by J.L. O'Dell
Soldiers on patrol during Christmas
|Dear Mom and Dad,
Dec. 12, 1982
Well, it’s been very cold here in Korea. As you may have guessed because of the rising tensions, Christmas leaves are not being approved. So, I’m sorry to say that I won’t be home for your world-famous sweet potato pie. I wish I could. I can taste it now. But the Army needs me up here on this border. So, like you did Dad, I’m standing my post. But I’m pretty sure the mess hall will take good care of us.
How is that little pain in the butt sister of mine? I wrote her a letter two weeks ago and she hasn’t written back. She must have a new boyfriend or something. Tell her I said hello.
Mary Ellen wrote me a letter. I got it two days ago. She says she misses me and can’t wait until my tour is done and I can come home for good. We’re still planning on that June wedding. Give her my slice of that pie. She needs the extra food since she’s carrying that baby boy (I hope) of mine. Mary Ellen says she’s getting too fat for me to love her. I keep telling her she’s just crazy. I’ll never stop loving her. And my leave for next month looks like it’s going to happen. She doesn’t know I’ll be home when the baby is born. I’ll bet she is going to be so surprised.
Is she and her parents coming over for Christmas dinner still? I hope that plan hasn’t changed. It would be great to think about all of you together around the table even if I’m not there.
But don’t you go worrying about me. I’ll be fine. The guys and I will have some fun and maybe sing some Christmas songs in the barracks.
I hate to cut this short, Mom, but I need to get ready to go on patrol. In all this snow it’s a lot easier to track any possible enemy movement on our side of the border. If they would just not sneak across, my buddies and I could go home for Christmas. Well, not all of us, but you know what I mean. I know you worry about me like all the Moms worry about my buds. But we’re alright and happy to do our duty.
You guys take care of each other. Merry Christmas from me and the boys up here on Freedom’s Frontier.
All my love,
P.S. I’ll write again soon and don’t forget to tell butthead to write me back.
The winter of 1982 was an extremely dangerous time. Between the unusual cold and harsh weather conditions, the North Korean army decided to increase the tensions along the border. Their increased patrols and movement of infantry units close to the DMZ signaled possible trouble. Zeke and his buddies patrolled their sector despite the adverse conditions. Christmas Eve was no exception.
"Anything new up here happening or the same old stuff?” Private First-Class Zeke Henderson asked his squad leader. The squad was preparing to load onto the five-ton truck that would drop them at their sector for tonight’s patrol.
“Naw, Lt. said same old stuff, different night. But guys we need to stay alert and not start thinking nothing is going to happen. The situation could change.” Sergeant Aikens finished briefing his 11-man squad and got them loaded on the truck. Riding in a five-ton truck is hard enough at any time, but tonight the driver hit more holes in the road than usual as the potholes were hidden under a foot or more of fresh snow.
The truck driver banged on the rear window alerting Sgt. Aikens it was time to get off. “Ok, here we go.”
At twenty-foot intervals each soldier rolled off the back of the truck landing in the snow. Sgt. Aikens went off the truck after five of his men were on the ground. After rolling in the snow each man took up a prone firing position with his weapon at the ready. The 5-ton continued down the road.
Aikens whistled for his men to rally near a lone tree. Once everyone was accounted for, he detailed tonight’s patrol mission. “Ok, does everyone understand? Tonight’s no different. Keep your eyes and ears open. Henderson, take point.”
The squad set out in single file with Aikens the fourth men in. PFC Henderson was 20 meters forward of the squad on point. His job was to warn of any potential danger. Under better conditions he would have been further out, but not tonight. The snow was coming down hard and visibility was low. The squad leader kept his men tight and within sight of each other.
Their sector for patrol that night was quiet. There were no apparent breaches of the fence and they hadn’t seen any prints in the fresh snow. The wind blew the snow around them in little swirls that danced across the landscape. With what little moonlight there was movement was slow. Henderson made sure he didn’t get to far ahead of the squad.
