This is the third installment of profiles of local Vietnam veterans in the advent of the arrival of the Moving Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial Replica, scheduled to arrive in Newport on Sept. 19. We offer this as a way to thank them for their service and to shed new light on a politically charged war that was fought and shrouded in so much darkness. Look for more installments in the coming weeks.
By Rick Kelly of Newport, as told to James Merolla
Everyone at advanced infantry training in Fort Polk, Louisiana was excited in early December 1968. We had heard that the base would be closed for Christmas and everyone would get a two-week leave. Inexplicably, we were going home for Christmas!
It was hard after that for anyone to concentrate on infantry training. In the middle of a training cycle, we thought about being home for Christmas. That day, as usual, we climbed aboard 2½-ton Army transport trucks, the Deuce-and-a- Halfs, to be driven out and dropped off at a range for a day of training. We would be practicing with our M-16 assault rifles, learning to fire mortars or doing low crawls under barbed wire as a live machine gun fired over our heads. Who can remember? Everyone knew our next duty station was supposed to be Vietnam.
But – we – were – going – home – for – Christmas!
To my right, in formation, stood my friend, Jay. Both of us were college graduates who had met briefly the previous July in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. We were assigned to Fort Polk for infantry training and ended up not only in the same company and in the same platoon, but in the same squad. It wasn’t any surprise that two Aquidneck Islanders would become friends. We would try to figure out how we were going to get back to Rhode Island.
We stood in formation on that cold December evening waiting for the “cattle cars” to pick us up for our ride back to base. It was difficult for the drill sergeants to keep our noise down. Didn’t they realize … Christmas?
The formation of three or four platoons, probably about 100 of us, stood more or less in order, with our M-16s clutched in our hands, while we waited at ease in our best military manner.
Someone in the next platoon yelled out, “How ‘bout a Christmas carol, Sarge?” And almost immediately a bunch of voices started singing, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but not the “Twelve Days” you probably know.
Several weeks before someone had introduced a Vietnam version of the song that always brought a laugh. Over time, I heard a number of different versions, but the ones I heard always ended with, “…And a sniper in a palm tree.”
Like the original song, each day had some “special” gift to which we could all relate, like this:
“On the first day of Christmas, the VC came to me: A sniper in a palm tree…
On the second day of Christmas… two sappers in the wire…
Third day, three punji stakes…”
One-hundred voices belted out this song. But not me. I looked at Jay, and he wasn’t singing, either. I don’t know why I started, but suddenly, I began singing, “Silent Night, Holy Night” Before I got to the fifth word, Jay joined me, “All is calm, all is bright.”
Softly, but then a bit louder, we warmed to the words of the hymn, slowly silencing just the voices around us. It was the strangest thing, but soon, no one was singing about the “Twelve Days of a Vietnam Christmas.”
Anyone who knew “Silent Night” joined in. When we finished the last lines, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” no one said a word. We stood in silence, still in formation, our company quietly waiting as, off in the distance, we heard the sound of the trucks coming to pick us up.
I don’t recall how Jay and I actually got back to Rhode Island. All I remember was that we caught a series of military stand-by flights from Louisiana to Chicago to Providence. In Providence, Jay’s girlfriend, Charlotte, picked us up. They dropped me off at my house. Oddly enough, I didn’t see Jay at all during the rest of that two-week leave.
What happened over Christmas? I don’t remember much. I did go out often with friends. On Christmas night, I went to the Tavern on Memorial Boulevard. Charlie Dwyer, who I had known for a number of years, saw me sitting at the Tavern bar and asked me to keep an eye on his sister, Joan, while I was there. I didn’t realize then that Joan and I would eventually be spending quite a few Christmas nights together. But first, Vietnam got in the way.
Back at Fort Polk, Jay told me that he and Charlotte had gotten married over the break. I should have been surprised, but I had heard a few other guys had planned to do the same thing. There would be no leave time before going to Vietnam.
Jay’s name is on Panel 29W, Line 63 on The Wall in Washington, D.C. On the website for the Vietnam Memorial, you can find some details about Jay’s brief time in Vietnam.
He died on March 17, 1969, in Gia Dinh, South Vietnam, serving with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the same brigade I ended up in several months later. The memorial sites don’t mention Jay’s incredibly dry sense of humor. Or that Jay had married Charlotte over Christmas break. Or that we all teased Jay about it, laughing and congratulating him as we finished those last days of training at Fort Polk.
They also don’t mention that Jay sang “Silent Night” with a lot of other guys on a cold December evening in 1968 while waiting for trucks to bring a training company back to Fort Polk.
Sleep in heavenly peace, Jay.