Joe Barrera: The Christmas Truce

It was not the same as the famous WWI Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front, when French and British soldiers came out of the trenches and mingled with their German enemies, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols, to the consternation of their commanders. The truce in my war was a ceasefire nevertheless. At least for a few hours, or even for a day or two, depending on where you were. The ceasefire had been announced by both the U.S. and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese agreed to it, somewhat reluctantly. They immediately violated it, firing their ubiquitous mortars at U.S. base camps. That was our version of events. The VC and the NVA said that we were the instigators.

Christmas Flower

Christmas 1967 was a clear, peaceful, sunlit day. We were set up on a hilltop near the Laotian border somewhere west of the 4th Division’s 1st Brigade Base Camp at Dak To in the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The series of bloody hill fights known as the Battle of Dak To had terminated a few weeks earlier. Like other battles far away and long ago, Dak To is largely forgotten. I cannot forget it and I am forever sorrowful because too many comrades died. The NVA mauled the 173rd Airborne Brigade on Hill 875 and 3/8th Infantry of the 4th Division at Hill 1338. 1/8th Infantry, my unit, had been involved on 1338, and firefights, ambushes, mortar and recoilless rifle attacks on unnamed hilltops. Now we dug in, licking our wounds and wondering when the next attack would come out of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos. Soldiers always know it. They had deliberately put us out there. We were the bait to entice the North Vietnamese out of their holes.

But for a short time the Prince of Peace reigned. Out of the bright blue sky a double-rotor Chinook helicopter swooped down and landed at the LZ we had hacked out of the thick forest. The ramp lowered and crewmen pushed bulging orange-colored sacks onto the ground. They ran back into the cavernous hold and emerged carrying mermite cans full of hot food. People we never saw out in the field appeared: the company XO, the supply sergeant, the mess sergeant, the company clerk, and the usual shammers and profile-wavers. These base camp commandos lined up the mermite cans, broke out the paper plates and proceeded to serve the less-fortunate grunt infantry Christmas dinner, turkey with all the trimmings. Others opened the orange sacks and out tumbled cardboard boxes, packages from home. The Army had come through. We were not forgotten after all.

I got two packages. The smaller one was from my lady love in Mercedes, the little dust-blown south Texas town five miles north of the Rio Grande. In 1750 my ancestors had settled on the north bank of the Big River, on “la merced,” the Spanish land grant which gave the town its name. I remembered my great-grandfather’s land. But he lost it to the American taxes he never understood. How I longed to be back there, dust notwithstanding. The bigger package was from my Dad, stationed with the Army in Kaiserslautern. The whole family was in K-Town, frolicking with the frauleins. I could have gone with them but I chose Vietnam instead. My girl had sent stationary, pens, envelopes, and sweet-smelling lotion-saturated wipes. She was ready for the first kiss and knew that I had not bathed in months. My father’s box was full of canned Mexican goodies, tortillas, hot sauce, tamales, cinnamon-laced chocolate, all the usual Mexican Christmas delicacies. How did he get all that stuff in Germany? That must have been some commissary in Kaiserslautern.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Heroes Make Us Who We Are

Reminder: Our sixth issue, Veterans, will be coming out soon. Keep your eyes and ears open for the latest updates and information.

red rock canyon hiking COLORFUL
View from Red Rock Canyon

Are heroes molded by the societies which produce them, or do heroes create the values that define societies? It’s a perennial question. Colorado Springs is imbued with the military ethos and we take the question of war heroes seriously. For me this is especially poignant. I still crave peace on my journey home from the Vietnam War. Searching for it, I met recently with The Pikes Peak Heroes Legacy Committee, another of our distinguished citizens’ groups dedicated to honoring veterans and their legacy.

The Pikes Peak Heroes Legacy Committee “exists for the purpose of honoring and remembering the sacrifices of heroes among us, to ensure that their legacy is preserved in our community for future generations.” To that end, the Committee is dedicated to creating a permanent, mobile, museum-quality exhibit to honor the legacy of the flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the USS Arizona, sunk on December 7, 1941. And the Arizona sailor and  survivor, Donald G. Stratton, the 96-year-old retiree who lives in Colorado Springs. But more than that, the Committee wants us to remember that the heroes of Pearl Harbor, even if only a few remain, are very much alive. The traditions they represent are also very much alive. The Committee is chaired by Capt. Bob Lally, (US Navy Ret.). Vice-chair is Col. Stan VanderWerf, (USAF Ret.). Committee members are Lisa Bachman, USAF Veteran; Dr. Andy Cain, (USN Ret.); Matt Coleman (USN Ret.); LtCol. Bill Linn, (USA Ret.); CDR Mark Seglem; (USN Ret.); Mary Beth Burichin, CSprings Airport; Welling Clark, (USN Ret.); Bill Nelson, attorney-at-law; Andy Vick, Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region. Nikki and Randy Stratton represent the family of Don Stratton. We owe all of them a sincere thanks.

The panel has already succeeded in re-naming the new Fillmore Street bridge at I-25 after Don Stratton. No doubt they will succeed with the new exhibit, which will be on display at the airport, there to greet both residents and visitors and educate them on the values which we prize in this community. But the fund-raising is still underway. Contact the Center for Regional Advancement, a 501(c)3 organization affiliated with the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, to donate.

I feel that a country, a society, a culture makes heroes. We know that America is somehow exceptional, that we live for truth, freedom, justice, fairness, and equality. And for one other thing. We live for kindness. These are high standards. We may not always live up to them, but we never stop trying. I believe that is what makes us “exceptional,” that we never stop trying–and that we are always ready to defend these virtues. The men who died at Pearl Harbor died defending them.

As he writes in his book, All the Gallant Men, Don Stratton was enraged at the treachery of the Japanese, the way their pilots grinned and waved at the American sailors they were mercilessly strafing and bombing as they flew their planes twenty-feet off the water at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack was against all that Americans hold dear. Five minutes into the Pearl Harbor attack every American sailor and Marine had made the steely resolve to avenge the death and wounding of their comrades. The sheer cruelty was against all the rules of kindness. Kindness is an American virtue. Yes, sometimes we forget ourselves and behave in a cruel manner, but we always remember who we are and come back to kindness. Kindness springs from the truth that we are all equal. There was one man who certainly believed in equality. This man believed in it so much that he disobeyed orders for the sake of the equality he felt with his shipmates. In doing so he saved Don Stratton and five other men. Joe George, the man who saved Don’s life, was the perfect example of kindness. Read Don’s book. You will be inspired to live up to American values.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

 

Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

MVCD Button

Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.