Gilliand Hudson, a carpenter with FLOUR, acts as Santa Claus and poses alongside U.S. soldiers with 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, on Forward Operating Base Clark, Afghanistan, Dec. 25, 2013. Hudson dressed as Santa Claus to spread holiday cheer for soldiers away from home for the holidays. Photo courtesy of Cpl. Amber Stephens/DVIDS.
The holidays are supposed to be a time when families come together to enjoy a nice meal, exchange gifts, and make long-lasting memories. In a war, Christmas can be a sign of hope or a sign of uncertainty. This Christmas, whether one is deployed overseas or enjoying it with friends or family, remember how others throughout history have spent the day. This Christmas list doesn’t include desired presents but significant military operations and memories from no man’s land to Auschwitz to a Christmas miracle and a hellacious bombing campaign.
The sounds of whining artillery shells, screeches of whistles, and cries of agony were absent on the night of Christmas Eve along the Western Front. Royal Irish Rifles observed Germans illuminate their trenches and heard Christmas carols like “Silent Night” sung in unison. The beginning of a festive celebration was met with a British encore of “The First Noel.” The two armies put down their weapons and waded into no man’s land to greet their enemy and share pleasantries. One soldier from the Scots Guards wrote in his war diary that he “met a German Patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.”
The Christmas Truce of 1914 saw British and German troops shaking hands, posing for photographs, playing games of soccer, and burying their dead. It was part of the “Live Let Live” system, a code honored on the front lines where cease-fires were agreed upon to rebuild trenches and gather fallen troops. The Christmas truce did not become a tradition and did not occur again throughout the course of World War I.
There were five harsh Christmases experienced behind the barbed wire at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The first Christmas Eve in 1940 set the tone for the hell that not even the Christmas holiday could diminish. The sadistic SS displayed a Christmas tree with electric lights and placed the corpses of prisoners who who were worked to death or froze to death during roll call underneath the tree as if they were presents.
Over the years, some prisoners defied the miserable conditions in small ways. Henry Bartosiewicz smuggled a Christmas tree into Room 7 of Block No. 25. Witold Pilecki, the Polish war hero who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz to gain intelligence on what was really going on inside, carved a Polish Eagle from a turnip to decorate the tree. Toward the end of World War II, the Third Reich was largely dismantled. The women at Birkenau sewed about 200 toys for children in the hospital, one even dressing up to look like St. Nicholas to pass out presents. The Christmas wishes for freedom were granted on Jan. 27, 1945, when the camp was liberated by Soviet troops.
The Hungnam Evacuation, sometimes referred to as the “Miracle of Christmas” or an “amphibious operation in reverse,” was the successful withdrawal of over 100,000 United Nations military personnel and an estimated 91,000 North Korean refugees during the Korean War. In December 1950, a massive rescue operation was underway to save those who were trapped at the Hungnam port in North Korea. A fleet of about 100 ships responded to their desperate pleas, including the SS Meredith Victory, a US merchant marine ship. The plan was only to evacuate the military and its supplies, but when they met the North Korean refugees they couldn’t turn them all away.
“These guys there at Hungnam listened to their better angels and did what I like to say was the right thing, for the right reasons, in a very difficult situation,” said Ned Forney, the grandson of Col. Edward Forney of the US Marine Corps. The SS Meredith Victory, the largest ship to enter the port, had a crew of just 60, and yet they left with newly acquired military supplies and 14,000 refugees. Remarkably, without food or water, zero lives were lost aboard the ships during the entire military operation, and all returned safely to South Korea.
President Richard Nixon ordered the US Air Force in December 1972 to bomb the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong into submission. The bombing campaign was known to the military as Operation Linebacker II and to historians as “11 Days of Christmas” and the “11 Day War.” The relentless strikes over North Vietnam occurred over a span of 12 days from Dec. 18 to Dec. 29, with a stand-down on Christmas day.
B-52 aircraft released 20,000 tons of explosives, the majority of the munitions dropped over Hanoi. The US Air Force flew 729 nighttime sorties and killed as many 1,000 to 1,600 Vietnamese, but the total number was expected to be much higher. The US lost 15 of the 129 bombers involved in the air raids and 11 other aircraft. The two-week-long bombing campaign led to Nixon suspending all offensive actions in North Vietnam in January 1973; however, the war went on.
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.
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