The Christmas season of 1942 was technically not America’s first Christmas during World War II, although for all practical purposes it was. A year earlier, the United States had entered the war when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, only 18 days before Christmas Day. While the holiday season in 1941 had been a sobering time, with the reality of a long, costly war just sinking into the American consciousness, Christmas in 1942 would be far different. If the previous year’s holiday festivities had been dimmed by the dark, looming clouds of worldwide conflict, this year’s observances would be carried out after twelve months of deadly fighting involving Americans around the world. While people yearned for the simple joys and family gatherings of past, peaceful Christmases, this year’s holiday season would be celebrated against the backdrop of the horrors and death of war.
Americans had been frantically mobilizing for war during December of 1941. Now, this December, they were actually experiencing the harsh realities of it. Thousands of their sons, husbands, and fathers had already paid the ultimate price during the preceding year. Service banners, with blue stars symbolizing family members serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, were on display in the windows of homes in communities all across the nation. Many of the blue stars had now been replaced with gold ones, denoting the death of that family member in military service. At Christmastime in 1941, nearly two million Americans were in uniform. A year later that number had swelled to five million. By war’s end, 12 million would be in active service. A grand total of just over 16 million Americans would serve during the course of the entire conflict.
Families, accustomed to gathering together at this blessed time of year, were now scattered across the globe. Some had moved to other locales across the country to work in defense-related industries, but separated from loved ones nonetheless. Others, of course, were fighting in faraway, little known places like Guadalcanal, Tunisia, and New Guinea. Sailors and members of the Merchant Marines were plying dangerous waters worldwide. Most would seek, in their different situations, to remember and somehow celebrate Christmas Day. From foxholes in the Solomon Islands to dining rooms with empty chairs all across the nation, Americans would try to have a special meal, reminisce about home and family, and reflect upon the eternal significance of the coming of the Son of God into this world in Bethlehem’s manger.
Military chaplains would conduct services on distant battlefields and on ships at sea, reading the Christmas story and other Bible passages, encouraging the troops from the truths of those Scriptures, offering communion, and leading in the singing of carols. Americans on the home front would also try to gather in their houses and churches for times of fellowship, worship, and prayer. The travel required for such gatherings was made much more difficult this Christmas season due to newly established gasoline rationing policies. Prior to December 1, 1942, gas rationing had been mandatory in certain parts of the country, but voluntary in other areas. Effective on that date, President Roosevelt had surprised the country with an executive order requiring mandatory, nation-wide gas rationing. It was going to be harder than ever for families to get together this year.
As Americans exchanged Christmas presents in 1942, no one received a more precious gift than did the Marines of the U.S. 1st Marine Division. Underfed and undersupplied, especially at the beginning, they had landed on the remote, inhospitable southwest Pacific island called Guadalcanal back on August 7, 1942. After overrunning the smaller Japanese garrison there, they had clung to this vital piece of real estate for four months. During that time the powerful Japanese war machine had unleashed its fury, on an almost daily basis, on the defending Marines. With legendary valor and tenacity, they held. During mid-December, unknown to the Marines at the time, the Japanese high command was already planning to abandon the fight for Guadalcanal. At this same time, the Marines were receiving their slightly early Christmas present. They were being relieved on Guadalcanal, mainly by the Army. In a few days, these exhausted and emaciated young men would be landing in Australia, for desperately needed rest and recuperation.
The newly arriving Army units on Guadalcanal were deeply moved by what they found there. A large cemetery was filled with fallen Marines. Those who had survived, and who were now departing for Australia, were thin and hollow-eyed. Their utility uniforms were torn and filthy, their boots worn out. As the Marines made their way to the beach and to the small boats that would take them to waiting troopships, the incoming Army soldiers could not help but notice their haunting, empty expressions and their thin frames, weakened through incessant fighting with both the Japanese and the jungle. Robert Leckie, who would become a noted military historian, was a 22 year old private at the time. He later told of how many of his fellow Marines were too weak to climb up the cargo nets from the bobbing boats onto the deck of the ship, a ship waiting to ferry them away to safety and rest. Sailors literally had to pull many of them up the nets, even rescuing some who had fallen into the sea.
Leckie himself managed to reach the top edge of the ship’s side, the gunwale, but could not muster the strength to swing himself over and onto the deck. As two sailors grabbed hold and pulled him onboard, he fell with his face pressing down against the warm, dirty deck. “My heart beating rapidly, not from exertion, but from happiness,” he later recounted. Once aboard, he and a friend encountered one of the fresh, new incoming Army soldiers who had yet to make it ashore. When he asked them how conditions were on Guadalcanal, they answered that things were “rough.” When they asked him if he, and others back in the States, knew anything about Guadalcanal and the Marines who had been fighting there, his reply was quick and emphatic. “Guadalcanal….yes! The First Marines…everybody’s heard of it. You guys are famous. You guys are heroes back home!” Private Leckie and his friend quickly turned and walked in opposite directions, each not wanting the other to see the tears welling up in his eyes. Soon Leckie and the 1st Marine Division were on their way to Australia. None of them would ever receive a more wonderful Christmas present than that which they received in December of 1942.
On a Thursday, Christmas Eve of 1942, President Roosevelt addressed the nation, connecting once again with what he saw as the “American family.” He called them “my friends.” Without minimizing the magnitude of the struggle which still lay before them, he spoke of the present Christmas as being a “happier Christmas than last year.” The reason it was “happier” was because “the forces of darkness stand against us with less confidence in the success of their evil ways” than at this time last year. He urged Americans to pull together by depending more upon God and by doing His will. “There is no better way at this Christmastide or any other time of fostering good will toward man than by first fostering good will toward God. If we love Him, we will keep His Commandments.” He encouraged those in uniform with the promise that our “Christmas prayers follow you wherever you may be.”
Roosevelt concluded with a word about why Christmas Day 1942 would be the only day throughout the entire year when work in defense-related plants would be stopped and employees given the day off. “It is significant that tomorrow—Christmas Day—our plants and factories will be stilled. That is not true of the other holidays that we have long been accustomed to celebrate. On all other holidays the work goes on, gladly, for the winning of the war. So Christmas Day becomes the only holiday in all the year. I like to think that this is so because Christmas is a holy day. May all that it stands for live and grow through all the years.”
Remember the Christmas season of 1942…. 75 years ago, and never forget those who gave so much then, that we might freely celebrate Christmas today.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are….” Ronald Reagan