Tropical Winter in a Foreign Land: Seabee Christmases in Vietnam

Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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NMCB 74’s Santa Claus spreading joy to the children of Bac Ninh and Nam-O village on Christmas Day 1967. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

This holiday season, many Americans will travel to visit family and loved ones, celebrating Christmas and reflecting on the blessings of the past year. Other groups of proud Americans, both uniformed and civilian, will find themselves overseas across the globe, serving their nation stoically albeit with a latent longing for home. For Seabees deployed to the Republic of Vietnam in the mid- to late 1960s, Christmas represented but a pause in the work schedule. Construction battalions, some only recently commissioned in response to the war, forged holiday traditions and ensured that despite the surroundings of war a festive occasion and great revelry would be shared by all. For other battalions, Seabees became big brothers for Vietnamese children, introducing many to their first Christmas, and brightening the lives of the war’s innocent victims.

Beginning in the late spring of 1965, the first Seabee battalions arrived in the Republic of Vietnam, accompanying the buildup and entry of American forces into offensive combat operations. By mid-1966, the Navy deployed 14,000 Seabees to Vietnam, most located in I Corps south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), concentrated in the three coastal points of Da Nang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai. At these locations the Seabees constructed Camps Adenir and Hoover, Camp Shields and Camp Campbell, respectively. Neither enemy action nor environmental conditions inhibited the Seabee effort. As the American military effort increased in Vietnam through the decade, the Naval Construction Force grew proportionally. By 1968, it numbered approximately 26,000 men in country, serving in 21 naval mobile construction battalions (NMCBs), two construction battalion maintenance units (CBMUs), and two amphibious construction battalions (ACBs). In order to man nine new NMCBs, the Navy recruited skilled civilian construction workers at advance pay grades with a Direct Procurement Petty Officer program akin to World War II. And as with World War II, many older, married men found themselves deployed overseas at Christmas.

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A young orphan from the Tan Nguyen Orphanage enjoys cake and a stuffed tiger in the arms of Santa Claus (Marine Private 1st Class Roger Baldwin) at a 1968 Christmas party held by NMCB 10 at Camp Haines, Thua Thien Province, Republic of Vietnam. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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The “Men of Ten” distributed many toys reconditioned by men in CBC Port Hueneme, Calif.’s brig as part of the “Seabee Toylift” project. For many Vietnamese orphans, these were the first toys they ever owned. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Construction in Vietnam encompassed the total body of Seabee skills. They paved roads; built airfields; and erected warehouses, hospitals, bunkers, storage areas, port, messing, berthing facilities, bridges and wharves for the Marines, Air Force and Army. A more subjective construction project for the Seabees involved the use of civic action teams. Thirteen-man teams ventured out to remote, rural areas to help small hamlets and rural populations with construction work, training, technical assistance and medical care. Most important of all was building a strong relationship with the Vietnamese people, bridging language, religious and cultural differences through benevolent compassion and humanity. In the communities adjacent to the battalion camps and base areas, smaller civic action teams often comprised of the unit chaplain, medical officer and a handful of other personnel engaged the local community, using Seabee diplomacy to gain community support for the South Vietnamese government and American forces over that of the Viet Cong and communism.

For those Vietnamese unfamiliar with Americans and Christmas, visitors to the various camps located in I Corps were in for a surprise. Trees, tinsel, signs and garlands graced tents and buildings. At Camp Hoover in Da Nang, festive lights graced “Main Street,” and every office or hut featured an aluminum tree, colored baubles, tinsel or lights. Several battalions held Christmas decoration contests, with the top prize, at least in NMCB 40, of one day off per man. Unfortunately, a white Christmas was an impossibility, and NMCB 9’s newsletter, Beeline, noted how “it is almost impossible to build a Frosty the Snowman,” as “the only ‘white stuff’ around here is what piles up on the inside of our reefers [refrigerators].” The newsletter also clarified that those “Angels we have heard on high are just the Hueys setting down on LZ-54 to make Christmas shopping Exchange runs.” Nonetheless, scrap lumber, a scroll saw and some white paint could easily produce decorative icing to apply to the eves of any hut. Other men opted to use red and green paper (“just no blue, especially in the Supply Office”) for hut decorations to bring Christmas to Da Nang.

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NMCB 5’s Dennis L. Vaudell reads a letter sent to him by 15-year-old Debbie Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, thanking him for his service in Vietnam. She enclosed a small metal heart as a token of good luck and a wish for his safe return. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For the first few holidays in Vietnam, the American people inundated the Seabees with mail and gifts from home. For Richard E. LeBlond and Anthony A. Lucia of NMCB 5 in 1967, their home town of Torrington, Conn., sent Christmas greetings signed by over 10,000 residents. That same December, the unit as a whole received well over 2,800 letters from Americans across the nation, from elementary schools to veterans of both world wars wishing the men “luck, health, success and hope.”

Seabee Dennis L. Vaudell of Hillsboro, Calif., received a special letter from Debbie Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, enclosing a small metal heart, a holiday token of thanks from a citizen to a Seabee. In 1965, the residents of Kodiak Island, Alaska, mailed the men of NMCB 9 six large boxes of gifts to thank the unit for their assistance in rebuilding after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. And mail went both ways. NMCB 10’s men in 1966 mailed Christmas cards to the late Seabee hero Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Marvin Shields’s two-and-half year old daughter, a gesture of thanks to “show Barbara and her mother that Marvin’s buddies care that they will be alone this Christmas.”

