WOODY’S PERSPECTIVE – A Vietnam Incident

This is a story about a commanding general, a lance corporal and Billy Graham.

In December 1966, Evangelist Graham flew to Vietnam to spend Christmas with troops from America, Australia and New Zealand who were fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communist armies. One of his team members, Dan Piatt, traveled to Saigon in advance to set up Billy’s tour with American military authorities. Billy would be bringing his song leader, Cliff Barrows, his soloist, George Beverly Shea, and his pianist, Tedd Smith.

The arrangements were finalized by Piatt with General William Westmoreland, U.S. Army, commander of the American forces. At the end of the interview, General Westmoreland asked cordially, “Is there anything else we can do for you, Dan?”

“Well, there is, sir,” said Dan. “There is a young Marine up close to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) stationed in a village near Phu Bai, who is the son of one of our team members. He used to work for Mr. Graham in our Minneapolis office. It would be very special if he could be brought down to DaNang when Mr. Graham preaches to the Marines there on Christmas Day.”

“No problem, Dan.”

Thus, a few days before Christmas, a helicopter was dispatched to a point near the DMZ. When it landed, a rather startled lance corporal named Alexander Wirt was summoned aboard. When he arrived in DaNang, he was ordered to be at ease, eat three meals a day and wait for instructions. This young man, who happens to be my son, had worked at wrapping packages a year earlier in the basement of the Billy Graham Association head offices in Minnesota.

Three days later, Billy Graham’s team flew into DaNang, and the Marine learned why he was there. On Christmas day, Lance Corporal Wirt joined 5,000 other Marines in listening to the Gospel in Freedom Hill Amphitheater. After the preaching and song service, Wirt went to the front of the speaker’s platform where other Marines had gathered, hoping for autographs on their Bibles and fliers.

Billy stood patting his shirt apologetically and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a pen with me.”

At this point, Alexander Wirt spoke up. “Here’s a pen, sir. You can keep it; it belongs to you anyway.” The pen was inscribed by Billy with the words, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6.”

Billy smiled, leaned over and took a closer look at the Marine.

“You must be Woody Wirt’s son!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, sir.” They shook hands and visited a while.

The helicopter soon returned the lance corporal to a new post of duty with the Marine Corps pacification program. Before he left, pianist Tedd Smith obtained from him a quote which appeared in the March, 1967 issue of Billy’s magazine Decision, of which I was the editor.

It read, “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 home 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. Before he returned home to Minnesota two years later, Sergeant Wirt had been awarded three Purple Heart medals and two battlefield promotions for his service in Vietnam. Today he is living with his family in Republic, Washington, where he is practicing law and is active in the Presbyterian church.

Sherwood Wirt of Poway is editor emeritus of Decision magazine and the author of numerous books. The Poway resident is founder of the Christian Writers’ Guild.

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