December 2007 issue: ‘Life Gave Me a Christmas Present a Couple of Hours Ago’
For servicemen and women far from their loved ones during war, holidays often prompt mixed emotions. Thoughts of friends and family gathered together trigger fond memories, but they can also make the troops all the more homesick. While stationed aboard a subchaser anchored near the Philippines in December 1943, a twenty-three-year-old ensign from Rhode Island, Charles Edward Sweeney, was trying to enjoy the spirit of the season as much as possible. In a letter written to a favorite cousin on Christmas Day, he explained that a sudden turn of events had caused him to forget about all he was missing and appreciate what he already had.
All morning the turkeys roasted in the oven; the cook was busy with all the fixings which we’d managed to beg, borrow or steal from other ships or from nearby Army quartermasters.
With the exception of the cook and his helpers, there wasn’t much work for the rest of us to do. We were lying to in a little inlet which is described in dispatches as an “advanced base.” When we first arrived here, all hands were excitedly talking of the Japanese and of air raids and of possible hand-to-hand encounters with other enemy small craft.
We’d spent much time on patrol with the ship in a state of semi-tension all the time. However, very little occurred. Most of what did happen sprang from our over-eager imaginations. The subchaser was nervous at night, particularly, and, in the darkness, engaged in nervous signaling and maneuvering with other patrolling ships. We experienced only one bona-fide air-raid during which we were at battle stations but did not have the opportunity to fire a shot.
On this Christmas morning the tension was off. Early during the morning we’d heard all kinds of rumors of the bloody fighting which was going on nearby. But we knew on this day that we would not be ordered to sea, that Christmas was ours to enjoy as best we could….
The war was so near and yet so far away. This was Christmas and there was a handsome dinner to enjoy. Nothing loomed to mar it; our minds were free because the ship had, ever since its launching, patrolled far-off and friendly waters and our imaginations were not yet colored by the real tinge of war.
It was nearly noon and time for dinner when another camouflaged ship entered the inlet, signaled us by blinker for permission to tie up alongside us, and then made a quick berth with both screws turning full. Most of us were lolling around the deck and paid little attention to the routine mooring of the other ship until it was firmly secured to our side and one of its hatches was opened and a stretcher passed topsides by two sailors who handled their burden with great care.
The soldier on the stretcher had his arm and part of his shoulder torn off. His unconscious form was limp on the canvas; his fatigue suit was torn and bloody, his young features were frozen into hard lines.
The stretcher was passed over onto our deck, carried across to the other ship and then onto the beach where there was a waiting truck, in a small dirt road which led off into the brush and to a forward evacuation hospital. As the stretcher was placed in the truck, a large white tag bearing the soldier’s name, outfit, and a description of his wounds, became undone and fluttered to the road. Someone picked it up and tied it again around his ankle.
The second stretcher passed up the hatch was completely covered by a blanket, and so was the third.
Next we saw a sailor aboard the other ship reach down the hatch and help another soldier mount the ladder. He wore the familiar fatigue clothes, bowl-shaped tin helmet, and heavy boots which were unlaced. One foot followed the other mechanically. Someone helped him over the gangway to our ship and as he walked past us one of the assisting sailors said “shell shock” and we noticed the vacant look in the soldier’s eyes which seemed widened by a recent horror. The man got across the inboard ship to the beach with assistance across the gangways.
Several others like him passed now. It was hard to read their ages; some looked as though they were fifty years old at nineteen; others looked as though they had been born as old men. All wore tin hats and the jungle fatigues; all clutched their rifles as they walked.
The last soldier to pass was bareheaded and he had his arms around the shoulders of the two sailors who had locked their arms under him to make a seat. The soldier’s trousers were rolled up to the knees—just above where the bandages which were rolled down to and over his feet started. The last soldier seemed the youngest of them all and merely stared straight ahead as he was carried by.
We watched in complete silence while the small Army truck drove off carrying the three stretcher cases and the soldier with the wounded legs.
The “walking wounded” stood idly by on the beach. All still carried their rifles firmly. Only one sat down, exhausted….Nobody spoke for about a minute and then there were numerous questions asked of the sailors aboard the newly arrived ship. Yes, one of them said, the wounded had been in action “up there” and we all followed the sailor’s eyes up the coastline where a long peninsula jutted into the sea.
Last night this bunch had caught hell, he said, and added something about a detachment being cut off and almost entirely wiped out. The ship had taken what was left of them off the beach after a sector had been regained.
Then the talking on deck stopped. The sailors on the other two ships all went below for Christmas chow. In a few minutes, our own cook stuck his head out of the galley hatchway and called “chow’s down.” He seemed surprised when there was no rush for choice seats at the table. He was surprised until somebody talked to him. And then we all ate a handsome and delicious dinner together, in the crew’s quarters, officers and men, in almost complete silence.
That’s it Esther. It happened about two hours ago and it’s affected me very powerfully. My fingers actually feel leaden as I type. Yet, I feel so heavily somber that I feel I have to tell somebody and you’ve always been a good listener.
We’ve been near enough to see things like this for quite a while. But for some reason or other, hand of God I guess, we’ve been completely immune. It wasn’t much that I saw either. It was just a little side issue, just a pebble in a sea of trouble, and all we saw were the immediate aftereffects. So, this is Christmas, and it’s the saddest one I’ve ever known. I wish you’d keep this letter to yourself, at least, completely away from the rest of the family….
Life gave me a Christmas present a couple of hours ago; it’s a gnawing appreciation of what all this means to all the people, usually the little and insignificant people, who have to go through agony. The war was personalized for me a couple of hours ago in the faces and battered figures of a handful of ruined men.
I’m sorry this had to be such a sad letter. But I just want to tell somebody and when I have something like this to tell I want to tell it to somebody close to me and who thinks and feels a lot like I do. And you’ve always been the closest that way.
We’ll probably be moving out of here after a while. Then I’ll try a cheerful and funny epistle about the heat and the bugs and the natives and how the movie cameras splutter aboard the big ships at places farther away. Until then, lots of love, Esther, and write as soon as you can.