“Mary Magdalene of Saigon”
A Christmas Story
Col Robert Gleason, USAF Ret
Det 2A Commander, Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam
Vietnam 1961. As they moved into December of that year, a group of 51 USAF personnel found themselves living in a hastily improvised cluster of tents on the edge of the Vietnam Air Force(VNAF) Base at Bien Hoa, about 30 miles Northeast of Saigon. This newly formed group was the first American combat unit sent to a corner of the world that in 1961 was unknown to 99.9% of American but within the next decade was destined to become a bitter cauldron of American political, military and social turmoil.
If as Tennyson wrote, “In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”, as Christmas approaches the fancy of American military men throughout the world turns toward thoughts of children. This Air Commando Detachment(Det 2A as it was designated) was no exception. With their own families back in Florida, they looked around for some surrogates. They didn’t have far to look. The VNAF enlisted families billeted a short distance away were among the poorest of the poor. The Commandos decided to hold a Christmas party for the young children of this group.
A collection was taken up and about $500 raised. This represented about 50% of all the cash available in the Detachment for the Commandos were not allowed to carry more than $20 apiece into Vietnam at the time. The next problem was to get someone into Saigon. The Commandos were restricted to their compound except for flying, for at that time their presence in Vietnam was known but to a very few. In every organization there is at least one BTO(Big Time Operator). In this case it was a young single fighter pilot from NYC who went by the nickname of Limpy.
Civilian clothes were scrounged fro here and there and Limpy was headed towards the big city and turned loose. He was given about three days to gather what he could, hopefully a few bags of candy for each of 100 or so kids. The next day Limpy was back in camp with no money, no candy, and no explanation. He was summoned before the Det. commander and his story was not reassuring.
Upon arrival in Saigon, Limpy thought that he could best survey the lay of the land by visiting a local bar. Not surprisingly, the first person he met was a young “Lady of the Evening” euphemistically referred to in Vietnam as a “B Girl.” After Limpy told her about his mission, she volunteered a better idea. Inasmuch as Limpy knew absolutely nothing about Saigon, why not just give her the $500 and she would do the shopping for him. She allowed that she would meet him back at the same bar in a week’s time. After a few more beers, Limpy saw the wisdom of her suggestion, so he agreed.
One could only image the consternation back at tent city. The money was gone and they had no way of raising more. But there was another more serious problem. The word had gone out to the local children about this upcoming event and every day groups of these very young people would line up along the path between tent city and the flight line and quietly stare at the airmen as they moved back and forth. The pensive stare from the deep black eyes of a 5-10 year old waif would melt the heart of the most grizzly old jungle fighter. The children thought they were going to have a party. The Commandos knew that they were not. Although the day to day activity of counter-insurgencies continued, the war took a back seat to the more pressing problem of solving the children’s Christmas party dilemma. There was little choice. Dispatch Limpy back into Saigon with instructions to either bring back some goodies or to head straight for China.
Did Limpy return with the goodies or end up in China!?! – Click Here to read the ending to this touching story …
What are your memories of Christmas in Viet-nam?
How did you and your family celebrate Christmas in Viet-nam?
What were the most *special* moments of your Viet-nam Christmas experiences?
French Saigon Kids – what was a traditional French Christmas like in Viet-nam?
Viet-namese Saigon Kids – how was a traditional Viet-namese Christmas spent in Viet-nam?
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