Christmas has always been one of the most special holidays for Americans. But, during World War II, the Marine Corps was deployed to the furthest corners of the world fighting for freedom. Many Marines who had never been far from home before found themselves thousands of miles from their loved ones and the joys of the season.
The Marine Corps did what it could to honor the season, but the realities of war often took precedence over holiday traditions. Still, the Corps tried to to make Christmas special. Especially in garrison, units decorated Christmas trees, distributed gifts to enlisted men and practiced various traditions to bring some holiday cheer.
Marines did their best to celebrate the season, but it was hard with a war on. Every mile they advanced in the war took them further away from home and loved ones. The mental distance could seem enormous. On far-flung islands in the Pacific, or assigned to posts and stations scattered across the face of the globe, most wartime Marines spent the holidays separated from friemds and families.
Each year, the Commandant issued a special Christmas message to be read to Marines all over the globe. Below is the Commandant's message from 1944.
In combat especially, the situation often dictated minimal celebrations. For example, on Guadalcanal at Christmas 1942, Les Groshong was serving with the 2nd Marine Division. On Christmas day, each Marine in his outfit received a fresh orange and a warm can of beer to supplement their regular diet of C–rations.
Tom Williams served with the 5th Marine Division in 1944–45. Christmas 1944 found him at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii. This was his first holiday season away from his family in Southern California. He remembered, "Camp Tarawa was a lonely place that year. We didn't know what was going to happen to us and we were thinking a lot about our families." Alda Devine served with the 3rd MarDiv in 1943–44. For him and his buddies, the holidays were tough, even when surrounded by other Marines.
When they were in garrison, Marines often had duties to perform that kept them from holiday celebrations. Paul Merriman served in the 5th MarDiv in 1944–45. He spent Christmas Eve 1944 at the Hilo, Hawaii docks loading rockets onto Higgins boats for transfer to a freighter in the harbor. He and five of his buddies worked through the night doing this. On Christmas morning, the Marines found an open bakery in Hilo, where they bought a coconut pie and cokes. Since then, Mr. Merriman has always loved coconut pie!
Christmas 1944 found Charles Owens and his buddies in A 1/7 on Pavuvu, home station for the 1st Marine Division in the Russell Islands. About that Christmas, he remembered: "I was one of the men in the company that made jungle juice. [We] made it in five gallon cans and buried it [by our] cots. The floor of out tent was coral making it easy to hide. Our 1stSgt Jim Owen always had to have the first canteen cup. On Christmas day 1944 I had a fresh batch made and that night I must have had two canteen cups to drink. One cup would put you on your rear. Across from [our company area] was a large coral pit used by the 1st Engineer Battalion to supply coral for the roads and living areas. Some clown dared me to bring bring a large [excavator] over from there to the company area. As soon as I started the machine, [engineers] started running to the pit to catch me. I ran back to the company area and my buddies hid me. It was a very merry Christmas in A 1/7.
Even with early mailing guidelines, there was no guarantee when or if Marines would receive their Christmas gifts. Many received boxes of crumbled Christmas cookies months late. Also, well–meaning families sometimes sent gifts that were of little use in the Pacific, such as neckties, and other civilian clothing items. For Marines who did not want to take chances of what they might receive, the Navy League offered a volunteer shopper service in New York City. Under this program, Marines could could send a list of what they wanted along with the funds to pay for it, and patriotic shoppers would do the rest.
Marines and their buddies became surrogate families during the war. Their friendships were forged in combat. Men tried to cheer each other up to ward off the lonely ache of being so far from home. Mr. Merriman, for example, spent Christmas 1945 in occupied Japan. He remembered, "We were in a Jap barracks, pot bellied stoves; we put benches around the red–hot stove and sang carols. At the end of the bench we had a case of saki. The end guy opened a bottle, took a swig, passed it on, and repeated. We sang and drank saki. Soon, guys passed out, fell back and we'd carry them to their sack. I don't remember how the night ended..."
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