|Christmas on the Mekong
As we continued north, the conditions on the ground deteriorated. Shell holes were everywhere, dikes were broken, and the fields left uncultivated. We flew over a ruined farmhouse that stood sentinel over a damaged dike. After the fighting, the land was without farmers or village life.
We flew away from this scene to a forested area cut through by a lazily curving waterway that emptied into one of the main channels of the Mekong River. Soldiers referred to this area as Snoopys Nose, a major Viet Cong base and staging area. The American and GVN gunners considered it a free fire zone, and we could see lots of downed and splintered trees.
It was hard to talk over the noise of the Huey, but there was a certain amount of light-hearted banter punctuated by gestures. Tom, the crew, the Major, and the pilot of the Swamp Fox that was accompanying us were all enjoying their Christmas Day excursion. A Swamp Fox is a light, fixed-wing, propeller aircraft loaded with rockets. These craft act as escorts and spotters for chopper flights such as the one we were taking. This pilot had his armaments turned off for the truce day, but he still carried a highly lethal load.
As we came over the river that gave Snoopys Nose its name, the banter stopped. I looked at Major Justice who had turned pale. Tom had fallen silent, and there was much agitation among the crew. The tone of the radio chatter with the Swamp Fox became tense. They were all reacting to the sight of a hundred or more sampans in the river below. This seemed to be a breech of the unspoken codicil to the gentlemans agreement about the Christmas truce, and my companions were simultaneously appalled, frightened and indignant. They all interpreted what they were seeing as the Viet Cong flipping a giant finger at them.
After a very brief consultation among the crew, the chopper began a rapid descent. The fastest way to lose altitude in a helicopter while still keeping control is to spiral in imitation of the path of a locust seed as it swirls downward. The occupants of the chopper experience a sensation that no thrill ride at Great America has yet been able to duplicate. We leveled off at less than 50 feet, and I found myself gazing dizzily out the open side of the chopper at the polemen and oarsmen on the sampans. I had been unprepared for this maneuver, and only later did I discover that we had been trying to draw fire from the presumed VC on the boats. Had someone foolishly discharged a rifle in the direction of our aircraft, that would have been a clear breech of the truce. We would have been justified in firing back, and the Swamp Fox, armaments now fully on-line, was prepared to retaliate by sinking all the sampans and killing all of the people I had been staring at.
Despite our deliberate exposure, nothing happened. The pilot climbed a bit and proceeded to our original destination where a jeep was waiting for us at the helipad. Tom and I climbed in the back, and Major Justice directed the driver to the Vietnamese District Governors house.
We found the Governor in his tennis whites resting after a doubles match. Still convinced that the VC were violating the truce, the Major had to obtain the civilian District Governors approval to attack without the provocation of live fire from the enemy. To the Majors frustration, the Governor refused blanket authorization to attack but asked to be taken out to the river area in the chopper. Tom and I were now in the way, so we were driven to one of the bunker outposts and deposited with the bored GIs there for safekeeping.
Ensconced in the bunker, Tom and I popped a couple of cold Buds and watched the Arkansas vs. Texas football game on TV. The soldiers showed some interest in the game but little in us. They talked about the return of the chopper later in the day when it was supposed to bring them hot turkey dinners. Their lethargy and focus on the trivial was perhaps caused by the realization that the next day people would be shooting at them again.
A few hours later, the Jeep returned and we drove back to the helipad to board the chopper. The Governor and the Major had returned to Snoopys Nose and repeated the maneuver we had made earlier and still drew no fire, only friendly waves. The helicopter dropped so low that the Governor was able to talk to the people on the boats and even recognize some of them. He discovered that most of them were originally from the area but had been resettled in a fortified hamlet on an island in the Mekong River because of the war. They had returned on the truce day to honor their ancestors graves and to gather firewood, a commodity readily available in a forested free fire zone. There were probably some VC sampans mixed in with the locals, but it was clearly not the massive truce violation first suspected, nor did it represent the level of danger that everyone had originally perceived. A system of checks built into the command structure and the integrity of the individuals involved had prevented a disaster this time.