Just five months after he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1950, Joseph Sims found himself at Camp Gordon in Georgia, where he would train to become a radio operator.
First, grunt work – along with a serious dose of reality about life in the military – beckoned.
“They wouldn’t let us go home for Christmas,” said Sims, 87 and a resident of the Veterans Home of California-Barstow. “The Korean War was going on. I was on KP duty, and I was very sad – very upset and angry. It was the first Christmas that I’d been away from my family.”
But, as he scrubbed pots and pans, something magical happened that affected him profoundly and replaced his frustrations with the spirit of Christmas.
“There was this other guy who was also helping me out,” Sims said. “He started singing, ‘I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. …’ His voice was so lovely and the words were so meaningful to me that I started saying, ‘This is not the worst Christmas I’ve ever had. This might be one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had.”
Sims considers himself fortunate, as do many other veterans who live in the eight Veterans Homes run by the California Department of Veterans Affairs. A depressing Christmas moment suddenly became one of joy that has remained in his heart ever since.
Indeed, military service often demands great personal sacrifice that includes long periods of time away from their families, and being stationed at bases or remote outposts around the world or across the country. For veterans, it meant missing their children’s first steps and words, along with the cherished family holiday gatherings back home.
Today’s warriors, however, benefit greatly from the age of technology. CalVet Secretary Dr. Vito Imbasciani did four tours of duty during the Gulf wars, though none of his rotations involved the fall and winter holiday seasons.
“Every base has an Internet café,” Imbasciani said. “Not a coffee shop. It’s a big tent equipped with computers and phones.”
There, he said, the military personnel can connect by phone or FaceTime with their family back home frequently.
“The mothers and fathers can see their kids back home,” he said. “Beamed heavenward like a prayer, and then back down to the earth like grace.”
They even had a nickname for it, he said. “Broadband of Brothers.”
But such technology didn’t exist for veterans who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. At the very best, they got an expensive phone call home, and on an undependable connection. Most simply missed out.
So we asked veterans – including residents of our Veterans Homes – to share memories of their holidays spent away from home.
In the winter of 1961, John Farrell and many other young soldiers serving in the U.S. Army in Germany found themselves facing a Christmas away from their homes and families for the first time in their lives.
A woman in Munich, whom he remembers as Frau Krenz, recognized their loneliness and took it upon herself to make their holiday much more memorable.
“She went to other German families and asked them to have us into their homes for Christmas,” said Farrell, a resident of CalVet’s Veterans Home of California-Chula Vista, near San Diego. “She told them, ‘They are just babies. They’re kids. It would mean a lot to them.’ ”
She found Christmas Day hosts for about 100 of the soldiers including Farrell, who became the guest of Alfred and Gerda Feix.
“We had sauerbraten (marinated roast beef),” he recalled. “They decorated the home with their handiwork. It was decorated with homemade dolls, and they made miniature nativity scenes in half a walnut shell.”
They illuminated their fresh-cut tree with real lit candles.
“That was something that I’d never seen growing up in Southern California, and a Christmas I never forgot,” he said.
Something that Steve Wilbanks didn’t know until 1973: That the British had a Marine Corps, too. He and his fellow Marines found this out in Singapore on Christmas Day 1973.
“They took us to this hall and we had a big, huge dinner with the British Marines,” said Wilbanks, a resident of Veterans Home of California-Ventura. Until then, I didn’t even know the British had Marines.”
When Wilbanks and other Americans pointed that out, the British took offense and went on the offense.
“That’s how we got into a fight,” Wilbanks said. ““They got mean and we got mean. However, it all worked out, and we ended up being friends. We stayed out with them until 3 a.m. One of them told me, ‘You can throw a pretty good punch, mate!’ ”
Veteran Lowell Witten, a resident of the Ventura Home, recalled spending a Christmas in Japan, and was surprised to see how much they had adopted about the holiday from the Americans.
“They (the Japanese) bought Christmas trees,” said Witten, who spent two years in Japan as a cryptologist in the Air Force. “It was a Western celebration.”
But while he knew Christmas greetings from other parts of the world – “Feliz Navidad” in Spanish-speaking countries, “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaii, etc. – however they said it in Japan didn’t embed in his memory.
