In December of 1971, I was stationed in Da Nang Vietnam. I was drafted 8 months earlier and had to leave my family and my girlfriend. We dated for over one year prior to my leaving, and we talked about marriage sometime in the future.
She wrote me every day and I looked forward to her letters. Those letters are what I lived for each day. Well, about two weeks before Christmas her letters stopped coming. I was sure it was a mail issue and her letters were just being delayed.
I never got another letter from her, and I was devastated! After a few weeks I learned, through her mother, that she found another boyfriend in college. I thought my life was over. I lost my appetite, I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I could not imagine my life without her and no one could cheer me up.
As Christmas approached, it just got worse. Then I found out that, instead of going to the big party they had for the 200 soldiers at our camp, I had to be on guard duty all night on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, I walked to the armory feeling very lonely and depressed. I picked up my weapons, an M-16 rifle, some illumination flares, a heavy M-60 machine gun, plus several belts of ammo and dragged the equipment out to the camp perimeter for 12 hours of guard duty in a muddy trench four feet deep. I did have a radio that I could use to talk to the other soldiers nearby during the night in case we came under attack.
I remember complaining to a buddy nearby on the radio about having to work on Christmas Eve, and we began to make small talk. My buddy then began to tell me what was going to happen later that night. He explained that it was a tradition in Vietnam, that at the stroke of midnight, every soldier on guard duty would take out an illumination flare and shoot it skyward.
The flares were extremely bright and turned night into day while floating down on a small parachute. They burned for about one minute and lit up everything in your immediate vicinity. They were only supposed to be used if you saw or heard something unusual and had to see if the enemy was coming through the perimeter wire.
As midnight approached, I was now thinking about what this “event” would actually look like. I wondered if I would be able to see the flares fired from the many neighboring camps surrounding the city of Da Nang.
When the clock struck midnight, I grabbed my flare and got ready. When flares started to be launched, I shot mine skyward with a loud roar. It streaked upwards to about 1,000 feet. I heard a “pop” and the magnesium flare ignited, creating a dazzling white light so bright, it hurt your eyes to look directly at it.
Suddenly, as far as I could see, thousands of these flares were seen shooting into the night sky all around the city of Da Nang. In seconds, the whole area was lit with an incredibly bright light. It was literally daylight at midnight. I have never again seen anything like this. I was stunned! I climbed out of my trench and looked all around me, 360 degrees. Immediately, the Christmas story from Luke Chapter 2, verses 8-14 came to me.
8. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. 10. But the angel said to them “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11.Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. 12. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I suddenly had a very different perspective. In that muddy trench at 19 years old, I had a wonderful peace come over me that Christmas Eve.
To this day, I will never forget that night, 12,000 miles from home, where I got a little taste of the glorious night the shepherds witnessed.
The author lives in East Petersburg. He was a military policeman in Da Nang. In 1978, he joined Manheim Township Police, retiring in 2011 after 33 years. He taught in the DARE —Drug Abuse Resistance Education — program in Manheim Township and Hempfield schools.