Further up was a slight bend where the fence went down a slope, across a narrow draw and back up. It would take a little time to check this area out with the snowfall. Sgt. Aikens figured there must be another three inches on the ground since they jumped off the truck some four hours ago. So far, he figured the patrol only covered about two miles. Yup, he thought, slow going tonight.
Henderson stopped suddenly and took a knee. He was not sure of what he was seeing but there definitely was some movement ahead. Aikens seeing his point man take a knee halted the rest of his squad. Everyone took a knee and began observing their area of responsibility. Aikens moved up to where Henderson was waiting.
“What’s up? Anything?” Aikens asked through his gloved hand.
“Don’t know, Sarge, but something is moving up there. Chip needs to bring the Starlight scope up.”
“Don’t know if it will do any good without any real moon light but why not. Go get Chip and the scope. Hurry back, ain’t got all night.”
Henderson moved back towards the squad in a crouch. Sgt. Aikens continued to watch for signs of any movement to his front. He didn’t want to spook whoever was out there and get his squad into something they might not be able to handle. Aikens knew if he needed helicopter support that in this weather nothing was flying. He and his men would be out here alone.
PFC Henderson and PFC Chip Smith moved forward towards their sergeant’s position. Once in place Smith began to scan the area for movement. The draw was one hundred meters to his front but with the limited light the Starlight scope provided little observation.
“You got anything, Chip?” Sgt. Aikens was getting restless. He needed to know if it was safe for his men to move forward or perhaps back off. “Anything at all?”
“Sarge, the scope isn’t showing anything. There just isn’t that much ambient light tonight.” Chip continued to scan forward of the squad’s position. The wind continued to stir the snow and with it moved a few clouds from blocking the moon.
“Sarge, got it. Oh, man, you’re not going to believe this.”
“I’m not going to believe what? Chip, what’s out there?” Aikens was getting impatient with Smith. The wind was picking up and the falling snow was being blown directly into their faces.
“Sarge, it’s a herd of deer. Maybe twelve of them. I can’t tell. They’re moving across the fence heading south. Oh, man, Sarge I see some little guy dressed in red. And maybe a sleigh. Of all nights. Christmas eve. I thought he was a legend.” Smith was silently laughing to himself as he joked.
“Very damn funny, Chip. Deer, really?” Sgt. Aikens took the scope and looked for himself. “I’ll be. First time I’ve seen deer up here.”
Aikens directed his two men to follow him back to where the rest of the squad waited. “Chip here found Santa and his sleigh crossing the wire. So, we’ll sit tight for a few minutes and give the deer a chance to move along. I don’t want to spook them and maybe give our position away.”
One of the guys chuckled a little. “Damn, Sarge, I don’t think Saint Nick is going to shoot at us, is he?”
“Funny Jackson. I thought I had soldiers out here and wind up with some second-rate comedians.” Aikens checked his watch. “Take five and then we move out. You and Chip better keep your day jobs. I don’t see a future for you in comedy.” It was Aikens turn to chuckle and he was joined by the other members of the squad.
One of the guys smacked Jackson on the shoulder. “I thought it was funny.”
The new order of march had Henderson in the middle of the column with Specialist Lopez taking point. The deer (and Santa) had cleared the area without a sound. With the snow fall at its present rate the deer tracks would be gone in less than an hour.
Aikens led his men through their patrol area without any contact with the other side. They arrived at their pick-up point early despite the storm. As dawn arrived on Christmas day the snowflakes grew larger and began falling faster. Aikens worried the 5-ton might not be able to reach them and he would need to march his troops back to base camp in this weather. His men were cold and wet and needed the comfort of a hot cup of coffee and a chance to thaw out.
The designated pickup time came and went. The snowflakes were smaller now, but the wind begin to blow harder picking up the flakes and throwing them around in three different directions at once. Aikens looked up and saw the sun trying desperately to poke its way through the gray clouds and provide some warmth to the freezing troops hurled in the tree line.
Aikens asked his radio man if there was anything. “Sorry, Sarge, just static.”
