I calculated that I have celebrated almost six hundred official holidays during the course of my life. Many were joyous. Others were less so. Even though Christmas time in our family has generally been warm and wonderful, specific recollection about specific Christmas times have blurred into the mists of memory. So when my grand daughter asked whether I have any special Christmas memories I replied in the affirmative. All of those memories occurred during three successive years of my younger life.
I was a good soldier. My parents taught me to be obedient to authority. As a result, I obeyed the military rules, never got drunk and never contracted a venereal disease. As a reward for my efforts I was awarded the good conduct medal for exemplary service to my country. My compliant behavior remained unblemished until my first Christmas in the army. Most of the soldiers in my unit were given a three day leave for the holidays. A small group of us did not. We were regarded as necessary to maintain the barracks routines. Some of us were given a several hour pass to go into town for Christmas eve.
Armed with permission to leave the camp I made my way into town. At that time of my life I did not drink and did not enter bars or taverns. I was at loose ends since I did not know a single soul in the city. The thought of returning to the barracks was not pleasant. On my way toward camp I had to cross the highway. Instead of heading toward the base I put out my thumb to hitchhike a ride. Without difficulty I was picked up. By now a heavy snow storm had descended upon us. Nonetheless I continued upon my journey. After several rides I found myself near home. My mother opened the door and was overwhelmed to see a snow covered apparition. We talked until the wee hours. She wept when I told her I was being sent overseas. After the previous war, her favorite cousin had returned from the trenches an alcoholic wreck of a man. She was frightened I might suffer the same fate. She blamed his ruin on debauchery and those, “French “whoors”, unaware that artillery and high explosives could drive a man crazy.
Thus is my saga of breaking the rules and being AWOL one Christmas eve so long ago. During wartime being AWOL was regarded as a serious offense. However, upon returning to the barracks the next day I was both surprised and relieved that no one had even missed me.
The enlisted soldier rarely is informed of the why or the wherefore of his locations or his actions. Seventy years after the momentous events in which I participated I received some insight as to what was happening. My grandson brought home a small booklet about the battle of the Bulge. It partly explained my Yuletide excursion from France to Luxemburg. The Germans had launched a massive offensive. General Eisenhower was short of troops to oppose the assault. He appealed to General Patton (under whom I served) to send most of the third army to help contain the The German forces. Old Blood and Guts (Patton’s nickname) promised to mobilize his troops and have them on the line within two days. Generals tend to be indifferent to the misery of the soldiers under their command. It was the job of the soldier to do his duty and die if necessary. Physical discomfort was irrelevant. In freezing weather we were loaded into open trucks to head northward toward the battle. After a few hours of rest at the University of Metz we continued onward through one of the coldest winters on record. At night time the trucks disgorged their freezing human cargo onto an open, snow covered field close to the front. The ground was too frozen to pound in the stakes for our pup tents. Each of us had two blankets in our duffle bags and the thin canvas of our pup tents. That Christmas night we had no other option than to sleep in the snow.
For us the war drew to a close one gloomy day near the Czechoslovakian border. Several months later the war in the Pacific also terminated. The war office was confronted with the problems of the demobilizing more than ten millions of men from all parts of the globe. The process was slow. Those that had served the longest, with the most time abroad and with the most hazardous duty would receive priority. I was included in that group.
My personal itinerary to home began in the the quaint Alpine village of Garmish. A number of additional weeks passed in Frankfurt where we were assigned to guard German prisoners of war. One day they loaded us into empty railroad box cars to transfer us to Marseilles. Twenty three days at sea and three more days of rail travel concluded my servitude to Uncle Sam. I took a local bus to within a half mile from home. With my duffel bag on my shoulder I hiked through the snow to my destination. Entering the house I slumped onto a sofa, tired but content.
IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE!