Bob Hockings remembered his sergeant shaking him awake in his bunk — much to Hockings’ annoyance — with big news.
It was Christmas morning 1966, and the sergeant was finally authorized to tell his boys that a USO tour was coming that day to entertain the troops in Cuchi, Vietnam, located 25 miles west of Saigon.
“We couldn’t tell you (until now),” the sergeant told him, “but Bob Hope will be here at noon.”
Bob Hope put on a raucous performance, recalled Hockings of Peru, but the most memorable moment of the performance was unscripted. Enemy combatants launched a sneak attack at the camp’s perimeter and the sound of gunfire halted Hope in mid-sentence.
“What is this, a put-on?” Hope asked, thinking it was staged to throw off his delivery.
“And everybody goes, ‘No, that’s the real thing,’” Hockings remembered.
Area veterans shared their first Christmas-in-the-service memories at Ankiewicz’s Deli in Peru, where a group of veterans gathers daily for coffee and small talk.
For Hockings, a 21-year-old medic, Christmas ’66 was his first Yuletide from home — far from home — and he figured he’d be lonely and homesick. Instead, he was surrounded by entertainers and sports personalities who skipped their holiday dinners to visit U.S. troops.
While he didn’t get close to Bob Hope, he had direct encounters with singer Vic Damone and comedians Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye and Jonathan Winters.
As a medic, he was inside the hospitals when baseball stars came in to work the bedsides and chat with the wounded. Hockings met Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Mel Ott, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson and remembered each and every one as friendly and genteel.
After the gunfire that halted the main act, Hockings’ second most-memorable moment was a poignant Christmas carol that left everyone in tears.
“Anita Bryant sang ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas,’” Hockings said, “and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.”
Marty Hess of Peru had been warned: No matter how much you hate guard duty, don’t complain aloud to your sergeant. You’ll be sorry.
Hess, however, had been drafted at age 18 in early 1945 and couldn’t resist venting after pulling three straight weekends in the guardhouse at his base in occupied Japan.
“I also had guard duty on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s over there,” Hess recalled, laughing, though he wasn’t laughing at the time.
Hess was a bit lonely away from his family for the first time, but he had reason to be grateful that year. He’d been drafted in February of 1945 and allied forces were nearing victory in both Europe and the Pacific Theater. By the time Hess was shipped to Japan, hostilities had ended though there was plenty of devastation to behold.
Hess observed that most of the Japanese he encountered were elderly — “They must have killed off all the young ones” — and he made an unforgettable visit to Hiroshima, upon which U.S. forces had dropped the first atomic bomb.
“It was pretty much leveled out,” Hess recalled. “There was a stone building back a ways, but everything else was flat. There wasn’t even any garbage because it was all burnt.”
Jack Landgraf and his comrades were stationed in Germany in 1959, homesick and looking for a way to celebrate Christmas together.
“We snuck out in the woods, cut down a Christmas tree and decorated it with whatever we had on hand: Socks, pieces of plastic, silverware,” recalled the Army National Guard veteran, now retired in Peru. “It was an interesting tree, but it was fun to have.”
It was actually Landgraf’s second Christmas away from his family — he’d spent Christmas ’58 at a nuclear weapons depot in Albuquerque — but Germany was a more lonely experience for him and his pals.
“We made a Christmas tree and sang a few carols — we had a little quartet at the time — and that’s how we observed Christmas,” he said.
A few days later, the base commander fired off an angry missive, demanding to know who’d cut down the tree?
“Apparently, that was a no-no,” Landgraf recalled, laughing, “but it was already done, so there’s not much you could do about it.”
Tony DeCarlo served 21 years with the U.S. Navy, retiring in 1995, and figures he missed 15 Christmases with his family.
The two most memorable were his first and last abroad. He was stationed in the Philippines in 1977 and woke up to a sweltering Christmas morning. He and his comrades looked for ways to cool off and scraped ice out of their freezers to pack into snowballs.
“It was 105 degrees outside on Christmas morning,” DeCarlo said. “We had a snowball fight. It didn’t last long. Actually, we were in shorts and flip-flops having a snowball fight.”
But his last Christmas in the service wasn’t as much fun. At Christmas 1994, he was in the Persian Gulf monitoring the Iraqi naval blockage and was dispatched to overtake a rogue vessel. CNN was in the vicinity and caught the armed maneuver live. DeCarlo’s wife happened to be watching that day and was alarmed at the sight of her husband.
“My wife saw me being loaded out of a helicopter onto a ship that was running the blockade,” DeCarlo said. “Needless to say, that conversation a few weeks later, when I finally was able to talk to her, was not a good conversation. It was like, ‘What were you thinking? On Christmas morning?’
“I’d have much rather been back aboard the ship eating turkey and ham,” he allowed, “but you do what you have to do when you’re in the military.”
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com.