“Keep listening and broadcasting. If the truck doesn’t arrive in 15 mikes, we’re heading out. Ok guys, we move out in 15. It’s a long walk back. And I don’t want to hear any crap. If they can’t get to us, then we go to them. Hooah.”
“Sarge, can’t we wait here.” It was O’Neil who was new to the unit.
“Negative soldier. You don’t want frostbite. If we’re moving, we’re staying warm.”
Aikens formed his men in the tree line and began the march back the 15 miles to camp. The going was slow through the three foot of snow accumulation on the ground. He knew his guys were cold, hungry and tired. But they were infantry and trained to survive. Making it back to camp didn’t worry him. He was worried about what shape his troops would be in when they got back. Aikens knew from experience that dehydration, hypothermia, and frostbite were his worst enemies now.
After an hour or so Aikens heard the radio chirp and a voice. “Bravo 35, this is Bravo 26. We’re almost there. About 5 miles, over.”
“Bravo 26, this is 35. We’re on the south side of the road about 2 miles closer. We’ll be waiting. Tell me you got coffee.”
“35 this is 26. Roger on the coffee and I think it’s still hot. “Keep an eye out for me. Out.” The truck driver continued down the road until he saw Aikens and his men. Mission accomplished.
Christmas dinner at the Henderson household was a joyous occasion. Mary Ellen, her Mom and Dad, and her two brothers were there. Zeke’s mother set the table with her best china and silverware. The food was plentiful with the main star, the twenty-pound honey glazed turkey, sitting in the middle. Candied yams, mashed potatoes and bowls of vegetables along with a heaping basket of biscuits surrounded the majestic bird.
“Everything looks so great. Thank you so much.” Mary Ellen’s mother remarked. “I hope there’s room for all the pies we brought.”
“Oh, Mom. There’s going to be room. Besides, I’m eating for two. Kay, everything does look and smell great.”
“Speaking of eating for two,” Kay Henderson said. “Zeke said to make sure you get his slice of sweet potato pie, sweetie.”
Mary Ellen turned to look out the window. “I wonder what he’s doing right now.”
“Honey, I’m sure he’s eating turkey and enjoying himself. Just as we are going to. Right, Kay?”
“I’m sure he is. Let’s peel the guys off the couches and turn off that TV. It’s time to eat.”
After the meal the men went back to watching television while the ladies enjoyed coffee.
“When should we start planning the wedding do you think,” Mary Ellen asked her mother and Kay Henderson. “Is it too soon?”
Kay placed her cup on the table. “No, it’s never too soon. Zeke will be back from overseas in June as planned.”
Mary Ellen’s mom, Janice, smiled at her daughter. “Maybe we should plan this baby shower first. You only got a few more weeks.”
“I know. I wish Zeke could be here for the baby’s birth. He’ll be so surprised in June when he sees how big the baby will be. I hope it’s a girl. He wants a boy you know.”
“Kay, let me help you clear and wash. And Mary Ellen, you sit here and drink your coffee. We have this.” Janice was up and gathering dishes while Kay started filling the sink with hot, bubbly water.
“You know I can help. I’m not that fragile.” Mary Ellen finished her coffee and stood to begin gathering dishes from the table. “Where would you like me to scrape these, Kay.”
“In that can over there.” Kay replied.
Mary Ellen brought the stack of dishes to the counter and began scraping the remains of a great feast into the trash can.
“Mom, Kay I don’t feel good.”
Both women turned to face Mary Ellen. Janice was the first to ask. “Why, what’s wrong?”
Mary Ellen turned to look at her mother. She was holding her stomach with both hands. “Guys, my water broke.”
Kay and Janice both looked down at the pool of liquid between Mary Ellen’s feet.
Kay called to her husband to get the van. The trip to the hospital was short.
“Mary Ellen, this is a Christmas miracle.” Her mother told her as she was being wheeled into the delivery room. “We may not have Zeke for Christmas, but we will have yours and his baby. This will make Christmas even more special each year.”
As Aikens loaded his men into the 5-ton, the cloud cover broke and PFC Henderson, looking skyward as he climbed into the truck, thought he saw a shooting star.