Christmas in war, the time to remember and ponder

Summary: Our leaders are determined to wage unending war in an ever increasing number of foreign lands (unsuccessfully). This Christmas let’s remember the nature of war and the price paid by our troops to wage it.

USMC Holiday

I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Marines in WWII

By Beth Crumley at the Marine Corps Association, 21 December 2011.
Reposted here with their generous permission.

Those of you who know me well, are aware that I absolutely adore the Christmas season. It’s my favorite time of year. I spend a great deal of time decorating my home, and puttering about in the kitchen, baking and making chocolates.

Over the past several years I have adopted a new tradition. Since the opening of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in 2006, I have presented a “curator chat” on Holidays on the Home Front during the World War I and II periods. It covers the affects of rationing, and the transition to wartime manufacturing on the celebration of the holidays. It also covers the challenges inherent in having a father, husband, son, or brother deployed to a combat zone.

On 7 December, we marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I returned home from Marine Corps Base Quantico, and while listening to Bing Crosby sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” I began to think about the situation faced by Marines in the first year of the war…I wondered what Christmas had been like for those Marine on Wake Island, or in the Philippines, or if the embattled Marines had even noted it was Christmas.

For the Marine garrison on Wake Island, the war began on the morning of 8 December. Shortly before noon, 34 Mitsubishi G3M2 bombers (commonly referred to as “Nells”) dropped through the clouds and began the attack on the island. Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF)-211, which had arrived on the island only four days before, suffered 15 killed in action, and another 18 wounded. Before the surrender of the island garrison, there would be many more casualties. On 20 December, then-Captain Henry T. Elrod, the executive officer for VMF-211, wrote a short letter to his wife.

Captain Henry T. Elrod, USMC
Captain Henry T. Elrod. USMC photo.

My darling Elizabeth,

I have little hope that this will get out today but i am hoping that it will. There is little news that you don’t have or can’t imagine. We are still clinging grimly to what little we can still call our own. Everything is very secret to everyone except the Japs who seem to know it all before the rest of us.

Hoping again that this gets off today and that you are well and safe. Merry Christmas and a Happy new Year and I love you more and more

Always and Always.

Three days later, Captain Elrod was mortally wounded while manning the beach defenses. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor. In part the citation reads,

“When his plane was disabled by hostile fire and no other ships were operative, Capt. Elrod assumed command of 1 flank of the line set up in defiance of the enemy landing and, conducting a brilliant defense, enabled his men to hold their positions and repulse intense hostile fusillades to provide covering fire for unarmed ammunition carriers. Capturing an automatic weapon during 1 enemy rush in force, he gave his own firearm to 1 of his men and fought on vigorously against the Japanese. Responsible in a large measure for the strength of his sector’s gallant resistance, on 23 December, Capt. Elrod led his men with bold aggressiveness until he fell, mortally wounded. His superb skill as a pilot, daring leadership and unswerving devotion to duty distinguished him among the defenders of Wake Island, and his valiant conduct reflects the highest credit upon himself and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

The garrison held out against incredible odds for 15 days. Wake Island surrendered to the Japanese on 23 December, 1941. Of the 449 Marines manning the garrison, 49 were killed, another 32 were wounded. The remainder became prisoners of war. For them, the Christmas of 1941 was the first spent in captivity.

The situation was slightly different for the men of the 4th Marines. The regiment departed Shanghai,China, on 27 November, enroute to the Philippines. Three days later, they landed at Olongapo Navy Yard and almost immediately were sent into the field. At 0350, on 8 December, a message was received from Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander-in-Chief Asiatic Fleet stating, “Japan started hostilities, govern yourselves accordingly.”

On 10 December, two Japanese combat teams came ashore in northern Luzon. The first bombs fell on Marine positions near the Cavite Navy Yard shortly after noon Ten days later, the Marines were ordered to the Naval Section base at Mariveles.

On 24 December, 1941, Captain Benjamin McMakin called together the Marines of Company F and said, “Gentlemen, it is Christmas Eve. We move all night.” The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines suffered its first casualties of the war when two Marines were killed in action, and another three were wounded. Regimental Chaplain Herbert R. Trump, instead of conducting a Christmas Eve service full of hope, presided over the burial service of the dead.

Captain John Clark described Christmas, 1941, as “probably the worst Christmas I ever spent. Nip airplanes bombingover the bay and fling over our area all day long. No damned fun.” Lieutenant Colonel Herman “Red” Anderson’s Christmas experience was better. While driving toward Mariveles with some of his battalion headquarters’ staff, they passed a bombed out cabaret outside of Olongapo. Upon investigation, it seemed the walls were partly destroyed but the bat remained intact. Anderson ordered his men inside to “have a Christmas drink.” With drinks in hand, Anderson called for the singing of carols. One Marine played the cabaret piano while Private First Class Joseph E. “Frenchy” DuPont sang “Adeste Fidelis” {O Come, All Ye Faithful}.

