Sunday, December 25, 2016

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,

 "O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, . . ."
We sang little above a whisper, our eyes darting
anxiously up to the barred windows for any sign of
the guards.
"Joyful and triumphant?"  Clad in tattered
prisoner-of-war clothes, I looked around at the two
dozen men huddled in a North Vietnamese prison cell.
Light bulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated a
gaunt and wretched group of men--grotesque
caricatures of what had once been clean-shaven,
superbly fit Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots and
We shivered from the damp night air and the fevers
that plagued a number of us.  Some men were
permanently stooped from the effects of torture;
others limped or leaned on makeshift crutches.
    "O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.  Come and
     behold him, born the King of angels. . . ."
What a pathetic sight we were.  Yet here, this
Christmas Eve 1971, we were together for the first
time, some after seven years of harrowing isolation
and mistreatment at the hands of a cruel enemy.  We
were keeping Christmas--the most special Christmas
any of us ever would observe.
There had been Christmas services in North Vietnam
in previous years, but they had been spiritless,
ludicrous stage shows, orchestrated by the
Vietnamese for propaganda purposes.  This was our
Christmas service, the only one we had ever been
allowed to hold--though we feared that, at any
moment, our captors might change their minds.
I had been designated chaplain by our senior-ranking
P.O.W. officer, Colonel George "Bud" Day, USAF.  As
we sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful," I looked down at
the few sheets of paper upon which I had penciled
the Bible verses that tell the story of Christ's birth.
I recalled how, a week earlier, Colonel Day had
asked the camp commander for a Bible.  No, he was
told, there were no Bibles in North Vietnam.  But
four days later, the camp commander had come into
our communal cell to announce, "We have found one
Bible in Hanoi, and you can designate one person to
copy from it for a few minutes."
Colonel Day had requested that I perform the task.
Hastily, I leafed through the worn book the
Vietnamese had placed on a table just outside our
cell door in the prison yard.  I furiously copied
the Christmas passages until a guard approached and
took the Bible away.
The service was simple.  After saying the Lord's
Prayer, we sang Christmas carols, some of us
mouthing the words until our pain-clouded memories
caught up with our voices.  Between each hymn I
would read a portion of the story of Jesus' birth.
    "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for,
     behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
     which shall be to all people.  For unto you is
     born this day, in the city of David, a Savior,
     which is Christ the Lord."
Captain Quincy Collins, a former choir director from
the Air Force Academy, led the hymns.  At first, we
were nervous and stilted in our singing.  Still
burning in our memories was the time, almost a year
before when North Vietnamese guards had burst in on
our church service, beaten the three men leading the
prayers, and dragged them away to confinement.  The
rest of us were locked away for 11 months in three-
by-five-foot cells.  Indeed, this Christmas service
was in part a defiant celebration of the return to
our regular prison in Hanoi.
And as the service progressed, our boldness
increased, the singing swelled.  "O Little Town of
Bethlehem," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "It Came
Upon the Midnight Clear."  Our voices filled the
cell, bound together as we shared the story of the
Babe "away in a manger, no crib for a bed."
Finally it came time to sing perhaps the most
beloved hymn:
    "Silent night, Holy night!  All is calm, all is bright, . . . "
A half-dozen of the men were too sick to stand.
They sat on the raised concrete sleeping platform
that ran down the middle of the cell.  Our few
blankets were placed around the shaking shoulders
of the sickest men to protect them against the
cold.  Even these men looked up transfixed as we
sang that hymn.
    "Round yon virgin mother and child.  Holy infant so
     tender and mild, . . . "
Tears rolled down our unshaven faces.  Suddenly we
were 2000 years and a half a world away in a village
called Bethlehem.  And neither war, nor torture, nor
imprisonment, nor the centuries themselves had dimmed
the hope born on that silent night so long before.
    "Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace."
We had forgotten our wounds, our hunger, our pain.
We raised prayers of thanks for the Christ child,
for our families and homes, for our country.  There
was an absolutely exquisite feeling that all our
burdens had been lifted.  In a place designed to
turn men into vicious animals, we clung to one
another, sharing what comfort we had.
Some of us had managed to make crude gifts.  One
fellow had a precious commodity--a cotton washcloth.
Somewhere he had found needle and thread and fashioned
the cloth into a hat, which he gave to Bud Day.  Some
men exchanged dog tags.  Others had used prison spoons
to scratch out an IOU on bits of paper--some imaginary
thing we wished another to have.  We exchanged those
chits with smiles and tearful thanks.
The Vietnamese guards did not disturb us.  But as I
looked up at the barred windows, I wished they had
been looking in.  I wanted them to see us--faithful,
joyful and, yes, triumphant.
     --John McCain
      (A U.S. Arizona senator, former U.S. Navy pilot and
       five-year POW in the Hoa Lo "Hanoi Hilton" prison after
       his plane was shot down over Hanoi on October 26, 1967.
      _Reader's Digest_ [December 1984], "Joyful and Triumphant")

No comments: