A Christmas to Remember

NOTE: The following true story was written by my father, Giles Parker. His father, Alvin, was part of the “Greatest Generation”. It is a wonderful Christmas story that I wanted to share with others. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.

Alvin Parker [1941]A CHRISTMAS TO REMEMBER
By Giles Parker

I

As Christmas 1945 approached, there was an excitement throughout the country far beyond the normal holiday spirit. THE WAR WAS OVER! It seemed there truly was peace on earth. In the papers, on the radio, and over back fences the topic was the same—“the boys will be home for Christmas.” Even though I was only five years old and didn’t understand exactly what was going on, I remember the feelings. In my family the story of that Christmas has been told and retold over the years, so perhaps some of my memories come from the telling. But I have very clear memories of how it felt and of the emotions and excitement playing out around me. I think that’s the way it is; our strongest memories are related to feelings and emotions.

To understand the intense emotions of that Christmas season, we need to look at what people had been through during the previous four years. Individual experiences influenced millions of families and those influences came together that holiday season to magnify and focus emotions beyond what most of us today can imagine. It was the collective experiences of those war years that made December 25, 1945, a Christmas to remember.

II

I was born into a Navy family in 1940, and my brother Brent was born fifteen months later. He entered the world with a rather dramatic sense of timing. He was born on Navy Day (appropriate since his father was a Navy man) and received an infant blessing on that December Sunday which was destined to become a “day of infamy.” An older sister and brother completed the family. Mom did double duty as a parent since Dad was usually at sea. Kaye was the oldest and like a second mother. Dave was an older brother off doing his own thing. Brent and I were close enough in age that as we grew up, we were always considered a matched set.

When the war started for America, we were living in Norfolk, Virginia. Dad was in the North Atlantic aboard the cruiser USS Wichita. The “Witch,” running out of Iceland, was involved in “Operation White Patrol,” providing cover for merchant convoys between the United States, England, and Russia. Although America was not yet in the war, ships in the North Atlantic Fleet were already in harms way. When on patrol, their rules of engagement were “shoot on sight.”

Dad received word of his new son while at sea. To be more exact, he received word he might have a new son. Somehow, the message got garbled, and the name of the new father was left off. Since there were several men aboard whose wives were expecting, no one know for sure which of the men was the new father. This was a perfect time for a betting pool. The confusion was cleared up by subsequent dispatches, and I presume someone collected a lot of money.

After Pearl Harbor, my mother became very worried about the safety of living on the East Coast and in Norfolk. Although she wanted to stay close to dad, she didn’t know how often he would be able to get back to us in Norfolk. Even if the Wichita docked at an American port, that didn’t mean he could get leave, as they often had quick turnarounds in New York or Philadelphia. The uncertainties of the new war made her long for her extended family. She and dad had been raised in Idaho, and Mother wanted to go home.

It didn’t take long for the matter to come to a head. Rumors abounded of Nazi saboteurs landing on isolated beaches. There were confirmed sightings of U-boats very close to our shores. A rumor swept through Norfolk that a German submarine had been captured trying to slip out of Chesapeake Bay, and ticket stubs from a Norfolk movie theater were found in the pockets of some of the German sailors. Whether or not it was true, that was enough for Mother. (To this day, she believes it happened.) She sold everything that wouldn’t fit into her steamer trunk and suitcases, and in March of 1942 we were off to the Boise valley.

It took four or five days on crowded trains with several transfers. Four kids, ages 10 to a few months, are a big handful under the best of circumstances. I’m sure Kaye was a help, but Dave was only four, I was a toddler not yet two, and Brent was only five months old. I can only imagine how difficult a trip it must have been. As I recall raising my three children and as I now watch them raising their families, I don’t know how Mom did it. When I have asked her how she managed, she always replies, “I didn’t know I had a choice.” We talk a lot about the men who went to war, but I am most amazed by women like my mother, who stayed home and kept things going.

The first day on the train my older brother became ill. By the second day it was obvious to Mother he had the measles. She knew if the conductor found out, he would put us off the train. Being stranded in an unfamiliar place in the midst of strangers didn’t have much appeal, so she hid Dave in the upper birth of our Pullman compartment. Each day when the porter came to make up the room, she would tell him not to bother with that bed as one of her children was asleep. By the time we got to Boise, I was also sick.

