A Lifelong Gift from Christmas 1944 and the XV Army Corps

 

My mother and members of the XV Army Corps., 1944.

My mother always said that December 24–25, 1944 was her “Christmas with the boys.” As a child, I never understood this. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered she was referring to the soldiers in the XV Corps of the United States Army, initially a subordinate unit to Patton’s Third Army and later the Seventh Army. Her memories of those two days would affect her Christmases for the rest of her life. And, therefore, in ways large and small, they would also affect mine. It’s been 73 years; I’d like to tell you about them today.

Three Red Cross gals in front of their Clubmobile; my mom is on the right.

In 1943 my mother joined the American Red Cross and was sent to France as part of World War II’s Red Cross Clubmobile Service program. Driving refurbished 2.5-ton GMC trucks that had been converted into makeshift kitchens/lounges/first-aid stations, she joined over 300 trained volunteers to provide food (fresh doughnuts were their specialty), medical aid, and a “connection to home” for the troops fighting in the forward areas of the European theater. Each vehicle had three girls and a mechanic; they all shared driving duties. Mom’s unit disembarked on Utah Beach in August 1944 and followed the XV Corps all the way to Germany where they remained until the end of 1945.

My mother had a conflicted relationship with her WW II experience; it was often painful for her to talk about, but she never wanted to forget it. Fortunately, she kept a meticulous journal, which I still have. The prose is terse, direct, and purposely unsentimental – just like she was. But I could always hear her heart between her carefully chosen words. Here is her entry.

December 24, 1944. Sarrebourg, France. The girls and I finally finished a simple table tree with our handmade decorations this morning. Nothing much. But I love looking at it. This was our only reminder what day it was.

Soldiers came for the doughnuts — and conversation and a feeling of “home.”

Then we started making our doughnuts and what a mess. It was very cold and everything had frozen. The flour was so cold we hurt clear up to our shoulders. But it was Christmas so it didn’t matter. We made our special sugar doughnuts and served near 700 G.I.’s that afternoon. We ran out of food. I don’t think it was because they were hungry – they just wanted to stay and talk.

Later, about 9:30 PM, we all went to church, walking into a beautiful old stone church packed with soldiers. It was so cold but the organ was playing and here and there a G.I. in his dirty fatigues was on his knees. Somehow it hadn’t seemed like Christmas before, but it did there. The fellow next to me cried and my eyes filled so I couldn’t see the music. I felt guilty; I was so much better off than they were, and I cried – not for me, but for them.

It wasn’t unusual to serve up to 1,000 soldiers in a single day.

December 25, 1944. Sarrebourg, France. Woke up early on Christmas Day, had breakfast at mess, then we served the 166th Evacuation Hospital from 9 to 11. And were those fellows ever glad to see us. Alice and I served the worst floor. Some were in really bad condition. One boy lay there with a swollen face, looking at the ceiling. I went up to him and said, “Want some cigarettes?” “Yeah,” he replied. “Got any Camels?” I knew he was looking right at them and I couldn’t understand. I stood there for a few seconds and then he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. I can’t see.” I turned cold, my knees got weak and I had to turn away.

I think the boy that had the most Christmas spirit was a young lad whose right arm was cut off just below the elbow. How he could be happy is more than I know. But he was. So happy.

In the afternoon we served doughnuts to three different units moving toward the front. By the end of the day when I crawled into bed, I was so tired and cold I could barely move. But I kept thinking “It’s Christmas today. Blessed Christmas.” And I was happy.

It was years later that I began to recognize pieces of those two days from 1944 in my own Christmas memories. First, there was always a little table tree somewhere in our house. Initially it was by the front door, then it moved to the hallway. It used to puzzle me, that tree; after all, we had such a big, beautiful tree in the living room. And the little table tree was always covered in paper cut-outs and Popsicle-stick ornaments that Mom and I would make together. But it was the first decoration that would go up every year … and I loved the time my mom and I spent together decorating it.

Then there were the doughnuts. We didn’t make Christmas cookies in our house, we made doughnuts. Sugar doughnuts. Actually Mom wasn’t much of a cook, but boy could she turn out these deep-fried treats. My friends always found it humorous that we had plates of doughnuts instead of gingerbread and candy canes. I just knew how warm and delicious they were — and how much Mom enjoyed making them.

