One of the useful things about studying history—if you pay attention—is that it can give you a bit of perspective on life and current events. This year, 2020, has been an objectively awful year, no doubt about it. A previously unknown virus has killed hundreds of thousands, infected millions, and brought economic misery to even more. Our communities and our political system have undergone stresses they have not seen since the mid-19th century.
Social distancing and mask wearing have become necessary to protect our health and our neighbors. Many of us are frustrated and sad that we will must spend our holidays apart from family and friends. It’s a tough ending for a rough year.
So this Christmas, I wanted to share something with you from my family collection. It’s a reminder that—when push comes to shove—we can work together and get through difficult times—like 2020—and even find ways to celebrate the spirit of the season in spite of difficult circumstances.
These are my folks. They met in college. Dad graduated in June, 1943, and went to Midshipmen’s School in Chicago. He graduated as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve, what Navy veterans jokingly called a “90 Day Wonder.”
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Mom left college to marry Dad in mid-1944. For a few short months they had their first home together in Florida, where the Navy was teaching him the mysteries of sonar and radar. They lived in a small hotel that the government had converted into temporary apartments for married officers. Dad went to sea only a few months after they were married. Mom returned home to Illinois. They would not see each other again for over two years.
Christmas — At Sea
Dad spent the war aboard destroyer escorts, protecting convoys of merchant and naval ships, hunting enemy submarines and avoiding hostile torpedos and aircraft. He froze while keeping watch on the ship’s open bridge during the North Atlantic winter, and broiled on its unshaded steel deck in the South Pacific summer. He spent most of his war aboard the U.S.S. Marsh, DE-699. As Christmas, 1944, neared he was aboard the Marsh, escorting convoys between the Marshall Islands and the Marianas Islands, making preparations for the expected invasion of Japan. Mom was back home, working a part-time retail job and living with her parents.
Not much cause for holiday cheer, I suppose. Yet the officers and men of the Marsh managed to find at least a bit of Christmas spirit that December. There was a traditional church service on the fantail on December 24th, and a festive Christmas dinner in the mess on the 25th. They even made a keepsake “program” for the holiday events, complete with drawings of boughs with an old-fashioned candle lantern for the cover, and a menu decorated with a Christmas tree, complete with a star at the top. The booklet closes with the Commander in Chief’s holiday message to the men and women of the armed forces. It’s a single sheet of paper, 8.5 x 11 inches, mimeographed on both sides and folded in half, making four half-pages. I think it speaks for itself, and I’d like to share it with you.
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This holiday season, and in the coming year, let’s remember what it is to work together with a common purpose, and—in the words of President Roosevelt—continue our “struggle to bring back [to] a suffering world the way of life symbolized by the spirit of Christmas.”
Best wishes to you for Happy Holidays, a Merry Christmas, and Happy and Healthy New Year.
2 thoughts on “Christmas, 1944”
Reed, I was also a Midshipman, NROTC, eventually a Lt. Two tours to Vietnam as Navigation Officer aboard the ammunition ship, USS Vesuvius. I hope you have seen the relatively new Tom Hanks film “Greyhound”. It’s about a destroyer guarding a convoy to England in WWII and a lot of the focus is on CIC (Combat Information Center) and the sonar operators. It’s on Apple+ but you can just subscribe for one month if you don’t already have it. Great movie, highly realistic and technically accurate.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Thanks for the note, Steve, and your service. Two tours in Vietnam must have made for some hot and humid work, indeed. (But seriously, the Navy named an *ammunition* ship the “Vesuvius”? Oh, my.)
I haven’t see the Hanks film yet. Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll check it out. Dad learned sonar and radar, but was not really a specialist. As I recall, he went from being a very green, all-purpose ensign, to LtJG/Executive Officer, and may have been the officer commanding for the ship’s return home after the end of the war. I still have to sort through his letters and orders, which I have in my files, and organize the details. I do have a photo of him at a ship’s station (open bridge? elsewhere on deck?) with lifejacket on, binoculars in hand and steel helmet on. The helmet has ASW painted on it, presumably for anti-submarine warfare.
By the way, the Fletcher-class destroyer that is featured in the Hanks film, while not a big ship by Navy standards, is still a much larger and better-armed vessel than the destroyer escorts that Dad served on. I had a chance to tour the last floating WW2 DE in the country, the USS Slater, DE-766. It has a permanent mooring in the Hudson river at Albany, NY, and serves as a memorial to all the DE sailors of World War II. Once the pandemic recedes, I recommend a tour of the Slater to anyone interested.
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