It was cold. Bitter, bitter cold. The day was December 24, 1944, and I remember how cold it was even now 55 years later. I was nineteen years old and fighting with the Allied forces in France during World War II, and I was far, far away from my Utah home. I had come ashore at Omaha beach at Normandy, France on D-Day, and since that time we had been advancing through France trying to drive the Germans back to Germany. The French countryside was ravaged from the effects of the fighting, evidence of the devastation everywhere around us.
The fighting had calmed down, probably because of the terribly cold winter, and my squad had been pulled back from the Front for two weeks of much needed R & R (rest and recuperation.) Perhaps the fact that it was the Christmas season had something to do with the fighting slowing down too.
We were bunked 12 men to a tent, but considering the cold and miserable conditions that we had at the Front lines, we were very grateful to be in a tent with an oil fired heater, especially on Christmas Eve. This was my second Christmas away from home. I had joined the army after graduating from high school. Needless to say, I was a little homesick and my thoughts turned to my parents and home. I wondered how things would be. Would mom and Dad have a real Christmas dinner complete with pumpkin pie, steamed pudding, and mom’s heavenly chicken dumpling soup? In my mind I could almost taste it.
My folks were alone this Christmas. Both were in frail health, with no one home to help them with chores and other things. All three of their sons, (their only children) were fighting for their country, and all were so far away from their Central Utah home. My younger brother Floyd was on the island of Guam serving in the Navy, and my youngest brother Van was somewhere in the South Pacific on a Navy Destroyer, and I, the oldest, was here in the infantry in France. **
As Christmas Eve descended on our camp, I continued to reminisce about the Christmas Eve activities of Christmases past. My first real combat experience was coming ashore at Normandy. That terrible and frightening day, and many of the subsequent days of fighting, had caused me to think seriously about the purpose and fragility of life. As we were holed up on the beach I promised myself, and the Lord above, that if I survived this war, I would spend the rest of my life trying to make a difference for good.
Memories of my home and of carefree times were very precious and provided relief from the homesickness I felt and terrible things happening around me. Those welcome memories flooded my mind on this Christmas Eve. The thrill of going into the hills to cut the “perfect “ Christmas tree; the days of decorating with paper and popcorn chains, tinsel and candles, and then hiding homemade gifts in the branches. I also thought of the Ward Christmas party where Santa had small paper sacks of goodies for all; and then of caroling around the town and hanging our stockings near the tree before scurrying to bed so Santa would come. These memories warmed my soul and made it seem a little less cold.
At that moment the tent flap flew open and a Colonel stepped into our tent. He was very excited and upset. He said very loudly, “All Hell has broken loose! The Germans have attacked and overrun our lines. We have lost most of our equipment. I want you 12 men to go to the port of Brest and pick up new jeeps. You will have to leave immediately and stop for nothing until you get back here!”
We put on our heavy overcoats, grabbed our Rifles, and headed out. We climbed in the back of a truck and spent all Christmas Eve night riding. We arrived at the Docks of Brest at midmorning on Christmas Day. We were so cold and stiff that they had to lift us up out of the truck and into the open jeeps! We were given no time to rest or warm up. As we started our jeeps, they handed each of us an opened can of turkey that had been warmed in a barrel of hot water. That was our Christmas Dinner, and it was eaten on the road driving back to the battlefield.
I am sure that the other eleven men with me that Christmas Day felt as I did. I am sure their thoughts turned to home and loved ones and kinder times than these. Driving those many hours alone allowed me to count my many blessings and be thankful for what I had back home. After all, that’s what we were fighting for, to preserve those homes, loved ones, and liberties. It was in memories of those homes, loved ones, and liberties that I found comfort and warmth on that bitterly cold Christmas so many years ago.
Within a few days of this story, my father woke up in a hospital in France. He had been run over by a tracked vehicle during the night in his fox hole. He had some severe internal injuries. He spent several months in the hospital there before coming home on a hospital ship and being sent to DeWitt General Army hospital in Auburn California for surgery.
** The legal age for joining the service was 16. My brother Van was big and older looking for his age. He ran away at the age of 13 and lied about his age and was able to join the navy. He would have been 14 years old when I was in France.
As told by Willard and his daughter Jayrene.
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