The year I gave up my Christmas
By Ronald L. Smith
For the Salisbury Post
Having grown up in a small Southern town and being blessed with a very loving and caring family, I will always cherish many wonderful memories of Christmas seasons past. The one Christmas, however, that I remember the most and, perhaps, the one that had the greatest influence on my life was my very first Christmas away from my family and friends in my hometown of Salisbury.
The year was 1969. I was living a lifelong dream as a 23-year-old lieutenant and jet pilot in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Christmas was only weeks away, and I was eagerly looking forward to being home for the holidays. However, because our country was at war and heavily involved in the Vietnam conflict, only a few pilots could be granted military leave to go home and spend the holidays with their families and loved ones.
But as luck would have it, my name was one of the few selected in a random drawing to receive leave that Christmas. I had already started making plans to go home for the holidays when I got a call from a good friend and fellow pilot. He asked if I would consider giving him my Christmas leave. He explained that he was scheduled to leave in several months for his year tour of duty in Vietnam. He wanted to spend this Christmas at home with his wife and two small children. He added that if I could help make that happen, it would be an extra-special Christmas for him and his family.
I was faced with a tough personal decision. But because I was still single and thought I might be able to get home after the first of the year, I called home and reluctantly told my family that I had given away my Christmas. I think they understood.
Several days before Christmas, my flight crew received orders to fly a combat-support mission to Southeast Asia. On Christmas eve, after almost 24 hours of flight time, we landed our big, fully loaded, four-engine C-141 Starlifter jet at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, in which was then South Vietnam. It was my first Christmas away from Salisbury. I was on the other side of the world and about as far away as I could possibly be from my home and family.
After unloading our cargo of military supplies, we were issued our return flight itinerary. Our mission back to the United States was a special medical evacuation flight. Our manifest and passenger list included a team of military doctors and nurses and a full plane load of American servicemen who had been seriously wounded in the war.
It was still early on Dec. 24 when we flew the first leg of our mission from Saigon to Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. Our flight crew and passengers spent the rest of Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning in Japan.
On Christmas day, we continued the next leg of our long flight home. On a star-filled night, we crossed the international date line over the Pacific Ocean and, as a result, gained a day in time. When we landed at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, Alaska, it was Dec. 24 all over again. As our big jet taxied to the terminal, Santa Claus came riding up in a jeep to greet our crew and passengers. Santa climbed aboard our plane and personally presented each wounded GI with a gift of candy and fruit. I watched as one young man on crutches hobbled off the aircraft, bent over, kissed the ground and shouted at his fellow servicemen, “Thank God, we’re back in the good ol’ U.S.A.”
Our crew and passengers celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas morning again, this time in Alaska.
Then, on Christmas day, we flew the final leg of our mission to the U.S. East Coast and landed early that evening at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. Families of many of the servicemen had been anxiously awaiting our arrival at the terminal. The wounded GIs, many on stretchers, were carried off the plane to be greeted by their loved ones with hugs, kisses and tears of happiness. It was very cold and damp that evening, but I will always remember the warm and special feeling it gave me to see and be a part of bringing so many families together on Christmas day.
Today, when I look back, as I often do, I realize how much I had missed being home and sharing that Christmas with my family in North Carolina. But I also know that I had been blessed to receive a very special gift that Christmas. Being able to celebrate not just one but two Christmas Eves and two Christmas days that year; being in three difference countries over the holidays; and, more importantly, having the privilege of bringing home a plane load of seriously wounded soldiers for a reunion with their families and loved ones allowed me to experience one of the most humbling Christmases, and one I shall never forget.
Yes, I made the decision to give away my Christmas that year, but I received so much more in return. I was blessed beyond measure. My Christmas spirit was alive as never before; my faith in God was renewed and strengthened, and I now believe, more than ever, that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.
But it was almost six months later that I realized the true meaning and significance of my special Christmas.
That’s when I received the sad news that my good friend and fellow pilot who had used my Christmas leave that year had just been shot down and killed in action flying a combat sortie in Vietnam. The Christmas I had given away was his last with his family.
To this day, more than 40 years later, when I reminisce about that Christmas in 1969, I believe with all my heart that “it is more blessed to give.” And I know in my heart that just as God gave us the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, born on that Christmas Day long ago, we have all been blessed.
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Ronald L. “Ronnie” Smith lives in Salisbury. He dedicates this article to the memory of his father, Wilson L. Smith, retired, USAF.