If I were down range in Afghanistan, I would be paying close attention to the November election because one of the presidential “tweets” last week promised to “bring all the troops home by Christmas.” And who wouldn’t want to be home at Christmas? Ironically, those on the ground over there might not even know of the possibility as the Department of Defense recently proposed defunding the publication of the famous “Stars and Stripes” military newspaper, which has provided daily news to those in harm’s way since World War I.
In my opinion, we should not have deployed to Afghanistan in the first place.
After being bogged down in that sandy quagmire for 19 years, the only results we have achieved are broken hearts and the loss of billions of dollars. The Afghans (their currency is called “Afghani”) have been fighting each other since Alexander the Great, and such internecine warfare is a way of life for them. We should have learned from the Russians who cut their losses, declared victory, and got out in 1989. They, in turn, could have learned from the British who were unable to pacify Afghanistan during the Great Game diplomacy of the late 19th century.
Although going home is always paramount on the minds of many soldiers, sailors, and Marines, the thought of it really rises to the top during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, no matter how far away one might be. “Happy Holidays” is a melancholy sentiment for personnel in the military. Big cities are the worst. I can remember walking through Times Square on a snowy Christmas Day, surrounded by people and feeling totally alone. One New Year’s Day, I had the whole Boston Common, a large park, to myself – not one person on a soapbox making an impromptu speech; not one person feeding the pigeons. Even the panhandlers had somewhere to go. It didn’t help that my favorite café, down the street from the old Charlestown Naval Yard, had just been outed and shut down as a collection point for donations to the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
On another Christmas Day, I remember hitching a ride on an ammunition ship going from Naval Weapons Station, Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, which was infamous for letting people take potshots at monkeys who wandered out of the jungle onto the firing range (not me), to Da Nang. The ship’s name was USS Nitro (AE-23), which I always thought was an inauspicious name (as in nitroglycerin) for an ammunition ship. Luckily, I didn’t believe in self-fulfilling prophecy because in late December we were plowing through the South China Sea at 10 knots, loaded with bombs, ammunition, and napalm and only a few errant sparks away from blowing a hole in the ocean floor deeper than the Marianas Trench off Guam which, as you know, at about six miles, is the deepest point in the ocean. I didn’t care to be a part of that record-breaking event.
Sometimes during holidays people do the moral math and question what they are fighting for. As someone who has been there, I can tell you: what it took Leo Tolstoy, the author of “War and Peace,” some 560,000 words to work out, I can sum up in one sentence: peace is better than war. Many others agree with me. For example, the American Civil War and both World Wars have famous stories, perhaps apocryphal, of opposing troops working out informal truces among themselves during Christmas to retrieve dead and wounded, or just because they were tired of killing.
I actually experienced such a truce during the latter days of the Vietnam War, but first let me share a much earlier example. Of course, the most famous such truce was the one declared by French, British, and German soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I (1914), but this one was much closer to home.
A “Harper’s Weekly” magazine article, entitled “Christmas on the Rappahannock,” gives an account of a brief holiday truce between Union and Confederate soldiers immediately after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. The author, John Paxton, was an 18-year-old private in the Union army and was on picket duty along the banks of the narrow but swift river. He described calling out to a rebel soldier on the other side of the stream and the resultant interaction: “Hello, Johnny.”
“Hello, yourself, Yank.”
“Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
“Same to you, Yank.”
“Say, Johnny, got anything to trade?”
“Parched corn and tobacco – the size of our Christmas, Yank.”
“All right, you shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork. Boys, find the boats.”
“Such boats! I see the children sailing them on small lakes in our Central park. Some Yankee, desperately hungry for tobacco, invented them for trading with the Johnnies. They were hiding away under the banks of the river for successive relays of pickets. We got out the boats. An old handkerchief answered for a sail. We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail and watched them slowly creep to the other shore. And the Johnnies? To see them crowd the bank and push and scramble to be the first to seize the boats, going into the water and stretching out their long arms. Then, when they pulled the boats ashore, and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations, ‘Hurrah for hog.’ ‘Say, that’s not roasted rye, but genuine coffee. Smell it, you’uns.’”
“And sugar, too!”
“And they divided the consignment. They laughed and shouted, ‘Reckon you’uns been good to we’uns this Christmas Day, Yanks.’ Then they put parched corn, tobacco, and ripe persimmons into the boats and sent them back to us. And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, ate persimmons, which if they weren’t very filling, at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner. And so, the day passed. We shouted, ‘Merry Christmas, Johnny.’ They shouted, ‘Same to you, Yank.’ And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening.”
