By MICHAEL D. HULL
Finally, as the Christmas season of 1945 arrived, the world was at peace.
True, there would be many lesser conflicts and tensions in the coming decades, but World War II — the most far-reaching and devastating period in recorded history — had ended with victory for the Allied democracies. Spirits were high.
Fifty-seven Allied and Axis countries had been involved, and the six-year war claimed an estimated 15 million military personnel killed and missing, and twice that number of civilian deaths from bombings, starvation, drownings, and murder.
As 1945 waned, there was still widespread suffering in the countries where the bitter campaigns had been fought, from Northwest Europe to Russia, and from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Cities had been razed, crops destroyed, and many people left homeless, weary, and deprived of life’s necessities.
But for the victorious nations there was now time to hope, chart the future, and ensure that there would be no more global bloodlettings. For Americans, 1945 brought the first peacetime Christmas since 1940, and for the British, the first since 1938.
Across the United States, returning soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines rode crowded trains and buses, hoping to reach their homes in time to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. Waiting families sang carols, wrapped presents, hung pine wreaths on front doors, and prayed for the other sons, fathers, and brothers still languishing in staging camps far away.
Unlike the other countries ravaged by the war’s sacrifices, America had emerged ready to charge ahead with a booming economy and the resources necessary for assuming a leading role in maintaining postwar stability. Her people were ready and able to embrace Christmas in full measure.
For President Harry S Truman, who had taken office only seven months earlier, it was to be his first yuletide in the White House. On December 23, he went out and took a brisk walk on the icy paths behind the mansion. “It is cold as mischief,” he reported in a letter that day to his daughter, Margaret. Kept from slipping on the ice by four Secret Service agents and two policemen, he took a look at the national Christmas tree, where he planned to switch on the lights and address the nation at 5:16 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
A holiday spirit glowed in the chilly air in every city and town, and downtown shoppers jammed buses, trolley cars, and stores along brightly lit Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard. Bing Crosby’s top-selling White Christmas was heard regularly, Arthur Godfrey Time began a 27-year run on CBS Radio, Art Linkletter starred in the network’s debut of House Party, Fords rolled off the assembly lines for the first time in several years, more than 25,000 people gawked at a television set during a three-week demonstration at the Gimbel Brothers department store in Philadelphia, and at the Mississippi-Alabama Dairy Show, a 10-year-old boy from Memphis, Tenn., sang Old Shep and won a $5 second-place prize. His name was Elvis Presley.
Thousands of miles away, one of America’s most famous soldiers welcomed Christmas in Tokyo. After attending a tea party at the British Embassy, General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur gave his ten-year-old son, Arthur, a portable typewriter and a shiny new bicycle, and penned a thanksgiving message:
“On this Christmas Day — the first in five years on which our guns have been silent — I join with all members of this command in thanking God for our deliverance from the death and destruction of war, and pray that our merciful Lord will sustain us in our efforts to realize in its fullest the ideal which Christ brought to the world — peace on earth and to all men, goodwill.”
But, for another prominent American soldier who had also battled tyranny in two world wars there was to be no Christmas celebration. He was Lt. Gen. George S. (“Blood and Guts”) Patton Jr., the fire-eating, profane, yet reverent veteran of the North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and Ardennes campaigns, and whose Third Army tanks and tank-destroyers scourged the retreating Germans in 1944-1945.
Early on the morning of Sunday, December 9, the day before he was due to sail home for a well-earned Christmas leave, Patton and his chief of staff, Major Gen. Hobart R. “Hap” Gay, drove off to hunt pheasant near Mannheim, Germany. Approaching the city, their Cadillac limousine collided with an Army truck that suddenly turned left across the autobahn. Patton was thrown forward awkwardly into the driver’s steel-and-glass partition, with his nose and neck broken, his scalp bleeding profusely, and his spinal cord damaged.
Patton, who had often said that he wanted to be killed by the last bullet in the last battle of the war, growled that a traffic accident was “a hell of a way to die.” He was rushed to an Army hospital in Heidelberg, placed in traction, and a noted neurosurgeon from Oxford University was flown in. But there was nothing he could do. Immobile and helpless, Patton lingered bravely for 13 days before succumbing in his sleep to “pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure” late on the afternoon of December 21.
He was buried under a simple white marker, alongside other Third Army soldiers, in the American military cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg, on the overcast, windy morning of Christmas Eve. Among the generals, soldiers, and reporters at the 25-minute ceremony, the focal figure was Patton’s widow, Beatrice. “Her eyes were red, but for the rest she was the same good soldier her husband had been,” wrote Walter Cronkite of the Washington Times-Herald.
At Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, meanwhile, wounded veterans of campaigns in Europe and the Pacific gaped when an unannounced visitor strode into their wards on Christmas Eve.
He was General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, former commander of the Allied crusade in Europe and the new Army chief of staff. There to visit “his boys,” the genial Ike stopped at every bedside to shake hands and chat. “It’s certainly a better Christmas for all of us,” he said.
A Greater Peace
Christmas 1945 was a time of thanksgiving and renewed hope for Americans, wearied from four years of shortages and fears for their uniformed loved ones serving on distant battlefronts. They went to crowded midnight Masses, cooked big turkeys, and piled dolls, bicycles, and Lionel train sets under living-room trees. It was a bountiful yuletide, and they relished it.
Across the Atlantic, however, the war had taken a more severe toll on their staunch British allies. Having borne the brunt of the global holocaust from the start, they faced yet another belt-tightening Christmas. The country’s stringent rationing system allocated some extra meat, margarine, sugar, and sweets for the holiday, and even oranges were once again obtainable in London and other districts.
But people still had to “make a little go a long way.” (There was not be a ration-free Christmas until 1953.)
Bread and potatoes were rationed, and shortages of coal disrupted train schedules. Traditional roast turkey or goose was served on few dinner tables, and there was little available to fill children’s stockings hung on mantelpieces, except perhaps a cheap toy or doll, a penny whistle, and an apple or pear.
Yet, observed The Times, “People made the most of their first peacetime Christmas for six years.” Large congregations in churches and chapels gave thanks for the return of peace, while in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral, citizens prayed alongside Commonwealth servicemen and American soldiers and airmen, many of whom were spending their last yuletide in Britain.
At many Army camps and airbases around the country, as they had done since 1942, GIs played Santa Claus and hosted children at Christmas parties, generously doling out candy, chocolate, chewing gum, and even gifts they had received from home. The grueling war years were over, and despite the rationing and shortages of almost everything, Britons had reason to hope again.
Even their damp, fickle weather brightened. “The holiday was agreeably mild, dry, and green,” said The Times. “The maximum temperature of 43 degrees in London was 15 degrees higher than a year ago.”
Family gatherings were enlivened by the return of serving fathers, brothers, and sisters who had been absent for five or six years, but in many homes, Christmas 1945 was a time of sadness. Empty chairs testified to the loss of a soldier at Dunkirk or Caen, a sailor in the North Atlantic, an airman over Germany, or a merchant seaman on the Murmansk convoy run.
King George VI summed it up in his traditional Christmas afternoon radio speech to the nation. “There will be the vacant places of those who will never return, brave souls who gave their all to win peace for us,” he said. “We remember them with pride and with unfading love, praying that a greater peace than ours may now be theirs. . . . But many anxieties have been lifted from you and from your folk at home, and the coming of peace brings you nearer to your heart’s desire.”