Christmas time has many memories for everyone and aviators are no different. But because of their experiences, they often have some that many would characterize as out of the ordinary. I’m going to give you a few “for instances.” The first that comes to mind is one of the very first Christmas holidays I missed. I was at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base in 1968. This was a tough year for many, including the several hundred thousand American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines far away from family. The colder climate associated with winter days and being immersed in a culture that was nothing like home made the time even more difficult.
On Christmas Eve I was flying a mission in Laos, hunting trucks and the places they were parked. We were being controlled by an O-2 (Cessna Skymaster) forward air controller (FAC), a Nail, also flying out of Ubon. He’d spotted some signs of truck tracks leading into dense jungle. Using his Starlight Scope, he felt he had a target for us and gave his brief. He then cleared us in on westerly heading. Pintail Lead, called “Green ‘em up, The Prince of Peace is in from the East”. Yep, that’s what he said. We followed him in, but not directly behind and dropped our MK-82 bombs.
We saw some fires and secondary explosions, pretty much ensuring we had found and destroyed some supplies. Those supplies were probably ammo that wouldn’t get further down the trail for use against our troops on Christmas Day. Arriving at Ubon on Christmas morning, we had some plans for as much celebration as you can have while away from family and home. A man we called “Fast Eddy” was in charge.
Our mission that day was visiting an orphanage in the town just outside of the base. Fast Eddy, known more for some sophisticated pranks on squadron mates and our competitor squadrons was in charge of getting a group on a Christmas mission. Eddy’s task was to get the Christmas gifts we’d collected to a group of children that really didn’t celebrate Christmas. Most were Buddhists if they had any faith at all.
Missions continued to be flown, but a group of fifteen or twenty “Angels”, led by one of the squadron leaders we called “Padre”, secured the operations officer’s pickup truck and one of our bread trucks for unofficial but sanctioned travel off base with our presents. Ubon had a small store, but it was not geared to amuse kids. We pretty much stripped its shelves of clothes, especially underwear, of the smaller sizes. One enterprising soul recognized an electric train set out of some welfare supplies as the centerpiece of our gift set. We also took food, including more candy than the kids had ever seen, so we were able to make the day memorable. We sang traditional songs not well, but loud, and made the best we could of our Christmas of 1968.
Some ten years later I was involved in a similar event in Korea. This time there was no gunplay, but the rest of the day was similar. The store at Osan was better, with more clothes for children and some toys. The transportation was similar, maybe even the same blue pickup and bread van from Ubon.
I think we had a scrub Christmas tree and shared a traditional meal courtesy of the Osan Officers Mess with the kids and orphanage staff. A better selection of toys, including soccer balls, allowed some sport with the kids, who were better with the football. Christmas 1981 was peaceful, but with the Kim family running North Korea, you never knew. That Fall they’d fired a SA-2 rocket at an SR-71 as it sped across the peninsula.
There is another culture of the holidays in Air Force and Navy fighter squadrons – the exchange of Squadron Christmas Cards. It was the custom of the ’60s, ‘70s, ’80s,s and at least the early part of the ‘90s for Squadrons to send cards to their counterparts units I never actually totaled the numbers, but it must have been at least two hundred cards. All production and postage are paid out of squadron snack bar funds. No US funds were expended on this semireligious ritual.
The Christmas cards were creative, especially when this took place before computers and the graphics available today. Maybe the exchange still exists, via TikTok, META, or X. I hope so. The cards always featured the unit’s aircraft in some manner. Many of you may remember some of the artwork from some talented guys (like Hank Caruso and his infamous impression of many jets) who were able to bring out the features of a Phantom, Intruder, and Warthog giving them the personality they earned. Some were veru clever. One of my favorites was from the Iron Knights squadron out of Holloman Air Force Base. The Knights flash on the vertical stabilizers was HO. Line three up in echelon, and you get HO, HO, HO.
All the cards included roosters, most with the Tac call sign as well as names and ranks. As received, they were read at the duty desk and quickly posted near the scheduling board. Names bought groans and grins. “Can you believe, he’s a commander?” If you think about it, it was Facebook in hard copy.
The best card I saw was when I was in the Pentagon in the late 1980s when we received our card from the Navy Top Gun group. It was a photo of all the pilots lined up in front of and on one of their adversary F-5s. It was a striking photo. Everyone was pants down and mooning the camera. The inscription was approriate:
“Merry Christmas from all the A%%*%$es at Top Gun”
I believe the Pentagon phone system was swamped with calls of awe and amazement, certainly among the aviation community. But the noise of holiday activities overtook the buzz of the photo. We continued into the seasonal lull and continued to grind as the staff does.