Once upon a Christmas a long time ago in 1944, the bright joy of the holiday was diminished, just as it is today, by thoughts of our military serving in harm’s way across the seas.
I was reminded of this the other day going through a box of letters my brother Jim wrote during his World War II service as a combat infantryman with Patton’s Third Army.
Jim’s December 1944 letters were written in an Army hospital “somewhere in the British Isles” after he was evacuated from the front lines in France with a case of trench foot so severe this 19-year old private was a potential candidate for amputation.
This was his second army hospital stay. Six months before in Normandy, shortly after D-Day, shrapnel from a German 88mm shell had pierced his back. He was patched up in England and returned to France. This time, thank God, he avoided amputation and managed to survive the war. He died of natural causes in 1988.
“I do hope that God ends this war,” he wrote that December. “I will be seeing you when the lights go on again.” His hospital letters were mostly about the good treatment, the great food and his disappointment that his mail hadn’t caught up with him for weeks. There were only hints of the horrors he’d experienced and would soon return to.
“I don’t drink as much water here as I did up on the front lines where it was hard to get,” he wrote. “And I didn’t eat much up there. I’d save a couple (of K-Rations) just in case we got pinned down so I’d have something to eat. It came in handy at times.”
He wrote about a wonderful Christmas spent in the hospital with a midnight Mass, a sumptuous feast and an orphans’ choir that “sang just like angels.” After Christmas he was transferred to another hospital where the therapy was combined with close order drill and 4-mile hikes. “I left heaven yesterday,” Jim wrote. “This place is not as nice, but it’s still better than sleeping in a foxhole, especially in this weather.”
Newspaper archives reveal a home front that December that was focused on the war, but didn’t entirely abandon peacetime pursuits. Washington reported American casualties had reached 540,000 killed, wounded and missing. There were dispatches from Europe where the Battle of the Bulge was raging and from the Pacific Theater where our forces were liberating the Philippines.
The papers reported on War Bond drives and scrap collections. There was an article about the indictment of 51 New Jersey people in a black market crackdown. They were allegedly stealing and also counterfeiting gas rationing coupons that had to be presented at the pumps.
Meat, sugar and leather shoes were among the other rationed items. If you ran out of food coupons you could dine out. A French restaurant in Manhattan advertised luncheons starting at $1.50 and some Broadway stage show tickets cost less than $2.00. However, want ads listed clerical jobs at $23 per week and holiday mail carrier temps were making $7 a day.
As he wrote, Brother Jim must have been thinking about the brutal life awaiting him in France and his chances of survival, but he didn’t burden us with that. “I’m asking one thing of God,” he wrote, “and that is to keep you all well and happy.”
The war in Europe ended the following May and Jim then awaited transfer to the Pacific Theater for the invasion of Japan where a million casualties were predicted, but Japan surrendered in August and World War II finally ended.