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English Writing

When Santa wore combat boots

[Note: This United Press International story by Stewart Kellerman originally ran on Christmas Eve, 1971, and was reprinted as the foreword of 55 Days: The Fall of South Vietnam (1977), by Alan Dawson.]

By Stewart Kellerman

BIEN HOA, Vietnam, Dec. 24, 1971 (UPI) — Santa Claus wore combat boots and thought it prudent to omit the Ho, Ho, Ho’s. He patted the pillow under his wash-and-wear Santa suit and smoothed out his white polyester beard, a full one so different from the wisp that hung from the chin of the late North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh.

“It’s great being Santa Claus and making children happy,” Lt. Pham Kim Gioi, 31, said as he handed out scores of plastic rifles, pistols, helmets, nightsticks, spaceman X-ray guns and submachine guns to the waiting kids.

The men of the U.S. 95th Military Police Battalion picked Gioi to be Santa at their annual Christmas party for the children of South Vietnamese soldiers at Bien Hoa, 14 miles northeast of Saigon.

Some 250 kids, mostly the sons and daughters of South Vietnamese Quan Canh (military police), piled into a small patio Friday afternoon under the shade of an orange and white parachute converted into a giant umbrella.

A South Vietnamese QC, speaking over an outdoor public address system, called out a series of numbers as though he were addressing draftees at boot camp. The children timidly approached Santa to get gifts when their numbers came up.

“I love children—I have four of my own and I love making them happy,” Gioi said, handing a two-foot-long black plastic replica of an M16 rifle to 4-year-old Huong, who was dressed in cut-down South Vietnamese paratrooper fatigues.

The round-faced Gioi, chubby enough without the pillow, gave a black plastic .45-caliber revolver to Vong, 7, and a kiddie U.S. MP outfit (black helmet, white nightstick and revolver) to Nguyen, 5. He picked out a two-foot-high doll (blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin) for Mai, a 5-year-old girl.

“We’re giving the kids the real idea of Christmas,” Sgt. Robert Andreas, 32, of Seaside, Calif., an adviser to the 3rd Quan Canh Battalion, said. “This is the way Christmas should be.”

He said the 95th MP battalion and the U.S. advisers to the 3rd QC battalion decided to give mostly military toys to the boys and dolls to the girls. A few apparent unisex toys (plastic Boeing 707’s and Ford Mustangs made in Japan) went to both boys and girls.

After the gifts were all gone, the kids battled each other to reach the refreshment table and grab orange cardboard plates loaded with vanilla cake, chocolate ice cream and cellophane bags of cherry, lemon and lime candy.

“This is all right, really OK,” Spec. 4 John Myer, 23, of Dallas, Tex., said as dozens of kids swarmed around him grabbing for plates and toppling over bowls and dishes.

Spec. 4 Larry Wickersham, 21, of Wilmington, Del., spooned out a chunk of ice cream onto a plate and had it grabbed from his hands a moment later.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said before the refreshment table was finally toppled over by hordes of kids. “I think the kids love it. It makes you feel like home. This is really like Christmas.”

A sagging pine, looking more like a weeping willow, was propped up on a wooden tripod in one corner of the patio. It was covered with silver tinsel and maroon streamers. A manger made of camouflage ponchos with chipped plaster figurines inside rested alongside the tree.

A little boy, dressed in blue Scout shorts, streaked past the manger out of the patio. He was carrying a large carton of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream, a plastic M16 and a gold-and-red space gun.

“Goodbye, American,” he said over his shoulder. “Thank you.”

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