By Peter H. Green
For families separated from their loved ones by military service in faraway places, the holidays are particularly poignant. When Mom would read Dad’s letters sent from Mare Island Naval base, formerly near Vallejo, California, I would look at the sketches Dad drew for me on the pages of his letters, to show me where he was and what he was doing. My dad, Ben Green, had enlisted in December, 1944, as so many men did in those days, to defend our country from foreign aggressors, leaving Mom, my baby sister and me–just five years old–to fend for ourselves in a drafty, scary old Victorian house on the South side of Chicago. But he loved us with all his heart. They had a conversational correspondent across the miles–ultimately 8,000, separating Chicago from Guam in the Marianas–writing each other almost every day. He he wrote Mom to tell of his plans to send me Christmas presents and ask what he could send me, such as the scarce corduroy pants I needed–were they size five or six?–or a tricycle, items hard to find at home, that he might be able to buy on base or in San Francisco. “And what about the bike?” he wrote. “I see some advertised secondhand out here – this is a very transient population and people are always getting rid of hard to move things. It’s a world full of electric iceboxes nobody wants.” The following excerpt from my book, Dad’s War with the United States Marines, tells how he was feeling to be so far away from home.
“Ben clambered downstairs to the first deck of the barracks. There was Goldie with his wife and children – two darling little boys, he thought, one about Pete’s age and the other about two – he was just going to guard mount. As Goldie kissed his wife and headed out the door, Ben held first one and then the other boy up to the window so they could see their father, and that was almost too much. He said. “When the younger put his arms around his neck and asked, “Is that my daddy?” tears came to Ben’s eyes.” –P. 75
As Christmas approached, Dad coordinated with Mom on presents for the children, including a wagon for me. He spent Christmas eve with friends, Lt. Burns and her fiancé, and arranged for a phone call home. In those days, that took about eighteen hours and involved several conversations to set up. ‘The operator and I started chinning and shooting the breeze in a very friendly fashion, and I think she must have put me in ahead of turn, because it really only took eleven hours, and the day operator acted as if she had known me all my life when the call came through. Pete seemed thrilled to talk and for once had lost his ‘allergy to telephone conversations.’ ”
Dad admitted to singing afterwards. His holiday loneliness was also eased when he dressed and went to dinner. “…it was such an elegant affair,TABLECLOTHS and a printed menu, which I am sending you… free cigarettes, a bag of nuts and an orange and a really marvelous turkey dinner.” Afterwards he went up to his bunk. “Then I had the glow of my wonderful presents all around me. The watch is positively beautiful and keeps second perfect time. It’s one of those good Swedish watches, which in case you didn’t know are the only ones left that still carry Swiss movements, since they alone can get them. The wallet is slick and just right. It fits snugly, either inside my pocket or in my trousers.”
Today’s soldier has a few advantages: occasional cell phone calls back home, e-mail and, if he or she is lucky enough to be in a well provisioned base camp, the opportunity for a video chat with loved ones. But there’s no escape from the tension and boredom of both soldiers and their families–the endless waiting, and loneliness, made only worse by austere conditions and the terror of not knowing if or when the family warrior will be involved in an invasion, a battle or a surprise attack. It’s no wonder that Mom’s favorite song from the Bing Crosby Christmas album was “I’ll be home for Christmas.” It held out hope for the five million families involved in the world’s biggest war that things might return to normal very soon.
I recall during my own Army basic training, even in peacetime, how welcome a package from home felt when it arrived at my bivouac site. out in the boondocks with K-rations left over from the World War 2, damp sleeping conditions, sand and mud everywhere. It was such a relief to know that Mom and Dad cared enough to send me dry towels, flannel wiping cloths for cleaning my rifle, candy bars, snacks and homemade cookies. Having these real, tangible things reinforced their cheerful news of activities back home. At the time I didn’t think about it, but they had been through it all before and knew from hard experience what a soldier in the field missed most.
To read more about our family’s funny, sad , and heartwarming World War II adventure, please visit the website page about my family memoir and biography of my father, Dad’s War with the United States Marines.
Here’s hoping you and yours have a warm and happy holiday season.
Till next time,