Christmas 1944

   Welcome to the 2001 edition of "Christmas 1944." Each year, Skylighters presents a page that recounts — in words and pictures — the last Christmas of the war in Europe, and indeed the last Christmas of a world at war.

   The image above is surely evocative of December 25, 1944 — American infantry of the 28th "Bloody Bucket" Division are depicted fighting in the forests amid swirling snow trying to stem the German counterattack that had struck the Ardennes on December 16. (Just a few months earlier, the Allies were certain that the war would be over by Christmas; no one had thought the Germans capable of mounting the offensive that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.) It was perhaps the Bulge that defined the extremes of war at Christmas-time for the American GI. On one hand, there was the generosity shown by one soldier to his comrades; on the other, there was the abject cruelty shown toward the enemy. The following two stories come from diaries kept by veterans of the 4th Division's 22nd Infantry Regiment:
On Christmas Eve, a captain in E Company received a gift of a half bottle of scotch from another officer. Rather than keep it for himself or finish it with fellow officers, he sought out seven of his enlisted men, men who'd been on the line for nine days beating back German attacks. Together, they pooled the orange drink powder from all their K-rations, added melted water drained from their frozen canteens, added the booze, and heated the concoction over a pile of burning K-ration boxes. The hot drink was shared by passing it around from man to man at midnight. Merry Christmas ...

The next morning, Christmas day, an E Company lieutenant and one of his men crept through the woods to the nearest enemy position, killed the two Germans in it, took a light machine-gun, made their way safely back to their command post, and presented the weapon to their commander —the same officer who'd shared the scotch with his men — as a gift. Merry Christmas ... but not for those German boys.
   Traditionally a time for togetherness, Christmas in wartime generally meant separation for the families of service men and women. In these circumstances, a card from home offered a reminder of a life far from barrack-rooms or battlefields. Parcels, with foods or candy not available overseas, was especially welcome.

   On the homefront, steel, brass and other strategic metals were reserved mainly for use in weapons production. Consumer goods became scarcer, and many items were packaged in cheap paper or cardboard boxes. Many children's toys and Christmas ornaments were no longer made of tin or steel, but rather wood or even printed cardboard. Near the end of the war, these items were made using a new material that was a by-product of war manufacturing: plastic!

   V-mail lent itself to Christmas artwork as many a talented serviceman used the mail service to send a personalized greeting back home (like that from a 90th division man at left below). V-mail was a single sheet of paper measuring 4 1/4 by 5 inches. Duringthe war cargo space and weight on ships was at a premium and the daily load of hundreds of sacks of mail weighing several tons took up too much valuable space. Mail was often held up in favor of supplies. To overcome the demoralizing effect of not getting the mail delivered, the post office came up with a standardized size paper and envelope. Letters were written and then microfilmed. The microfilm was then sent in place of the letter, saving valuable space and still getting letters to our troops and home to soldiers families. The letters were printed on the receiving end and then delivered. The British counterpart, the Airgraph, was also a popular way to exchange Christmas greetings (at right, below).

On the Battlefront
[reprinted from Christopher Radko]

   As Christmas 1944 came, our servicemen and women stationed overseas had confidence in our eventual victory. The Allied forces were dropping bombs on the great cities of Germany itself. Although the German armies had been driven back, they launched a counterattack just days before Christmas that was to become known as "The Battle of the Bulge." Our forces knew that some of the worst fighting was still ahead. The thoughts of most servicemen were on their homes and the families they had left behind. They wanted to give their loved ones Christmas gifts rather than simply send money.

   General Eisenhower was headquartered in Paris, France, that December. The Allied forces were present in most of the liberated European countries. Many of the countries welcomed the American troops and went into limited production of gifts and cards for the troops to purchase and send home. Christmas cards from France showed the American, English and French flags joined. The Statue of Liberty in New York City was shown alongside the Eiffel Tower of Paris. Cards showed American soldiers waving from atop the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame Cathedral. The French also produced 3 million fancy glass bottles filled with 30 thousand gallons of fine French perfume for the troops to purchase and sold for 100 times the prewar price, but the soldiers still bought them and sent them home to the women they loved.

   Soldiers in occupied countries, stationed on restricted bases, or even on the front lines could not stop the fighting to go holiday shopping. Still they longed to send gifts home for Christmas too. The solution was to write to the stores they knew so well. All over America, in towns large and small, stores received letters from their hometown soldiers. These letters often requested specific gifts or, on occasion, left the selection up to the clerk who opened the letter. The gift requests were accompanied with the approximate amount of money, most anywhere from $10 to $100, and the address to which the gifts should be delivered. Store clerks became personal shoppers.

