Thanksgiving "Truce" 1967

Copyright 2002: Richard Guthrie. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

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Most combat veterans of the Vietnam War will remember the various "truces" that were "agreed" to by the parties... truces for Tet and Christmas being the main two. Unfortunately what we tend to remember most is the unfulfilled promise of laid back time off. As Dick Guthrie points out in this story, it seems that there was always somebody who didn't get the word. In the cases of Tet 68 and Tet 69, there were obviously many people, virtually the entire Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, who missed the word. The Tet 68 "truce violation" started on the very first day of the Tet (lunar New Year) truce, 30 January 1968, when the Viet Cong launched their biggest offensive of the war. The attack was a military disaster for the communists who lost over 10,000 men and could not manage to hold any of their objectives. Nevertheless, the offensive was a political victory for the enemy because the media at home reported it as a disaster for the U.S., and the American people lost heart. During Tet 69, the communists attempted the same thing, breaking a truce to attack Saigon and 115 other cities. Again the communists suffered heavy losses, but their objectives were American "hearts and minds," and by then much of the American media were very much on their side. Dick's story takes place a few months before Tet 68, and shows what "truces" with communists really meant.

I had been informed that there was to be a 24-hour cease-fire for Thanksgiving, so Wednesday evening we pulled into our usual wagon wheel formation, with the twelve carriers from the rifle platoons forming the outer ring, and my command track, mortars, medic, flamethrower, and radar dispersed in the center. We dug two-man fighting positions roughly mid-way between the personnel carriers on the perimeter, set out mines and anti-intrusion devices and sent listening posts out after dark. This was our first experience with cease-fires, and we were plenty wary. Events would soon prove us right.

Actually, I was not particularly comfortable with how close we were to the rising hills to our north. Covered with dense scrub growth, they could hide a hundred snipers within easy range, or conceal a ground attack until it was nearly up to our perimeter. But the company was as far away from the heights as I could get it without straying outside the sector we had been assigned. There was a mechanism to adjust boundaries, but the moving of those lines was complicated and time-consuming. Besides, shifting south would move us closer to several villages, and that would forfeit as much security as we'd gain by getting away from the hills. On top of that, our Thanksgiving feast "with all the trimmings" was certain to attract hundreds of curious civilians, and crowds often were cover for bomb-carrying children or sweet looking grannies.

The rules of engagement called for a complete cessation of hostilities starting at midnight. Despite that we maintained one-third alert during the rest of the night, and of course continued the hourly "SITREPS" (Situation Reports). Just after midnight the light drizzle began. It would be with us off and on throughout the cease-fire. At first light I had the line platoons send short reconnaissance patrols out; they found nothing. We kept a soldier on each cal. 50 machine gun on the carriers around the perimeter, but otherwise, I relaxed the requirement to wear steel helmets, and let most of the troops get some badly needed sleep, read, wash their socks, write letters, or just goof off with their buddies.

The morning calm was shattered by one stray rifle round that landed harmlessly near the edge of the perimeter, but sent everyone racing for cover and his weapon and steel pot. Even though we had only the most general notion of where the sniper was located, we responded in the direction of the sound of his shot with a full minute of automatic weapons fire hosing down the hillside. So much for the cease-fire. The old Army saw that says: "There is always someone who did not get the fucking word." was yet again confirmed. It mattered little that he happened to be from the opposing Army, to us he simply was a troop who had not gotten the word.

Not long after I had reported the sniper incident, a cryptic call from the Operations officer instructed me to secure our perimeter not later than 1100 hours. The call was so cryptic that I figured it meant there would be an important visitor coming in with the dinner. At about 1130 the call came over the battalion net announcing: "We're inbound, your location, secure an L.Z." I couldn't yet see anything in the air but knew they were already airborne by the way LTC Hutson's radio voice vibrated in tempo with the whir of a turbine engine and the "wop-wop-wop" of the main rotor blades slapping the air. It wasn't long before I spotted three dots just above the horizon to the south.

As they drew closer we popped a smoke grenade to mark our location and help the pilots gauge wind speed and direction as they brought the awkward ships in. First to land was the resupply bird bringing Company Executive Officer 1LT Howie Pontuck and First Sergeant Don Bridges and SP4 Victor Caruso, Mail Clerk, along with ammunition, mail, water, c-rations, and the turkey dinner packed in five or six large olive drab thermos containers. As soldiers from each platoon hustled to unload the supplies under First Sergeant Bridges' close supervision, I could see that the "trimmings" included a large garbage can filled with ice and one beer or soft drink per soldier. Our leaders were trying to make the day special.

That first helicopter didn't shut down, but raced back to LZ Uplift immediately, to reload so it could resupply another unit somewhere else.

