Between the bricks and the granite were gifts left by previous visitors; cans of beer, packs of cigarettes, pictures and letters, small American flags.
No one was in sight at this time of day, and the absolute quiet was perfect for him to reflect upon his past.
When he arrived at the panel bearing his men, he knelt down on the bricks and touched the names of the eight KIAs from that day, asking their forgiveness for not getting them out of the battle alive. He placed one set of his two stars at the base of the panel, rose to his feet, and after assuming the position of attention, saluted those fallen heroes. It was hard to remember their faces after all these years, but memories were beginning to flood his mind. Stone could now see them in his mind’s eye-young and full of life-but now they were names on a black wall.
He moved to the next panel and looked at the names of the men who died on Christmas Day.
Specialist Fourth Class Johnny Johnson, from Gainesville, Georgia, was the first name he saw. A smile came to his face as he remembered his ‘blooper’ man. JJ, as he was called, was the absolute best with his M-79, popping the 40-millimeter rounds and dropping them anywhere the men wanted them. His uncanny accuracy saved Stone’s bacon twice. JJ fired the heavy rounds into NVA and VC in close combat.
Before he died, he said to Stone, “LT, I’m sorry I let you down in that last ambush, but I plumb ran out of rounds as that gook came at me with a bayonet.”
Stone wiped tears from his eyes and replied, “JJ, you were so brave, and I will never forget you. Ever!”
As those words left Stone’s lips, JJ closed his eyes and drifted into eternal sleep, as the LT wept for the man he loved like a brother.
Out of all the letters he had to write for that battle, the one to Vivian Johnson was the most difficult.
He reached up and touched JJ’s name, his fingers lightly resting on the engraved letters. After a moment, he pulled his hand away, came to attention and saluted his ‘brother’. He then placed a dummy M-79 round at the base of the panel.
The next name was Staff Sergeant Hector Nieves, from Altoona, Pennsylvania. Hector left a wife and two sons to carry on without him.
As platoon sergeant, he was a stickler for detail. When his men set in for the night, he checked every defensive position, making sure the men had all their gear in order and their weapons cleaned. Hector had chosen the army as a career to impart all of his military wisdom and savvy to new guys in Vietnam, to give them all a better chance to survive.
He was a devout Catholic and as he prepared to die, he gave Stone the Bible he carried with him at all times. Stone placed the bloodstained Bible at the base of the panel and saluted the brave man’s name.
Last was SP4 Myron Rendish, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. His parents and three brothers survived Rendish.
He was the M-60 gunner and he carried the heavy weapon much like the other men would carry the light M-16 rifle. He was 6’3” tall and 225 pounds, all muscle. He was also the platoon prankster who pulled one every chance he could, to keep everyone loose.
The general smiled, remembering one prank pulled on him when they were in the firebase to rest. While Stone slept, Myron squirted shaving cream into his lieutenant’s open hand. Then he ticked his face, chest and stomach with a feather. In his sleep, Stone reached up with his hand to brush away the annoying tickle. When he awakened, he found himself covered with white foam, while several of his men laughed like hyenas. He dressed Myron down and had him drop for twenty pushups. After his men left the hootch, Stone giggled so hard he could hardly breathe.
He touched Myron’s name and placed a can of shaving cream beside the other ‘gifts’. Major General Stone saluted his machine gunner, and then took two steps backward.
Stone knelt down and reached into a pocket of his field jacket. He pulled out a nine-millimeter pistol and placed the end of the barrel to his right temple. A moment before he was going to pull the trigger, he saw his men as they were in ‘Nam.
JJ, Hector and Myron stood in front of him, much like Scrooge’s specters. Stone blinked his eyes, but his ghosts of Christmas past were still there. JJ walked toward him and said, “Don’t do it, LT! You are going to receive a wonderful gift very soon.”
He heard Hector and Myron saying, “No! No!”
Their voices were replaced by a feminine voice, screaming, “No! No! Don’t do it!”
A soft hand rested on his shoulder as he took the pistol away from his temple.
Stone stood up and looked into the eyes of a beautiful middle-aged woman. She was holding a gift to leave at this hallowed place. As he stared at it, he saw that inside the frame were two small pictures and a letter. He looked back at the woman and asked, “May I please see what you are leaving here today? My eyes are not as sharp as they once were and I forgot my glasses. I need to see the pictures up close. Something about the two men looks familiar.”
Hesitantly, she handed her gift to the general, who held it closer to his eyes. Stone saw JJ and his wife posing after their wedding. The other shot was of him and JJ before they went out on that last patrol. He read the letter:
My dearest JJ,
Today I am visiting the memorial for the first time. Several nights ago I awakened with the feeling that someone was standing in our bedroom. In the moonlight, I saw the shadow of a man. Startled, I turned on the light, but saw no one. I scanned the room and saw our wedding picture lying on the floor, along with the picture of you and the other soldier. I believed it was you who had been standing there.
I knew you were telling me something, and I had the feeling I had to be here today, the day you died. When I looked at the clock on the nightstand, I saw it was 3:30 AM.
I put the photos and the letter inside a frame and brought it here, but I still don’t know why.
I love you,
General Stone looked at JJ’s wife and with a voice fraught with emotion, said, “Mrs. Johnson, I am Major General Edgar Stone, the other soldier in that photograph. I was your husband’s platoon commander in Vietnam and I am the one responsible for his death. I am so very sorry.” His head slumped to his chest and he wept.
When he regained his composure, Vivian opened her arms to him. They hugged and she said, “There is no need to be sorry, general. His death was not your fault. JJ wrote often and told me you were the best leader a platoon could have.”
They cried in each other’s arms for a long time. Afterwards, Vivian placed her gift at the base of the panel next to Stone’s gifts. She touched and kissed her husband’s name, and then she started to walk away.
General Stone hurried after her and inquired, “May I buy you a cup of coffee and talk with you awhile? I need to tell you how much I loved JJ and how he saved my life.”
She smiled and nodded her head.
As they walked away, they never saw the eleven men in jungle fatigues hugging one another before they were drawn back into ‘The Wall’.
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Thank you, Larry, for sharing your work!
© 2009 Larry L. Deibert