By Andrew Ładak
I spent my first four Christmases in Germany, so I don’t remember them, but I’m sure they were happy ones for my father and mother. Having survived almost unimaginable wartime horrors, they, like thousands of other Poles, had found themselves in Germany. There they met, married and, in 1947, welcomed me into a new world. We spent Christmas of 1950 in Hamburg, waiting to board the ship that would take us to America. My only memento of that time is a photo of my mother and me standing by a Christmas tree. I’m holding a little toy trumpet.
Our next Christmas, and every Christmas since, was spent in Detroit, where, before long, our family was blessed with two girls. My sisters and I were raised in a Polish home, speaking Polish and observing Polish customs, including, of course, the wonderful Wigilia and Christmas traditions of the Poland our parents had been taken from––and to which they could not return.
I have been fortunate throughout my life in many ways, not least by being with my family every Christmas––every Christmas, that is, except one. In December 1970 I was a young infantry officer in Vietnam. I had arrived in October at the huge American military base in Chu Lai, which stretched along the white beach of the South China Sea. A week later I was in hilly jungles, leading soldiers even younger than me. During my first combat operation my friend and fellow officer, Mike Petrashune, was wounded not far from me. Mike was a Polish American kid from New York. Having gone through airborne school together, we were pleasantly surprised to meet again in Vietnam. Several days after he was wounded, shortly before Christmas, Mike died in the base hospital. His family and I still exchange Christmas cards every year.
That Christmas the Communists and the Allied forces in South Vietnam agreed to an informal one-day truce that, to a large extent, both sides honored. The American units in our area were ordered to refrain from offensive actions on Christmas Day, except in self-defense. On the evening of December 24 our company’s three platoons, including my 1st Platoon, received orders to move to the hilltop where the company command post, or CP, was located. We started out at dawn on Christmas Day and by mid-morning the whole company, about 100 soldiers, including the company headquarters and the mortar crew, had assembled on the hill.
Around noon, a “Huey” helicopter arrived. Barely touching down, the chopper crew quickly passed down big thermos-like containers loaded with a hot (or at least lukewarm) Christmas dinner—turkey, stuffing and potatoes—plus cranberries and cans of warm soda. As soon as the chopper left, the sergeants set up a chow line for the soldiers. The day was hot and there was little shade on the hill, but that was a welcome change from the miserable, rainy weather of the previous weeks and many soldiers removed their shirts. They happily moved through the line, then found spots to enjoy their Christmas meal. The enlisted soldiers ate first, then their sergeants. The officers, fittingly, ate last. When some of the men had eaten, they grabbed their weapons and moved down the hill, freeing their buddies guarding the perimeter to go up and eat.
Someone in Chu Lai had been thoughtful enough to send out two paper bells, one red, one green. Those bells and some snow-like laundry detergent were our Christmas decoration that day. Back at the base, home to more than 15,000 personnel, many soldiers were able to participate in Christmas services. On our hilltop, 15 or 20 miles out, that wasn’t an option.
But the war had paused only for a few hours, and as most of our soldiers relaxed and thought about Christmas back home, a small observation helicopter landed at the CP. I climbed aboard and flew out to reconnoiter the area my platoon would be patrolling during the next few days. The chopper returned me to the CP and repeated the process with the other two platoon leaders. That night, as silently as possible, my men and I helped each other shoulder our 90-pound rucksacks. Then, slowly, we moved out, down the hill, back into the black, unforgiving jungle. Christmas was over.
On that day, though, if only in spirit, I was with my family in Detroit as it celebrated a Polish Christmas. My thoughts and prayers were with them, as theirs were with me. To this day, I am certain that, for my parents, who had known a war worse than mine, and for my young sisters, Wigilia and Christmas of 1970 were much harder to bear than they were for me. Every Christmas since then I think of all the young men and women, including Polish ones, who, through many wars, spent Christmas thousands of miles from home—and of those for whom that was their last Christmas.