   The most requested gifts for wives were lingerie (usually black), perfume and cosmetics. When requesting specific perfume, the soldiers bought expensive brands with sentimental names. An infantryman stationed in the South Pacific wrote to a store in New York City to buy navy blue satin bedsheets for his wife. In the postscript, he added that his wife was blonde and always looked her best in blue.

   For pregnant wives, soldiers ordered bed jackets and rattles or small toys for the newborns. The GIs ordered aprons and household goods for their mothers, flashy clothes for their kid sisters, while the little brothers got stuck with the usual neckties and socks. For their fathers, they requested tobacco or whisky. The US War Production Board decided that production of alcohol, being used in smokeless powder and synthetic rubber, was sufficient and allowed the production of liquor. There was still a shortage of scotch, and bourbon was hard to find. A fifth of Lord Calvert cost $4.69, Cutty Sark $5.62, and Black and White $6.70.

   Despite the shortages in the U.S., the stores did their best in filling the soldiers' requests. If there was extra money from the request or a requested item was unavailable, the store delivered the extra money along with the gifts to the specified address. If there was a shortage in the soldiers estimated funds, the store often made up the difference.

In addition to ordering gifts sent to their families, soldiers sent home cards or letters, often by the use of V-mail, which had to be sent out weeks early. If the holiday greetings, cleared by the censers and often arriving with words cut out, were received in the U.S. too early, the office held them until near Christmas so the good tidings would be more timely.

   Armed Forces Radio was broadcasting continually to our troops worldwide. The Andrew Sisters were singing "Down In The Valley" and "Rum and Coca-Cola." Frank Sanatra hit #1 on Your Hit Parade with "I'll Be Seeing You", and Bing Crosby sent a little Christmas spirit with "White Christmas." Over 700 performers traveled across the world to entertain our American troops during the 1944 Christmas season. One favorite was Helen Hayes, who toured in a production of "Harriet." Bob Hope was of course another favorite. The famous orchestra leader Glenn Miller boarded an airplane for Paris on December 15, 1944, to make arrangements for his orchestra to give a Christmas concert, and was never seen again. Performers sometimes lost their lives on tours, and all USO entertainers earned the title "soldiers in grease paint."

   In base mess halls, public areas in camps and in hospital wards stood Christmas trees. In parts of Europe and especially Africa, these evergreens had to be imported from the mountains of Northern Lebanon. The decoration of these trees ranged from the expected traditional to the crafty to the sadly pathetic. They were, however, all Christmas trees. On some camps, the lounges were hastily redecorated in furnishings and trees put up in an effort to resemble an American living room, in the hope of making our boys feel more at home. Soldiers decorated their camps with whatever they had available. Often signs and banners were hung proclaiming the Christmas season. Soldiers did their own artwork, -often making their own cards, -put on their own entertainment shows and utilized their talents as well as they could.

   Some church services across the Atlantic were carefully timed to be held at the same time Christmas services were held back in America. In that way a soldier could take part in the same Christmas mass in a tent in Belgium or Egypt as his family in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. All over Europe, in the liberated countries such as the Netherlands, common residents invited American soldiers into their homes to celebrate Christmas with them.

   Public drives in the US, such as the one started by "Dear Abby," assured that thousands upon thousands of cards and gifts were sent anonymously to servicemen, so even the loneliest soldier received holiday wishes. The soldiers in turn donated part of the gifts they received from family and friends, especially cookies and candy, to refugee camps such as Camp Huckstep, which housed 600 Yugoslav children in the Egyptian desert.

   FDR's presidential greeting for Christmas 1944 was:
On behalf of a grateful nation, I send to the men and women of our armed forces everywhere warm and confident wishes this fourth Christmas of war. On Christmas Day more than any other day we remember you with pride and humility, with anguish and with joy. We shall keep on remembering you all the days of our lives. It is, therefore, with solemn pride that I salute those who stand in the forefront on the struggle to bring back to a suffering world the way of life symbolized by the spirit of Christmas.
   Although the fighting was scaled back at Christmas, it was not halted. Many of our troops fought on Christmas Day, 1944. Peace on earth was only a distant dream. After a special Christmas dinner and any entertainment and merriment, our soldiers could enjoy, many retired to a solitary place to spend their Christmas night rereading letters from home, looking at well worn photographs, and studying maps of their hometown, remembering a Christmas past or dreaming of a future one.