December 25, 1952 – and a photo in the Christmas tree.

Finally, there was what I came to refer to as the photo-in-the-tree. We always had a photo or two in our Christmas tree (the big beautiful one in the living room), carefully placed among the ornaments. They were of friends and family who lived far away. Mom would mount the photo on some paper and write the names below. She said it helped us remember them at Christmastime.

One of my favorite photos is of my first Christmas — 1952 — with Mom and two-month-old me in front of the tree. If you look closely, you can see the photo-in-the-tree behind us. I asked my dad once who was in that photo. He said the early photos were always the same – groups of G.I.’s from the Army XV Corps. “She always remembers her boys at Christmas,” he’d say with a smile.

This Christmas, I want to remember them too. So this is for the boys — all of them. And for the “doughnut dollies” (as they were called) of the Red Cross Clubmobile Service — all of them. And for my mom … especially for my mom. Happy Christmas — Happy blessed Christmas!

There are 19 comments.

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  1. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Great post.  Your mom was a unique lady. Wish I might’ve met her.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I. M. Fine: I think the boy that had the most Christmas spirit was a young lad whose right arm was cut off just below the elbow. How he could be happy is more than I know. But he was. So happy.

    How could he be so happy?

    1. He was alive. Lost an arm? Beats dead, especially in your late teens and early twenties.
    2. He wasn’t going back to combat. He was going home. Shy an arm, sure, but otherwise in good health. Even without part of an arm you can enjoy most of life’s pleasures.

    Seawriter

    • #2
  3. Jules PA Member
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Blessings to your mom for her service and to you for sharing this special memory.

    • #3
  4. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    What a brave and  courageous woman. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Darned allergies. It’s what I get for living with cats.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under December’s theme of Holiday Traditions and Treats, and quite some traditions I. M. Fine’s family wound up with. In January, we’re having a bit more fun by parodying the idea of the open letter. Never written anything on Ricochet before? Why not start your first conversation with Group Writing? You will never know what the effort might bring out of you if you don’t try. Our January Schedule and Sign-Up Sheet is here and waiting for you.

    • #5
  6. Mim526 Inactive
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    *tears*  What a wonderful heritage.

    Once again, I feel how much we owe that generation.  This time it happened looking at the post-war Christmas tree photo, thinking what life would have been like for families had freedom not won.

    Thanks, @imfine for the beautiful post and pictures.

    • #6
  7. Michael Farrow Inactive
    Michael Farrow
    @MichaelFarrow

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Darned allergies. It’s what I get for living with cats.


    Yes, Darned cats – even though we have only two dogs!

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    What a beautiful story, @imfine! Your mom was a courageous and loving woman, I can tell. And from seeing the faces and smiles of those G.I.s, she and her co-workers and their doughnuts brought a lot of joy. Huge gratitude here.

    • #8
  9. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    I. M. Fine: I think the boy that had the most Christmas spirit was a young lad whose right arm was cut off just below the elbow. How he could be happy is more than I know. But he was. So happy.

    How could he be so happy?

    1. He was alive. Lost an arm? Beats dead, especially in your late teens and early twenties.
    2. He wasn’t going back to combat. He was going home. Shy an arm, sure, but otherwise in good health. Even without part of an arm you can enjoy most of life’s pleasures.

    Seawriter

    Very true observations @seawriter – and a far-reaching understanding of life that my mother later admitted she didn’t always possess at 26 (in 1944) when she first confronted the horrors of war. But the experience profoundly affected her, and her journal chronicles the change. I can tell you she remembered that boy in the hospital and his joy her entire life and she would occasionally speak of him, even in her later years. I am sure many others were equally affected by his powerful spirit.

    • #9
  10. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Mim526 (View Comment):
    *tears* What a wonderful heritage.

    Once again, I feel how much we owe that generation. This time it happened looking at the post-war Christmas tree photo, thinking what life would have been like for families had freedom not won.

    Thanks, @imfine for the beautiful post and pictures.

    Thank you, @mim526. – we all do have so much to be thankful for and we must never stop thanking those that fought (and continue to fight) for the freedoms we have today. Their legacy continues, forever.

