Christmas 1969, south of Danang, South Vietnam
They hadn’t taken much fire that day, not much when you consider that the previous weeks had been filled with “wading in the deep stuff.” Still, there had been a few hits through the rotor blades when they had gone in to Firebase Ross, but the gunships had jumped in and hosed things down pretty well and it was no big deal. Maybe the Vietnam Christmas Truce was going to work.
They were flying turkey dinners to the grunts in the field, part of a mission with two other CH-46s and two Cobra gunships and they had been at it for nearly 10 hours, two hours more than the limit insisted upon by the 1st Marine Air Wing. The dinners were prepared in a field kitchen that had been flown in by a big CH-53 to LZ Baldy, and the finished products turned over to the CH-46s for delivery. Christmas dinner and a show were scheduled back at Marble Mountain, but it looked like they were going to miss it.
The weather was hot and crummy and the crew could see the humidity trail as it came off the rotor blades where they meshed together like a Mixmaster. Their flight suits had soaked through hours ago and, for the two pilots, the cockpit was an oven in spite of the thousands of horsepower of fan directly above them.
In the back, the gunners would watch over the long barrels of their big .50 caliber machine guns during the approaches. The rest of the time they were relaxed and chatted together with lip-reading abilities developed over long hours of flying in an environment where the sounds of radios and engines and rotor blades killed normal conversation. The crew chief, LCpl Boyd, usually rode leaning in to the cockpit and then standing exposed in the door as he guided the pilots in to the zones.
The grunts on the ground never understood how the “fly boys” could comfortably fly around, exposed, barely above the ground, just asking to get shot at. For their part, the aviators never understood how the grunts could comfortably live on the ground in the mush and the goo, just asking to get shot at.
Earlier that day Boyd and the co-pilot had picked up a dozen cases of Bud and smuggled them onto their bird. Boyd had a raw-boned cowboy look about him, although he was from New Orleans. His flight suit was usually dirty and his hair a bit long for a Marine, but you could eat off the engine on his aircraft. Many nights he worked straight through the night, repairing battle damage to be ready to fly the next day. The pilots would say it was better to have a grimy crew chief with a clean aircraft, than the other way around.
Boyd had gotten a bunch of cotton from the hospital tent and rigged a beard under the chin strap of his helmet. As they delivered the dinners to the really remote observation posts or small units stuck out in the bush, he would toss down a couple of 6 packs to the Marines on the ground. The dirty, tired Marines would run up to the cans, waving and smiling and chug the warm stale beer like it had been perfectly chilled and served at their favorite bar “back in the world.”
Around sunset, LZ Baldy called and released them. Christmas or not, no one wanted to risk aircraft and crews to deliver turkey dinners. The tower asked Boyd’s pilot to wait a few minutes to take a couple of “walking wounded” to the hospital ship in Danang harbor, so, as their wingmen and the gunships left for home, they taxied to the side of the runway and shut down to wait. Dinner and the Christmas show at Marble seemed less and less likely.
LCpl Boyd disappeared and then reappeared 15 minutes later with five cans of Korean War-vintage C-rations and five cans of Coke, just enough for the two pilots, two gunners, and him.
Boyd said not a word but went straight to his work and, giving a nod, asked the pilot to start the #2 engine. He then flattened a cardboard box, punched holes in the tops of the C-ration cans with his K-Bar, and opened the engine access door. The door swung down from the overhead, exposing the pumps, wires, and plumbing of the General Electric T-58 engine and, on this occasion, food warmer. Boyd slid the cans on the cardboard into the engine compartment like a pizza chef. Four minutes later he removed the feast and opened the cans the rest of the way, holding each with a pair of pliers. The aroma of boiling turkey filled the back of the helicopter, mixing with and almost covering the smell of hydraulic fluid, fuel, and sweat that defined the interior.
He distributed plastic forks, sprayed the cans of Coke with the fire extinguisher to chill them, and served Christmas dinner. For the pièce de résistance Boyd opened a can of peaches he had secretly hoarded and passed it around to the crew. Each speared one peach half and gratefully took a swallow of the thick, sweet juice.
Back “in the world” people were sitting down to turkey at grandmother’s house and snow was drifting mistily beyond frosted windows that reflected the flame-shaped bulbs of hanging wreaths. In Vietnam it was hot and humid and sticky as the four Marines sat in the troop seats and looked gratefully at Boyd. He raised his Coke to each in turn, “From my house to your house,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
It was Christmas dinner, 1969, and it was good.