   For the average GI, when Christmas came around, it was not a very happy time, especially for the married soldiers. There were not many packages from home and even the letters were slow in arriving, especially at the front. There were generally no radios, newspapers, or decorations and the few magazines that might have come from the States were far out of date. But, sometimes Yankee ingenuity took over. In one unit, a GI took a deck of playing cards, cut out letters to spell Merry Christmas, and strung them up across the room. Everyone talked and tried to make light of a very bleak and lonely time. When they took the sign down, they each took a letter and vowed to meet back in civilian life and show each other the cards. It would remind them, they said, of how not to spend Christmas.

On the Homefront
[reprinted from Christopher Radko]

   Christmas 1944 was the last Christmas before the end of World War II. Although the Allied Forces had made great advances and liberated much of Europe, the American public realized that the war was far from over. There was virtually no home in America unaffected by the war.

   Americans had to remain at home that Christmas, as tire and gasoline shortages made independent travel difficult if not impossible. Entire trains termed "Mercy Trains" were being used to move the returning wounded soldiers from ports of entry across the nation and back to their hometown hospitals. Thousands of soldiers stationed on bases in the U.S. were given leave passes and also traveled to their hometowns by train. The military was given first priority for tickets, with the civilians traveling on standby. Most civilians opted to stay at home and celebrate Christmas with immediate family and friends.

   Nearly everything was rationed or at least scarce. This alone made holiday gift shopping somewhat difficult. In an effort to hold down inflation, the government froze wages, prices, and rent. Job opportunities were plentiful. With thousands of men and women in the service of their country, there was a shortage of laborers. For the first time since the depression, anyone who wanted a job could have one. All factories and manufacturing plants were in full operation, many around the clock, and there were more jobs than available workers. People who usually did not have work now found the opportunity for well paying jobs. Many families had second and third incomes. People now had saving accounts and extra money to spend on themselves and their families.

   A typical female riveter earned $55 a week in an airplane plant. This was more than enough for her to live on even if she had children. Her husband was most likely in the service earning military pay and sending a large part of it home. The working mother now was able to save money. Many workers put 10% to 15% of their pay into payroll savings plans which in turn purchased war bonds at a rate of $6 billion per year. New records were being set in retail sales earnings the 1944 holiday season, with the only thing limiting shopping being the scarcity of merchandise.

   Most manufacturing plants had been converted and were being regulated by the government for the war effort. Only items considered essential by the government War Production Board were permitted to be produced. A factory which produced vacuum cleaners before the war now produced machine guns. Automobile factories now built engines and fuselages for airplanes. Toy factories that had built metal toys for children at Christmas in past years now produced bullets and other items of war. This conversion of factories was the cause for many of the shortages, including bed springs, safety pins, baby shoes, toy trains, and liquor.

   Christmas ornaments relied on a silver nitrate solution to give them their shiny look. Early in the war, the chemical manufacturing plants which normally produced this solution were converted into the manufacture of war related chemicals. Silver nitrate was considered nonessential by the government. This resulted in the production of unsilvered ornaments for the Christmas trees. The Corning plant was producing glass ornaments day and night at a rate of 40 million per year. Companies such as Shiny Brite, K & W Glass works, Marks Brothers and others were decorating and distributing the finished ornaments while facing yet another problem.

   A metal shortage made the ornament caps impossible to manufacture. This was resolved by using either cardboard caps with a piece of cord in place of the hanging hook or some type of cardboard hanging hook which fastened inside the ball. Some decorating companies were forced to use a little piece of wood stuck sideways in the neck of the ball, with a cord tied to it. Even 40 million new ornaments was not nearly enough as the American public was now able to purchase frivolous items, and everyone wanted to put up a Christmas tree. Many Americans, caught up in the patriotic fervor sweeping the land, wanted to replace their old ornaments that came from Germany and Japan with American made decorations. There was an abundance of Christmas trees that year, but the supply of ornaments ran out early in several areas of the country.

   Decorations were not the only items to sell out early. A paper shortage was raising havoc that Christmas season as well. Cards were getting smaller in size each year, in an effort to make the limited amount of available paper go as far as possible. In 1944, the supply of Christmas cards sold out as early as October in parts of the country. Mail rooms were still swamped as any package to be delivered to service men overseas had to be mailed no later than October 15! This resulted in a mad rush of early holiday shopping, starting in September.

   This shopping rush was hampered by another shortage — one of sales clerks. The state of Illinois put out a call to anyone not working, to work as a part-time sales clerk. Michigan closed its high schools early so the students could work in shops. In many stores, customers had to write up their own orders and receipts so the few clerks available could concentrate on pulling and delivering the gift orders. Seasoned sales clerks reported to their supervisors that over all, customers seemed to be kinder than in years past. Customers were more patient with new clerks and less demanding with selections. Sales clerks also reported being slowed down in their jobs as nearly every customer wanted to tell them about a son, brother, or husband who could not be home for Christmas. The shortage of wrapping paper hindered the retail stores even further. When the limited supply ran out, stores resorted to wrapping gift purchases in wallpaper. Many stores delivered gifts to the buyer's home unwrapped.

