Four Christmases at War

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. 

1941

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. 

1942

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.  

1943

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)**

1944

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. 

Quoted Works:

*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.

1944

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.

20 thoughts on “Four Christmases at War

  1. While long ago memories were brought back to the surface, I greatly enjoyed reading your historical account of how so many celebrated CHRISTmas while serving in WWII. A mixture of loneliness, sparse everything, and sadness can be overcome by the love, dedication, and commitment to one another that serving together can bring. Most enjoyable ladies; thank you, and God’s blessings.

    • Thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts- I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. God bless your Christmas preparations and celebrations!
      -Anne

  2. It was interesting to read about the multiple battles/locations throughout WWII where nurses were stationed. I cannot imagine myself being brave enough to experience those nurses’ lives. I was with an Evacuation hospital in the Saudi desert 50 miles from the Kuwait border during Desert Storm. Our concern was imagining the possibility of combat coming to us, a different experience. But we too celebrated with a decorated evergreen tree that somehow the supply service provided. I am so humbled by the WWII stories, especially those involving the nurses.

    • Thank you so much for visiting, Connie, for sharing those experiences, and for your service! I’m so grateful for people with the gifts to provide medical care.
      Agreed, “Humbling” is the word- I read about these ladies and am just blown away by their dedication and sacrifices.
      -Anne

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  4. Anne certainly knows her craft. I already have “Where Shall I Flee”, but if she decides to go for non-fiction, I’ll be right there too!!

  5. Thank you, Anne, for sharing these stories of Christmases when the U.S. was at war. It makes me so thankful for the safety and freedom we have that we can celebrate Christmas not in a state of war! Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. Your book, WHERE SHALL I FLEE, sounds very good! Thank you for a chance to win a copy of this book!

    • Thank you Alison- yes, I always find these stories from history to be great reminders to be thankful! I am glad you enjoyed them. Have a Merry Christmas!

  6. Thank you Alison- yes, I always find these stories from history to be great reminders to be thankful! I am glad you enjoyed them. Have a Merry Christmas!

  7. That was interesting, and very neatly summarised, Anne. By sheer coincidence, some WW2 music came on in the background while I was reading it…kind of added to the atmosphere and thoughts of parents/grandparents who experienced that most terrible conflict in so many places all over the world. It never ceases to amaze me what they all went through, most of them barely out of school. Humbling. All the best for 2022 – and, of course, all the VERY best with the new book!!

    • Hi Mike
      Perhaps Anne will still reply, but I wanted to say thank you so much for your thoughts. I agree, what they went through boggles the mind, and yes, HUMBLING is the perfect word. I’m so delighted to have a Brit visiting my blog! If you don’t mind, where do you live in your lovely country?

    • Thank you so much, Mike. Humbling’s the word- I can’t imagine what those years must have been like, especially for those far from home, or who were home but found their homes at risk.
      Thank you so much for the well wishes, too. All the best!

  8. I enjoyed reading of the loving attempts to celebrate the peace of a child’s birth during such bleak times. I had uncles in Burma and Germany so these stories touch home. Thanks for such stories so we do not forget .

    • I’m so glad that you enjoyed them, Candy. I love to hear these ways that the miracle of Christmas could still be shared even in terrible times, too!
      Thanks for sharing a little of your family history. One of the most interesting parts of writing in this genre is hearing the real stories from different families’ experiences. My grandpa would have been training to head to the Pacific around Christmas of 1943- little did they know that with the Battle of the Bulge his division would need to go to Europe instead to reinforce!

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