Artificial Tree, but
the Man Was Real
Howard Landon "Dutch" McAllister
(written near the outset of the War in the Persian Gulf)
As Christmas nears, with
nearly a half million American service men and women poised on the edge
of war in the Middle East, I am haunted by the ghosts of a Christmas past.
The year was 1967, and we were members of an infantry rifle company in
Vietnam. It was less than two months before the North Vietnamese Tet offensive
in February 1968, the time when war finally became unfashionable for the
We belonged to Company A
in the second battalion of the 18th Infantry. We were lean, hard young
warriors, filled with pride in our country, and well versed in the traditions
of our regiment, which had fought with distinction at Vicksburg in the
Civil War, wearing the blue uniform of the union army.
That year, just before Christmas,
our home away from home was a small fire support base, carved out of red
clay and laterite soil alongside a dirt road some 35 miles northwest of
Saigon. It was not picturesque. The little outpost was surrounded by gaunt,
artillery-blasted mahogany trees, and we slept in holes in the ground surrounded
by dirt-filled sandbags.
All in all, it was not the
most dangerous time we spent in the war, either before or after. During
the day, we were charged with protecting a two-mile stretch of road for
long convoys of supply trucks. At night we sent out ambush patrols to intercept
and destroy the enemy patrols coursing through the area. It was a rare
day when one or more of us did not fall to a sniper's bullet or fragments
from an artfully placed booby trap. Lucky soldiers were only wounded. The
unlucky ones lay covered by olive green ponchos at the side of the helicopter
landing pad, waiting their final journey home.
Our only reminder of the
holidays was a small artificial Christmas tree, covered with glittering
ornaments permanently wired to its branches. Sent from home by a soldier's
relative, the tree stood on an empty ammunition box outside the mess tent.
Each evening, while soldiers
moved through the mess tent, receiving their evening meal on steel trays,
one soldier carefully brushed dust from the Christmas tree, which, like
everything else, had collected a fine patina of red dust from the day's
truck convoys. The soldier's name was Wayne Bates. He was the company's
senior medical aidman, and was known to us as Doc, the nickname given to
all medical aidmen.
The first time I noticed
Doc Bates dusting the tree, I asked him, "What's this, Doc? First
aid for the tree?"
Bates laughed, and replied,
"Just trying to make myself count, Cap'n."
Doc Bates was from Missouri.
He was short and compact, with a thatch of reddish-brown hair and a quick
smile. If he had a motto, it must have been "just trying to make myself
count." Usually, in an infantry unit, medical personnel are excused
from some of the more onerous tasks assigned to the other soldiers. Infantrymen,
who spend so much time digging holes for their own fighting positions and
shelters, hate digging more than any other duty. But holes have to be dug.
Field sanitation requires it--latrines, garbage pits and the like. Doc
Bates always pitched in whenever there was digging to be done, and he never
had to be asked.
Often, he volunteered to
stand in the serving line at mealtime. In a good infantry unit, it is customary
for the officers to be served after all the men have gone through the line,
and, as company commander, I always ate last. Sometimes, I had some odd
meals. On one occasion, Doc Bates was serving dessert in the line; when
I reached his station, I had only spinach and bread on my tray. The cooks
had run out of everything else. Doc deposited a huge glob of lime jello
on my tray, and minutes later he sat down to join me with his own meal
of spinach, lime jello, and bread. When I reminded him that servers were
entitled to eat before other soldiers went through the line, his response
was predictable, "Don't matter--just trying to make myself count."
We were a scruffy lot. We
bathed as often as we could, but with a few quarts of water per man per
day, and temperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees, most of our fresh
water went down our throats. When we went on a combat operation, loaded
down with weapons and equipment, most of us carried several plastic water
canteens clipped to our belts or rucksacks.
When Doc Bates was rigged
for the field, he carried two huge bags filled with bandages and other
medical paraphernalia, one hanging on each side, suspended by straps crossed
over his shoulders. Doc also carried a number of water canteens, but time
after time, in the course of his duties, I watched him use his own precious
drinking water to cleanse a minor wound or abrasion when he was treating
Christmas passed, and, in
the first days of the new year, the enemy began stepping up operations
that culminated in the violent combat of the Tet offensive. On January
6, Company A was airlifted to a spot near a village called Xom Bung, where
we ran into most of a regiment of well-entrenched Viet Cong on the edge
of a woodline.
We killed more than a hundred
of them, but luck ran out for nearly a dozen of the men of Company A. Doc
Bates was one of them. He died on that woodline, running into the face
of enemy fire to help a wounded soldier.
One of the last things I
saw before an enemy rifle bullet ripped through me was Doc Bates, running
toward the woodline, helmet pushed back on his head, swinging a medical
kitbag in each hand, just trying to make himself count.
Every time I see an artificial
Christmas tree, I think of Doc Bates.
1997,1998,1999 Howard Landon McAllister