February 2024
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Viet-nam Christmas 1961

The Mysterious

“Mary Magdalene of Saigon”


A Christmas Story


Col Robert Gleason, USAF Ret

Det 2A Commander, Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam

Christmas 1961

Vietnam 1961. As they moved into December of that year, a group of 51 USAF personnel found themselves living in a hastily improvised cluster of tents on the edge of the Vietnam Air Force(VNAF) Base at Bien Hoa, about 30 miles Northeast of Saigon. This newly formed group was the first American combat unit sent to a corner of the world that in 1961 was unknown to 99.9% of American but within the next decade was destined to become a bitter cauldron of American political, military and social turmoil.

If as Tennyson wrote, “In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”, as Christmas approaches the fancy of American military men throughout the world turns toward thoughts of children. This Air Commando Detachment(Det 2A as it was designated) was no exception. With their own families back in Florida, they looked around for some surrogates. They didn’t have far to look. The VNAF enlisted families billeted a short distance away were among the poorest of the poor. The Commandos decided to hold a Christmas party for the young children of this group.

A collection was taken up and about $500 raised. This represented about 50% of all the cash available in the Detachment for the Commandos were not allowed to carry more than $20 apiece into Vietnam at the time. The next problem was to get someone into Saigon. The Commandos were restricted to their compound except for flying, for at that time their presence in Vietnam was known but to a very few. In every organization there is at least one BTO(Big Time Operator). In this case it was a young single fighter pilot from NYC who went by the nickname of Limpy.

Civilian clothes were scrounged fro here and there and Limpy was headed towards the big city and turned loose. He was given about three days to gather what he could, hopefully a few bags of candy for each of 100 or so kids. The next day Limpy was back in camp with no money, no candy, and no explanation. He was summoned before the Det. commander and his story was not reassuring.

Upon arrival in Saigon, Limpy thought that he could best survey the lay of the land by visiting a local bar. Not surprisingly, the first person he met was a young “Lady of the Evening” euphemistically referred to in Vietnam as a “B Girl.” After Limpy told her about his mission, she volunteered a better idea. Inasmuch as Limpy knew absolutely nothing about Saigon, why not just give her the $500 and she would do the shopping for him. She allowed that she would meet him back at the same bar in a week’s time. After a few more beers, Limpy saw the wisdom of her suggestion, so he agreed.

One could only image the consternation back at tent city. The money was gone and they had no way of raising more. But there was another more serious problem. The word had gone out to the local children about this upcoming event and every day groups of these very young people would line up along the path between tent city and the flight line and quietly stare at the airmen as they moved back and forth. The pensive stare from the deep black eyes of a 5-10 year old waif would melt the heart of the most grizzly old jungle fighter. The children thought they were going to have a party. The Commandos knew that they were not. Although the day to day activity of counter-insurgencies continued, the war took a back seat to the more pressing problem of solving the children’s Christmas party dilemma. There was little choice. Dispatch Limpy back into Saigon with instructions to either bring back some goodies or to head straight for China.

Did Limpy return with the goodies or end up in China!?! – Click Here to read the ending to this touching story …

What are your memories of Christmas in Viet-nam?

How did you and your family celebrate Christmas in Viet-nam?

What were the most *special* moments of your Viet-nam Christmas experiences?

French Saigon Kids – what was a traditional French Christmas like in Viet-nam?

Viet-namese Saigon Kids – how was a traditional Viet-namese Christmas spent in Viet-nam?

As always, you are welcome to leave your Comments below.

Happy Holidays!


7 comments to Viet-nam Christmas 1961

  • Ruth Blackmore

    I thought President Diem and his brother were murdered in a van. Never heard that they were killed in the Saigon Cathedral, which I assume you are talking about the Catholic Cathedral in the square by the post office.

    Ruth Matteson Blackmore

    • Admin

      Hi Ruth – You are correct regarding Diem and his brother. I noticed the same thing when I first read the story. I think as with many accounts of Viet-nam and Saigon found on the Internet, people who write them have fuzzy memories or have received mis-information or distorted information and/or sometime later after they’ve written an article/story more factual information is discovered that they were not aware of at the time of their writing, etc. That even happened here on our Blog with the history of our school and it’s current usage today ( which I have on my ‘to do’ list to correct, as time permits).

      To clarify the story in this Post – there was a tunnel from the Palace to a church (temple/cathedral) located in Cho Lon which Diem and his brother escaped through. They hid at the church while working out an agreement for their safety. Once the agreement was confirmed, they were picked up with a van and once inside of it they were assisinated in it.

      I think the intent of the person who wrote the story was to communicate how a Saigon ‘taxi girl’ and her co-workers came to the rescue to help some military guys ‘do good stuff’ for some Viet-namese kids that may not have had much of a Christmas otherwise.

      I suppose no matter what the circumstances ‘kids’ have a special place in people’s hearts at Christmas time 🙂


  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    A tunnel from the palace to Cho Lon? that would be one hell of a distance if my memory serves me correctly. Are you reasonably certain about this fact?

    • Admin

      Ken – quote from Wikipedia sources: “Di?m and his entourage escaped via an underground passage to Cholon…” Click Here … to read it.

      Quote: “When rebel forces entered the palace, the Ngo brothers were not present, as they had escaped the night before to a loyalist shelter in Cholon. The brothers had kept in communication with the rebels through a direct link from the shelter to the palace, and misled them into believing that they were still in the palace. The Ngo brothers soon agreed to surrender and were promised safe exile; after being arrested, they were instead executed in the back of an armoured personnel carrier by ARVN officers on the journey back to military headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.” …. Click Here to read it.

      Quote: “Diem and Nhu overheard him and fled to the nearby Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier. ” … Click Here to read it.


  • Bruce Thomas

    Of course, Wikipedia is full of contradictory articles and ones containing statements that are baldly open to misinterpretation (where’s a good editor when you need one?).

    I agree that the statement implying there was a tunnel from the palace to Cholon is highly laughable, and I did in fact laugh when I first read it on this blog. I also laughed when it was said that Diem and Nhu had been assassinated “in a van.” It was, in fact, an armored personnel carrier (APC) in which they were riding when they were shot.

    As for that implausible tunnel, another Wikipedia article has a much more reasonable description of the tunnel. It’s the article entitled “Arrest and assassination of Ngô ?ình Di?m” that describes a much shorter tunnel (one of three escape tunnels from the palace) from which the brothers “emerged in a wooded area in a park near the Cercle Sportif, the city’s upper class sporting club, where they were picked up by a waiting Land Rover” that took them on to Cholon. Recall that the Cercle Sportif was located on the rear side of the palace.


  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    @ Bruce – Ahhh, that’s more like it…a tunnel a couple of hundred meters into the park next to the Cercle Sportif. That makes sense. I could understand one to the cathedral as well, in the opposite direction.

    And yes, I recall the photo of the bodies in the APC in the newspaper. Certainly not a van. Save us from amateur historians.

    Merry Christmas everyone – Ken and Gisela

  • frank

    Late on the entry…I think Ken is right..it was an APC M113…it stopped on a street between Saigon and Cholon..by a rail road track..opened up the back and sprayed them with automatic fire. Frank

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