The second Huey to land was LTC Hutson's Command and Control bird. To my amazement, along with the Battalion Commander and Operations Officer I spotted our chaplain as well. A rare sight, I was to see him outside the security of the firebase only one other time: the Christmas cease-fire.

The third ship turned out to be carrying the Division Commander, MG Tolson, whose identity was very properly being shielded. What a prize it would be for our lonely sniper to bag the commander of the famous and highly effective First Air Cavalry Division. Quickly we rigged an altar on the front of my personnel carrier and in record time the chaplain conducted the standard nondenominational Thanksgiving service. I suspected his sense of urgency was sharpened by what he had heard about the sniper. In any case, it was clear he was anxious to get out of there, and he seemed to start moving towards the waiting helicopter even before he finished packing up his little chaplain's kit bag.

MG Tolson's presence was a real treat. He moved easily among the soldiers, chatting calmly with every other one he came to. He had a way of asking simple questions about a man's hometown, his job and his time in country, that invariably left the troops reassured by his quiet confidence and genuine interest in their welfare.

The chow line opened and troops began filing through. They were delighted, piling their plates with great mounds of their choice of light or dark meat, mashed potatoes, stuffing, all liberally anointed with copious dollops of gravy, cranberry sauce, rolls, sliced celery, carrots and ripe olives. There was enough pumpkin pie for all to get seconds. Each officer waited for his platoon to be fed, then fell in at the end. About half the company had been through the line when another shot rang out. Again, we dived for cover as the machine gunners on the tracks fired blindly into the hillside.

The two Hueys' engines began whirring almost simultaneously.

"We'll be leaving now, Guthrie", LTC Hutson said, and he jogged towards his helicopter. The chaplain wouldn't be holding him up; he had been strapped tight in his seat for some time.

I accompanied MG Tolson as he strolled serenely towards his helicopter, appearing to not notice the agitated look on the face of his Aide-de-Camp. Taking my cue from him, I stood upright and saluted until his helicopter lifted off before I ducked and ran back to the cover of my command track.

Thirty-one years later, Private First Class Dave Smith called me to reminisce and reminded me that:

"'Brother' Brantley (SP4 Walter Brantley) had been getting a haircut and shave when that shot came in. He had been sitting inside his track with a poncho liner tight around his neck. The shot pissed him off so much that he jumped to the top of the carrier and started banging away with the 50 caliber. He had half his face lathered, and with the poncho liner blowing in the breeze, he looked like Lawrence of Arabia".

Company Senior Medic SP5 Toby V. Milroy remembered the incident this way:

"Monsoon season and rain and mud everywhere, but chance to relax. We wrote letters home and just shot the bull without our flack vest or weapons at the ready. Anyway kinda misty and mild fog and then heard sound of the thump of rotors of choppers coming in and to our surprise it was this hot chow for this holiday with turkey with all the fixins. Anyway as we lined up to indulge in this special occasion with our mouths watering and thinking of our families back home, and getting into the holiday spirit, we laughed and goofed around and forgot our everyday worries. Think I even saw you and LT Pontuck laugh some. Anyway some pittyful (sic) V.C. thought he would harass us with some shots from the side of the hill maybe 200 yards away. Wasn't doing any damage, just being pain in the ass with us 'cause it was raining and chow was steaming and waiting for us to devour. As we crawled through the chow line for our turkey and cranberry relish with drops of rain trying to make our potatoes soggy, we were all so happy even though when eating our hands were muddy and our clothes soaking wet."

Former First Platoon Sergeant E-7 Lloyd E. Williamson remembers that a close friend of his, Sergeant First Class E-7 John W. Hancock, from Alexandria, Louisiana was an avid fan of the Louisiana Hot Sauce his mother would send him regularly. In fact, Hancock was known to feel he could not live on Army chow without it. John had just doused his meal with the sauce and set his plate of down on a case of C-rations to go off to refill his canteen cup with Kool-Aid when the sniper's round shattered his new bottle of Hot Sauce. "He was fit to be tied", Williamson relates, "Said the damned sniper had just as well gotten him as he was a loss without his hot sauce".

To this day, Toby Milroy is certain that we eventually had to send a patrol up the hill to root out that sniper. He may well be right, but I confess my memory is a bit dim about that part.

In Company B we certainly had many worse days in Vietnam. Yet few of us ever had quite the same distractions at any other Thanksgiving Dinner since, and we have been glad of it. I guess you might say that for most of us, things on that Thanksgiving Day somewhere in Binh Dinh Province have already been so bad they likely won't ever be any worse.

Copyright 2002 Richard Guthrie,

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