Politics & Policy

Christmas Past

Veterans reflect on Christmas in the military.

I’ll always remember the Christmas Eve I spent at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., in 1983. It was truly one of the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced (and this from a man who would later spend much time in near-zero climates around the world).

Of course, the Carolina Lowcountry is not known for cold weather. But that night the temperature was well below freezing: A bitter cold wind was blowing off the nearby salt marsh. And I and several hundred other recruits were standing at attention for what seemed like an eternity on the island’s famous Boulevard de France waiting for the chapel to open for Christmas Eve services.

We were not permitted to shiver.

“Stop moving, mob,” snapped a drill instructor as he strolled past our formation in the darkness. “It’s not cold: It’s all in your weak little minds. Don’t look at me: Get your frigging eyeballs straight ahead.”

Another drill instructor walked toward us from the front door of the chapel. “Listen up, recruits,” he bellowed. “It’s Christmas Eve, so you’re gonna file into my chapel. When you enter my hatch, get those covers off your nasty little gourds, and keep your soup coolers shut. Do you understand?”

“SIR, YES SIR!” we shouted in unison.

“Do it!”

As we silently moved into the warm chapel, the drill instructors disappeared.

We sat at attention and waited. In a few short minutes, a Navy chaplain dressed in khaki — a gold Lt. Commander’s oak leaf on one collar and a tiny cross on the other — stepped up to the pulpit.

“Men, be at ease: You’re in God’s house now,” he said, in the first non-threatening tone we had heard in weeks. “I know tonight you are thinking about Christmas at home. You miss Mom and Dad. You miss your girlfriend. But I want you to remember that an unbroken line of young men — just like you — has been spending Christmas Eves like this since 1775. Because of this unbroken line, our families back home are able to enjoy their warm, joyous Christmas in peace. And you here who are becoming United States Marines must never forget that.

“Now, open your hymn books with me to page…”

Books opened. Pages rustled. Then rising above a sea of camouflage jackets and shaved heads was the most heartfelt rendition of “Oh Come all Ye Faithful” I had ever heard, and probably ever will hear.

For the next hour we listened to the soft, sage words of the chaplain, our temporary lifeline to the sane world beyond the insanity of Parris Island. We sang. We dreamt of home. We fought back tears without success. When the hour was up, we quietly stood and stoically filed back out into the cold darkness and the equally cold reality of Marine boot camp.

Twenty-three years later, recruits — most of whom were not yet born in 1983 — are experiencing the same on Parris Island. And soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deployed worldwide are singing hymns, sharing good wishes, dreaming of home, and generally making the best of whatever situation they are in as they always have done this time of year.

Not that this has always been easy. In fact, there have been some very dark Christmases in our nation’s military history; from that bitter December at Valley Forge in 1777 to the massive wound-lickings following devastating December losses at Fredericksburg in 1862 and Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the terrible December siege of Bastogne in 1944. But whether in peace or war, servicemembers have always taken a moment during the season, perhaps to light a candle, share rations with a fellow soldier, and reflect on their faith.

REFLECTING ON CHRISTMASES PAST

Earlier this week, I spoke with other veterans who shared their own stories of Christmases past while in service.

Former Marine Corporal Robert W. “Bob” Hughes, who was seriously wounded on Iwo Jima, says he will never forget Christmas of 1943, fourteen months before that battle. Then a private first class with 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, Hughes was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. “We had liberty, so we all got out on the highway and hitch-hiked to Hollywood,” he tells National Review Online. “There I met a young lady at a Lutheran Church-sponsored service center. She invited me to her family’s home on Christmas Day for dinner. It was one of those spontaneous acts of kindness, a truly memorable Christmas with her family, and I’m ashamed to say, I don’t even remember their names.”

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mike Minor, a Ranger-trained infantry officer who has just returned from Iraq and is slated to redeploy in the spring, recalls Christmas Day 2004 at Camp Victory in Baghdad. There he sat down in the chow hall with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I said, ‘Hey you’re that news lady aren’t you?’” he tells NRO. “She got a kick out of that, and overall it was a great day. A big feast. Some celebs were there like Wayne Newton and Rob Schneider. And then we had the token mortar round that went off about 30 meters in front of the dining facility that scared everybody to death.”

During Christmas 1969, former Army Ranger and artillery forward observer John Temple Ligon was positioned near the Cambodian border.

“It was hot as hell in the day,” he tells NRO. “Night was worse: We were being regularly mortared, and the mosquitoes were so big you thought they’d carry you away.” But Ligon and his fellow soldiers had a Christmas tree.

“It was artificial, of course, just under three-feet tall, on which we hung cut-and-polished C-ration peanut butter cans for ornamentation,” he says. “We stood it up in the sandbagged command post. Other than that, it was just another day in Vietnam.”

Marine Major Neil F. Murphy Jr., a spokesman for United States Forces Japan, recalls many military Christmases deployed and stateside. His holidays are twice as special, he says, because he’s a Christian and his wife and children are Jewish.

Two years ago, after his first deployment to Iraq, Murphy and his family were invited to the White House to participate in a small menorah lighting ceremony with President and Mrs. Bush. “My son lit the menorah with the president,” he tells NRO. “What a country!”

The following year, Murphy spent Christmas in Fallujah. He also celebrated Hanukkah with a Navy Rabbi who had performed his son’s briss nine years earlier on Okinawa.

This year, he’s at Yokota Air Base, just outside of Tokyo, where already he has dressed up as Santa Claus for a few Air Force families, and he’s helped deliver toys to Japanese orphans.

FADING MEMORIES

On Wednesday morning, I spent time with several aging veterans — most suffering from Alzheimer’s — at the Dorn Veterans Administration Extended Care facility in Columbia, S.C. The Christmas memories of those veterans are fading fast. What most do remember are the good times. Bad times are best forgotten.

One elderly World War II veteran, barely able to speak, recalls only “a lot of hell” in the European theater.

Another veteran, his lips quivering with emotion, recalls “the first time this Georgia–South Carolina boy saw the Christmas lights in San Francisco. It was wonderful. I had never seen anything like that.”

The common thread in the memories of all veterans is the effort made by soldiers and those supporting them to bring the light of Christmas into dark places. Once lit, it is almost impossible ever to forget the glow.

— A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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