December 20, 1972
“My fellow Americans, it is our sincere wish for the war in Vietnam to be ended. For those patriotic soldiers who have been wounded in action, we give our heartfelt thanks. This Christmas, it is my direct order to return as many American casualties as are able to withstand prolonged air evacuation back to the United States. In keeping with former President Johnson’s policy, these gallant souls will be sent to a military hospital closest to their home of record. It is my Christmas present to their parents, relatives and loved ones. Merry Christmas to all.”
The President of the United States signed off after reaffirming his campaign promise to do everything in his power to bring the war in Vietnam to a conclusion. It was no longer about winning. It was about getting out as gracefully as possible and if graceful was not to be a reality, then “getting out period” would be enough.
President Nixon’s message meant different things to different people. To families of the wounded, it was a message sent from heaven. To the U.S. Air Force Air Evacuation Command, it would be a nightmare task. For the combat casualties, it meant going home for Christmas and getting out of Vietnam forever. For Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese forces it meant an opportunity to escalate their carnage and establish more combat fronts throughout North and South Vietnam and continue to hide in Cambodia and Laos after border ambushes.
Several thousand miles away on a global meridian at the same level as Mexico City, the senior North Vietnamese General heard the same December 20th announcement by the American President. The General was sitting at the foot of the small red-felt, cloth-covered bamboo table facing Ho Chi Minh. The table supported an inlay top of half-inch glass underneath the soft red cloth. In keeping with their alliance to Russia, the gift of the red table cover was now standard throughout North Vietnam. The six red cushioned rattan chairs were set with a chair at each end and two on each of the rectangular sides. The four other General Staff Officers sat facing each other while President Richard Nixon concluded his speech about the American casualties and the Christmas patient mobilization, “en masse”, back to the United States.
“It is a good propaganda ploy by Nixon.” Ho Chi Minh had a soft velvet voice. It was the kind that comes with age and the lack of need to shout. He was the leader. Everyone listened. No one interrupted their thin president. “He acknowledges the existence of a large number of combat forces injured by us and at the same time uses them as presents to the American people. Chief General Yen what are your thoughts?”
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss this, Mr. President.” General Tel Yen initiated the words with a slight downward head bow. None of the military leaders could express themselves without permission to do so. Yen looked at his colleagues and back to Ho Chi Minh. “It is as you say. Nixon sugar coats the facts of our inflicting thousands of casualties to his military. My suggestion is to accomplish two actions which will give Mr. Nixon and the Americans a call to reality. In the end, it will give us total bargaining power at the peace table. First, we must replace all the casualties released to the United States at the American Christian Holiday of Christmas with fresh ones. And second, we must make it difficult for the discharged wounded to receive adequate care at their arrival points within the United States on Christmas Day.” He looked at Ho Chi Minh and then scanned his fellow Generals. “Honorable President Minh, I invite our NVA and VC commanders to comment.”
Minh nodded in agreement to Yen and in turn the General passed the nod to his NVA commander. The General of the North Vietnamese Army spoke.
“I agree we should activate a major offensive during this Christian Holiday.” The NVA General’s voice was a raspy abrasion which was audible but sounded strained. A shrapnel fragment had severed a branch of one of the laryngeal nerves to his voice box resulting in a paralyzed vocal cord. He always wore a bright red “dickey” around his neck to conceal the scar. The General sounded like an Oriental Louis Armstrong. “We have had such a plan for many months now. It consists of multiple fronts in the south and along the borders of Cambodia and Laos.” The NVA General turned to the Viet Cong Commander to his right.
“To initiate such attacks also requires our guerrilla divisions,” The VC General continued. This simple sentence passed the speaking baton to the black uniformed VC Division Commander. The NVA wore the traditional uniform of tan with red and gold adornments of rank and campaign experience. The VC kept to their black plain pajama-like suits with simple brass rank studs on their epaulets and collars.
“As in the past, our effectiveness has always been in diverting and fragmenting the American forces by hit-and-run tactics.” VC General Phu Bahr stated nothing new. “Ours is both a casualty inflicting and a demeaning-morale producing mission. We should promote our American activist sympathizers within the U.S. to assist in Nixon’s ultimate total withdrawal.” The VC leader looked around the table and back to Minh. “I have met with key media U.S. citizens recently and many have an active following for our public declaration to end the war.”