For those who survived the battle for the Philippines, the next several Christmases would be spent as prisoners of the Japanese. Bataan fell to the Japanese on 9 April, 1942. More than 75,000 starving and disease-ridden Americans and Filipinos were surrendered and subjected to the 90-mile forced “Bataan Death March.” The island fortress of Corregidor was surrendered on 6 May.

In the spring of 1942, intelligence reports confirmed the construction of a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Completion of an airfield would pose a significant threat to New Zealand and Australia. The American response was Operation Watchtower, the seizure of Guadalcanal and the island of Tulagi, located 20 miles north across the Sealark Channel.

On 7 August, 1942, eight months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Marines went on the offensive in the Pacific. By the evening of 8 August, almost 11,000 troops were ashore on Guadalcanal. The battle lasted six long months. The enemy proved to be malaria, as well as the Japanese. On 29 November, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding the battle-weary 1st Marine Division, was informed that his division was to be relieved without delay and would proceed to Australia for rehabilitation. “The men who were leaving were thin, tired, hollow-eyed, and apathetic; they were young men who had grown old in four months time. They left behind 681 dead in the island cemetery.”

Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in late August 1942
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, August 1942. US Navy photo.

Elements of the 2d Marine Division, as well as a final regiment of the Army’s Americal Division, landed as replacements. Edward Andrusko, a Marine who served on Guadalcanal later wrote …

“It was Christmas Eve, we walked toward the relatively safe beach area to board our evacuation ship, but the ships had not arrived. What a huge disappointment! As the last of our bedraggled, demoralized file of troops staggered toward our new staging area, a speeding jeep approached our column and came to a grinding halt.

“A tall, impressive Navy Chaplain stood up in his vehicle and announced loudly. ‘There will be an inter-denominational church service tonight, a Christmas midnight mass. It will be held in a coconut grove near the airport. Everyone is invited. Please come; it is Christmas Eve!’ The jeep and its occupants sped off.

“We pitched camp in a large area under palm trees near the shore. In this rear encampment we cleaned ourselves, our equipment and our raggedy, filthy clothing as best we could. Although we were in a relatively safe zone, enemy artillery shells harassed us periodically and kept some of us in foxholes or trenches throughout the day. Hopefully and anxiously, we continued to look out to sea for our promised ships and safety.

“That afternoon we visited the battle cemetery which was nearby and said our last prayers and good-byes to our fallen friends and comrades whom we would have to leave behind …they would remain forever young and battle no more. God Bless their souls.

“Later that evening, we who were off duty headed for the church service which was near the notorious battle-scarred Henderson Field airport and evacuation hospital. The church was in a coconut grove. A modest tent covered a makeshift altar, the clearing was filled with coconut tree logs for pews, and bomb shelters were nearby. Shelling and bombing were commonplace at this airport, for both sides had fought over it for the last five months.

“This night, hundreds of off-duty service personnel from all branches of the military congregated at the small church for the religious service. It was a beautiful service with candles, caroling, prayers for peace on Earth, and memorials to our dead and wounded.

“But then …an interruption of loud sirens howled warnings of approaching enemy planes. It was a condition red alert of an enemy air raid. The officiating Navy chaplain, a Catholic priest, a battle-seasoned veteran, calmly warned us of the incoming enemy and pointed to the nearby bomb shelters and trenches. The priest said he would stay and continue the Christmas Eve service regardless of the air raid, for whatever happened was ‘God’s will!’ The father recommended we put out our lighted candles and leave for the shelters if we wished. Some of the troops hastily disappeared into the underground bomb shelters. Many returned quickly, saying the conditions in the shelters were deplorable – hot and wet with muddy floors, full of mosquitoes and overcrowded …And some returned to defy the approaching adversary.

“Most of the men from our company were concerned but stayed in the dark outdoor church, where one single candle lit the altar while the priest and the Marines serving as his altar boys continued the service.”

Gold Star Flag
Gold Star Flag. You do not want one.

Private First Class Verbon C. Sanders had landed with the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal in August 1942. The citation for a posthumously awarded Silver Star medal for extraordinary bravery described how, manning an outpost at the shallows of a small river, he was badly wounded by Japanese swarming to ford the shallows and retake the vital airfield on the island. Sanders continued firing his weapon until his position was overrun and he was killed. Such Marine resistance denied the airfield to the Japanese. It was Christmas Day. The US Service Flag which his family had hung with pride had its blue star replaced by a gold one, indicating their son had died.

