High Desert Hangar Stories: The warfighter’s quest for ‘Peace on Earth’

Christmas 1944, in the Ardennes.  (Courtesy photograph)

As this year winds down, we find ourselves in another holiday season looking for a bit of spirituality that, when dealing with the military mindset of preparing for war, can sometimes seem a bit disconnected.

The message of “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men” countered with combat operations leaves us a potentially bleak picture of the world we live in.

However, we must not forget that in times of war the hearts and souls of the men on the front lines can, in extraordinary conditions, find common ground and moments of peace that I’m sure they wish could be wrapped up under a Christmas tree somewhere and opened for all mankind.

Many times, we hear that nobody wants peace more than a soldier and I must concur. Every soldier understands the price of war and every family of a soldier must carry that burden and the cost.

I write articles about all aspects of the military and when this time of year comes around, I look forward to sharing a few holiday stories that could only come from the written history of the military. While researching my subject matter, three Christmas-themed stories managed to catch my attention and tug at my heart. I’d like to share them with you now. They all took place during World War II — three stories from one day, one in Japan and the other two in Europe.

Richard Gordon, a survivor of the Bataan death march, was a prisoner in Japan and he shared a bit about his last Christmas in captivity.

“It was our last Christmas many of us felt in 1944, feeling that we would never live long enough to see Christmas 1945. The Japanese had assured us that in the event of an invasion, we would all be put to death. We had no reason not to believe them, as we saw no other way for the war to end. However, we decided that if this was going to be our last, we were going to do our best at putting on a service. Alfred Weinstein, a Jewish doctor, conducted carol singing and read passages from the Bible concerning Christmas.

“Impressed by our Christmas spirit, our Japanese camp commander, one Lieutenant Kubo, ordered the release of Red Cross packages that had been in a warehouse for over two years. Each prisoner on Christmas Eve received a full box of American food. For one night we felt like free men and it’s a Christmas I remember every Christmas.”

Halfway around the world on that same night, Lt. Charles Stockell, an artillery observer for the 2nd Division during the Battle of the Bulge, was holed up in a cellar. He remembered that as Christmas Eve moved towards midnight, the firing began to die down. He wrote that at the stroke of midnight, without an order or a request, dark figures emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom, voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The heavy snowflakes fell softly, covering the weapons and signs of war. The infantry in their front line positions could hear voices 200 yards away in the dark joining them, in German, in the words to Silent Night. It was a time when all men could join the holy and sacred memories of the story of the Christ Child and renew a fervent prayer for “Peace, goodwill towards men!”   

“Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men” never goes out of style. (Army photograph)

The last story from that night comes from a German soldier, on the front lines of that same Ardennes battle. Two-hundred and fifty thousand German soldiers were brutally assaulting Allied forces, leaving 83,000 American troops dead in American foxholes. Frostbitten and exhausted, the sides pounded each other with unrelenting tank and machine gun firepower that left a devastating toll of killed and wounded. When it was over, one Belgian schoolteacher reentered his ruined classroom to find writing on his blackboard left by a German soldier.

“May the world never again live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meeting ones fate far from mother, wife and children. Is it worthy of man’s destiny to bereave a mother of her son, a wife of her husband, or children of their father? Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. We should take the message and spirit of Christmas and from the ruins that out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.”  (signed) a German Officer.

Christmas is about family and friends and the joys we all find in the world at this time of the year. I feel a bit guilty sharing stories of such heartbreaking conditions, but I hope that what you take away from this is the hope for a better world — hope that the Christmas season will one day find a world at peace and we can finally live up to the hopes and dreams of soldiers from long ago, who shared the Christmas spirit around the world, if only for just one special day.

That is my hope. To finish off my last column for the year, I want to thank all of you for the kind words and inspiration that fuel my quest for the interesting and exciting articles that I hope you find enjoyable. I also look forward to another year of “Hangar Stories” with all of you great readers!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my friends and until next time, Bob out!