My Happiest Thanksgiving: A Young Veteran's Memoir
by Granville Angell
Many years ago, not long after returning from Vietnam, I wrote about my experiences of Thanksgiving in that country. Never published, the story settled into the sedimentary deposits of notebooks, stories and files collected over the years – only to be discovered again some weeks back – just in time to share during the Veterans Day and Thanksgiving holidays. Out of respect for the original author of my youth, I resisted the temptation to rewrite to my current style. Back then, as today, we lived in a time of war. We don’t hear much about good things that happen in war, but I can assure you that somewhere in Iraq, in not too many days, at least one similar story will unfold . . .
Slowly the warm November sun sank closer to the rolling green mountains west of Dak To. A mild breeze picked up, serving only to stir about the calescent air rising from the hot asphalt runway. The scents of human waste being burned in jet fuel and diesel fumes from electrical generators intermingled with the dust stirred up by helicopters hovering across the runway.
Otherwise, it was quiet. It had been quiet all day. I had flown only a couple of routine medical evacuation missions and that was unusual considering the extent of enemy activity in the Dak To area.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1968, and I was a helicopter ambulance pilot assigned to the 283rd Medical Detachment in Vietnam.
Long shadows interconnected the sandbagged tents and bunkers of the encampment which, from the air, looked somewhat like an oversized prairie dog city placed obtrusively among the verdant hills of the countryside. As I stood in front of the medical bunker, the shadow of our "Dustoff" helicopter reaching toward my feet, I became despondently aware of the lateness of the day.
Compared with other Thanksgivings in my life, this Thanksgiving in Vietnam could not help but be anticlimactic. Not that I was not thankful that the day had been especially calm and peaceful. But the lack of activity somehow served to make the day seem purposeless and my presence meaningless. Perhaps, it was the idleness of the day that inclined me to reminisce about bygone holidays over the past nineteen years of my life. As I had grown older during my childhood, I had become aware that each Thanksgiving seemed better than the last. Of course, that was probably due to my increasing maturity and growing understanding of the holiday's significance. I did recall how our activities, family devotions and suppers always seemed to make the previous year's Thanksgiving an event of somewhat lesser grandeur. Now, I was in Vietnam, and in the absence of my loved ones, the ageing day held little promise.
Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, made their way along the dusty road which ran beside the barbed-wire perimeter. Although they were too far away for me to see the treasured objects they clutched in their hands, I recalled the picture of the trash dump near the road by the west end of the runway. How many times I had flown over and looked down to see that discarded pile of refuse dotted with human scavengers. Here were a people who could not imagine the exuberance of a Thanksgiving feast. I suddenly felt very thankful for my American heritage and healthy upbringing. Regardless of the war, my country was determined to provide all of its servicemen in Vietnam a Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings.
My thoughts were interrupted as a group of soldiers walked past talking expectantly about the meal awaiting them at the mess hall. It was time to eat.
I accompanied three Medical Corps buddies to the officers' section of the mess hall. We seated ourselves at a round four-place table sporting a white tablecloth half hidden under fancy place settings and traditional Thanksgiving hors-d'oeuvres.
The food was very appetizing, but my mind kept wandering back to the scene at the trash dump. I was not the only one thinking along those lines, for our conversation soon touched on the incomprehensibility of our Thanksgiving to the Vietnamese people. In a country ravaged by war beyond the earliest memories of most of its people, I found myself wondering how many Vietnamese had the inclination for thanksgiving to their creator.
“Who's for seconds?” One of my friends eagerly sliced at his third helping of turkey. “There's more here than we could even begin to eat.” After two or three helpings each, we had to agree that there was going to be plenty of food left over.
It was then that the thought struck me. “Hey, why don't we give the rest of the food away?”
“And, how would we do that?” Three questioning faces waited for details.
“Take the left-over food and fly it to the people at the dump.”
“But would there be enough food left over to make it worth the effort?” The doctor on my right mused over the possibilities. “There are several mess halls here at Dak To and they probably all have quite a bit left over. It would be worth checking with all the mess sergeants to see if they'll let it go.”
Chuck, our aircraft commander, looked across the table at me reflectively. “If it only were not so late in the day . . .”
We arose and started back to our section of camp, discussing the dinner and the possibilities of flying the remaining food to the Vietnamese. Henry suggested that we fly the food to the orphanage in the village of Dinh Binh. As an Army dentist, he had become familiar with the area while on medical missions in the local villages. He was convinced that the orphans in Dinh Binh were far more needy than the people who frequented the trash dump.
“Well Chuck, what do you think,” I asked. Chuck and I had become close friends over the four months we had known each other since my arrival in Vietnam. I knew that he was quite sympathetic toward the Vietnamese people.
“I don't know, its so late. If we could be finished and be back by dark, I'm all for it. We sure don't want to be flying into an insecure village at night on a non-medical mission.”
We had a plan.
It was certainly worth an attempt. Pulling this off with only an hour and a half of daylight was going to require some real humping. Henry devoted himself to locating a jeep while I ran around to the mess halls to secure their support. Each mess hall gave me its closing time which was when I was to return in the jeep to pick up the food. After acquiring the food from the mess halls, I was to deliver the food to the runway, where our medic and crew chief would load it on the helicopter.
