Christmas In The Delta

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In December of 1968 I was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division stationed in the Mekong Delta in the southern part of South Vietnam. On this day, which was either December 26 or 27, my troop, Troop D, 3d Squadron, 5th Cavalry, was to see the Bob Hope Christmas show. It was a morning performance, starting at around ten. My friends and I arrived early, about eight. The morning was very hot and humid, like most mornings in the delta. The show was to be held in an open area where a stage with a large bunker had been constructed. My friend Driver looked at me and said, “Hutch, don’t think for one second that bunker’s for us.” We all had a good laugh as we waited in the heat.

Outside the base camp we could hear the sounds of a firefight. M-16s and AK-47s made a lot of noise, and we wondered if the show would go on. The performers were to be Miss Ann-Margret, the Golddiggers, Johnny Bench, and of course Bob Hope. Ann-Margret was a sexy lady with beautiful flaming red hair. The Golddiggers were a singing group, all pretty with very long legs. Johnny Bench was a famous baseball player for the Cincinnati Reds, a great catcher with a hot bat who hit in the .30Os for years. He was my favorite player. And Bob Hope, well, everybody knew who Bob Hope was. He had performed for men in World War II and Korea, and now he was performing for us.

At ten the show started. The firefight outside the base got louder and seemed to be coming closer. Ann-Margret sang some songs, the Golddiggers did their bit, Johnny told some baseball stories and had a big impact on me and my friend Tom Grose. The noise of the fire-fight didn’t seem to bother Johnny. He went on with his stories, sometimes making a comment about the battle that would make us laugh. When Bob Hope came out onto the stage, he seemed nervous and stood close to the bunker door. He also wore a flak vest for protection. But he was very funny and put on a great show.

As the show ended, many troops headed toward Ann-Margret and the Golddiggers for autographs. Driver, Grose, and I headed straight for Johnny Bench. I had carried a baseball card with his picture on it for years and thought it would be nice to have him sign it. We stood in a long line for quite some time. Tom gave up and headed back to our company area; Driver and I stayed. The line finally started to move, and I was only a few feet from Johnny when I heard Tom shout, “Hutch, we’ve got a mission!” Tom had gotten back to the company and been ordered to find me. I asked when. Tom shouted, “Now! Pilots are waiting.” I turned to look at Johnny as I started to make my way toward Tom. “Hey, Hutch, be careful,” he said. The look Johnny Bench gave me I will never forget: He had this sad and concerned look. As he waved at me, I heard him ask the officer beside him, “How young are they?”

When we arrived, the pilots were just getting into the helicopters. Soon we were in the air and flying over the area where the show had been held. I looked down and waved, thinking, hey, I didn’t get my card signed, but Johnny Bench had looked right at me and called my name.

After that Tom often teased me before missions, repeating what Johnny Bench had said to me, “Hey, Hutch, be careful.” I was careful, or lucky. I returned home. When I think back to that day in December 1968, I can still hear the words and see the look Johnny Bench gave me. Tom Grose was killed on February 25,1969. I often wish that Johnny had told Tom to be careful.