We baby boomers growing up in the United States are fortunate to have been spared Christmas times and seasons where the specter of war on our soil or the threat of invasion of our nation have distracted us from the traditional festivities of the yuletide season. However, our parents cannot easily separate the festivities of December and Christmas from their memories of Dec. 7, 1941, or the memories of worry and concern for loved ones serving in Europe or in the Pacific 50 years ago during World War II.
My late father, Keith M. Engar, left us with two indelible memories of Christmastime as a young student preparing for war and as a young airman spending a double Christmas with poignant pangs of homesickness.My father was an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Utah in December 1941. The events of that early morning of Dec. 7 left a vivid imprint in his memory that he left for posterity on a handwritten page as follows.
"As long as I live I'll never forget the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. I had gone to bed late Saturday night because I was in the University of Utah theater production `Flight to the West,' an anti-Nazi play directed by Dr. Wallace Goates. (I'd been `drafted' to play an airline captain just a few days before the show was to open.) So, tired and unwilling, I went to work at KSL radio that morning as a studio guide to sit at the front desk, take messages and show people on a tour of the studios. Things were slow, I remember, until the news (of the attack on Pearl Harbor) came at about 11 a.m. as I recall. I don't think I believed it, and I'm not sure how I first heard it. I remember a lot of scurrying around, and then I rememberan ashen faced J. Reuben Clark stepping out of the elevator with his son-in-law, the station manager. "What brought him?" I wondered. Then I remembered that his other son-in-law, Mervyn Sharp Bennion, was captain of a battleship stationed in Pearl Harbor. Later, we learned that Captain Bennion was one of our first officers in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had refused to leave the bridge of the USS West Virginia even though mortally wounded.
"Later in the day, we were given a pistol to wear to guard against expected Japanese sabotage (were we hysterical?!?) and given night-shift duty so that the station was guarded 24 hours per day. I can remember being home for a while that Sunday evening and listening to a strange-sounding airplane, wondering with my sister, Norma, if it were the Japanese attacking us.
"One immediate personal outcome of the attack on Pearl Harbor was that I completely fell apart when I took my winter-quarter exams before Christmas - I just didn't care . . . I had, we had, a more serious problem to deal with."
After that pre-Christmas distraction of 1941 my father continued a course of ROTC training at the U. (which emphasized artillery and still involved horse-drawn artillery in the training curriculum!) that culminated in a convocation in April 1943 in Kingsbury Hall. The convocation was immediately followed by a march of the 100-plus soldiers-to-be through the Park Building horseshoe plaza to trucks waiting to transfer the ROTC trainees to Fort Douglas for processing in preparation for transportation to basic training at Camp Roberts, Calif.
Following basic training young Keith and several other trainees were sent back to the U. since there was not room for them to complete officer training in Fort Sill, Okla. During this time period he became engaged to his future wife and was able to return to KSL radio for a wonderful and joyful month of being an announcer during Christmastime of 1943.
Following transfer from the field artillery to the Air Force, completion of officer training school and certification as a navigator my father found himself on Christmas Day 1944, 50 years ago, navigating a C-47 cargo plane on a routine voyage to Majuro in the Marshall Islands. Unfortunately, the slow and cumbersome aircraft landed late, and the airmen on board missed the special mess hall Christmas dinner and had to settle for a less enthralling menu of Spam.
Early the next morning, on what became the second day of Christmas, young Keith's air crew took off from Majuro and landed that evening on Johnston Island, near Hawaii, on the other side of the international date line. This meant that it was Christmas Day all over again.
Yet, this Christmas had not been a complete or satisfactory one, even though my father had received the bonus of two Christmases in one thanks to the dateline. It had been a lonely two days of long flights in a solitary, noisy airplane in the midst of a spacious but unforgiving ocean. He had a fiancee waiting for him at home that he dearly loved and missed. He would have enjoyed the opportunity to share the festivities and traditions of Christmas with his future wife, parents, brothers and sisters.
He had described the previous summer of training as "miserable," and this double Christmas day had been miserably lonely. He really missed his friends and family and all of the comforts of home. He would have enjoyed a simple, traditional Christmas dinner. He would have given almost anything for a little "Christmas magic."
As luck would have it, the plane arrived late, and my father and the other airmen on board were given the dismaying news that they had missed the special mess hall Christmas dinner again, despite the unusual second chance. Contemplating another Spam supper, my father walked into that Johnston Island mess hall, almost half a world away from Salt Lake City. As he sat down he heard the strains of somebody playing a violin over the P.A. system and felt homesick in the austere surroundings that were such a far cry from the joyful Christmas he craved.
But then he heard some heart-warming words: "You've been, for the past 15 minutes, listening to the Christmas music of William Hardman. This is KSL Radio in Salt Lake City, Utah!"
My father no longer lamented that mess hall Christmas dinner of Spam and beans; after hearing the source of that radio broadcast, it did not matter. This would have been the same program he had announced himself at KSL a year earlier. For one brief, wonderful moment it was like he was home. Of all the programs available for the Armed Forces Network to broadcast, they had miraculously chosen the one that meant the most to my father.
A Christmas gift from heaven? Magic in lieu of a white Christmas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? However one wants to describe it, this unexpected Christmas gift transported my father as close to Salt Lake City as words or music can and remained an unforgettable and wonderful memory for the rest of his life, one he relished describing to family and friends.
Richard C. Engar
Richard C. Engar was born and raised in Salt Lake City, attended local schools and graduated from the University of Utah. He pursued a D.D.S. degree, which he received in 1980 from the University of Washington.
After practicing general dentistry in the Salt Lake area for ten years, Engar began work for Professional Insurance Exchange, a company that insures dentists. He is currently an attorney-in-fact and represents the insurance company in court cases involving dentists.
Engar wrote this story as a memorial to his late father, Keith Engar, a well-known figure in the local arts community.