Editor's note: This is the fourth of six winners in The Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best." See the first winner here, the second winner here, the third winner here, the fifth winner here and the sixth winner here.
The double-thump firing of two 105mm howitzers woke me from a shallow sleep. I rolled onto my back and slowly opened my eyes. Just inches from my face was the flat, hard rock of the cave I had chosen for my sleep. The "cave" was actually a crevice formed by two large rocks that had slammed together ages ago. The top part of the rocks formed a tight seam, but the angle of the boulders made a separation below, and it was in that space I had wedged my cot. It was just wide enough for it to fit snugly but at just a hint of an angle.
It wasn't really a good sleeping setup, but it was far better than the mud. Of course, when it rained, the crevice became a mini waterfall and I had to scurry for dry cover. But last night it had not rained, so I had slept after a fashion. I turned over and put my hands under my chin and looked down onto the valley so very far below. It was going to be a clear day.
The sun, rising up from the South China Sea was quickly burning off the night clouds and fog. The sun was already high enough that it was reflecting off the water-filled paddies. It would be a copy of the previous day and the day before. The sun would reflect from the paddies and gradually fill the day with the silver-blue heat of the sky.
Since the cave was so tight, I couldn't really sit up in the cot, so the only way out was to slither up the cot until I toppled over and rolled out. I stood and stretched. Just then, all four of the howitzers thumped and launched four shells toward some target out in Arizona territory. Seconds later, the sound was repeated, and this happened once more. It was a battery three, which meant that each gun was firing three high explosive rounds for this fire mission.
I checked my watch; it was 0935. The cease-fire wouldn't begin for about eight more hours. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to hear the silence of Christmas Eve. The day went like most others. My watch in the Fire Direction Center was scheduled to be from 1000 until about 1800 hours. During the watch, there were the normal interdiction fire missions and actually one contact fire mission where Bravo Company had run into some kind of ambush. This mission kept us busy plotting the coordinates, and before it was over, we had fired more than 30 rounds. Toward late afternoon, the Marines in the fire fight had been extracted and the dead and injured evacuated to somewhere in the Danang area. The sun continued the slow arc to the horizon as the time approached 1800 hours. Marines began to look and act differently. Perhaps it was something in their faces.
The lines began to soften, and a slight upturn of their mouths almost suggested a smile. I could feel it also, a gradual easing of some great tensioning weight. Then there was the sound. Hard to nail down at first, but then unmistakable — the sound of silence.
I walked out of the bunker to the edge of the mountain and looked north, out over the great free-fire zone of Arizona territory and much further, to the hint of lights from Danang. For the first time in seven months since arriving in Vietnam, I looked into the gathering darkness and there were no flashes, no explosive thumps and no tracers arching and ricocheting into the sky. There were no flares or jets swooping in on some target to drop the roiling napalm or high explosives. There was just, nothing.
Perhaps for the first time, I listened to the evening insects and felt the gentle evening breeze. And above all, I could see a billion stars that flashed an eternal light that made no connection to the wars of Earth. In the gathering night, I could see the dim figures of Marines, sitting down, stretching out and for the first time in so very long, seeing and hearing. I joined them and sat on a rock and stretched so my back rested on a ledge. It felt good and comfortable and strangely right. It was going to be a silent night, and I wanted to embrace every minute and second as a precious gift.
Some hours later, perhaps 2100 hours, the clouds began to gather around our mountaintop LZ. It was a common thing and created an eerie fog that was heavy and moist and moving. I stood and began to carefully walk along the mud trail that snaked around the perimeter. As I rounded the shoulder of the mountain, I could see through the fog a faint light not far away.
I followed the trail until it reached a bunker that was dug into the side of the hill. It was formed by placing dirt-filled 105mm shell boxes on top of each other. The entry was created by placing a poncho liner across a narrow space between the boxes. Inside, there was just enough room for two cots with a narrow space between. The light was from a single candle that was placed on an ammo can, and it provided a dim illumination inside the tiny bunker.
In a whisper I asked, "You got room for one more?" From inside came the reply, "Sure, come on in." I pushed aside the liner and was surprised to see that the bunker was filled with five figures, all wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder, sitting on the cots. All were staring at the single candle between the two cots. I wedged in as Marines pushed themselves to the side. I recognized the gunnery sergeant and a few others from the guns and the Fire Direction Center. Normally I probably would have said something like, "Hey, what's happening?"
But not this time. Instead, I simply joined the quiet cathedral silence that surrounded the single light.
After a few moments, the gunny spoke in a quiet night-voice, "We're just telling some of our stories from Christmas." I settled in to listen and share. There was no organization at all, it was just one of those things where a person would speak when they wanted to say something. Sometimes a face would turn away and a Marine would wipe away something from beneath their eyes. There was also an occasional sniffle.
I had never experienced anything like this in the Marine Corps. In these precious moments, we were not Marines, we were brothers with a common bond. It was the bond of Christmas. I could feel Christmas like I had never felt it before. I could touch it and smell it and taste it in the salt water that rolled down my eyes. In a soft voice, someone began to sing, "The First Noel, the angels did say … ." We all joined in and softly, reverently sang it through, ending with "Born is the King of Israel."
As we finished, there was not a dry eye. This group of hardened Marines, caked in mud and smelling like a swamp, were crying softly and suddenly not at all ashamed. The spirit of the Christ child had entered the hardest of hearts and brought a new hope and joy. Suddenly, in a strange sort of way, an idea started to form within our little group. It was an idea that just sort of emerged. The gunny said, "I think there is something special we can all do tonight. Let's head up to the FDC and see if the captain will do it."
One by one, we all squeezed out of the bunker and carefully followed the mud trail, up and around the shoulder of the mountain until we entered the main bunker that was the Fire Direction Center. The gunny approached the captain and said what we all wanted him to say.
"Captain, we think we all need something special tonight. It's about midnight, and we all thought it would be a great idea to have a special fire mission." The captain looked at the gunny with a funny look and said, "What are you talking about, gunny? You know we're in a cease-fire."
The gummy said, "Captain, how about we load up the guns with flares and plot out a Star of David over this hill?" Immediately, everyone in the bunker turned to face the gunny. "What?" someone said.
The captain looked at the gunny and a different kind of expression came over his face. There was silence for a moment as the captain considered the request. One of those who had been around the candle said, "Captain, we've been sort'a talkin', and we felt we all need this. In a way, this whole stinkin' war needs something like this."
Someone else spoke what most were now thinking. "Captain, I think the gunny's right. Let's do it."
The captain looked around the bunker. He looked into every face and then he began to smile. "Marines, we're going to do it," he said. There was a cheer. The captain turned to the lieutenant and said, "Let's set it up so we shoot as straight up as possible. Let's see if we can put that star right over this mountain."
At 2355, five minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve, Marines gathered around the battery of 105mm howitzers. The news had traveled quickly around LZ Bushwacker. In the middle of the cease-fire, right at midnight on Christmas Eve, we were going to shoot, just about straight up, five illumination flares that would be plotted to form something of a star. It would be visible for miles because our position was on top of one of the highest peaks overlooking the great plain called Arizona territory.
What was even more astonishing, some gentle breeze had come up during the past half hour and had pushed away the fog and clouds. Now, as midnight approached, the mountain top pushed up from the clouds below, and we all stared straight into an eternal night sky. The guns were turned as straight up as they could go. The artillerymen at the guns responded to the data being fed to them from the Fire Direction Center. The shells with the flares were loaded into the breeches of the guns. The countdown began at seconds to midnight. "Five, four, three, two, one — fire!"
Each of the guns fired, almost at the same moment. The Marines all turned their heads toward the heavens above. In a moment, there were a series of faint flashes as the flares popped from the canisters, and in another moment, the flares, hanging from parachutes, ignited and began to blaze above the mountain. It wasn't a perfect Star of David, but it was a good try.
The entire mountain and countryside glowed a bright orange-white from the Christmas star above the mountain. Some Marines crossed themselves, others fell to their knees and said a silent prayer. The tears came as all began to sing, "Silent night, Holy night, all is calm, all is bright."