In 1943, Marines found themselves embroiled in the battle for Bougainville, fighting along the Piva River and “Hellzapoppin Ridge.” On 21 December, they still faced a fierce enemy on Hill 600A. The following day, a rifle platoon and a platoon of heavy machine guns began the attack. The Japanese held their ground. A full company of Marines made three assaults against the position to no avail. Late on the 23d, the Marines prepared for another attack in the morning, Christmas Eve. A reconnaissance of the area concluded the Japanese had gone. For the men of the 3d Marine Division, “Christmas wasn’t merry, but it was better.” The battle for Bougainville was over.

Marine Raiders at Bougainville in November 1943
Marine Raiders at Bougainville, Nov 1943. USMC photo.

On 20 November, 1943, Marines assaulted the bloody beaches of Tarawa. Thirty hours after the Marines went ashore came a message which relayed the news from Colonel David M. Shoup, shore commander, reporting: “Casualties many; percentage of dead not known; combat efficiency: We are winning.” On the afternoon of 23 November, Major General Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith received the news that organized resistance on Tarawa had ceased. The island was declared secure on the morning of 24 November. Some 3,407 Marines were casualties of the battle for Tarawa. 997 Marines and sailors, mostly Navy corpsmen were dead, another 88 were listed as missing and presumed dead.

For so many families, they were times of great loss as they discovered their loved ones had been killed in action. More blue stars became gold ones.

General Alexander Vandegrift, USMC
General A. Vandegrift. USMC photo.

In 1944, Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander A. Vandergrift, issued a special Christmas 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.”

By 1945, Vandegrift’s message was a different one:

“Christmas this year will have a special significance for peoples all over the world. Many families will be united for the first time in long anxious months, others who have known the sorrow of death and destruction will taste bitter loneliness but all will rejoice in their hearts that the war is ended and pray that the spirit of Christmas may prevail. To marines at home and abroad, I extend the season’s heartiest greetings….may Christmas peace and joy be yours. You have earned the right to a happy holiday season: I only wish this right could make it possible for all of you to enjoy the warmth and glow of your home fireside.”

This year, as we gather with friends and family to enjoy the traditions we hold dear, stop and remember those who have spent their Christmases away from their loved ones, in service to this country…those who served in the dark days of World War II, in the bone chilling cold of Korea, in the jungles of Vietnam, in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, those who have served or currently serve in Marine detachments across the globe or at sea. To them, I can only wish, Et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis. “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men.”

Semper Fidelis.


Some things don’t change

Christmas in Afghanistan at the 59th Aviation Troop Command, 23 December 2017.
U.S. Army National Guard photo by Captain Jessica Donnelly.

Christmas in Afghanistan

About the author

Beth Crumley is currently a reference historian at History Division, Marine Corps (Quantico, VA) serving as one of two unit historians within the USMC, responsible for researching and updating the lineage and honors of approximately 435 Marine Corps units. She interacts daily with units throughout the Marine Corps, answering questions concerning their lineage and honors, as well as battle streamers.

Prior to the above she was a curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and also worked as a contract historian and writer. Authored the book The Marine Corps: Three Centuries of Glory, a battle history of the Corps with emphasis on the 20th century. She also worked on the indexes for several other publications including US Army: A Complete History, US Navy: A Complete History, US Air Force: A Complete History as well as chronologies of American forces in World War II and Vietnam. Additionally, she is under contract to complete an update of the USMC Chronology that is contained in The Marines, scheduled for reprint this summer.

A holiday gift to those who defend America

There are ways to support our troops, actions more effective than a bumper sticker on your car.

For More Information

See the remarkable story of Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 (2001).

Ideas! For ideas about using Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Christmas in war, the time to remember and ponder”

  1. Larry,

    “Some things don’t change”

    Thanks for the story. Some things do change, that’s the talk of a doomster.
    I see the hawks lining up, defending another great cause (whatever that is). Like Vietnam, stopping the spread of Communism.
    All I can do from here is fight the hawks and followers, we now have a chance to get out because of you know who. And we should. Christmas could be better next year.

  2. Larry, thanks for the stories and reminder. Although I don’t need reminding, I never tire of the stories of bravery, sacrifice and faith.

    Perusing comment threads on other sites I see more calling out and resistance of the “War Party”. I parrot you and give link to your site. Sometimes I link to specific FM posts on same subject.

    Thanks for your work.

    Merry Christmas!

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