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WARTIME CHRISTMAS: 50 YEARS AGO

SHARE WARTIME CHRISTMAS: 50 YEARS AGO

I was the supply officer and "unofficial chaplain" aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS Claxton. For over a month, my ship had been sitting in a floating dry dock at Manus, one of the Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific. The dry dock was a Navy facility that repaired damaged ships.

The Claxton had just participated in the return of American forces to the Philippines at Leyte Gulf. It had taken part in the greatest naval sea battle in world history. The landings began on Oct. 20, 1944, under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur. We engaged the Japanese fleet five days later at Surigao Strait. On Nov. 1, an enemy kamikaze (suicide) plane evaded our gun barrage and crashed into the starboard side of the ship, killing five of our shipmates and seriously wounding 23 others. After transferring our wounded and deceased to a hospital ship, we were able to slowly navigate to Manus with the large hole in the side of our ship stuffed with mattresses to keep the sea from rushing in.When we arrived at Manus and entered the dry dock on Nov. 15, we were informed that it would take at least six to eight weeks to repair the damage. Normally, that would sound wonderful; duty on a tropical island, no longer worrying about the enemy. However, this gave us a new problem . . . morale. We would be in the dry dock over Christmas. For most of the crew, this would be the second Christmas away from home and the good old USA. The first was spent bombarding a Japanese-held island in the Solomons. Because of the huge logistical problems of the Philippine battles, we were low on provisions, and our chances of having a traditional Christmas dinner were very slim. Manus is located near the equator. The temperature hovered between 120 degrees in the day time and 105 degrees at night. With the heat and humidity, most of the crew developed heat rash. This was the scenario as we approached the 25th. We really had to use our imaginations when "dreaming of a White Christmas."

On the 20th of December, conditions started to improve. We received the joyous news that a supply ship had arrived with an unexpected supply of turkeys and other fresh provisions. On the 23rd, we received several overdue bags of Christmas mail, which were wonderful morale boosters. Also on the 23rd and 24th, we were able to send half of the crew ashore each day for Christmas beach parties. Football, swimming, tug of war or relaxing under a palm tree made up some of our activities. We served hamburgers and drinks, with canned peaches for dessert. For a few hours, the war seemed miles away. On the 23rd, we received two hours of Armed Forces Radio transcripts that included a Bob Hope Christmas show, a Dinah Shore program and a Fred Waring musical.

Still, the traditional Christmas spirit with its personal touch was missing, but this was resolved on the day before Christmas. In early December, I had received two fairly large boxes from my wife, Mary, and my mother, with the notation, "Do not open until Dec. 24th." When I opened the boxes, I was extremely surprised to find they were full of various Christmas decorations. There were garlands, silver bells, icicles, wreaths and cotton snow. Also included were all the fixings necessary to create a white Christmas scene around a tiny, 12-inch Christmas tree. To top things off, they had sent enough Christmas napkins to take care of all 320 shipmates.

Late on Christmas Eve after most of the men had "hit the sack," another officer, Dave Siebert, and I decorated the mess hall and wardroom with all the trimmings. This really helped to give the spaces a festive look. While doing the decorating, Dave and I reminisced about past Christmases when we were kids and how our parents would stay up until the wee hours decorating the Christmas tree and laying out the toys and presents. (It's no wonder why they were always so tired on Christmas Day!) Dave and I finished our decorating at 0300.

On Christmas morning, with the sounds of carols filling the air, the men, most in their late teens or early 20s, entered the mess hall for breakfast. They were extremely surprised to see the decorations and to feel the atmosphere we had created there. It was a very emotional moment. Many tears were shed among those young shipmates.

Later, after an almost home-cooked dinner, many of the men expressed their feelings to us and in their letters to their families and girlfriends back home. (I knew this because I was one of the mail censors.) One wrote, "This really wasn't such a bad Christmas after all." Another expressed, "It was very good Christmas chow, but give me a hamburger with you any day." I guess in reality, we all felt that way. In many of the letters, neatly folded, was a Christmas napkin.

That evening, I wrote the following to my wife:

"My Darling Mary,

"Thank you for your concern and thoughtfulness in sending all those decorations. They definitely helped to bring the Christmas spirit to all of us.

"It is now Christmas evening and after a very happy day, as happy as possible without you, I am sitting here writing my thoughts on this anniversary of the Savior's birth. Although celebrating Christmas may seem out of place this year, I believe that to many of us, it has been more meaningful. Despite separation, sacrifice, worry and sadness, there is an abundance of love and concern for each other. This experience made us stop and consider the purpose, the real purpose of Christ's mission on earth. That is to bring peace and brotherhood to the world and everlasting joy to all men. It is a wonderful truth to know."

*****

Additional Information

Ben K. Wallace

Ben K. Wallace has been married for 51 years to the former Mary Stuart. They are the parents of four children and grand-parents to 16 grandchildren.

Wallace was serving an LDS mission in Belfast, Ireland, when German troops invaded Poland in 1939, cutting short his mission.

Upon arriving home, he completed his education at the University of Utah and joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He was shipped out to the Solomon Islands after having been married for just 15 days.

This story is about his wartime experiences as "unofficial ship's chaplain."

Wallace owned and operated Dan Morrison Meat Pies in Salt Lake City with his brother Paul. He is now retired.