CHRISTMAS AND THE
WORLD WAR II GYRENE

 

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.

The Commandant's Christmas 1944 Message

Among the many important things which men sacrifice in the armed forces is Christmas at home. It is one of the most difficult to give up. The American family Christmas is one of the great joys of life.

At the same time, it is one of the real, tangible things for which we fight. Its preservation is one of the essential reasons for our being at war. Every Marine who spends Christmas in service away from home is actually keeping Christmas in his home. He is making sure that the forces which have gravely threatened it are thoroughly defeated. He is making certain that, when he returns, he and his loved ones will be able to enjoy Christmases for the remainder of their lives in an era of peace which he himself will have nobly won.

On this fourth wartime Christmas he has gone far toward that end. The enemy forces in the Pacific have been driven back to their innermost ring of defenses. And, while they may be expected to put up savage resistance there, they cannot escape the closing circle of Allied might. The final, decisive actions are shaping up.

To all Marine Corps officers and enlisted personnel, men and women, I extend cordial greetings and best wishes for the Christmas season.

Alexander A. Vandegrift
LtGen, USMC
Commandant of the Marine Corps

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.

Santa Claus visits Guadalcanal on Christmas day, 1942. Life Magazine

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.

"Christmas services were held in a warehouse on the Wellington docks. After singing carols, and sermons from Chaplain Peterson and Father McHale, we all came down with a bad case of the GI blues. Andy, Danny, Marion, and the rest, all were quiet and remorseful. I wishewd the hell I could just wake up and find Christmas had come and gone. No one cared to talk, just sat around, lost to each other, and wrapped in their thoughts. Danny read an old letter. Marion had his wallet open looking longingly at the picture of the girl with red hair. Even Ski, with only bitter memories, studied the fading picture of Susan. Thinking was bad, it might wreck the operation. But what else could a man do on Christmas Eve?"

Battle Cry by Leon Uris


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.

Outfits serving in garrison tried to give their Marines a special meal on Christmas day. 3/8 was stationed at Camp Elliott, Calif., in December 1941. The Headquarters Company cooks pulled out all the stops for Christmas dinner that year. The menu is listed below.

HEADQUARTERS COMPANY
3rd Battalion, 8th Marines
2nd Marine Division

Christmas Day Menu

Mixed Olives
Stuffed Celery
Sweet Pickles
Oyster Stew
 
Toasted Saltines
 
Roast Turkey
 
Sage Dressing
Cranberry Sauce
Giblet Gravy
Snowflake Potatoes
 
Buttered Peas
 
Virginia Baked Ham
 
Candied Yams
 
Cream Corn
Chilled Asparagus
 
Hearts of Lettuce
 
Thousand Island Dressing
 
Fruit Cake
Mince Pie
Marble Cake
 
Ice Cream
 
Christmas Candy
Fruits
Mixed Nuts
Coffee
 
Lemonade
 
Cigarettes
 


A major problem during the war was the distances between stateside and the Fleet Marine Force units deployed in the Pacific. It often took months for Christmas packages to arrive from home. In 1943, the US Postal Service designated the period 15 September–31 October as the timeframe for all Christmas mail to Navy and Marine Corps personnel serving overseas. Family members were reminded in the postal message, "...hundreds of packages are lost daily...through numerous postal centers and the heat of a ship's hold."

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..."

"A Marine private, a former master at fashionable Choate School, was complaining that day to one of his friends. His Christmas packages had arrived just before he went aboard ship. "All I could do," he grumbled, "was pass the [food] around, let everybody have a mouthful, and throw away the rest.

But most of the men sat quietly, alternately thinking and snoozing, propped, humped, around the sharp and inflexible edges of the gear of war which littered the decks, keeping whatever thoughts they had to themselves as Christmas day came and went."

The Old Breed by George McMillan


 

Hand-drawn v-mail Christmas card from the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal, December 1942. Cpl Fred Balester sent this card home to his family in Wilkes-Barre, Penna.

Hand–made V-mail Christmas card from the 9th Marines, December 1944. That Christmas, the Ninth, along with the entire Third Marine Division, was based on Guadalcanal, by then a major staging and training base.
 


The drawing of Marines under the Star of Bethlehem is used by permission of the family of Col Robert Scheer. It was the cover of a Christmas card from 1942. As a young Marine officer, the Colonel served with the 1st MarDiv in World War II.


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