Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From the ETO in 1943: My Most Memorable Christmas

by Sgt. James Underwood, 359th Fighter Group

As an Air Force Sergeant, at a fighter base in England during World War II, Christmas 1943 promised only homesickness.

There was to be a party at the NCO club, but no one seemed to be very enthused about the thought of it. Most everyone on the base had thoughts of home, missed families, wives and sweethearts.

My buddy, Sgt. Brown, and I had recently been dating two English girls, sisters, who lived in the small village of Thetford, five miles from the base. We had met their parents and had tea with them on several occasions.

The English outlook that year was also pretty bleak. The war had dragged on for four years. Rationing and lack of man-power at home had taken its physical and mental toll. Our adopted family hadn't even planned to have a Christmas tree.

Brownie and I had been saving our candy ration stamps to buy Lifesavers (the girls favorite) as part of gifts we planned for our dates and their family.

Then on the day before Christmas we decided we'd take them a tree and use the Lifesavers strung on string as decorations. We had found a bale of German "anti-radar" aluminum strips that had been dropped during a raid and still intact. They were a close substitute for tinsel. More decorations.

We'd have to have some music, so off we went to Special Services where we borrowed a record player and a half dozen records. We next visited our mess sergeant, told him of our plans, and he came up with cans of roast beef, a tin of butter, jams, sugar, flour, tea - a small crateful.

We had only bicycles for transportation and that five miles was going to be a long ride.

We went about arranging for an overnight pass for we had been invited to visit the Newtons on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day with them.

Sgt. Brown was the projectionist at the base theater and could not get off until 11 p.m. Christmas Eve. My job was to load the bikes and be ready. A record player, a crate of food, a box of "tinsel," gifts, candy and records were all dutifully strapped to the two bikes. They looked like an accident searching for a place to happen!

Fog layered the road as we started out. Our small blackout flashlights did little to cut the damp and drippy darkness. A short way down the road stood some pine trees. We had blazed one the day before so that we could pick it out at night. Luckily we found it. We only wanted the top, and since I am short it was my assignment to climb the tree.

Up and up I went into the inky blackness. Stealthily now, for this was Her Majesty's forest and we had no rights at all being in there. Using a broken hacksaw blade, somehow I got the job done and down came the top of the pine.

Now came the real tricky part. Our bikes had been unwieldy and nearly unmanageable before. Now we had to tote a five-foot Christmas tree. We managed, somehow, to ride through the fog, the drizzle and the dark to our destination.

We knocked on the door, shouting Merry Christmas. As we began to un­load the bikes the looks on our friend's faces ran from amazement to glee. And when we brought in the tree, it was joyful bedlam!

In half an hour we had set up and decorated the tree, distributed the gifts and were dancing to Glenn Miller records. A bottle of wine came from somewhere and we toasted the arrival of Christmas, 1943 with happy hearts.

The following spring the English girl and I were married.


Sgt. James R. Underwood wed Miss Freda Newton on April 8, 1944. The Underwoods had a daughter before the 359th Fighter Group sailed for the U.S. at war’s end. 

"My Most Memorable Christmas" by Sgt. James Underwood, a 1943 story from the 359th Fighter Group's archives, was selected for inclusion in the ebook Heart of Christmas published by Sparkle Press.  The story was archived by Char Baldridge, Historian, 359th Fighter Group Association, and submitted to Sparkle Press by Janet Fogg and Char Baldridge.  Janet and Char manage the 359th Fighter Group's Facebook page, posting archived stories and photos every day. We hope you'll stop by!

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