Anne Clare visits us today with her latest novel. I’ve read WHERE SHALL I FLEE, and find this heroine especially credible because she seems rather bitter and unlikable at first. There are always reasons for this sort of veil people wear, and Anne did a great job of helping me care for this spunky WWII gal. Of course, her path holds even more difficulties, but cheering for her make-do attitude through them became a joy. Leave a comment for Anne if you’d like a chance to enter her giveaway of one paperback copy (U.S.) or e-book.
There are few times throughout the year when the longing for home and family is stronger than around the holiday season. I’ve lived more than 2,000 miles away from my hometown for nearly 16 years and I still find myself wistfully thinking of crunching across the snowy road to the little country church for the Christmas Eve children’s service, anticipating the after-church treat of a brown paper bag containing peanuts, an orange, an apple, and a bit of candy.
However, I’ve had the blessing of creating Christmas traditions with my own family in the comfort of our home. How much stronger must have been the holiday longings of the U.S. military personnel serving overseas during the long years of the Second World War—far from home with no certainty of when, or if, they’d be able to return.
There are many stories from those years of ways people tried to keep Christmas. Stories of soldiers throwing parties for local children and orphans. Stories of turkey and the trimmings served up in mess kits. Stories of POWs combining what goods they had to create some semblance of a celebration.
Today, Gail has kindly invited me over to share just a few of the stories from the United States’ four Christmases at war.
Christmas of 1941 found America still reeling after the December 7thattacks on Pearl Harbor. War had come to the United States.
Pearl Harbor was not the only location to be attacked. While thousands of Americans enlisted in the military and began looking for ways to help on the Homefront, others were facing the realities of war head-on.
Wake Island was assaulted on December 8th, but the small band of defenders—449 Marines along with some Navy personnel, radio operators, and civilians—had held off the Japanese invaders. On December 23rd, however, their resistance was crushed. The survivors would spend Christmas 1941 as prisoners of war.
On the Philippine island of Luzon, American and Filippino troops had been engaged in their own struggle against invading Japanese forces. On December 23rd, General MacArthur made the decision to have these troops pull back and move their defense down onto the Bataan peninsula.
Lieutenant Frances L. Nash, a U.S. Army Nurse who had been stationed in the Philippines, spent her Christmas Eve and Christmas Day continuing to serve in the surgery and destroying documents. On Christmas night, she and the other surgical staff were loaded on small ships and evacuated across Manilla Bay to the light of burning ships and buildings. On May 6th, the American forces in the Philippines would finally surrender, and Nash, the other nurses she served with, and thousands of troops would spend the next three Christmases as POWs.
Though the Philippines had been lost, the war in the Pacific theater raged on. By Christmas of 1942, American troops faced off against Japanese troops in New Guinea and struggled for the island of Guadalcanal.
In November the Allies had stormed North Africa in a move dubbed Operation Torch. By Christmas they’d made progress, but home was still very far away. The nurses in the Army hospital at Arzew tried to make the holiday memorable for their patients. The Red Cross helped to provide gifts which the nurses supplemented with homemade candy. They decorated the wards using ornaments cut out from old plasma cans, hand-painted holly and candles, and an evergreen tree decorated with tinfoil from the X-ray department. Worship services brought the Christmas spirit to young men and women far from home.
Not all of the troops who served were on the front lines for Christmas. According to the National WWII Museum, over 500,000 U.S. personnel celebrated their 1943 Christmas Day in England. Even without the imminent threat of an attack, Christmas away from home was difficult.
“On Christmas Day, Captain George Nabb Jr., of the 115th Infantry Regiment wrote home to his wife and young son that “it doesn’t seem like Xmas in the least. We do have the day off and have had an excellent turkey dinner.” (Bamford, 2019.)
War still raged in the Pacific, and the Allies had opened a new front in the Mediterranean, crossing over into Italy in September of 1943. The slog up and down the cold, muddy mountains was difficult for soldiers and support staff alike. However, the nurses once again worked to make the holidays festive. The 95thEvacuation hospital, serving casualties from the fighting around Monte Cassino, decorated their wards with strung up rubber gloves, colored penicillin bottles dipped in Epsom salts for “frost,” and tin stars, while “Santa” circulated, passing out gifts to the patients.
In spite of primitive cooking conditions, the nurses even managed to make homemade fudge to share. Candy making in a war zone was no easy task. Nurse Claudine “Speedy” Glidewell shared her recollections of the process in the excellent book And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in WWII.
“When there was an air raid or a shelling, she and her tentmates would jump into the foxholes they had dug under their cots. They kept a suitcase nearby and pulled it over the opening of their foxholes to stop or slow down any shrapnel that might come their way. If anyone had to get out of her foxhole for any reason during the air raid or shelling, the other nurses would holler, “Stir the fudge!”” (Monahan 228)**
After the successful “D-Day” Allied landings in Normany on 6 June 1944, hopes of a speedy end to the war ran high. Perhaps, some thought, the troops might even be home for Christmas.
However, the war in the Pacific went on, and fighting across Europe was fierce and long. Then, just before Christmas of 1944, Germany launched one last great offensive.
On December 16th, the German army pushed hard against the thin American lines spread out through the Ardennes forest. This attempt to split the Allied forces created such a dent in the American lines that it became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.”
Freezing temperatures and brutal fighting—including at least one incident of SS troops killing captured American soldiers—turned December of 1944 into a nightmarish struggle.
Once again, the staff of the hospitals were a key part in providing some Christmas cheer to the wounded who visited them. The 128thEvacuation Hospital set up in Verviers where V-1 rockets sailed overhead with the tell-tale “buzz” of their motors. Hearing the motor was a good sign—when it stopped, one knew that the bomb was about to fall.
“At 0800 Christmas Day, the 128thEvac officially opened to receive casualties. One hundred eighty-three wounded and ill soldiers were brought in that day…Patients and staff sang Christmas carols together, shared the Christmas meal, participated in a mass, and exchanged small gifts mostly created from personal items donated by the nurses.” (Monahan 421) **
The Battle of the Bulge would not end for another full month. The Allies would not declare victory in Europe until May 8th. After that, the war in the Pacific would drag on until August, with Japan signing the official surrender documents on September 2nd.
However, though there would still be struggles ahead and terrible losses, by Christmas of 1945, America, though still rebuilding, and though still waiting for some of its men and women to come home, could say that at last it was celebrating a Christmas at peace.
*Bamford, Tyler. December 13, 2019. “An Excellent Turkey Dinner”: Christmas Overseas in World War II | The National WWII Museum | New Orleans (nationalww2museum.org)
****Monahan, Evelyn and Neidel-Greenlee, Rosemary. And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in WWII. New York. Alfred A. Knof, 2003. Print.
New Book Blurb:
When she had signed up, she’d thought she was ready. Ready for a combat zone. Ready to prove that she could be brave. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, stronger and longer lasting than any bout of seasickness, foreboded that maybe she had been wrong.
Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common.
They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.
They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.
And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.
Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.