Battleship U. S. S. North Carolina
Well Christmas is just one week away and those of us lucky enough to have family and friends are looking forward to a holiday filled with joy and good cheer. Most of us will spend too much, eat to much, drink to much. Kids and those not so young will be opening gifts chosen for us by those we love or delivered by Santa. If we are lucky we will like them; if not they will be returned before New Years Eve.
Some of us will be depressed these next two weeks, waiting for it all to be over. Maybe we lost a loved one this year and this will be the first Christmas without them. I know two families suffering though loss this holiday season.
Others will be far away from family and friends. Military personnel standing guard on some desert, mountain top or remote village. I spent two Christmases during my 4 years of military service on the Horn of Africa in 1964 and ’65.
When you were sent overseas in 1964 you left your family and your wife or girlfriend. There was no internet; no iphone, no camcorders. There was no talking regularly from Africa to the folks back home. You were on your own.
A telephone call had to be “booked” 24 hours in advance and cost a month’s pay for a few minutes. And you could not reverse the charges. It was by radio to London and then a phone line to the states. You couldn’t hear them very well anyway. I never called.
In the sixties you wrote letters.
My wife and I kept them all. Hundreds of them. They are stored in my old duffel bag in the garage. I read some of them awhile back..
They reflect two young, insecure kids being stressed by separation and loneliness. Love letters. Passionate, horny letters. I hate you for leaving me letters followed by I’m sorry I said that letters. I laughed at some of the writings because it is so hard to fight with each other when the mail takes two weeks. By the time you got a nasty reply you forgot what you were originally angry about.
Today one can easily keep in touch from far away with your mom, girl, wife or children. In some ways that can make the holiday more difficult, not easier. The advance in technology is a double edged sword.
During World War II, thousands of kids, 18 or 19 years old were spending their first Christmas away from mom, dad and girlfriends. Certainly they were lonely, hiding fears beneath the bravado of young soldiers and sailors. You were completely out of touch with hone, especially if you were on a Navy ship sea.
“You’re north of the Coral Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Nearby places have names like Maewo and Nguna and Mount Tabwemasana.”
You are a young sailor on the battleship North Carolina, built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard only blocks from where my mother in law lived as a young woman taking care of her brothers and sisters on Navy Street.
“It’s December, and it seems like it should be winter, not warm. Still, what can you do? Your country is at war, in conflicts that stretch across the world. You’re a patriot and a sailor in the United States Navy, or maybe a Marine, and orders are orders, even in the New Hebrides islands.”
At any given time, 2,339 servicemen manned the “showcase” battleship that had steamed into Pearl Harbor — and raised morale — 18 months earlier. Many members of the crew were husbands and fathers who would be spending the holiday thousands of miles away from their wives and children. And they couldn’t even have a peaceful Christmas Day with a planned church service; orders had come in that the North Carolina would ship out Christmas morning to provide support for a carrier attack.
So there would be a show on Christmas Eve.
“Good old Chaplain Everett Wuebbens had arranged it all, with skits and dances, comedy bits, and a strip tease (!). The biggest laughs, and applause, went to the guys who dressed in drag. (Six years later, actors would do the same thing in South Pacific on Broadway, and they’d win a Pulitzer Prize. Because what’s sexier or more award-worthy than a wig made out of manila roping?)”
Bing Crosby had recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” just a few months earlier. And like the last line says, you knew you’d only be home for Christmas in your dreams. But there’d been a show, after all, and what’s not to love about a burlesque?
But — wha? Nobody mentioned a movie. There’s that familiar flapping, as a dropped filmstrip flitters around before catching, the brief burning smell as the projector light heats. If it’s a training or recon film, somebody sure got their timing wrong. Talk about your Christmas anticlimax.
“The movie starts, and — wait, isn’t that Frank’s wife? Hold on. That’s Nancy, all right, with their son Tommy, and he’s opening a present … a cap pistol — and that’s Badger’s boy Mark, now, unwrapping what looks like a board game — Parcheesi? And there’s … that’s — oh God, that’s your Janie. With Ben. The kids. Your Laurie.”
Ship chaplain E. P. Wuebbens had done more than orchestrate Christmas entertainment. Months earlier, in August, he’d collected $5 from the crew dads, for a grand total of $2,404.25, and had written to Macy’s department store, enclosing the funds and requesting that Christmas presents — Wuebbens suggested a $3 limit for each gift — be purchased and mailed to the 729 sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters of those men on the ship. Whether a football, a Raggedy Ann, a stuffed panda, or a baseball bat, the attached gift card was to say, simply, that the gift was from a loved one and his shipmates on the USS North Carolina. Wuebbens goes on to type, “We realize that we are asking a great deal, but … you will be adding greatly to the happiness of our children and to our own Christmas joy out here in one of the war zones. Incidentally we hope that a bit of that joy will reflect on you and your staff of workers.”
But the store’s “staff of workers” had gone much further than selecting, wrapping, and shipping: With the addresses of the recipients in hand, Macy’s invited all of the children and mothers to come, and filmed them opening their gifts and telling — and in some cases, singing — their missing husbands and fathers hello, and Merry Christmas. The effect of that flickering black-and-white newsreel — the high, excited voices and sweet laughter of youngsters, the loving smiles and longing eyes of a spouse — in a darkened hold of a ship the length of two and a half football fields, on a Christmas Eve, is hard to picture. A longing too deep to describe, a homesickness too great to express, a surprise too joyous to ever forget.
“On Christmas morning a small group of the band played Christmas carols over the P.A. system. At 1000 the ship got underway. We had a big Christmas dinner at sea.” Wrote Bill Taylor: “I don’t believe there were many dry eyes that night.”
Duty called, because the enemy never sleeps, and the warship that would earn 15 battle stars headed forward to places unknown by its crew. But, thanks to Macy’s, for fathers, husbands, and brothers aboard the USS North Carolina, the sights and sounds of Christmas had been closer, sweeter, and merrier than they could have ever imagined.
The best of Christmas wishes to those of you who will be far away.