Few are ignorant of the poignancy of this World War 2 Bing Crosby hit which has gone on to become a Christmas favorite. It was still a staple of the older “lifers” in the service in 1970. This was to be my first Christmas away from my family as well as in a war zone. During December I was beginning to get sick from the hepatitis which would soon put me in the hospital. I’d had a transfusion about two and half months earlier and I was beginning to look like I’d drunk too much O.J. The Johnny Walker snake bite medicine wasn’t much help either.
I had recently been assigned to T-11 way up country (October 11th, 1970) and was still settling in. I thought fondly of my Meo or Hmong friends I had made up in Laos and wondered if I’d ever see them again. A word about these soldiers and pilots…
Ta-hann (General Vang Pao’s Meo soldiers) joined up very young. At eight or nine they were expected to take up a .30 calibre M-1 Carbine and begin base defense. This included spreading AO and ABlue around the perimeter in a cut off bleach bottle scoop.
By the time they reached puberty they were expected to be proficient in either a black powder Meo (I use Meo and Hmong interchangably because I remember them being called Meo) musket or the M-1. A certain number of captured Chinese Communist SKS rifles and AK 47s were sprinkled in. The occasional .45 ACP , G-3s, and Thompson SMGs were also still in use.
Ta-hann were not given re enlistment bonuses. They were paid infrequently and had a hard life. I cannot begin to tell you how they approached this mentally. Stoically, I imagine. I never heard any complain about the food or the rain. Vacation and R&R were not in their vocabulary. Family and clan ties were thick there and honor was all you had to set yourself above the animal kingdom. Serving in the military was not an if but a when. There was much pride around the campfire in the evening after kicking the Pathet Lao’s ass. There was always talk of which cabal was friends with you at any given time. There were many-Neutralists, others who supported the old monarchy and the Military Junta in power in Vientiane. VP’s troops were the front line up in Long Tieng representing the Junta, and in all the hills around the Plain of Jars. Vang Pao was supported closely by the CIA. The Pathet Lao (translated as Lao Nation) were the Laotian version of the Viet Cong. The Neutralists were always jumping back and forth early on but eventually sided with the Pathet Lao.
Air America knit this coalition of mountainous outposts together. We delivered like the Domino Pizza guy. We either landed and unloaded or dropped if the airpatch/LZ was hot or screwed up by the monsoon weather. Hard rice was ammo and military gear. Soft rice was food. Whenever we dropped we often used drogue chutes to arrest the fall of the package/crates/pallets. Sometimes we dropped pigs whole sans parachute knowing they’d have them for dinner. At any rate, there were always a lot of small chutes lying around.
Vang Pao made two promises to his Ta-hann. They would always be fed and clothed and when they fell in battle, they would be guaranteed a return of their body to their home and family for burial along with a one-time payment for services rendered. Vang Pao adhered to this religiously and it was what kept their army so faithful. A body must be returned to the earth to set the soul free. The family will celebrate you long after you depart. The soul is called Phee. It is your spirit and Meo were big on Phee. If you died up in Xieng Khouang (L-22), your body would be unceremoniously wrapped up in one of those old drogue chutes and await transport on a Porter or Helio Courier back to Long Tieng (LS-20A). Once there, it might sit for several more days until a plane was headed upcountry to Na Khang or Khang Khay. While a Ta-hann had a promise of return, it was not time-stamped like the Mideast where they want to see you below ground within 24 hours. Ta-hann were often pretty aromatic before they made that final honor flight.
Imagine everyone in your town thinking as one. Aircraft etiquette says you fly around the proposed landing area and observe your field. Since there was only one way in on the side of most mountains, it was a straight in shot. The mere sound of the aircraft galvanized the village into action. Small children were grabbed and whisked off the runway. Errant water buffalo were beaten and driven to the side. The whole populace stood and waited. If landing, the ta-hann was deplaned first to relocate the stench. The stoic looks of the villagers said much. There were no tears, no anguished wales or ululations for the dead. Just a staid glance and then all eyes reverted back to the aircraft. We never kicked a ta-hann out like cargo. We gave them much reverence even if their own were less reverent about the event. In America, when the military came calling to inform you that your son or husband was no more, an officer (usually field grade) accompanied by a senior NCO heralded the entrance. In Laos, a Helio Courier or Porter did much the same with said freight on board.
Every year around this time, I think back on those brave men. Many died before reaching fifteen. They had no Christmas. There was little joy in their life. Weddings were rare and usually short-lived. Buddhism is a way of life that dictates how everyone should behave. The operable phrase most descriptive is “What goes around, comes around”. It seems so sad in retrospect but at the time war was all-consuming. Personal tragedy somehow never made a dent in their psyche. PTSD was incomprehensible.
The closest thing to Christmas was Pee-Mai (New Years Day) or Songkrahn (the water spirits festival). Outside of those two events, the year was remarkably boring. The spirits controlled the vertical and the horizontal 24/7. A dead ta-hann’s spirit was now free and there was no more association with his body. All that was needed was the proper sendoff and an annual tithe to his memory to keep his phee happy.
Keep this in mind when you celebrate the holidays. I certainly don’t want you morose and in a dour mood. Don’t get me wrong. But just think of all the poor souls who won’t be home for Christmas-ever. Remember them. Hoist your glass in tribute to them. Regardless of their race or religious persuasion, they were some of the bravest, youngest soldiers I ever met. Why I remember them at Christmas rather than Veterans or Memorial Day is immaterial. Perhaps their phee require a tithe during the season.