In 1969, I was a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, living my life’s dream as an Air Force pilot. I was a co-pilot flying the huge C-141 Starlifter jet. At the time, it was the largest plane in the Air Force inventory. It was an exciting time in my young life.
The U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Based out of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, I flew several combat support missions to Vietnam that year, including one in which we transported the remains of 27 American soldiers killed in action. The reality of war began to hit me pretty hard.
In December, our commanding officer at Dover called a special meeting of all available pilots. He explained that because the war was raging with several missions per day, only a handful of pilots would be granted Christmas leave. The fairest way, he said, was to draw names out of a hat to see who could be
I was 23 at the time, single, and I had never missed a Christmas with my family back in Salisbury, North Carolina. Much to my surprise, my name was drawn. I called home with the news that I would be home for Christmas.
The next day, I received a phone call from my fellow pilot and good friend Capt. David Pannabecker. Dave explained that his name had not been selected in the random drawing for Christmas leave, and he had already received orders to go to Vietnam on his yearlong tour of duty.
Knowing I was single, he asked if I would consider giving him my Christmas leave. Dave was married with two young children, and he wanted so badly to spend Christmas with his family at home. I asked if I could call him back the next day.
That night I prayed and asked God to help me make the right decision. I realized that I might be able to get leave to go home after the busy holidays, so I decided to give Dave my Christmas leave. I had to call home and tell my mom and pop I wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas after all.
On Christmas Eve, we landed our huge jet at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, outside Saigon, in the middle of the night.
Then—I believe by the grace of God—I began to see blessings. Instead of the usual 15-to-20-minute downtime at the base, we were told that our plane would be on the ground for at least an hour.
During the next 60 minutes, we watched as special seats, stretchers and medical equipment were loaded onto our plane for the long flight back to the U.S. Red Cross buses, jeeps and ambulances brought over 40 seriously wounded GIs and a medical team to the plane. We were taking our wounded boys home.
We lifted off from South Vietnam on Christmas Eve and made our first stop on Christmas morning at Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo. Our wounded soldiers were taken to the base hospital, where many received emergency treatment. After the required 10-to-12-hour layover, we loaded our passengers again for the next leg of the trip. It was still Christmas when we lifted off from Japan. Each of us celebrated the holiday in our own private way.
We flew at 37,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean toward Elmendorf Air Force Base, outside Anchorage, Alaska. It was a clear night, and we had a strong tail wind.
High over the Pacific, we crossed the international date line, gaining an additional 24 hours and turning our watches back to the previous day. It was Christmas Eve all over again. In the cockpit, we celebrated Christmas Eve a second time and announced the day change to our passengers over the intercom.
It was snowing as we landed in Alaska in the darkness of Christmas morning. As we taxied to the terminal area, we saw the headlights of a military jeep approaching, and a GI dressed in a red suit and white beard jumped out and climbed aboard our plane, greeting each wounded soldier and giving each one a piece of fresh fruit and candy. “Welcome home, boys,” he said. “You’re back in the ‘Good Ol’ USA.’” A cheer went up among our passengers and crew.
At the end of our short refueling stop, a young soldier asked if he could get off the plane for just a minute. I said that we were not offloading any passengers, but he insisted. “Just for a minute,” he begged. I helped him down the ramp and watched as he got on his knees and kissed the snowy surface. Then he prayed, “Thank You, God. I never thought I would see the United States again.”
The final leg of our flight took us to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., where our passengers would be admitted to military hospitals. We arrived late on Christmas Day. It was overcast, sleeting and cold. As we taxied the C-141 up to the terminal area, we could see lights, then signs, and then over 100 people waving to our plane—the families of many of the wounded soldiers. Even in the dim light we could make out the signs: “Welcome home, Son.” “We love you, Daddy.” “Merry Christmas, Brother!”
As we offloaded our passengers to buses and ambulances, the families came running to greet their loved ones. I’ve never seen so many hugs, kisses and tears in all my life. I cried tears of happiness.
As we flew our now-empty plane back to Dover Air Force Base, I realized that I had been blessed beyond measure. Although I had given up my Christmas with my family, the Lord had blessed me with something much more important. He gave me not one Christmas, but two, in three different countries. And He blessed me with being able to bring home a planeload of wounded soldiers to their families.
I’m certain that 1969 will be the most memorable Christmas of my life. But it was not until almost six months after I returned from my 1971 tour in Vietnam that I got the news that my friend David Pannabecker had been killed in action during combat in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. The Christmas I had given Dave and his family was one of their last together on this earth. And I realized more than ever that it is more blessed to give than to receive. ©2019 Ronald L. Smith
Ronald L. Smith is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina, and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. During his military career, he received the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Vietnamese Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, nine Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Photo: Aero Archive/Alamy Stock Photo