   The absence of men created a Santa Claus shortage. Women tried to fill this gap, and many children visited Mrs. Claus that year or a Santa Claus that smelled of perfume rather than aftershave. Children's toys were also in short supply. There were no electric trains, no sleds, few skates, few radios, and very few bicycles. Most toys and games were made of wood, cardboard or plastic. There were no metal toy soldiers available this year. The government relaxed it rules on nonessential production just enough to allow one single assembly line to make Button Eyed Teddy Bears.

   The best selling toy for boys was a military set that included helmet, gun, holster, 2 bullets and a whistle. The helmet was marked with two stars. Latex punching bags were sold for 39 cents, base ball gloves were $2.70. There were no available metal wagons or tricycles that year. Dolls were popular for girls and sold for as little as 15 cents and up. Dolls dressed as brides were big sellers as well as dolls dressed as nurses. The most exchanged gift between children was the 10 cent comic book, as the giver could read it first. Superman and Captain Midnight replaced the old standards such as The Motor Boat Boys, The Rover Boys, and Tom Swift.

   Women's fashions included berets called bumpkin seeds. The skirt known as the kiltie was popular with the teenage girls. Silver bracelets known as bangles were also a hit. There were no nylon or silk hose around. The Lana Turner look for sweaters was popular, where one short-sleeved low-neck sweater was worn over a high-neck long-sleeved sweater. Both sweaters had to be quite tight. To the delight of many women, the War Production Board allowed the Westinghouse Appliance Division at Mansfield, Ohio, to produce electric irons for the first time in years. The price was $8.75.

Men's fashions included leisure jackets priced at $20. Shirts ran about $2.25 and striped patterns were more popular than solid colors. War bonds and stamps were a favorite gift for all.

   Gift packages sent to men and women overseas not only had to be mailed early but had a weight limit of 5 pounds! Gifts for GI's included pens and pencils, stationary, playing cards, shaving equipment, brush and comb sets, and the ever-popular cheesecake pin-up girl posters. Most anything that could be carried easily was chosen.

   By far the most popular gift for the servicemen was food. Cheese and crackers, deviled ham, and fruit cakes were popular gifts. Candy seemed to be the gift of choice, as Americans purchased 2 billion pounds of candy in 1944! That is 7 times the pre-war consumption. Chocolate was more difficult to get, but hard candy was plentiful and priced at 22 cents a pound.
Blackouts on the nation were lifted and for the first time in four years outdoor Christmas lighting was put up. In New York City, the Parks Department lit all the municipal Christmas trees in the parks and decorated them with wooden ornaments. The 65-foot tree that stood in the heart of Rockefeller Center was decorated with plastic ornaments but left unlit and would remain so until the men returned home.

   Church attendance was up again that year, and charities reported record setting donations, as Americans gave as much as possible. The sales of Christmas Seals reached a new high and raised nearly $15 million. The hearts of a nation went out to a three year-old-boy in Cheyenne, Wyoming, named Forrest Hoffman. Incurably ill, he was not expected to survive through Christmas. In his bedroom, he had two trees decorated with gifts donated by the children of America. He received telegrams and letters from every state in the Union. Christmas of 1944 could not be called a Merry Christmas. There were still too many homes with service flags in the windows. Over Christmas dinner, people spoke not of the current Christmas but of a future one, when the men would return home from the war.

   Hollywood starlets often posed for special Christmas photos, like blonde bombshell Betty Hutton below. Betty, the star of such WW II–era hits as Star Spangled Rhythm, Happy Go Lucky, Let's Face It, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Here Come the Waves. (General Dwight D. Eisenhower later told Betty that whenever he was in deep depression during the war, he would screen her films to lift his spirits.)


Wartime Christmas Links

The 2001 Collection of Wartime
Christmas Cards & Posters

A British artilleryman hangs a wreath on a coastal gun.

1944 Christmas card for American forces in Paris.

A Christmas pinup girl (by Earl MacPherson) reminded
American GIs of what was waiting back home.

Donald Duck as Santa in a wartime card
issued by Disney Studios.

War bond poster juxtaposing the Liberty Bell and a Christmas bell.

U.S. Army and Naval Postal Service poster reminding families
to mail cards early to reach servicemen by Christmas.

Another war bond poster.

A war bond poster featuring a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene.