COLEMAN, Ga. – It was a Christmas season that the 18-year-old Marine would rather not experience. Slogging through the mud in the drizzling, never-ending rain was beginning to wear on the enlisted man’s spirit.
Sleeping on the ground without a bath for months with a stubbly beard growing from not shaving in the winter cold was not his idea of a holiday. He had fond recent memories of Christmas in Greenville, S.C., still fresh from his boyhood days. His grandmother’s Christmas ham and visits with family and friends are what he missed the most.
There would be none of that this year. In fact, he was grateful just to be alive.
What made it worse was being part of a squadron chosen to provide security for the annual USO Christmas program. It just didn’t seem fair.
While thousands enjoyed plenty of Christmas cheer and entertainment, he and his buddies silently guarded a nearly 12-mile arc around Da Nang in South Vietnam.
Their mission was crucial to the enjoyment of fellow soldiers. Several thousand troops enjoying a holiday celebration would be an easy target for North Vietnamese troops slipping through the jungles.
For the teenage soldier, this day was just another in a string of cold, overcast winter days. The day is a memory now. A story he tells. For this telling, he prefers to be known only by his first name, Jack
“We were angry, hungry, wet and scared most of the time,” he said. “Our job was to stay alert and patrol to keep the enemy from infiltrating the area and disrupting the show. Needless to say, we weren’t very happy.”
Jack said he and his fellow soldiers spent most of their time “griping, as young Marines are prone to do, about our bad luck. It had rained for what seemed like weeks and was constantly low overcast.”
Dark and gray and miserable. Not an ideal Christmas. Certainly not when it was going to be his first Christmas away from home.
Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Two battle-weary Leathernecks of the 26th Marine Regiment take a break in the rain during Operation Bold Mariner in Vietnam in 1969. It was in these conditions a year later that a young man named Jack would receive a Christmas card from a Southern Baptist church.
Stop the story there for a minute and back up about six weeks to mid-November. Thanksgiving in South Georgia is just around the corner, the fall cotton and peanut harvests are over, and thoughts are turning to turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie.
One Saturday evening a light switch is turned on, signaling someone has arrived at a small country church outside of Coleman, sandwiched between Albany and Alabama.
A few pickup trucks and an occasional car pull onto the gravel parking lot of Vilulah Baptist Church, their tires crunching under the gravel.
A small group of the church’s Brotherhood, possibly as many as 14, begin to gather at the white frame church for their monthly meeting. This year the men would spend about an hour writing personal notes on cards that would be distributed to soldiers – total strangers – serving in a controversial war on the other side of the world.
Vilulah at the time was 107 years old and the backbone of the farming community. Founded in 1867 in a brush arbor – just two years after the Civil War – it had weathered many national crises of war and economic hard times. Now in 1970, as the nation struggled to make sense of a war that seemingly had no end, the Brotherhood wanted to be part of the healing that must come and voice its support for those serving in the rice paddies and jungles.
Though no list exists of those who joined the group that night, it likely included Jack Torbert, J.T. Bruner, J.R. Johnson, Jimmy Agan, Marcus Ragan, Herbert Blackburn and others who were active in the fellowship. The notes they wrote were short and to the point but conveyed the essence of brotherly love and prayerful support.
In neat cursive handwriting, the cards, after a brief note, were signed simply “Brotherhood, Vilulah Baptist Church, Coleman, Georgia.” Sealed in their individual envelopes marked “A Fellow American, Vietnam Mail Call,” the cards were mailed the next morning to a central processing center that would forward the notes to Southeast Asia.
As far as is known, there was never any response from those who received the cards, but that wasn’t expected. In the middle of a war, the purpose was simply to communicate a note of love and understanding to a stranger who struggled to stay alive one more day.
Now, fast-forward six weeks ahead to that gray scene that was void of most color, certainly of any Christmas cheer.
“The overcast was so low that resupply by helicopter was always a problem,” Jack said.
But on this particular day the weather changed slightly and the thump-thump-thump of a chopper’s rotor blades signaled the arrival of supplies. It may not have been Santa Claus coming from the sky, but the scene of the massive dual rotor CH-46 noisily descending was just as welcomed.
“Anyhow, on Christmas Day of 1970 the weather improved enough for the helicopter to fly and they brought us ammo, water, food and mail. My platoon sergeant came around later in the day and gave each of us a card inside an envelope.”
Jack read the card, thought it was a nice gesture, then stuffed it in his pocket and went back on patrol. However, in the coming days as he had a moment he found himself pulling the card out, looking at the cover of the three wise men and the Christmas star and reading the note once again.
The young soldier already was a believer and a member of a Southern Baptist church in South Carolina, so he knew about the Brotherhood organization. What he didn’t expect was to be on the receiving end of one of its ministries.
The months dragged on and Jack’s tour of duty finally ended. He stayed in the Marines on active duty after his Vietnam tour and retired in 1990. He never forgot that small church in South Georgia and the generosity of those men who took the time to send a stranger a Christmas card.
Earlier this year, around the time when the cotton harvest was beginning to start, Vilulah pastor David Murphy found a letter from a stranger in the church mailbox addressed simply, “Pastor, Vilulah Baptist Church” and the church address. In neat black ink Jack detailed his encounter with the church Brotherhood four decades earlier and expressed his appreciation.
“I just wanted you to know how much that [card] meant to me to receive it. It humbled me to think that someone took the time to write that short note and to pray for my safety,” Jack, now a resident of Easley, S.C., wrote.
“I carried that card with me everywhere I have ever been and it remains one of my most prized possessions. I have looked at it many times over the years.”
Then he closed the letter simply, “I expect the good folks that wrote the card are no longer with you. If they are, please thank them for me and tell them they made a difference in this Marine’s life.”
The war has long been over but Jack continues to cherish the card. While he did send a copy to the church, he prefers to keep the original for fear of it being lost.
“It is one of the few mementos of the war that I have kept,” he said in his soft-spoken manner.
The lesson, Jack says after receiving that Christmas gift 42 years ago, “is that people continue to do those kind of things. You never know where those cards will go or the lives they will change.”