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NMCB 5 Seabees Anthony Lucia (left) and Richard LeBlond, both of Torrington, Conn., read Christmas greetings signed by more than 10,000 residents of their home town wishing them well on deployment in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Christmas provided an annual opportunity for engagement with the South Vietnamese, where Seabees became “big brothers” for children from the community or local orphanages. The often dirt-and-sweat-encrusted men opted to forgo their cigars, don fresh uniforms and forget the war amidst a day of fun and revelry with the children. Many battalions, Seabee teams or detachments partook in this piece of international holiday celebration. To support the celebrations, Seabee families, Boy Scouts, religious organizations and sometimes entire communities raised funds or collected toys to ship to Vietnam. At Construction Battalion Center (CBC) Port Hueneme, Calif., in 1968, the “Seabee Toylift” gathered reparable toys at collection boxes around the base which prisoners in the CBC brig repaired for distribution overseas.

Across the country in Jacksonville, Fla., the community’s residents in 1968 donated 22,000 gifts totaling 82 pallets for distribution by NMCB 7 to the children from the Cam Lo refugee village, as well as Seabees and Marines stationed to Camp Barnes at Dong Ha. While deployed to Chu Lai in December 1966, Chaplain J.D. Shannon, Lt. Vince Tremaglio and Personnelman 1st Class Floyd Husk of NMCB 40 rallied around the “Toys for Tots” campaign and received 140 boxes from 110 different groups of individuals in 26 states and three foreign countries to give to the children of Trung An, and various orphanages and hamlets in the Chu Lai area toys from jolly old Saint Nick himself.

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Personnelman 1st Class Floyd Husk, NMCB 40, is surrounded by the vast array of toys sent to the battalion for distribution to the Vietnamese children in and around Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam for Christmas in 1966. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

These joint Seabee – Vietnamese Christmas parties brought cheers and tears for all participants. In 1966 at Da Nang, NMCB 6’s “Operation Christmas” hosted parties for approximately 200 children from a local Catholic orphanage and another for 400 children and parents from the village of Son Thuy. Members of the battalion donated funds for the orphanage’s upkeep, and every child received a toy donated by citizens of the United States. The following Christmas, the battalion deployed to Chu Lai and held a similar Christmas party for 88 children from a local orphanage. For NMCB 7 at Camp Adenir in 1967, the unit civic action personnel held parties for the children of An Hai village and the Dong Giang refugee village. NMCBs 10 and 40 shared Christmas from 1966 to 1968 at Chu Lai and Da Nang, with thousands of Vietnamese children, orphans, refugees and camp followers gathering for a day of cartoons, cookies, cake, ice cream, songs and gifts. Clothing, medical and dental care also accompanied gifts in many cases.

But lest all the fun be shared with the Vietnamese children, the Seabees deployed overseas during Christmas made sure to put their tools down to celebrate the season as only Seabees can. First and foremost, the reason for the season was not forgotten by Americans in South Vietnam. Battalion chaplains held Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services throughout the country during the holiday season. Beginning in 1965, the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and evangelist Dr. Billy Graham celebrated Mass and religious services with thousands of assembled Seabees and servicemen at the camps in and around Da Nang. After religious services, men turned to battalion feasts and parties. Battalion officers carved juicy roasts and turkeys and served Seabees their Christmas dinner, almost always washed down with a carton of egg nog or can of cold beer. During these Christmas meals, fathers, sons and brothers stationed in Vietnam occasionally were able to reunite and celebrate the holiday as family. With Santa present, special gifts were presented courtesy of the Red Cross and other American organizations, and then battalion variety shows capped off the Christmas festivities. Songs, plays, humorous skits and perhaps a beer drinking contest or two made the holiday truly memorable.

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For all servicemen deployed to the Republic of Vietnam during the holiday season, those fortunate to attend the Bob Hope Christmas Show formed memories that lasted a lifetime. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

But one last holiday treat awaited a few fortunate Seabees: the Bob Hope Christmas Show. With his usual brand of self-deprecating humor and wit, Hope’s shows to this day remain some of the most lasting Christmas memories for any serviceman fortunate enough to be in the audience. At Da Nang and Chu Lai, Seabees of NMCBs 5, 10 and 40 constructed massive outdoor amphitheaters to host Hope, Les Brown and his Band of Renown, as well as other celebrities, dancers and vocalists who accompanied the traveling troupe. For some Christmas shows, Seabees joined Marines in providing the security for the shows, whose itineraries were often more tightly guarded than those of generals or visiting politicians. An honorary Seabee in his own right, Hope entertained countless thousands of American servicemen from 1965 to the end of the American involvement in the war in 1972, even stopping off at Diego Garcia to put on a show for the men of NMCB 62.

Forty-nine years after the first Seabee battalions arrived in the Republic of Vietnam, memories of the war have faded for many Americans. What remains strong, however, are memories of those who worked and fought there, particularly of holidays spent away from home. This holiday season, take a moment to thank the Seabee or service member in your life. And, if you should find yourself traveling, stop and take a moment to wish any member in uniform a Merry Christmas, lest we forgot those who cannot be home to celebrate with family, friends and loved ones. As they give us the gift of freedom and security, the least we can do is ensure the gift of love and honor continues to be bestowed by a grateful nation.

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NMCB 5’s holiday take on Camp Adenir defenses, Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, 1966. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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NMCB 40’s prize-winning Christmas display, Camp Shields, Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam, December 1967. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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Christmas decorations inside one of NMCB 40’s huts, Camp Shields, Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam, December 1967. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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Commander W.F. Daniel (center), commanding officer, and Lt. Cmdr. D.R. Austin (right), executive officer, serve Christmas roast to EO2 J.C. Cordato at NMCB 40’s holiday feast in 1968. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum


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