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Ross Irvin: Thanksgiving—Vietnam, 1969

By Remy Benoit

Thanksgiving Day 1969
Ross Irvin,
West Point Class of 1968

Thanksgiving Day started no differently than all the other days for the past three months—with the rain. Not the hard rain of a thunderstorm, which beats down hard for half and hour or so, and then passes. This was the incessant light drizzle of the South China monsoon. Everyone was soaked, and their meager possessions as well. Only beloved letters, or other such personal items, escaped the damp since they were always tenderly tucked away in used plastic mortar shell wraps in the ubiquitous ammo can everyone carried under their rucksack.

The soldiers of the 3rd platoon, C Company 1/12th Infantry (“Red Warriors”) looked upon the day with mixed feelings. Some looked upon the day with genuine feelings of thanksgiving; for family, friends, and survival—so far. The rest, however, looked at the day in terms closer to their personal welfare..

The rumor was that the general had ordered that no soldier could go out on a mission until they had eaten Thanksgiving dinner. The CO was acting as if this was true. After all, the overnight short range patrols (SRPS) had already come in and no one had been sent back out. It was already well after dawn....

Life went on as it always does when soldiers have to wait for an indeterminate time. Some re-read letters from home, and wrote new ones. Some cleaned their weapons, yet again. Some surreptitiously listened to their radio at low volume. Others just slept or played cards. Everyone, however kept an intermittent watch on the southwest horizon. That was where the Thanksgiving bird would come from.

About 2:30 in the afternoon there was a break in the light drizzle. The sun, which hadnÂ’t been seen for several days feebly tried to break through the high overcast. It wouldnÂ’t be long now.

An hour later we could hear the faint “whop, whop, whop” of the Huey as it made a beeline towards our location. Smoke was out—yellow this time. The bird landed amidst a frenzied cloud of flying debris and smoke, but it wouldn’t be there long. The mermites with the food were quickly unloaded. Juan, of the 2nd platoon who was going on R&R to Bangkok and had decided to forego his dinner after all, jumped on the bird with the company mail. The bird turned, lifted its tail and swiftly headed down the valley. The whole process had taken less than a minute. The clouds closed in again.

The first sergeant was too smart to allow everyone to hang around the food at once, as it would invite another mortar attack. He therefore arranged that we would eat by platoon. As our platoon was scheduled to go out that day, we were first.

When we arrived they had just opened the lids to the mermites. There was still enough steam to give you an idea of the glorious contents. You could smell the sweet potatoes first, then the stuffing and finally the real turkey (not the “loaf”). Next to the mermites were cans of nuts and oh my, pumpkin pie! (The pies hadn’t even been too damaged when the boxes were tossed out of the helicopter—all the parts were still there.) It was not at all like home, of course, but for troops who had subsisted on “C-rations” and LRPs for months, it was a welcome and appreciated change.

There was some disturbance at the front of the line, but we couldnÂ’t see what it was at first.
Then we saw. Somehow the paper plates had been left out so no one had anything to eat on. (The old Korean War mess tins had long ago been abandoned as too heavy. Besides, "C rations" came in cans and LRPs were in plastic bags—what was the problem?)

Characteristically, the first sergeant had handled this difficulty with typical ingenuity. "Hold out your left hand, Sir." I received the warm sweet potatoes, topped by a slice of bread.

"Now your right hand" I now received the stuffing and the pungent turkey.
"Would you like gravy..." he grinned?
"You can come back for the pumpkin pie later." As if on cue, the drizzle began again.

An hour later, in the gathering darkness, the 3rd platoon left the company perimeter and trudged up the slippery hill. We were still thoroughly wet, but filled.

Thanksgiving Day was over. It was now time to get back to work.


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Posted by: Vietnam, at 2008-12-09 03:26:57

Neat story. My Thanksgiving in 1968 was prepared in a small "chow hall" in the Vietnamese fishing village of Rach Gia. As an Air Force Sgt, assigned to Advisory Team #55 as a Forward Air Control team, we didn't have it bad, stuck on the western coast of the Delta. I kept a menu from that 1968 Thanksgiving meal. Fast-forward 40 years later, to Thanksgiving 2008, a couple weeks ago. I was embedded with A Co, Task Force 1-22 Inf., 1/4ID in Iraq to make photos for my book compare/contrast my experience in Viet Nam and that of soldiers in Iraq. Food was brought in by an armored convoy of Humvees to our little bulding. Iraqi National Police came over and cooked some turkeys Iraqi-stye. The officers and senior NCOs served, and everyone had a very good meal. The CO had a menu made special for me. Now I can say I've had Thanksgiving twice with the Army...40 years apart. Don't want to wait that long for the next meal. Probably won't have my teeth.

Posted by: Ted Engelmann, at 2008-12-11 18:10:30

This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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