I have two faint memories of that trip. I remember feeling very scared when mother was warning us kids not to say anything about Dave being sick. I didn’t know what “put off the train” meant, but I remember thinking it was really bad. I also have a vague memory of being carried through a big building by one of my uncles. I assume this was in the depot when we arrived in Boise. As I heard this story growing up, mother would always say she hoped she hadn’t started a national measles epidemic, and she always ended with an apology to that nice porter who, she was sure, had come down with the measles never knowing where he had been exposed.

We moved to Emmett to live with Nana, my mother’s mother. Also living in the house were my mother’s single kid sister and a married sister with children. So there we were: four women and a bunch of kids. Of course, most of the men were away in the service; I think that was a fairly typical situation for many American families during that time. There were other relatives in town and even more cousins. Dad’s people lived in Meridian and Nampa on farms. I remember I didn’t like the farm much. I got chased by the geese and the smells were bad. I also remember being given warm milk, which I didn’t like.

We later moved into our own house by the main canal running through town. I have many memories of that house in Emmett. I remember the older kids swimming in the canal and the lawns being flood irrigated. I remember our dog dying on newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor after being hit by a car. I remember Mother making us kids stand in the living room when the Stars Spangled Banner was played on the radio. I remember being taken out of town to the site of a plane crash and picking up pieces of metal.

I have one memory of Emmett that seems almost unreal by today’s norms. I remember neighbors standing on their front porches shooting shotguns at low flying geese. The memory is very clear of me going around picking up the spent shotgun shells. The lawns were flooded, and I remember picking the shells up as they floated. By today standards, I can’t imagine discharging guns in town, in the front yard with little kids running around. It certainly was a different time. I have asked Mother about this, but she doesn’t remember it. So, this particular memory wasn’t “planted” by my mother’s stories.

Dad saw action aboard the Wichita during the early days of the war. Like most of his generation, he never talked much about his war experiences, so most of what I know comes from history books, salted with some rare comments from Dad. I only heard him tell two stories about his years on the Wichita, and both of them give a personal touch to historical events.

In the summer of 1942, the Wichita was placed under British command for escort duty with a large convoy sailing from New York City to Murmansk, Russia. As expected, the convoy was hounded by U-boats, but another, more menacing threat soon came into the picture. A German surface fleet lead by the battleship Tirpitz and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper were heading to intercept. The Tirpitz was the sister ship of the famous Bismarck and was larger than anything in the convoy escort. The British were not willing to risk their limited resources in a head-to-head conflict with the super battleship; therefore, they ordered the task force to break off and ordered the merchant ships to scatter and make a run for the closest allied port. The Wichita and the other escort vessels sailed out of danger, and many of the merchant ships were sunk or badly damaged. That is the story from the history books. Dad’s comments on the event were of a most bitter nature, as bitter as I ever heard him speak. He and many of the officers and men didn’t like running one bit. They couldn’t understand why they had abandoned the merchant fleet. The alliance between America and England was often strained, and obviously this was one of those times. It got to the point that the Prince of Wales made a personal visit aboard the Wichita to talk to its officers about the order to flee. Basically, he told them merchant ships were expendable but ships of the line were not. I don’t know how the other American officers took the reasoning, but I know my dad was still very unhappy twenty years later when he told me the story. I understand hard decisions must be made in wartime, but I don’t think Dad ever liked the British after that.

The second story dad told about the Wichita happened during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. The “Witch” was assigned bombardment duties related to the invasion. Their operations took place off the coast of Casablanca. It was not known how the Vichy French, who held the port, would respond to the allied fleet. It didn’t take long to find out. The French opened fire and there ensued a short, but fierce engagement between our fleet and French ships in the harbor as well as several large shore batteries. The Wichita took one hit and it exploded below deck with no deaths. Dad told me the most intense battle he experienced during the war was not with the Germans or even the Japanese, but with the French off North Africa. (I think this is quite a statement because he spent 1943 and 1944 in the Pacific theater as America island-hopped toward Japan. I know the battles in the Pacific were on a much larger scale, but I think he remembered the engagement off Casablanca as his toughest because it was his first combat.) He also told me an interesting anecdote about the artillery hit. He said the shell exploded in a large storage locker filled with pea coats and that was the reason there were no injuries. He said he never saw so much lint.

Dad stayed aboard the Wichita when it went through the Panama Canal early in 1943. Later that year he was sent to damage control school in Bremerton, Washington, at the same time the “Witch” was there being retrofitted with larger guns. Mother took Brent and me and went to be with Dad while he was in Washington. Kaye and Dave stayed in Idaho. After several months in Bremerton, Dad and the Wichita sailed back into some of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Pacific war, including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Marianas “turkey shoot,” the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa.

In early 1945 Dad received orders to report aboard the light cruiser USS Philadelphia as its Damage Control Officer. This put Dad back in the North Atlantic. On the way to his new duty station, he was able to get leave and made his one and only wartime trip home to Idaho and his family.

During the time Dad was aboard the Philadelphia, Mom made a trip to the East Coast to be with him while the ship was in dry-dock. Again, Kaye and Dave stayed in Idaho while Brent and I went with Mother. For over four years, from September 1941 through December 1945, my parents were together for only those three occasions; Mother’s trip to Bremerton, Dad’s short leave to Idaho and Mom’s trip back east. The only time the whole family was together was that short leave between stations. Kaye and Dave saw Dad for less than a week in four years.

Dad served aboard the Philadelphia for the last year of the war. The Philadelphia escorted the USS Augusta as it carried President Truman to Antwerp, Belgium, on his way to the Potsdam Conference. In November 1945 it made its first of two “Magic Carpet” runs from Le Havre, France, to New York. “Magic Carpet” was the name given to the various operations bringing troops home from Europe and the Pacific. These Magic Carpet runs were a high priority as the holiday season of 1945 approached.

III

After depositing troops in New York City in late November, the Philadelphia returned to France for another load. There was great pressure being put on national leaders to return as many troops for Christmas as possible. This, of course, translated into political pressure being placed on the Navy to get it done. In early December a large and varied collection of vessels loaded men and assembled for the trip back to the States. The Philadelphia was among them. Most of these ships were not build to be troop carriers, so quarters were cramped and uncomfortable. Still, it seemed worth the discomfort to get home. The hastily organized fleet left European waters mid-December, heading for New York. Newspapers and radios stations up and down the East Coast carried news of this last group of troops heading home for the holidays. Their progress was followed on a daily basis.

But other events were also in the news. The North Atlantic is famous for its winter storms, and 1945 was no exception. A series of sever storms lay between the Magic Carpet fleet and home. The question was could they make it through, or would they have to turn back? It didn’t look promising.

Back home, there had been some changes in my family. With the war over, we had moved back to the East Coast in September 1945. We settled in Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia, because the USS Philadelphia’s home port was its namesake city. In those final days before Christmas, Mother spent much of her time listening to the radio for weather reports and any news of ship arrivals. It was a particularly difficult time for her. On the one hand, her hopes were so high that Dad would be with his family for the first Christmas since 1940, but she worried that the ships would not be safe if they tried to buck the storms. She was also homesick for her family back in Idaho. She had left them anticipating Dad would be back in the States before December. Now here she was, in a strange place, not knowing anyone and still without her husband. She said it was very, very hard.

The storms began to scatter the fleet almost immediately after sailing, and soon they were spread over several hundred miles of ocean. The ships were of various types. Some were well suited for heavy weather, some were not. Some were in pockets of milder weather, while others were being beaten badly by winds and heavy swells. All were overloaded with sailors and soldiers. (In the case of the Philadelphia, it was marines.) The strong desire to make it home for Christmas was tempered with a real concern for safety. The decision was made by the admiral in charge of the fleet to release individual captains to continue through the storms to the States or to turn back. The Philadelphia’s captain held an officers meeting to make this important decision. As the damage control officer, Dad was asked if he thought the crew could safely bring their ship through the weather. He said they could. Apparently the captain agreed and he decided to stay on course for home.

Back at home, rumors were running wild. At first it was believed the whole fleet had turned around. Then individual ships began showing up in U.S. ports. Right before Christmas mother heard on the radio the Philadelphia had turned back. She was bitterly disappointed, but after a good cry, she resolved to make the best of things for her children’s sake.

At sea, the Philadelphia was being hit hard. Dad said it was the most difficult crossing of his thirty-year naval career, before or after. To make matters worse, most of the marines were sea sick. Dad said it was a real mess. In fact, some men become so dehydrated they went into shock and one marine captain actually died. But a cruiser is a stout ship and well suited for the foul weather of the North Atlantic. The USS Philadelphia arrived in New York harbor December 24, 1945. Its bow had been so crushed by the constant pounding of waves that Dad said it looked like they had been in a ramming incident. Of course everyone was elated to be safely home, and I’m sure the marines especially were very happy to get on solid ground.

Shore leave was expedited for men who lived close enough to still make it home for Christmas day. Within a few hours of the ship’s safe arrival, Dad was rushing to the train station for the short trip from New York to Philadelphia. During the war, train travel had been very crowded, but the holiday season and the war’s end had produced the largest crowds in memory. As Dad pushed through the crowd to reach the boarding platform, he heard a commotion and a women yelling that her child had fallen. When he looked, he saw a little girl lying on the tracks right below him. She was conscious, but seemed to be dazed. Dad jumped off the platform, picked up the child, and handed her to someone. He was then helped back up by other onlookers. The commotion brought some transit police to the scene. They told him to wait while they talked with the little girl and her mother. By this time the train had arrived and was boarding. Dad heard the police tell the mother they would need to take her statement and fill out a report and she would have to take the next train. In the rush to comfort the child and mother, people’s attention was temporarily diverted from the man who had lifted her off the tracks. The train was about to leave, and it was the last that would get Dad to Philadelphia before Christmas morning. Dad was thoroughly conditioned to take orders, so he didn’t want to disobey the police instructions to stay, but he didn’t want to miss the last train of the night either. He slipped quietly onto the train and was soon on the last leg of his long journey home.

At home, Mother had accepted the fact her family would be spending a fifth Christmas without their father. She had been listening to the radio all day as the announcers read the names of ships which had made it to an American port. Dad’s ship was not on the list. In fact, she had heard a second report that the Philadelphia was back in France. Mother said the whole situation was bitter-sweet. Dad wasn’t going to be there and that was very hard, but the war was over and she knew he would be home eventually. So she was determined to make this a happy Christmas for the family: the first Christmas after the long war.

Brent and I were put to bed. Dave helped mother put some toys together and then he also went to bed. Mother had been baking, and the aroma of fruit cake was in the air. The tree had been trimmed, and all the presents were now under it. The turkey was ready to put into the oven, and all of the goodies for Christmas dinner were prepared. Later in the evening Kaye (who was by then a teenager) came home from a Christmas party and went upstairs to bed. Mother turned off the radio and the downstairs lights and sat awhile in the peaceful darkness. Then the doorbell rang. Mother said she remembered having a flash of fear. Who could it be so late on Christmas Eve? What happened next is best described in Mother’s own words. “I opened the door and there stood the most beautiful person in the world. Daddy was home for Christmas.”

IV

There is a postscript to this story. By 1951 our family was back living in Norfolk. Early one morning Brent and I were rousted out of bed and told to quickly get dressed. I remember not being very happy about having to get out of bed and going out into a cold damp morning. I don’t know where Dave was, but he didn’t go with us. I think Kaye was away for her freshman year of college. Dad was at sea. The two of us were bundled into the car and we were off. When asked where we were going, all Mom would say was “to see a friend.” After what I thought was a long drive, Mother pulled into an overlook parking lot. In my mind there was some sort of building or lighthouse, but I’m not really clear on that. We walked a few steps, and there before us was a panorama of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mother pulled a pair of binoculars from her purse and began scanning the scene. After a while she told us to look at a ship heading out to sea. She told us it was the ship that brought our Daddy safely home from the war. We stood there a long time, taking turns looking through the glasses. I heard Mother quietly saying her goodbyes and a few expressions of endearment. She was softly crying and wiping her eyes, but I knew it was okay. Although I was only ten, I realized it was a special moment. Having said our proper goodbyes, we drove home and I remember a particularly warm feeling of happiness.

After her December 1945 Magic Carpet run, the Philadelphia was decommissioned. She was struck from the Navy List in January 1951 and sold to Brazil. It was her Brazilian crew at the helm that morning we watched her sail away. I don’t know how Mother knew she was sailing that day, but I imagine it was in the paper. The Philadelphia served in the Brazilian Navy for over two decades under the new name, “Barroso.” She was broken up and sold for scrap in 1973.

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One Response to A Christmas to Remember

  1. Carol Sanders says:

    Beautiful story! Brought tears to my eyes, because of the love, commitment and devotion.

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