A memorable Christmas etched deep in my heart

My Christmas of 1968 was like no other. Today’s commercialism was nowhere to be seen. It was a joyful affair at an orphanage operated by the Cao Dai Church, which is located at Tay Ninh City in the former Republic of Vietnam.

The Cao Dai religion was established in Tay Ninh in 1926 to encompass and embrace all world religions. It claimed 3 million members throughout Southeast Asia at that time. The Cao Dai Church cared for about 73 kids at the orphanage.

I was in charge of a four-man artillery liaison unit in Tay Ninh City. We were responsible for clearing all artillery fire and air strikes in Tay Ninh Province, which was about 55 miles northwest of Saigon. When we learned that the orphanage was short of supplies, we adopted it as a civic action project. We provided rice, firewood, a set of playground equipment, an electric water pump, generator, and a variety of other stuff.

It did not take long for the kids to work their way into our hearts. They were sweet, a little mischievous, well-behaved and generally adorable. A Christmas ceasefire had been agreed upon with the Communists, so we used the opportunity to put on a party for the kids. Since the Cao Dai religion encompassed Christianity, we figured a Christmas party would be appropriate.

The guys in my heavy artillery battalion and the Special Forces group I worked with contributed to a gift fund. Folks from the Magic Valley sent clothes and goodies in response to requests in the local papers.

It was a remarkable affair. The kids got their first taste of ice cream and American soft drinks and loved both. Each kid got a toy, along with more practical stuff like clothes and school supplies. We gave the staff yards of cloth that they later stitched into school uniforms and play clothes. Some of the kids put on a dance performance, while we sat watching along with the matron, drinking peanut tea.

The very best part was seeing the joy on the faces of the children as they realized that the bow and arrow set, marbles, crayons, notebook, ball, badminton set or other gift was actually new and their very own. There was no display of selfishness but plenty of sharing and exchanging. It was also fun to see the delight in the eyes of children as they experienced their first taste of ice cream. We did not leave out the ladies who worked at the orphanage. Each got an umbrella.

It was a great party for the kids, but also for my liaison unit. My work with the orphanage was a wonderful experience in an ugly war. It would end up saving my life several months later, but that is another story.

My last visit to see the kids was in August 1969, just before I returned home. When I left, it appeared the Communists were headed to defeat and I thought the kids would be safe. When South Vietnam fell in April 1975, it broke my heart. I have often kicked myself for not having tried to take some of the kids home with me.

My wife, Kelly, and I visited Tay Ninh City in February, 2018. We learned the orphanage was closed down after the Communist take-over in 1975. The kids had been moved to a state-run facility. Nobody could tell us if any of the former orphans were still in the area. We did find a lady who had worked in the orphanage, Do Thi Cung, who was then 78 years old and who still worked for the Cao Dai Church. We had a wonderful visit. She remembered me as the guy who gave out the umbrellas at the Christmas party.

I have published a book about my Vietnam experience, Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind, which includes more information about the Cao Dai Church and the great kids in its orphanage.

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