Miami County Vietnam Veterans: Christmas at Wartime


“Lest we forget”- We had thousands in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.Some were from the Miami Valley of Ohio and now share their stories of Christmas day in a land that most Americans at the time couldn’t locate on a map.

Christmas for many of them had been family, friends, elaborate meals, church service, football games, and children tearing open presents- delighted by trains, robots, dolls and disappointed by pajamas, underwear, and shirts.

The father of Nikki Mott, PFC Garner Mott, U.S. Marine, was missing from the festivities on a farm in Champaign County as he had died on Okinawa on May 7, 1945 at 10 a.m., killed by a Japanese mortar round.

As Nikki, a U.S. Navy veteran, recalls today- and he thinks he speaks for many young men/boys celebrating Christmas before entering a war: “I thought that life would go on like this forever and everyone would live on and on.” This, however, was not to be.

Steve King reports that at Christmas in 1968, he “ found himself cruising around in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. Instead of relaxing in front of a Christmas tree, I was standing watch in the forward engine room of a destroyer, firing 5” rounds at the enemy in Vietnam.”

At just 18 in 1965 (dropped out of high school and entered the U.S. Navy at age 17 with his parents’ permission), Steve Skinner was aboard the U.S. S. Independence CVA 62, an ammo carrier for a U.S. Marine detachment and a launch site for U.S. aircraft, in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. The ship had been commissioned in the fifties and was having “lots of trouble. I could weld well, and my Christmas was in the firebox trying to replace tubes that had ruptured. My shifts were 24 hours plus and I was a nasty, grubby mess when I went to the mess hall, grabbed a little food and went back to work. I was anxious, depressed, and determined.”

On Christmas day in 1967, Huey helicopter pilot James E. Miller was at Soc Trang Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta. In this active shooting war he was doing what he did every day: flying men in and out of battle, delivering food, water and ammo. He flew the wounded to aid stations and hospitals and the deceased back to their home bases. Exhausted at the end of the day, he went to his room and played “Oh Holy Night” on a small cassette tape and wept “at the sheer beauty and the message.”

It was Christmas of 1967, and Mel Shane was sleeping on a cot in a tent at Tay Ninh, Vietnam, near Cambodia, concerned about the broken truce. More than concerned, Shane reports that he “tried to be happy, but he was edgy, wanted to be home, was somewhat angry but knew that somebody had to be there.”

As an eighteen-year-old U.S. Marine, Roger Jones arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam. and asked himself, “What the hell did I get myself into?” Jones soon learned that he had been selected to be one of Bob Hope’s guards for Hope’s 1967 Christmas Tour. And Raquel Welch was a part of Hope’s entourage!

American fighter pilot Guy Gruters spent five Christmases as a POW in Vietnam until he was released in 1973. He says, “The pain of the torture was so bad that when they came to my cell, opened the door, and designated that I was to wear my long-sleeved, formal pjs for interrogation, I never knew if I would be coming back to my cell. The torture could involve extended beating for weeks at a time. And I had been on the judo/boxing team at the Air Force Academy. I couldn’t, however, show my fear.”

Gruters continues, “Christmas was the toughest time. The important part of Christmas was that Jesus came and brought our way into heaven with his blood.”

In conclusion, John Looker describes his first Christmas after a medical discharge in 1963 preceded by 124 days of hospital stay following the Battle of Angel’s Wing on March 9, 1969, in a firefight with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army near the Cambodian border. Many of the men in his unit died that day, and Looker’s arm and shoulder injuries were severe. On Christmas day in 1963, he was living in a room in Sidney, suffering PTSD with a broken marriage and serious addiction issues.

Looker’s story , however, is a story of redemption. With ongoing VA counseling, he now spends every day helping other veterans. To John and all the veterans who have allowed me to be a small part of their lives, thank you. You have educated me in ways that no college degrees ever could. And I hope that I have honored your trust by educating others through serving as a scribe for you. May this holiday season be filled with love.

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., teaches telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and works with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].

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