Wednesday, November 27, 2013
This originally was written for Thanksgiving Day 2005. It is updated for today in this column. It has been 45 years, but the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. The message is still relevant.
Although I frequently write about the Vietnam War, and my book Masters of the Art is based on my service there, I don't have a repository of dates locked in my mind that surfaces like a mental file folder reminding me of long ago battles and deaths.
But on Thanksgiving Day every year I make it a point to stop for a moment and remember one day, and one comrade. On that special day in 1968 I volunteered to fly gunner as helicopters from my squadron, HMM-161, delivered hot turkey dinners to our Marine infantry in outposts and fire-bases all over northern I Corps.
There was little action to speak of that day, and I was not involved in any firefights. Just a long, long day delivering canisters of turkey, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and even cases of beer, to give the grunts a brief respite from the war.
I held no animosity about spending my entire day in a series of flights under leaden monsoon season skies. I knew what the grunts faced every day of that war and anything we could do to give them even the slightest break was fine by me.
After a day of seeing and smelling all that food, I was truly ready for a meal of my own by the time we returned to the air strip at Quang Tri. But a Thanksgiving dinner was not to be, at least not one prepared in a mess hall.
There had been a dinner. But it was consumed in its entirety by the troops who stayed back on the base that day. Little more than crumbs were left for those who had been flying. I returned to my hooch totally dejected, ready to curse out any and all who crossed my path and not at all looking forward to a meal of C-rations.
Enter a new guy, Billy Bazemore, only recently arrived from the states, who like me was a helicopter electrician, and like me volunteered to fly gunner. New guys had little to no status in Vietnam, and usually deferred to the veterans on virtually all matters. But seeing the look on my face prompted Billy to question its origin, and then to offer a solution.
Reaching triumphantly under his cot, Billy dragged out a box that had arrived in the mail from home, containing a canned turkey, potatoes, carrots, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. To add to my amazement, I also had received a package, bearing a Sara Lee chocolate cake that had survived the voyage from The World intact.
Billy could have kept his stash secret. He could have squirreled it away and hoarded it for himself. But he was a Marine and believed in the Marine code of sharing the contents of food packages from home. We spread the food out on boxes and proceeded to divvy it up among several other crewmen who also had returned to Quang Tri to discover there would be no dinner for them that day. In short order, the dismal grayness of a monsoon day was forgotten, and probably for the first time in my life I completely understood the meaning of Thanksgiving.
Billy Bazemore's life ended a few short months later, in a vicious firefight with the North Vietnamese. I know the exact date, but I would rather celebrate his life than his death. He was flying with another electrician, Tommy Lenz, who had served with our unit, HMM-161 since we were stationed at what was then the Marine Corps Air Facility at New River, North Carolina.
We had traveled to Vietnam together as a unit, all our personnel and our helicopters, arriving in early 1968. We were friends, fellow Marines and Brothers-in-Arms.
Tommy and Billy died together that day, and their names are on The Wall, not far from each other.
So this Thanksgiving, as our troops are once again fighting what has become yet another 'unpopular' war – this time in Afghanistan, although the media seems to have forgotten they are still in danger - I will remember where they are and what they are enduring for those of us back home who will be warm, and secure and well fed because of their sacrifices.
I'll offer a toast to my fellow Americans and all other freedom-loving troops who are fighting the terrorists wherever they are. Because I know that out there somewhere, it is very likely that two Marines will straggle back to their base from a long day that held harshness and death, only to find that there will be no traditional meal waiting for them.
But they will pull together, as we did 45 years ago, and will find a way to salvage their day. In that moment a bond of brotherhood that can not be duplicated under any other circumstances will be forged, and it will endure.
I will say a silent prayer for them, and ask that this time they both make it back home, safe and sound, to enjoy other Thanksgiving Days in the warmth and comfort of their homes, with families that may even make an effort to understand why this day has such meaning for their returned warriors.
And although I won't share it with my family and friends because it is just too personal and private, I will find a moment to remember Thanksgiving Day, 1968, Quang Tri, Vietnam. I'll raise my glass to toast Billy Bazemore, a new guy who long ago taught a lesson in Marine brotherhood to a veteran, to Tommy Lenz who stayed at his post until his death, and to every other American serviceman and woman, and our allies, who still believe in freedom and will fight to the death to preserve it for future generations.