For Christmas

(A relevant seasonal excerpt from my World War II novel, My Dear Cousin, which was completed and released last year at about this time. Part of the narrative is in letters, between two cousins; Vennie is an Army nurse serving in North Africa and Europe, Peg the wife of a Far East POW, waiting out the war in Australia, wondering for years if her husband is still alive.) The details of this 1942 Christmas holiday celebration in a military hospital was taken from this book.

Letter from Vennie to Peg, dated 26 December 1942, Postmarked APO NY, headed Arzew, Algiers

My dear Cuz:

We had our Christmas here in Algeria at the hospital and it was more beautiful and moving than I can describe. I should set the scene of it for you; the main hospital building has a central entrance hall across a small courtyard, with a wide staircase which goes halfway up the back wall with a dozen wide steps – there is a generous landing, from which two flights of narrower stairs go up along the wall to the second level. When I first arrived at this place, riding in the back of a jeep, crammed in with seven others, our legs hanging out every which way – I did not see this. It was as dark as a pit, and every inch of the floor of this hall was covered with stretchers of wounded. But as we took control of the city and calm and order returned. With hard work and dedication, our people have turned this back into a place of order and healing.

The wards are clean and airy, and the operating theater once again fully equipped with all the proper gear, brought up from the Army transports in the harbor. Our patients have clean linens and white sheets – blankets too, against the cold. You would not believe how cold North Africa is at night, during the winter!

We had such fun planning and creating a wonderful Christmas. It means so much to the men, and to us, so far away from home, and in a foreign and unfamiliar land. The comfortable rituals seem so much more meaningful. I believe that for the rest of my life I will remember this particular Christmas with much more clarity than those of my childhood, which seemed to all blend into one pleasant holiday blur, with not much to make any one of them stand out, not even the Christmases when I journeyed home to the ranch from Galveston.

Besides the candy that we made in the hospital kitchen – at least four hundred pounds of it! – the Red Cross director in Oran produced quantities of more hard candy, packets of cigarettes and small gifts for this enterprise, enough to fill every single stocking; all seven hundred of them! Our enlisted corpsmen at Arzew came up with tinsel slivered from the foil that X-ray plates come wrapped in, and many ornaments for the Christmas tree cut from empty tin plasma containers. A party among the Army engineers organizing the harbor went out into the country and cut a tall fir tree for us, which we put in the hospital foyer in a bucket of gravel and sand, just as we used to do at home. A sergeant among our patients (recovering nicely from an abdominal wound) was an art teacher in his previous life. He was busy cutting and folding heavy paper, and painting them with brushes and paint procured through the Red Cross (again, all honors to the director in Oran who found these items for us) to appear like lighted candles, pinecones, branches of evergreens, holly berries and leaves, and ornate bows and placards of Christmas greetings, to make garlands to adorn the lobby.

On the landing – which you must picture as being twelve steps up from the lobby floor – we had a small table, draped in white sheets, with more white sheets hung against the walls above, and a large cardboard cross, four feet tall, onto which we had hand-sewn purple bougainvillea blossoms was hung above it. (Purple was the proper color for the Christmas rites, so Muriel tells me. She would know, as she is quite devout.) The corpsmen had contrived a pair of elaborate candelabras, and filled them with wax tapers, and brought in some small palm trees planted in pots on either side of the altar, as well as two large vases filled with flowers behind the candelabras.

It was magnificent. Our Catholic chaplain, Father Powers began saying a solemn Christmas mass at midnight, at the foot of the altar. Any who wanted to attend were welcome. We had litter patients at the front, and ambulatory patients crowded in with the nurses and surgeons behind them. The choir of men – and they were all Catholic, Protestant and Jew together – began singing “Silent Night”. It was all so beautiful and deeply moving, Peg! I simply cannot describe to you how lovely it was. Although I am not Catholic and only indifferently Christian.

We had a small party afterwards, hosted by we nurses – with cookies and cocoa and then to our various beds. But in the morning, on Christmas morning, Captain Ro (Romanesco, our unit dentist) dressed in the Santa costume which we had made for him, of the same fabric that all of the Christmas stockings were sewn, and went around to all the wards, distributing Christmas stockings stuffed full of gifts: the candy, cigarettes and etc. I can’t even begin to express how happy the men were to receive these simple presents, or how thrilled we were, to observe their happiness. In the larger sense, we can really do so little for them, for those who have received crippling wounds, wounds which I fear may shorten many lives, or at least make life a challenge for them. But they were all so happy with their presents – as if they were all small boys, receiving the one thing that they most desired in all the world.

This simple holiday in a foreign land, in time of war, Peg – it all made it worthwhile to me.

All my love, to you and yours.


10 thoughts on “For Christmas”

  1. I still have a couple of letters I wrote as a five year old to my cousin in north Africa where he was a bombardier doing his 50 missions. In those days, a letter was written on a form called “Victory Mail” and photographed, which miniaturized it. When he came home he had a couple of the letters he had saved. A buddy of his sent me his medals. By the time I received them, he had been shot down and killed. I have a photo of my self in a suit wearing the medals. I think a copy was sent to my cousin.

  2. Very evocative of the times and attitudes.

    I was privileged in my work to collect the personal papers and photos of many WWII and other veterans. Nothing else is like being immersed in the letters or (forbidden) journals of the men and women who were there, whether in combat or not.

    Sooner or later I’ll get hold of my father’s scrapbooks long enough to scan them in. I’ve found quite a bit about his unit online but almost all official records and not much from individual perspectives.

  3. What sucks about it all is that it’s all so ephemeral, so fleeting. And, it’s only gotten worse–You can go back to look at the physical hard copies, in paper, of the WWII records, right down to individual unit morning reports.

