With the Troops in
WE WILL REJOICE IN YOUR SALVATION, AND IN THE NAME
OF OUR GOD WE WILL SET UP OUR BANNERS!
Billy Graham had hoped to join the Army Chaplain Corps during World War II, but he was prevented by illness from completing his application. To be candid, I have never known anyone who worked harder at being a chaplain than Billy did while he was in Vietnam. In fact, ministering to and encouraging chaplains was a major element in his two Christmas visits to the Southeast Asia war zone in 1966 and 1968.
My own tour of duty as an Army Air Corp chaplain took me to the Aleutian Islands. Billy Graham's voluntary tour of duty took him into the very heart of the combat areas of Vietnam. He went as a volunteer seeking to bring spiritual strength and encouragement to the troops, at the invitation of General William C. Westmoreland, commanding general of the American forces. Billy was accompanied in 1966 by four of his members, song leader Cliff Barrows, soloist George Beverly Shea, pianist Tedd Smith, and the late Dan Piatt, tour manager.
The following description is based on reports written at my request by Tedd Smith, which I published in Decision magazine at the time.1 The team toured field hospitals, servicemen's centers, Vietnamese villages, mess halls, officer's clubs, improvised chapels,
and schools built by American servicemen for Vietnamese children. Billy also spoke to large groups of chaplains, not only those under American colors, but also to chaplains from Australia and New Zealand, who were equally committed to the war effort.
Refusing to stay in the Saigon area with the touring entertainers, Billy insisted on going north toward the DMZ (demilitarized zone) located on the seventeenth parallel between North and South Vietnam. At An Khe the troops stood in boot-top mud and held 4,000 burning candles at a Christmas Eve candlelight service led by Billy. In Nha Trang he hosted a fellowship dinner for missionaries and chaplains and Vietnamese pastors. Rev. Doan Van Mieng (who was later arrested and sent to a Communist prison) invited Billy to return to Vietnam to hold an evangelistic crusade. Billy and the team also took helicopter tours to visit schools and dedicate chapels.
Billy's object was not primarily to fulfill a duty or leave an impression. He was after souls. The very intensity of his ministry as he presented the Gospel to the troops urging them to make a lifetime response revealed his life-and-death concern for the men facing death daily amid all the horrors of the battlefield.
Candlelight services were held after dark, and at each stop the men were challenged to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. At Long Binh Cliff Barrows led 6,000 people in singing Christmas carols. At Hammond Air Base it rained, but a Sky Trooper joined Billy to help bring the Christmas spirit to the men. On Christmas Day Billy preached to 5,000 marines in the Freedom Hill Amphitheater in the port city of Danang, close to the combat zone.
The headquarters staff chaplain, Col. Walter Sugg, summed it up: "The Billy Graham team's ministry was warmly received, and the response was an inspiration. Hundreds and thousands of men came in brilliant sun, steaming heat, rain, and mud. Their reluctance to depart following each service evidenced the depths the message had reached."
Two years later Billy made a second Christmas visit to Vietnam. This time his team consisted of Associate Evangelist T.W. Wilson, soloist Jimmie McDonald, and again pianist Tedd Smith. A Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post, stated on their
arrival in Saigon, "Billy Graham will give the troops, irrespective of color or creed, some comfort at Christmas and perhaps the kind of peace that can never be found around a political conference table."
The team then flew further north to Phu Bai, where they were welcomed by a war hero, Gen. Richard G. Stilwell. Five thousand troops assembled in pouring rain in Camp Hochmuth Amphitheater to hear Billy introduce his message with the words: "I come to bring you greetings from millions of Americans who are proud of you and what you are doing."
That afternoon the team visited a naval hospital ship, and the service was broadcast over the ship's television to all the wards. The visitors were then taken by COD aircraft to the carrier USS Ranger, where a Christmas service was conducted in the ship's hangar for 2,700 men. Several destroyers pulled alongside the Ranger so their troops could share the service by closed-circuit television.
Another great Christmas service was held on December 23 at Danang, this time complete with marine band and choir. The marines walked from a fifteen-miles radius and waited for hours for the worship to begin. At Billy's invitation, hundreds raised their hands to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
On Christmas Day, 1968, the team was back in Saigon holding two morning services at the Tan Son Nhut air base. The second service was broadcast to every American Armed Services station throughout the world and was carried in the United States on the Mutual network. The team spent the afternoon visiting fire support bases in three areas of intense fighting.
As they prepared to return home the next day, Tedd Smith wrote:
It is difficulty for me personally to summarize such a meaningful time with our troops. To visit hospitals where men lie with both legs amputated and who are yet able to smile and say, "There's a reason for this... Merry Christmas;" to visit wards on hospital ships and derive strength and confidence from the dedicated doctors and nurses; to talk with fighter pilots who face danger every single mission they fly; to speak with a man on the front lines facing the Viet Cong night by
night, knowing he's got to stay on for another eleven months; to learn something of the splendid work of the chaplaincy; to talk to volunteer workers of the USO and Red Cross; to see thousands of pieces of mail and gift packages arriving from America addressed to unknown soldiers and sent just to say, "Thank you we're praying for you"; to see a nineteen-year-old soldier weeping openly and throwing his arms around you and saying, "I found God today, sir. I really did"; just to have had the privilege of going to Vietnam and saying, "God bless you, and Merry Christmas" how can one describe the impact of such an experience? And it was all to present the One whom Christmas is all about.
So close to my heart is this story that I have saved it until the last. Before the 1966 Christmas visit of Billy to Vietnam, team member Dan Piatt went to Saigon and visited Gen. William Westmoreland to complete the itinerary and finalize arrangements. The general then asked, "Is there anything more we can do for you, Dan?"
"Well, sir," said Dan, "there's a marine lance corporal serving up there near the DMZ who is the son of one of our team members. It would be very special if he could allowed to come to hear Mr. Graham in DaNang."
"No problem, Dan."
So at Christmastime a marine helicopter was dispatched to a point near the DMZ to pick up a somewhat bewildered lance corporal named Alexander Wirt. When he arrived in DaNang, he was ordered to be at ease, eat three meals a day, and wait. This young man, who happens to be my son, had worked at wrapping packages a year earlier in the basement of Billy Graham Association head offices in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Three days later Billy flew into DaNang, and on Christmas Day Lance Corporal Wirt learned why he was there. He joined 5,000 other marines listening to the Gospel in Freedom Hill Amphitheater. After the service ended, Wirt went to the front of the speaker's platform where other marines had gathered for Billy's autograph on their Bibles and fliers.
The speaker patted his shirt apologetically and said, "I don't believe I have a pen with me."
At this point Alexander spoke up. "Here's a pen, sir. You can keep it; it belongs to you anyway."
A Bible verse was inscribed on the pen.
Billy smiled, leaned over, and took a close look at the marine. "You must be Woody Wirt's son!" he exclaimed.
"Yes sir." They shook hands and talked for a while.
The helicopter later returned the lance corporal to a new post of duty with the Marine Corps pacification program. Before he left, Tedd Smith obtained from him a quote that appeared in the March 1967 issue of Decision: "Said Lance Corporal Alexander W. Wirt of Minnesota, U.S. Marines, 3rd Division (CAC), who attended the great service of worship in DaNang on Christmas Day, "It was wonderful to see the team again. It was like coming home."
In a letter to his parents, Alex wrote that the team visit reminded him of why he was there and of all the people at home who were praying for him.
1. Decision, March 1969, 8.
Chapter 18 || Table of Contents