Christmas ‘68 and The Sound of Music

Published 7:15 am Wednesday, December 20, 2023

By Gene Hays
MSgt. (Ret) USMC

Christmas can be a depressing holiday if you are a man or woman with or without family, serving in the Armed Forces of the United States abroad. 

My 1968 Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving in Chu Lai, Republic of South Vietnam. I was due to rotate home on Dec. 5, but I wanted to spend Christmas with two friends before I left. 

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Their names were Dieu (pronounced “you”) and Lan (pronounced “lawn”), both 10-year-old girls. 

They lived in a hamlet named Ky Khuong, about 10 Km from our base. Their father was a former Viet Minh soldier, who fought against their French occupiers. When the French left in 1954, Vietnam divided into two parts at the 17th parallel, per the Geneva Accords. 

The Communist forces joined North Vietnam and the free forces joined South Vietnam. The father was one of our valuable intel sources as he was in contact with other former Viet Minh. Some were from North Vietnam, posing as villagers. That’s another story.

My Civic Action unit would visit and get a haircut (using manual shears) from their father at least once a month as he brought us up to date with what was happening. Dieu and Lan were always happy to see us and we would bring candy and useful items to them and other children from their village. 

These girls were in high school and spoke three languages: their native Vietnamese, French, and English. When I found out that our movie night was going to be the “Sound of Music,” I got permission from my officer in charge to bring the girls to the base that night. 

They were all excited as they had never seen a motion picture. Our special services guys got a 16mm movie projector and had received the movie in three reels from one of the other units in country.

On the big night we brought the girls in earlier before dark and gave them the best seats in the house, in folding chairs. 

We had a slight snafu when the projector operator took off reel one and replaced it with reel two, turned it on, and it was actually reel three. You can imagine how my fellow Marines appreciated that – with catcalls, whistling and profanity. A couple of us placed our hands over the two girls’ ears. 

When the movie was over, both girls had tears streaming down their faces and came and hugged us. I asked Lan why they were crying. She said it was a happy cry because they got to see the movie and at the end when the family escaped Nazi Germany. 

Those girls made numerous trips to our base during the year I was there and made us all aware that we were missing our sons and daughters back home.

I saw them for the last time when I left Chu Lai for Danang and the freedom bird. They gave me a Merry Christmas card addressed to me and my wife Barbara. If they survived the takeover by the North, they would both be in their 60’s.

I was never able to hear from them again. I think of them often.

Gene Hays is a retired Marine, an author, and historian. He has several books on