Soldiers deployed during Operation Desert Shield fashioned a makeshift Christmas tree using sand bags, canned beverages as ornaments, and items donated from home. Photo courtesy of the National Desert Storm War Memorial.
Around 1 million American soldiers and their Iraqi allies awaited a subdued Christmas Eve celebration in the desert of Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, the first phase of countering Saddam Hussein’s aggression. It would be the first holiday away from their families for many US service members, but fortunately, the US military had a few surprises to revive their Christmas spirits.
USO tour icon Bob Hope interrupted many young soldiers’ holiday blues with laughter during his first of several staged comedy shows for the troops.
“You know what Saddam is spelled backwards?” asked the veteran comedian, who had been telling jokes to troops since 1941. “That’s mad-ass.”
That joke apparently got the green light from the military public affairs officer who helped make sure Hope’s monologue wouldn’t offend Saudi sensitivities. Hope, who was joined on his tour by former Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench and country-music singer Aaron Tippin, had been forced to disinvite several female performers from the Saudi part of the tour, due to the country’s ban on female entertainers.
On Christmas morning, US troops respected the Islamic codes that banned the worship of other religions, but US military cooks still prepared hundreds of thousands of traditional dinners. The offerings included roasted turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, salad, vegetables, and four different kinds of pie for dessert. Cooks added ham to the menu in quiet defiance of Islamic prohibitions against pork but refrained from including alcohol in the fruit cake and eggnog.
Even soldiers near the Kuwaiti border received hot meals and Christmas packages, some of which included boxes of cookies from inmates from the Szabo Correctional Services in California, flown in among the daily 400 tons of mail.
“Even the camels see the mail trucks coming because the troops feed them cookies,” then Maj. Gen. William “Gus” Pagonis, head of logistics for the largest US military operation since Vietnam, told The Associated Press on Christmas Eve, 1990. “Like other creatures of the wild, they learn real fast the GIs will feed them.”
Many packages weren’t addressed to a specific person either, bearing the words “any soldier” on the label. So many of these civilian gifts arrived that the Army expected each of the 20,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division would receive a Christmas package — and, just in case they didn’t, the military had plenty of fresh T-shirts, underwear, and socks on hand as a backup.
Marines hung stockings in their tents while others donned Santa hats and pranced around their camp. Before the celebrations were over, they entertained themselves by remixing popular — but not overtly religious — Christmas songs such as “Jingle Bells.”
“Dashing through the sand, with an M16 in hand, terrorizing the land, looking for Hussein,” the Marines sang. “Treads on the tracks will ring, giving troops a fright, opens up the door, we get out and fight.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.