As for my personal example, I was on a ship providing close in gunfire support along Highway 1, on the coast of North Vietnam, and after a tour in-country, being on such a ship stationed on the “gun line” as it was called, was like taking a leisure cruise to Cozumel. The worst things that ever happened, from my point of view, was that we often ran out of soda pop, and the saltwater evaporators usually couldn’t make enough fresh water for the crew to have regular showers.
Other than that, it was like riding the SS Queen Mary. In fact, I was taking my regular “nooner” (nap while off watch during the noon hour) on top of the missile house, soaking up a few rays, when a North Vietnamese artillery battery cut loose on us.
It was the afternoon before Christmas, and we had watched them though the “big eyes” (powerful mounted dual telescope) on the bridge as they cranked an old anti-aircraft gun down to its lowest elevation and started firing. Although most missed, a shell or two managed to hit us, but they failed to explode; however, one did pass through the missile house, directly underneath me, and destroyed about 300 high-dollar stereo systems the crew had just picked up at the Navy PX in Yokosuka a few weeks before during a period of maintenance and R&R.
Almost all sailors bought stereo systems. It was a rite of passage. You bought the biggest, loudest, most complicated one you could afford. Everyone from the Old Man (the Captain) to the lowest mess cook had bought the stereo system of his dreams and stored it in that compartment. We were carrying some mellow sounds.
Now, this unscheduled barrage was definitely not fair and a violation of the “deal.” You see, we, too, had worked out an informal but unspoken truce: they would shoot at us early in the morning, and we would shoot at them late in the afternoon. That way, we all knew when to move just out of range, and nobody ever got hurt. The writing was on the wall: the war was about over, and nobody wanted to be the last one to die. As far as I was concerned, it was a great way to wage war: shoot lots of shells; make lots of noise; give a medal to everyone who shows up; and everybody gets to go home.
But some hot-shot, gung-ho, hardcore NVA officer, probably just down from Hanoi, who didn’t know the arrangement, and was probably Buddhist to boot, not acknowledging Christmas, had messed everything up. Or maybe Uncle Ho had heard about it back at headquarters and got upset. In any event, smoking, solid state, Sansui, JVC, Akai, Teac, Onkyo, and Panasonic cabinets and components were scattered all inside the missile house, and the big question from the crew was not “Are we sinking?” or “Did anyone get hurt?” but “Did my stereo survive?”
The “ambush” made the Old Man so mad that he opened fire with the forward five-inch 38-gun battery and got it so hot that the barrel exploded, causing more damage to the ship than the NVA shell. It might actually have been a “short-round,” exploding prematurely, but the end of the barrel looked like a blooming chrysanthemum. The whole experience struck me as an appropriate metaphor for about 14 years of futility in a war we never should have gotten involved in to start with. By the way, my stereo didn’t survive, but I bought me a new one in Sasebo a few months afterwards, and I still listen to it often, some 50 years later.
Coming home on that ship, I suggested to the Old Man that we go “Old Navy” by making and flying a “Homeward Bound Pennant.” I had seen one in 1963 when the heavy cruiser I was on returned to the States after three years in the Mediterranean. It’s an ancient tradition that we got from the British Navy, and it flies from the mast to commemorate the end of a successful deployment. Its length is determined by the number of crew members, with one linear foot allotted for each person. Since our ship had about 375 in the crew, we decided that would be unwieldy and cut it by fifty percent. Still, it took a lot of wind and a few balloons to keep it up.
It was supposed to be red, white, and blue, but we couldn’t find that much material, so we scrapped together whatever was available as surplus or worn out from the ship’s flag bag or supply of signal flags. When we got through sewing, it looked like a long, nautical version of Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, but we didn’t care – we were going home.
We only had a few weather balloons and just enough helium to hoist it as we entered Pearl for refueling and when we got home to San Diego. Later on, we chopped it up, and every crew member got their “foot” as a souvenir of the cruise.
I sincerely hope the president’s tweet proves to be true and we are out of Afghanistan by Christmas 2020. Just the other night, I dusted off that old stereo, a thumping Sansui, played a few tunes, and reminisced about the long, long ago.
“Homeward Bound” is certainly a statement that any “wanderer,” be they soldier, sailor, cowboy, merchant seaman, or long-distance trucker – whoever wakes every day to see the sun rise in a different place – loves to hear.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit bennyhornsby.com or send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.