Strangely and gratifyingly, it did not quite work that way. Oh, the mess halls provided the food as promised; but much more than was expected. Extra cases of milk and cooking staples, not to mention cake and candy, shared space with Thanksgiving victuals on the overloaded jeep. After the first mess hall, it was necessary to return to the helicopter. It took a disconcertingly long period of time to unload the jeep, and I anxiously drove to the next mess hall. Upon returning with an equally generous overload of food, the jeep had hardly come to a stop before it was half unloaded. It seemed like everybody in the medical section was now out to help. Some unloaded the jeep, some carried and some loaded the helicopter. The next couple of trips were just as successful. So much so, that I was wondering if we would be able to carry the whole load.
Under supervision of our crew chief and medic, the rest of the loading was completed. We were ready to be on our way. I climbed into the cockpit and slipped on my flight helmet. Chuck climbed in beside me, smiling. It had taken an hour to secure the food and load it. As I cranked over the jet engine in our Huey helicopter, those in the cargo compartment drew lots and otherwise determined priorities as to which people would have the privilege of going.
There was neither room nor weight allowance for everybody. Cameras appeared on the persons of our lucky passengers. After a sluggish lift-off, we were on our way.
Ten minutes later, while flying with the sunset at our backs, the tiny hamlet of Dinh Binh rose out of the gathering shadows and greenery beneath us. Steve, a rather young looking medical doctor, hunched over the console between Chuck and me and stared intently out the front windshield.
“Over that way,” he shouted over the transmission whine and beating rotor blades. “The orphanage is run by the Catholic church. It looks kind of like a French monastery.”
Chuck gestured toward the buildings with the prominent French architecture. “That area between the buildings looks like a good place to land. We should make a low level west-to-east pass first, to play it safe.” We had previously agreed to touch down and remain at the controls, while unloading with the engine running. Though we flew unarmed, according to Geneva Convention standards, our red cross bearing ships frequently became the target of enemy fire. Our pass revealed the area to be a playground teeming with frolicking children.
As we passed over at an altitude of forty feet and an airspeed of ninety knots, I noticed the children waving and running enthusiastically around three prominent figures robed in white and black. “Looks natural enough to me.” We climbed out and circled back, starting a slow descent over our previous path. “With this heavy load on we'll have to take her right to the ground ... no hovering.” I could see the nuns gathering the children to the side. “Well, now we don't have to worry about landing on any kids . . . right to the ground . . . great!”
No sooner had our skids touched the ground than the kids broke free and ran excitedly to the ship. Skipping and dancing and pointing like children do the world over, those orphans convinced us in one unified feeling of heart that the effort and the trip were well worth the undertaking. Our passengers and crew began to unload the cargo while Steve talked to the Vietnamese nuns in his best French. He explained our Thanksgiving and offered the food as a way of sharing our blessings with them.
“Okay . . . right . . . ,” Steve's voice came over the intercom as he adjusted the flight helmet he had just borrowed from the crew chief. He motioned for our attention. "Hey . . . The sisters want me to pass on the message . . . They say, ‘God bless you’ . . . They say that our gift . . . gives them real cause to pray to God . . . in thanksgiving for this blessing. Look out your window.”
I looked out the window beside me and noticed that one of the sisters had come up to the skid. I reached out and took her hand and felt for an instant that boundless communion of tender regard which knows no barrier of language or culture.
With the food unloaded, we waved a cheery goodbye. After the children were gathered out of the way, we lifted off and I headed our ship back toward Dak To. We were so exhilarated by our experience that we completed our return trip without comment. In minutes we were back on the ground by the medical bunker. As I rolled off the throttle and ran through the shutdown procedure, our passengers disembarked and strolled toward their tents. They were elated, but silent.
Chuck hung his flight helmet over the seat and rapped me cheerfully across the flak jacket. “See you in the tent.”
I removed my flight helmet and sat there quietly, thinking about the day. The gathering dusk had risen out of the east and infiltrated its way through the balmy evening air, pushing the last shades of crimson behind the western hills. The rotor blades spun slowly to a halt and Dick, our medic, began to tie them to the tail-boom.
We had accomplished our goal during a brief hour and a half before dark. And that hour and a half of that Thanksgiving day meant more to me than all the Thanksgivings of my life. We had personally experienced the axiom of universal law which holds that there is nothing more rewarding in offering thanks for God's blessings than sharing those blessings with others. And yet, that reward involves no material gain. The reward manifests itself in the emotion called joy, yet words cannot measure the quality of that feeling in the heart.
I realized my inability to express myself when I noticed Dick waiting patiently for me on the skid. I could only smile and say, “Come on. Let's go inside.”
I climbed out of the ship and we headed silently toward the wood-planked sidewalk leading to the medical bunker. Meanwhile, I thought determinedly about some way of explaining my feelings.
Dick stopped short of the walk and turned tentatively toward me. “Mister Angell,” he said, “that was really . . . uh . . .to me . . . I feel . . .” He stopped, looking bewildered in his desperation to express himself.
“I understand,” I said. “I know just how you feel.”
It was something felt by all of us who participated in that extraordinary mission on a warm Thanksgiving evening in Vietnam. A composite of feeling and emotions –which claim words like love, kinship, understanding, joy and yes; even peace. And the realization that far more than any material bounty, whether food or wealth, the greatest blessings of all are felt in the heart.