Not everyone gets to go home for Christmas, but it doesn’t mean the traditions vanish, including the tradition of having a Christmas tree. Women’s Army Corps veteran Yulana Low, now a communications staff member at CalVet headquarters in Sacramento, remembers her first Christmas in the military, in 1969 at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
“Three of my fellow WACs decided they were going to get a tree for our barracks floor,” Low said. “Not one from a local tree lot mind you, but one from the nearby forests.”
The three amigas piled into a station wagon, clad in clothing not really meant for snow, and headed out. Several hours later, they pulled into the company’s parking lot. A huge tree was tied down on top of the vehicle, extending a couple of feet beyond the hood and tailgate of the wagon. It was enormous!
“They huffed and puffed the evergreen up two flights of stairs, dribbling pine needles behind them” Low said. “Those of us who saw the tree come in, went into action. Pine needles were cleaned up. Others voluntarily contributed to a collection for ornaments, and our shoppers went to the big Kmart in Sierra Vista. Some found paper of all types and glue, and made garlands. Hot drinks and snacks were commandeered for the tree-trimming party. Voices and glasses were raised in Christmas cheer and carols.”
The tree stood 16 feet, touching the ceiling of the common room, and decorated bottom to top.
“For several hours that day, my new family of fellow soldiers shared in the tradition of putting up a tree for Christmas.” Low said. “That heart-warming feeling lasted beyond that holiday. The memory remains with me to this day.”
Vietnam War veteran and Silver Star recipient Dave Morton remembers attending Bob Hope’s USO Christmas show while in country. Morton lives at the Lancaster Home.
An Army infantryman, Morton’s outfit had taken the infamous “Hamburger Hill” in May 1969, ending 10 days of brutal fighting, with most of that in a driving rain. To honor them, his unit was supposed to get front-row seats when Hope, Ann-Margaret, comedian Jerry Colonna, and singer Connie Stevens came to the South Vietnamese city of Hue in December. Morton was thrilled because he’d seen Hope’s television specials as a youngster.
“(Hope had) never gone that far north before,” Morton said. “It was in the daytime. We had a couple of incidents where we had some incoming – one round or two – but he was a good trooper. He kept doing his show.”
Except that someone didn’t get the memo about the seating arrangements, Morton said.
“They screwed up and put us in the back.” The men had a great time anyway.
As Joe Dorris of the Lancaster Home discovered during Operation Desert Storm, Christmas is anything but joyous when the enemy doesn’t celebrate it, too. The Iraqis didn’t when they attacked his unit at Christmastime 1991.
“They did not play by the rules of war,” Dorris said. “I got shot in the thigh, got stabbed in the stomach, and got stabbed in the lower part of my spinal cord. I still have nightmares about that adventure.”
Vickki Schell, also at Lancaster, would volunteer for special watch in the medical security ward of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia in the mid-1950s. “I always spent the Christmas holiday on duty and worked other holidays also, so my work mates could be with their families,” she said.
And lastly, a pair of light-hearted stories from the Barstow Home. Stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri at Christmastime 1956, Army veteran Cort Libey found himself on base with nothing to do over the holiday.
“We spent a lot of time in the PX (post exchange),” Libey said. “The PX at Fort Leonard Wood had a bar. I think they only served beer.”
Among them was a young soldier who had been born in Germany.
“After one, two, or six beers, we would go on back to (the barracks) and on the way he taught us to sing a German song. Can you imagine five or six U.S. basic-training draftees walking arm-in-arm down a U.S. post singing in German at the top of our lungs,” Libey said. “We were too young to know what (the words) even meant.”
The other story came from Alfredo Granado, an Air Force veteran who served as a technician with a fighter intercept squadron. First he served in Denver, Colorado, then in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Each place got colder,” he said. But the chilliest? Newfoundland.
“That was the coldest yet,” Granado said. “I spend two Christmases there, and I had two Christmases worth of presents waiting for me when I got back home because Santa wouldn’t go that far. It was too darned cold.”
Have a great holiday season!
For more photos from military Christmases past, follow the link: