The Troops on Christmas Past

While most of us celebrate Christmas each year in the warmth of our homes with family and friends, our military is not always so fortunate. During wartime and in peace, they may spend months or years overseas, with zero to little recognition of the holiday, and subject to dangerous conditions. This pictorial takes a look back at what some of our brave servicemen and women have been doing while serving overseas on Christmas.

Above: Loadmasters from the 36th Airlift Squadron out of Yokota Air Base in Japan prepare humanitarian supplies for delivery to the remote Micronesian Islands as part of December 2012’s Operation Christmas Drop. Occurring annually for over 60 years, it is the longest such ongoing mission in the world today, according to the Department of Defense. (TECH. SGT. SAMUEL MORSE/U.S. AIR FORCE)

wartimeRight: One hundred years ago this month, perhaps the most remarkable wartime Christmas celebration in history took place. Known as the Christmas Truce and recorded for posterity in a London News’ illustration, British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches and exchanged holiday greetings and presents instead of gunfire.

hsLeft: Fresh out of high school in 1943, Orv Burns joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to a ship heading to Guadalcanal, an island in the Southwest Pacific. His replacement unit there was then sent to Bougainville, also known as the North Solomons, a part of Papua New Guinea. Orv was assigned to the gun crew of the 247th Field Artillery Battalion. There were still 5,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, so the fighting was hot and heavy. The motto became “shoot and dive for cover!” To celebrate Christmas Day 1943, the senior officers and non-coms served the soldiers dinner. They then watched the movie Holiday Inn outside their tents. Starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and featuring the song “White Christmas,” it was later remade into the familiar White Christmas World War II film. By the time the movie was over, all the young recruits – most, like Orv, were just out of high school – were bawling and wishing they were home with their folks. Orv and his unit fought on beachheads on the Philippine island of Cebu, and he ended his military service as part of the occupation force in Honshu, Japan, as part of the “Wild Cat” Division. Previously, he had proudly been part of the “Americal” division, the only division with letters, not numbers, and known for their patch with the Southern Cross (representing a constellation visible in the Southern Hemisphere). After spending Christmas 1945 in Japan, Orv returned to the states early the next year and was discharged. Orv is pictured left next to a patchwork quilt his late wife Joyce made for him composed of of military emblems.

germanmercsRight: As peaceful as many Christmases have been for our armed forces over history, one also provided cover for one of their most daring and famous attacks. Crossing the Delaware River during a bitter storm on Christmas Day 1776, the Continental Army surprised German mercenaries and British soldiers at Trenton, N.J., painted here by Hugh Charles McBarron, Jr. It was the first of several successful cross-river raids that bolstered our chances in the Revolution. (HUGH CHARLES MCBARRON, JR./U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE)

soccerLeft: Soldiers play soccer on Christmas Day during the Christmas Truce of World War I.

orvWhile Orv Burns served on one side of the world during the Second World War, his longtime friend George Strong saw action on the other, including the Battle of the Bulge. It began on December 16, 1944, and ended on January 25, 1945. As part of the 106th Infantry Division of the First Army, his unit of around 100 soldiers along with several other units were deployed with Allied forces in the Ardennes Mountains in Belgium. Nazi forces in German tanks surrounded the troops in the front of the deployment, known as the “bulge,” capturing them. They were sent first on a forced march and then by cattle cars to Dresden, Germany, where they were imprisoned in the basement of a slaughterhouse (made famous in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five).

George spent Christmas there as a POW. Miraculously, most of them survived the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces, which began on Valentine’s Day with the Americans bombing by day and the British by night. George, weak and undernourished, was able to escape the “liberating” Russians and walked many miles alone westward to the American lines. When George and the other American prisoners were on the streets of Dresden working to clear bomb rubble, a civilian woman with a young child passed him, and, being careful to not let the German guards see her, placed a piece of bread with marmalade on the street for him to retrieve. George did this carefully, knowing that if they were caught, the woman and her child would be shot. He has never forgotten this human kindness.

Written by Rachel Alexander

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