GUEST COMMENTARY: Memories of Christmas with sailors in World War II

2013-12-25T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Memories of Christmas with sailors in World War IIBy John Wolf
December 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Repeating words like love, peace, joy, that are time-worn just does not seem right this year.

My spiritual recollection was prompted by a call from a World War II shipmate who asked me to remember what we were doing in 1943-45.

Of the 16 million men and women in service then, there are now less than one million still living who can recall what separation from loved ones and the traditional Christmas festivities meant. I will try.

My ship had just disembarked the 82nd Airborne from Italy to Belfast, Ireland in preparation for the future invasion of the European continent in 1944. After groping in the dark we had found a theater in Glasgow, Scotland, for some Christmas diversion.

Then we had shed our landing craft (LCVPs) and weighed anchor for the trip across the North Atlantic and home. But it was Christmas, and storms were raging that time of year.

When I went up to the bridge to consult the captain, the waves were so high that the ship seemed to be riding a crest as high as the ship's mast. Everyone seemed seasick as we tried to eat but found our plates sliding down the table to the next occupant.

Christmas services were canceled. My shipmates could not send email with Christmas greetings home. The mail arrived when we did.

While the ship was repaired and resupplied in Hoboken, N.J., we all had leave to visit our families and forget the Atlantic.

The retaking of the Pacific was different from Sicily and Italy. We began the strategy of island hopping toward Tokyo. The command determined on which islands we were to land our Marines and take off casualties. Saipan, Tinian and Guam were first.

Seeadler Harbor at Manus was just below the equator. It was surrounded by tropical forest. It might have been a tropical forest at any other time but not now. The Navy had brought a huge dry dock from the West Coast, and each ship had to take a turn at removing the barnacles by hand labor.

The ship's crew was divided into three shifts. They were to chip away on the hull while I conducted Christmas Eve services top-side with our folding Estey organ, our portable worship center and a silhouette of the Holy Family.

Amidst the rhythmic sound of hammers on the ship's hull, the officers and seamen sang "Silent Night" with big smiles. It sounded like the anvil chorus from Verdi's opera.

In a few weeks, they would be involved in the noise of war on Leyte and Lingayen Gulf in the Philippine Islands.

Memories. I would be glad to have other service men and women share their memories of Christmas. While you do, remember the 10,000 chaplains who volunteered their lives to make the spirit of Christmas come alive in far off places.

John Wolf, of Valparaiso, is a retired Methodist minister. The opinions are the writer's.

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