    • #10
  11. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    I’m a little verklempt reading this… Sheesh, I wonder if your mom served donuts to my dad, @imfine.  He landed on Omaha Beach (H +11) and ended up in Patton’s 3rd Army for the Battle of the Bulge. Do you suppose they ever crossed paths?

    I’m trying to imagine your mom’s experience landing on Utah. I mean, the beach was surely secured by the time they sent in the Red Cross, right? I’m sure what she saw was devastating in any case. God bless her and all who serve(d).

    • #11
  12. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    I’m a little verklempt reading this… Sheesh, I wonder if your mom served donuts to my dad, @imfine. He landed on Omaha Beach (H +11) and ended up in Patton’s 3rd Army for the Battle of the Bulge. Do you suppose they ever crossed paths?

    I’m trying to imagine your mom’s experience landing on Utah. I mean, the beach was surely secured by the time they sent in the Red Cross, right? I’m sure what she saw was devastating in any case. God bless her and all who serve(d).

    Their paths might have indeed crossed! Mom said she regularly served the Third Army; she even met Patton twice. (She was always very respectful when speaking about him.)

    Her landing on Utah occurred on Aug. 6th, so the beach was definitely secured. The clubmobiles (the refurbished trucks) arrived on huge barges. Mom and her colleagues had to wait for night and the tide. She wrote: “The tide went out at 4 am and we finally drove right out on the beach in the moon light. No one was in sight. We waited for the M.P.’s who finally directed us to the secure area. We arrived at 6 – just in time to begin service.”

    Mom said the Red Cross gals called Aug. 6th “our D-Day.”

     

    • #12
  13. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    What a beautiful story, @imfine! Your mom was a courageous and loving woman, I can tell. And from seeing the faces and smiles of those G.I.s, she and her co-workers and their doughnuts brought a lot of joy. Huge gratitude here.

    Thank you, Susan; the G.I.’s smiles meant everything to the Red Cross girls. By the way – speaking of gratitude – the Senate recognized the Clubmobile program in June 2012 with Resolution 471.

    Senator Susan Collins spoke on the Senate floor: “A visit from a Clubmobile was one of the most significant events for a young G.I. in combat far from home, and the women of the Clubmobiles, young women from every single state, acted as friends and sisters to the troops with whom they interacted. These women were trailblazers. The dangers of war were real. During the war, 52 Red Cross women lost their lives, some of them from the Clubmobiles. Their stories are every bit as vibrant and important to our victory as those of the men who valiantly fought to defend our freedom.”

    In 1945, Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower saluted the program, saying “The Red Cross has often seemed to be the friendly hand of this nation, reaching across the sea to sustain its fighting men.”

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jules PA (View Comment):
    Blessings to your mom for her service and to you for sharing this special memory.

    Ditto.

    • #14
  15. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Darned allergies. It’s what I get for living with cats.

    That’s what I said.

    Oh, wait.  She’s a dog…

    • #15
  16. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful stories and memories.  Your mother’s journal is a priceless treasure.  We have a couple of the letters my Dad wrote to his mother during the war, and I wish we had more (don’t know where they went).  My own mother’s memories of the war (she was a British schoolgirl) never left her, and I think they affected her more than her family ever understood.  Thanks again for this beautiful post.

    • #16
  17. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    She (View Comment):
    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful stories and memories. Your mother’s journal is a priceless treasure. We have a couple of the letters my Dad wrote to his mother during the war, and I wish we had more (don’t know where they went). My own mother’s memories of the war (she was a British schoolgirl) never left her, and I think they affected her more than her family ever understood. Thanks again for this beautiful post.

    You’re so right, @she. Journals and letters are such precious heirlooms. My mother died in 1998 and her war journal is one of the ways I feel she is still with me (and my daughter/her granddaughter). I worry future generations will not possess such tangible memories of their families.

    • #17
  18. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding and beautiful.  Thank you.

    • #18
  19. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    I. M. Fine (View Comment):
    My mother died in 1998 and her war journal is one of the ways I feel she is still with me (and my daughter/her granddaughter). I worry future generations will not possess such tangible memories of their families.

    Which is why I would hope that anyone who has such a journal consider donating it to the WWII museum in New Orleans or some other, local museum. Paper deteriorates over time and a museum would be able to conserve and preserve the texts.  Publishing it would be another idea…not to make money, but so that the information is never lost.

    • #19

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