One afternoon in Vietnam, Late 1970Free Access

This really happened. Now, the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is that a fairy tale always begins, “once upon a time,” while a war story always begins, “this really happened.” But this is a Christmas story, as well as a war story, and—yes–it did indeed really happen.

Major Jim and I were assigned to an Air Force Advisory Team at Nha Trang Air Base on the coast of Vietnam. We were best friends most of my Vietnam tour and did a lot of things together, including R and R to Hong Kong and a Dustoff helicopter ride into the Central Highlands and a few other things. We also lived in the same villa most of my tour. I was then a captain.

Jim wanted to take a trip to Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, about 45 road miles away, to see if he could scrounge some usable equipment for a training aids shop he was helping the Vietnamese Air Force Air Training Center build. He asked if I would like to go along, and—as usual—I was more than happy to get out into the countryside.

We traveled in a beat-up but serviceable VNAF deuce-and-a-half truck along with a VNAF warrant officer and two VNAF sergeants. One of the sergeants drove. We had little to fear from the Viet Cong, since they rarely attacked single vehicles like ours. We were armed just in case, though.

Cam Ranh Bay was a huge base with an area that looked a little like a city dump but was really a field where surplus equipment was stored. Jim spotted a big sheet metal cutter and a big and heavy floor grinder. A USAF airman with a forklift loaded the two items onto our truck. The sheet metal cutter probably weighed around 200 pounds and the grinder was maybe 350 to 500 pounds.

Our Vietnamese counterparts “secured the load” with a single nylon tie-down strap anchored to the truck bed. I took one look and warned that would never hold if we hit a bump or if we had to brake suddenly. I was overruled by Major Jim and by our three Vietnamese counterparts. They insisted the tie-down would keep the load from moving. I didn’t buy that, but I didn’t argue any more. No point.

The Vietnamese all climbed into the cab and Jim and I got in back. I picked a spot well clear of our load and, against my advice, Jim perched on top of the sheet metal cutter. And down the road we went. It was a nice day and Jim was snapping pictures as we rolled through the beautiful countryside.

We got behind a group of Vietnamese Army trucks that were being used to gather small trees for the Lunar New Year—or Tet—celebration, which was a few weeks away. Well, sure enough, one of the trucks had to suddenly slow down and there was a chain reaction all the way back to us. We braked hard—the load slid forward as the tiedown gave way, and Jim was pinned between the sheet metal cutter and the truck cab, and he was in serious pain from the pressure on his legs.

I jumped up and tried vainly to pull the load back, yelling for help, while Major Jim was doing a lot of yelling as well. I tugged and tugged to no avail, and then suddenly I was pushed out of the way, as about 5 or 6 ARVN Vietnamese soldiers jumped up onto the truck, grabbed the sheet metal cutter, and began counting and tugging on the heavy load. It moved, and Jim was freed—much to our relief. (I am to this day proud of the fact I never once said, “I told you so.” I never had to.)

We thanked the Vietnamese, who smiled and bowed and told us as well as they could they were glad to help. In Asian cultures the Lunar New Year is a time of reconciliation and good will, celebrated with a little decorated tree, gifts for children, and maybe some of our Christian concept of “love thy neighbor.” (Or thy allies.) My view of the Vietnamese changed that day as I saw something in them I had missed before: They could be very strong and helpful when they needed—or wanted—to be.

A few weeks later we Americans celebrated Christmas, and we shared our feelings of good will with our Vietnamese allies. I wish those ARVN soldiers had celebrated with us, but they were having their own celebration and I think they deserved every moment of it.

It really happened, late in 1970. Major Jim’s legs healed—had we been going faster he might have lost them—and maybe he was a little more humble after that. And we all went on with our lives.

Enjoy your holiday, remember to treat everyone as a friend and you will be surprised at how many friends we all have. Merry Christmas!

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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