    Now, try doing that for anything in the digital era; it ain’t there. Why? Because it was all digital, and they erased the hard drives, ‘cos classified, see?

    101st Airborne Division’s official historian had the desk behind me in the Tactical Operations Center, at Division Main on FOB Speicher, there in Tikrit. Oh, the things you learn, BS’ing with the guys over coffee… Like, said policy of erasing hard drives, wherein all those reports lay. There was really zero appreciation for retention of any of it, and the historian had a hell of a time trying to get across to people just how much we would be losing–Not the least of which was the ability for 101st Airborne soldiers to be able to do like WWII vets can, and go back to look for the data about the specific incident they were wounded in, for VA disability determinations.

    Mark my words–Generations from now, our era is going to be decried as a dark age, because while we have all these digital records, they’re going to wind up erased, or the hardware to read them won’t be available. Someone I heard had a good term for it–The “Endarkenment”, because that’s precisely what it will be seen as. We’ll know more about WWII and the Civil War than we will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, simply because the records are on paper and in the archives. Nearly everything of that detail from Iraq or Afghanistan is digital and will have been either classified beyond access, or it will have been erased because nobody wanted to trouble themselves to retain it.

  4. I know, Kirk. I saw that happen again and again. Migration of data was always talked about but seldom done, and archives often end up as museums of long-obsolete data storage devices, accessible at great expense if at all.

    In theory, microfilm and microcard will be usable for centuries with no more than a light source and a lens, but they require a proper environment and maintenance to prevent brittleness, bricking etc. and I’m not confident that the honchoes understand that. The other side of that coin is the delusion among honchoes that everything is online anyway, so who needs paper anything?

    I’ve argued for years that we’re in danger of defining ‘information’ as ‘that which can be accessed digitally,’ which is very convenient for certain interested parties.

    I know a guy who is the historian for a Missile Wing in MT. I should talk to him sometime about the state of things.

    Merry Christmas

  5. I’ve argued for years that we’re in danger of defining ‘information’ as ‘that which can be accessed digitally,’ which is very convenient for certain interested parties.

    Try to get medical records for someone, even before the statutory 7 years has elapsed or the age of 18. They are gone. I spent years examining military recruits. Medical records were usually unavailable. I keep my own and recommend anyone with a serious issue do the same.

  6. Unless you want to really get depressed, don’t talk to him. Keep your illusions… I know I’d like to still have mine, but I lost them somewhere along the way. It’s a large part of the reason I’m so damn cynical about the things in academia and history that I am. I’ve been out there, watching history happen, and observing the early stages of its “preservation”, which really amounted to conscious or unconscious distortion.

    Our descendants are going to have nasty, nasty things to say about us, in this regard. On the one hand, you have all the detailed (far more than past eras…) digital data available to the historian, but on the other, there’s the fact that it’s simply not being preserved. Those detailed unclassified morning reports from WWII? There ain’t no modern equivalent, because a.) all those reports were classified due to their transmittal over classified networks, b.) nobody wanted to go to the trouble of declassifying all that stuff, even though the reasons why it would be a good idea were explained in nauseating detail to them, and c.) the rules about retention of classified data are so draconian that the guys who want to retain that stuff and understand its importance get overruled simply because there’s no room in the classified storage facilities. You can’t even convince the National Archives to take that stuff, apparently… The 101st Airborne Division Historian was damn near in tears, and muttering darkly about how he was going to go down in history with future researchers, simply because of the fact that he couldn’t persuade anyone of the need to retain most of that data.

    What was really ‘effing insane? I was there with him 2005-06. There was data from the previous unit that had been there which they’d just erased, because nobody was interested in it, until someone realized, six months down the line, that knowing the names of people who were put into the database along with their physical characteristics wasn’t all you needed to know–It also was a good idea to know how and why they’d been detained, and what context it was in, along with the other people they’d been with at the time. A lot of that stuff went “Whoosh” in a cloud of electrons when the SPOTREP databases were expunged, and there we were with a bunch of potentially significant data that might have told us something, if only we’d had the context surrounding it to use.

    The librarians are another depressing thing, altogether. Don’t go looking for all the metadata that was represented by those “ancient” card catalogs, ‘cos all that stuff is obsolete and gone. Along with all the old books that hadn’t been checked out for a few years… They’ve pulped a considerable swath of our culture, and aside from a few cranks like me, nobody gives a rat’s ass.

    There are excellent reasons I’m so cynical about the people in academia, particularly in the fields of education, library science, and history. Way too many of them completely fail to understand their “duty to civilization”, and are actively trying to undermine the foundations, by removing information and historical context. And, they’re ‘effing proud of it, the damage they’ve done, in the name of “political correctness”, which is an ephemeral thing at best. What happens when the next tranche of politics decides to wipe out what you’ve winnowed through, because you did that winnowing? I suspect that most of what’s going to be known about our era in future years will only be preserved by random chance and sheer accident, and that the archaeologists are going to be the ones doing most of the work, because the data that gets preserved won’t be worth a plugged nickel.

  7. First: Merry Christmas to one and all and my best wishes to all in the coming year.

    This will be the 245th Christmas since since the rather presumptuously named Continental Army straggled into Valley Forge. Arguably, the lowest point for us in the Revolution. Had it been a little lower, it would probably be an obscure footnote in the history of the Commonwealth, Dominion or however we would have ended up. History is usually written by the winner.

    It was only the first of too many similar Christmases to come. As somber as the picture Sgt. Mom paints, and while it wasn’t a high point, It still represents what Churchill would have called the end of the beginning. The enemy was in a retreat that wouldn’t stop.

    Only time will tell if this Christmas is most like the one in 1940 or 1944.

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