Ho Chi Minh raised his left little finger to interrupt. “I concur with all proposals and especially your thoughts, General Bahr.” Minh maintained his emotionless soft voice. “I had a positive experience with the American actress 6-months ago. She can stimulate multiple U.S. anti-war protests about the American Vietnam presence. Indeed, she has a large following in key cities throughout her country.”
“Let these protests take place at the major military hospitals receiving Mr. Nixon’s Christmas Present of the wounded.” The Chief General smiled and raised his expresso-sized cup of rice liquor to the ceiling.
“Hyhhhhh.” They raised their cups and cheered in agreement and added an expletive in Vietnamese, which literally translated to “Fuck Nixon”.
At every United States based military hospital, the President’s message was received with horror. President Nixon made his announcement on December 20th, so close to Christmas that nothing could alter the agenda. All active duty medical personnel who were granted Christmas leave were already gone from their swollen and packed hospital wards. Only skeleton crews remained. This abandonment had come about from another of the President’s messages just 1-month before.
The announcement was in November, right after a gloomy Thanksgiving with a record number of American casualties and air-evacs sent to the stateside military hospitals. “It is my fervent hope for as many military personnel as possible, to take their well-earned leave for the Christmas Season. By my direct order, I decree that a minimum coverage system be activated for the upcoming Christmas Holidays. This is not done to avoid payment in dollars to our hard working professional medical staff who have accumulated vacation time, but rather to encourage a true Christmas spirit and a projected return to the peaceful American Way.” The new President’s words were received with rejoicing at all military hospitals.
The “Thanksgiving Proclamation”, as it was referred to, was posted everywhere throughout Queens Naval Hospital in Long Island, New York. It was a given that if you worked the previous Christmas you would have the next one off. For those people this was no big deal. However, an additional 30% of the staff would be added to the leave list for the upcoming Christmas per President Nixon. The remainder of the staff staying on for the Christmas week was indeed disheartened. Their work-load would be enhanced.
Throughout the latrines in the hospital and written on napkins, newspapers, bulletin board attachments, and anything else on visible display, the letters FTN were replaced by just FN. Queens Naval Hospital Commanding Officer Captain Malcolm Zachary Fortescue assigned a team of recovering patients–Marines–to the Military Police Force in the hospital to remove all the blaspheming initials. FTN, he could tolerate. It was almost traditional to have disgruntled military personnel ventilate their dissatisfaction with the Navy because of Christmas hospital imprisonment–“FTN, Fuck The Navy”. Some sailors even had it tattooed on their bodies, usually their arms. One Navy Spec-2 had FTN tattooed on both cheeks of his ass. When he mooned anyone, they all knew who he was, but no one reported him to the command.
“FTN. FN.” Fortescue shouted aloud to his empty office. He had only been in command for 7-months. Prior to his new Commanding Officer status he had been the Executive Officer at Queens Naval and basically ran the hospital compound under the eyes of the former CO, Captain (now Rear Admiral) Lawrence Foaming. And now he had this situation. FTN was sacrilege enough and it did invoke a twinge of pain on his chosen career path as a Navy Physician. He had been in the Navy for 18-years. “But FN! That’s outright treason,” Fortescue yelled. There was no one to hear. The stout five-foot-eight CO looked at the framed portrait of the President of the United States behind his large mahogany desk as he shouted his feelings again. “FN. FN. Fuck Nixon.” He continued the bellow because of the MP report and threw it across the room to land on the third cushion of his maroon leather sofa. A knock on his door preceded his clerical aide’s entrance.
“You wanted something, sir?” Chief Petty Officer Finster Gronsky asked. “I could hear you speaking from my desk outside.”
“No. No.” Fortescue was slightly startled looking at the intruding blonde crew-cut head extending from the partially opened door. “I was just practicing my holiday address to the Hospital Company. Yo’all go back to your desk Finster.” Fortescue’s southern Mississippi drawl did not emit a relaxing tone.
Chief Petty Officer Finster Gronsky went back to his desk with a smile. “Maybe there’s hope for the CO yet,” he murmured. The only words he had heard were “Fuck Nixon”.
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