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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!