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 ...
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ½ 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 IIera 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.)