“Home for Christmas,” these three words have been a part of war as long as this country has known war perhaps. It was offered as the hoped-for promise that a conflict would be over much sooner than it generally would be. Life in the military is very different than civilian life and while serving the Christmas holiday was our connection to that old life we left behind. Home, with the family on what may be the happiest, most peaceful day of the year.
For troops serving overseas, whether in peace or wartime, Christmas is the one day of the year you miss being home the most and while the services go to great lengths to make Christmas special for our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen, the unspoken truth of it is that it makes you miss home even more.
While Christmas wasn’t a holiday during the Revolutionary War(It was mostly banned in the New England Colonies if you can believe that) by the time of the Civil War, the United States population consisted of a lot more immigrants from Western Europe where Christmas was celebrated and Santa Claus began to make appearances in the culture.
“Christmas in Camp” by Harper’s Weekly artist Thomas Nash below is one of the earliest depictions of Santa Claus in the military.
WWI saw the greatest conflict in human history up until that time and this too was supposed to be a war that would see the troops home for Christmas. During that first Christmas on the Western Front, a sort of informal truce broke out among the British and German soldiers who had not yet experienced the carnage and death that was yet to come. Over the last century, there has been quite a bit of embellishment of what exactly transpired during these Christmas Truces that broke out in several places along that front, but we do know that they did occur. The first was offered by the British in order to recover and bury bodies in the “No Mans Land” between the trench lines. It really shouldn’t be so extraordinary to imagine truces like this. Most of the troops on both sides hadn’t been in uniform that long and their thoughts on that day were back at home with their families.
World War II for the United States began on December 7th, 1941, for troops beginning the greatest mobilization of American manpower and material in history, they celebrated Christmas knowing it would be their last at home for some time, My own grandfather joined the Navy and missed three Christmas days in a row. He returned after the war to a three-year-old daughter(my mother) he had only ever seen in black and white photos.
“Home for Christmas” by then had become an actual song. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943 when Americans knew the war would be a long and hard fight, is about an American serviceman writing home to his family saying that he would be home by Christmas and to plan on him being there. He asked them ..”to please have snow and mistletoe And presents on the tree” for him. The song concludes with him admitting that while he will be home for Christmas that year, it would be only in his dreams.
The Crosby recording of the song was on the BillBoard top 20 for more than two years after release and has been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Carrie Underwood. It’s on the charts again right now with a new recording by Camila Cabello.
It was also the most requested song by the troops attending USO shows during the holidays. But in Great Brittain the song was banned form the airwaves for fear that it would undermine the morale of their own troops.
It remains the unofficial anthem of U.S. service members away from home at Christmas time.
The Korean War was a sharp and bloody conflict that ran from June of 1950 to June of 1953 so the end of it actually did see the troops home for Christmas, but not all of them. Some 50,000 dead Americans would never return and a permanent U.S. military presence in the country would mean a like number would be permanently stationed there.
The Vietnam war lasted more than ten years for the United States and being a conflict that was a hybrid of unconventional and conventional war doctrines it saw troops stationed in small remote locations in the mountains and jungles as well as larger garrisons in places like Saigon and Da Nang.
But wherever the troops were stationed they somehow managed to bring a little bit of home and Christmas with them. Even managing to obtain a Christmas tree and ornaments.
The Gulf War in 1991 saw U.S. and Coalition forces liberate Kuwait and give a crushing defeat to Iraq in only a few short weeks. For the the more than 500,000 American personnel deployed there the wait for war was much longer, months of waiting in anticipation left our troops in a kind of suspended animation: “Are we going or not?” was the question. And they didn’t think the Iraqi army would fold up like a lawn chair either. “Experts” talking on TV told Americans that Iraq had a tough, veteran army that knew how to fight in the desert and that we would likely take casualties in the tens of thousands.
The USO was there though as it has been since WWII entertaining the troops and Bob Hope was the general of his own small army of entertainers who often gave up their Christmas at home as well to give some holliday cheer to our troops. To one veteran, seeing Bob Hope was like living in history as he related to the USO,
“My whole unit – the 101st Pathfinder Detachment 2/17th Cav – was invited. The detachment was comprised of 52 men. We woke up Christmas morning, 1990, with an invitation at the foot of our bunks. At the time, we were living on cots in the parking garage of King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. It was under construction. We had no idea the USO would be putting on a Christmas Show, never mind with Bob Hope.
Most of us had fathers and/or grandfathers who saw the Bob Hope show during war-time and we felt that we now shared something special with them. There was a sense of history in the making. The show was fantastic. For me, it made my Christmas. Bob Hope was an icon.”
The came the September 11th attacks in 2001 and a twenty year conflict that remains America’s longest time at war. It is still on-going in places all over the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe and of course, the Middle East. It was also a long war for the troops. It was possible for a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine to join up the day after September 11th, 2001 ansd serve an entire twenty year career fighting in the War on Terrorism. Indeed, many have.
The look on this guys face says it all, doesn’t it? He’s got a plate piled high with food, turkey and all the trimmings. He’s indoors and with the men and women of his unit. This is as good a Christmas will get, but it’s good enough. Christmas while deployed to a war zone is an exercise in doing the best you can with what you have. When the United States went over to an all volunteer force after the Vietnam conflict, the Pentagon found it had to spend a lot more money on accomodations, recreation and food to keep volunteers reasonably comfortable and willing to re-enlist when their contract expired. You are seeing the effect of that in the above picture. Troops sent overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan in rear areas generally report that they were pretty well looked after. The chow was hot, available, thry could shower wioth hot water and they slept indoors and on beds too. The minimum requirements of being comfortable in uniform.
During the Inaugeration of President Biden you will recall the pictures of National Guardsmen sleeping on the floor in the hallways of the Capitol building and civilians were just agast at seeing it. We thought the reaction of civilians was humorous, “Hell, they’re happy to just be indoors and warm” we thought.
In the photo below an Air Force F-16 pilot is wearing a Santa hat as he departs for a strike on ISIS positions in Afghanistan on Christmas day in 2016. As I said, you make the best of it as you can.
Right now, the U.S. military has 173,000 troops deployed to 159 countries around the world and today it’s Christmas Day back home in the states. If you are one of those troops deployed and are reading this, all of us here at SOFREP wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We know what it’s like to miss your families and homes at this time of year too. May your bellies be full and your heads rest easy tonight as sleep brings dreams of being Home for Christmas.