Merry Christmas, Southeast Asia
Written By: Chadd Wheat
Originally published on December 18, 2003

Commander Jerry JonesIt was December, 1963. The mission of the USS Pledge (MSO-492) was to to conduct minesweeping and minehunting operations in the troubled Western Pacific. The Cold War was well under way, and a hot war in Vietnam loomed just around the corner.

But the USS Pledge was anchored in Subic Bay, Philippines for a holiday layover for her seventy-four men and six officers. It was a welcome relief for the men, who had recently been on maneuvers with the South Korean and Nationalist Chinese navies.

At that time, a young Lieutenant (j.g.) named Jerry S. Jones was the Executive Officer of the Pledge. He had the opportunity to help lead a shore party with a different, but welcome, mission: a Christmas party at an orphanage.

“We brought ice cream, cake, and had a great dinner,” Jones told me during a recent interview. “After dinner, a fat old Bosun's Mate dressed up like Santa Claus and handed out gifts to the orphans. Of course, the orphans were overjoyed and their faces just lit up. I'll never forget seeing some of those old salty sailors crying like babies.”

Later that evening, the crew allowed some of the youngsters to tour their ship. (Navy regulations frowned on this, so the kids were only allowed in certain areas under strict supervision.) Since the Pledge's homeport was Long Beach, California, the entire crew was away from their family and homes. “It was fun having some young 'uns around, especially at Christmas,” Jones said.

I asked Jones how the men handled being so far away from home, especially during the holidays. “It was tough,” he said. “But a crew is a lot like a family.” Jones paused, seemingly looking into the past to consider some old comrades that he hadn't seen in years. “The entire crew was a close-knit group. Sure, you occasionally had your loners or mavericks, but they didn't last long. They usually shipped off to somewhere else. Everyone else built friendships that turned into great teamwork, and great teamwork turned into friendships.”

To me Christmas has always been a great time to celebrate friendships, family, and home. But some people can't be home for the holidays – particularly the men and women who serve in the our armed forces. (At least they get out of doing the after-feast dishes and cleaning up the reams of torn up wrapping paper.) But the fact remains: we can enjoy our holidays because they aren't.

Jerry Jones retired as a full Commander in the early 1980s and decided to settle for sailing the friendly cornfield seas of Lebanon, Indiana. During his service he skippered and served on a variety of ships: destroyers, minesweepers, and a guided missile destroyer. But one thing remained constant to Jones: “All my crews were like family. Cruises were a hard life. And when you're out there in the middle of the ocean, it takes the right combination of personalities to make an effective team. Men bond through hardship, and that's why all my crews became like families.”

Being stationed in the Western Pacific and Asia, Jones said he really gained a great appreciation for the things that Americans consider typical. “You'd see kids in the street with basically nothing but the clothes on their backs,” he told me of his time in Vietnam.

Commander Jones was fortunate that he got to spend most of his holidays in port with his family. Most were spent at base in California (which seems foreign enough to my Midwestern sensibilities) but Jones spent two Christmas seasons in Japan.

“Being in Japan for Christmas wasn't that bad. My wife and two of our kids were there with me, so it wasn't like being at home – it was home.”

With all the daily news from the Iraqi war, I often wonder how it would be to spend holidays so far away from home, so far away from your country, so far away from anything that was familiar to you as you grew up. With bullets flying overhead.

It makes me appreciate the fact that shopping at the mall on Christmas Eve is't nearly as dangerous or lonely as I once thought.

Chadd Wheat
Chadd Wheat is a freelance writer and military history hobbyist from Lebanon, Indiana. He is married to his best friend, Jennifer. They have a son and a daughter.
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