Most cherished Christmas ever: long ago and far away

San Anselmo, CA

By 1st Lt. David B. Bartruff, U.S. Army

Dear Diary: This is the first Christmas that I’ve ever spent away from home and my family in Chicago, Illinois. So far it has been peaceful: thankfully, for now anyway. There’s an armistice in effect on both sides along the Korean DMZ that is not far from my unit’s compound, and all combat has ceased.
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that runs all along the 38th Parallel now separates two warring Koreas from one another under a shaky armistice: the Korean Republic in the south and its communist aggressor in the north.
Now after three years of combat and the loss of over a million military and civilian lives, the United Nations has negotiated a ceasefire agreement ending the fighting. Just the same, tensions still remain high on both sides.
In the unit I command as its lone officer, directing some 30 communication specialists, last night’s Christmas Eve was not exactly a “Silent Night” since my unit works on a 24-hour-a-day, around-the-clock intelligence-gathering mission.
It is a mission that “Never Sleeps,” collecting information on the enemy’s communications and troop movements by sophisticated location-finding technology even during this fragile armistice.
But now, for the entire month of December, my men and I have been storing up food rations and assembling toys to be distributed to the hundreds of Korean youngsters who live in the neighboring village and surrounding countryside and who attend the local primary school; our next-door neighbor.
It’s now early Christmas morning and we khaki-clad American “Santas” depart our compound to distribute gifts to the local children on the school playground.
On arrival, we are overwhelmed to find hundreds of the children already present and amassed in tight military-style formations that would make any U.S. Army drill sergeant proud.
To receive their Christmas presents, the children begin to parade in columns (on their own!) to the front steps of their school to stand patiently by. Then one by one, each receives their gifts from the smiling and spirit-filled GIs now serving as Santa’s happy helpers.
And Christmas has become a blessing to provider and recipient alike. After the joyous schoolyard celebration, all we “Santas in Khaki” return to our compound, each to his assigned duty station.
But I now must place all the accolades for the success of our unique Christmas gift-giving celebration into the hands of my beloved Korean houseboy: Kim Hyung Tae.
At 44, Kim is twice my age. Born in Karaebi, Kim was responsible for all the planning and implementation of our unit’s entire Christmas gift-giving celebration.
Besides, being a devout Christian, Kim put his whole body, mind and soul into the celebration honoring the birth of his beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Immediately upon my arrival in Karaebi months earlier, a close bond of fellowship was formed between Kim and me. And it continued to flourish long after my tour of duty ended and my return home to Chicago and back to civilian life.
But providentially, just six short months after returning to Chicago, I crossed the Pacific once again, landing in Tokyo to begin work as the Far East correspondent for the Army-Navy-Air Force Times publications.
In 1959, a press assignment took me back again to Korea. It afforded the miraculous opportunity to not only reunite with Kim in the Korean capital of Seoul, but also return north with him to our beloved Karaebi.
This time I had the honor to visit his humble country family dwelling and meet his kin again face to face.
The years passed and I finally returned to the USA, this time to California. Still, for decades, Kim and I continued exchanging Christmas greetings, until the last card I received from Korea was the announcement from his family of his passing.
In the true spirit of that first Christmas that brought Christ down to earth, I anxiously await a glorious reunion with Kim. This time, it will be for all eternity in heaven according to the faith we shared together long ago on Korea’s landmark DMZ.

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