For as long as we have been a country, American fighting men (and now women) have found themselves far from home on Christmas. Please enjoy this piece about Americans serving their country in wartime during the Christmas Holiday.
The War of Independence
Fall, 1777. General George Washington and the ragtag remnants of the Continental Army are camped at the small village of Valley Forge, some 25 miles from British controlled Philidelphia. The rebellion is going badly. The Continental Congress has fled from the city and is in hiding. Washington is reduced to just about 3,000 men facing a British force five times larger. He’s short of everything, food, powder, shot, medicine, blankets. His men are dying of dysentery and the elements. One day, a British loyalist farmer named Henry Potts came upon Washington alone in the woods. Washington was on his knees and praying for God’s intervention and protection for his men. As Potts later remembered it, “We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington… We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”
And prevail she did.
The Civil War
Less than 100 years later, America was being torn apart by a great Civil War which would test whether a “government of the People, by the People and for the People” might endure. The cartoon above was drawn by Thomas Nast in 1863. Nast is widely held by historians to have been the first to depict Santa Claus as we know him today, elderly, jolly, and fat. A white beard, sleeping cap, and suit fringed with white fur. Christmas did not bring any pause to hostilities during the Civil War. Skirmishes and captured blockade runners featured on Christmas Day in 1861. Confederate John Morgan raided Kentucky on Christmas Day, 1862. December 25, 1863, marked the day Union troops destroyed a large Confederate salt works in North Carolina, while the Union Navy had artillery duels with Southern garrisons near Charleston. Christmas Day, 1864 saw the Confederates maul and repel a Union assault of some 60 vessels attacking Fort Fisher in NC.
Soldiers on both sides, not actively campaigning, used hardtack and salt pork to decorate Christmas trees, and received special meals of turkey, oysters, and apple pies. Yet, some units were not allowed to celebrate Christmas at all. For the children of these American soldiers fighting brother against brother, privation meant a Christmas with very few presents. Some children in the South took to drawing maps for Santa on how to avoid the Union blockade and find their home.
World War I
A postcard mailed by an American doughboy serving in France read, “Although I am many miles away, my heart’s at home this Christmas Day.” By 1918 the transatlantic mail service was well-established. Ships carrying troops and supplies to France also carried mail and parcels to the troops. The troops received gifts from home including, tobacco, clothes, sweets, chocolate, plum puddings, books and magazines, and even games. As seen above, American troops are sorting packages going to the front in Bruvans France, 1917.
World War II
The greatest conflict in human history. For years virtually the entire world was at war. Sixty million people are believed to have died but the real number may never be known. You might imagine that Americans serving in such carnage would turn away from notions like “Peace on Earth” and “Good Will Towards Men.” On the contrary, we seemed to embrace them even tighter as the distillation of our hopes.
The above is definitely a meal served on a naval vessel. It’s quite a spread. Turkey, peas, olives, sardines, a salad, fruit cups, mashed potatoes with gravy, mixed nuts, and other items.
As pictured above, it is a long-standing practice in the U.S. military for troops to share what they get from home. And woe betides the man who holds out on his friends.
The Korean War
When the North Koreans, supplied and encouraged by the USSR, invaded South Korea, a three-year conflict ensued. It would cost the lives of some 2.5 million people in just three years. As part of the UN’s response to the aggression, the United States came to the aid of the South. This precipitated the People’s Republic of China joining the fray as well. With a million combat casualties on both sides, a stalemate was achieved in July of 1953. The final front line was established along the 38th parallel. It has remained the de facto (but hotely disputed) border between these two nations since 1954.
The conflict in North Korea has never really ended. There is only a ceasefire between the two sides but no peace. The U.S. still maintains over 28,000 troops in South Korea, many of them along the Demilitarized Zone.
Veterans of the Korean War recall that the winters in Korea were the coldest and most bitter they had ever known. As was common in the field, Christmas was celebrated as conditions in the field allowed as shown in the picture above.
In Vietnam, the men fought in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia. There they encountered sweltering heat, monsoon rains, poisonous frogs, snakes, and even tigers. The troops’ Christmas meal was often eaten under a poncho liner in a bunker or foxhole half-filled with water. Given the way the jungle could just rot men away, frequent Rest and Recuperation rotations were arranged so the troops could clean themselves, sleep in a dry bed, and eat hot food. The troops could also attend the numerous United Services Organization (USO) tours that were a feature of the conflict. USO conducted 5,559 performances for the troops during Vietnam. One such performance is pictured above.
The First Gulf War
The war began in August 1990 and ended in February 1991. This time, the U.S. troops celebrated Christmas in the desert instead of the jungles of Asia. The conflict was short in duration but the initial deployment numbers were staggering. Nearly 600,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines would be sent to expel the forces of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
The Global War on Terror
It began on September 11, 2001, and is still ongoing. It is America’s longest war with some 3.6 million veterans having served in it. Unlike previous wars, the troops at Christmas Day can expect not only hot food and packages from home but video calls whereby they can see their family members around the Christmas tree in real-time. And as the feature image of this story suggests, they can also get an entire Christmas tree mailed to them to decorate. On any typical Christmas day during the GWOT, the troops will consume 150,000 lbs of turkey, 100,000 lbs of ham, 85,000 lbs of stuffing, 85,000 lbs of mashed potatoes, and 20,000 lbs of cranberry sauce. They will watch movies from home and have wifi connections to send messages to loved ones. Again the USO will be there with holiday shows.
Every one of us here at SOFREP knows what it’s like to be away from our families during the holidays. For every servicemember who gets home for Christmas, there are thousands who are refueling aircraft at 2 a.m. in a snowstorm at an Air Force base in Alaska. Or sitting in a listening post in Iraq of Afghanistan. Or on a patrolling submarine, 1,200 feet underwater somewhere in the cold Pacific. Or they are the Marine depicted below “Embracing the Suck” of a snow-covered patrol in Japan.
All over the world, we have served as we continue to serve. The Christmas feast you will enjoy today should taste even better knowing that Americans are willing to endure these sacrifices, for reasons that aren’t always clear, so the folks at home can enjoy Christmas in relative peace and quiet. And as much as we want to be there with you, we want you to enjoy it. In this year of COVID, many of you will forego celebrating Christmas with your families because of the risk posed by the disease. We understand how that feels too. We understand it all too well.
To all who are serving and to all who have served to protect everything we love and hold dear, Merry Christmas and a good night from all of us here at SOFREP.
(And pass the word that the daily routine will resume with a PT formation at 0630hrs, 26DEC2020.)