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Christmastime memories vivid for soldiers of WWII, Vietnam


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Even in the final years of his life, Alfred Anderson could remember the Christmas of 1914.

Born in 1896, Anderson was a member of the United Kingdom’s famed Black Watch regiment during World War I. On Dec. 25, 1914, firing along the 500-mile long Western Front ceased momentarily. Allied and German soldiers crawled from their trenches and exchanged greetings and lapel pins. Moments later, the troops returned to their lines and the killing began again.

“All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machine gun fire and distant German voices,” Anderson told a British newspaper last year. “But there was dead silence in the morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

Anderson, who died Nov. 29 in Newtyle, Scotland, at age 109, was the last survivor of the “Christmas Truce” of 1914.

For the soldiers of World War II and the Vietnam War, which ended 60 and 30 years ago this year, respectively, memories of Christmases away from home are just as vivid as those expressed by Anderson, and just as troubling.

Tom Townsend served with the 6800th Special Troops Battalion in Europe — a unit attached to others such as the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Infantry Division. He said there were no truces with the Germans in 1944, describing that Christmas as “the worst ever.”

“Nothing like that happened where I was. It was war, war, war. I still have nightmares about it,” said Townsend, a member of Baring Cross Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Ark. “That’s when I found out what Christmas was really all about. It was usually a gift-giving time, but that day I didn’t even get a meal. I think my family sent a package, but I never got it.”

Today Townsend spends his retirement years heavily involved in his church and reading thousands of volumes of literature he has collected over the years. Next to the shelves of books hangs a letter from a grateful President Harry S. Truman, framed campaign ribbons, German medals and a tattered Nazi pendant that Townsend pulled off the antenna of a burned-out German staff car. Looking at the relics of a war now six decades in his past, his feelings for the men he served with are apparent. He speaks in a subdued tone when he talks about those who died.

“We all had seen so much. Most guys didn’t pause to celebrate Christmas. But I did. I read my Bible every day that I was in the army,” he said. Reading his Bible on a daily basis, and especially on Christmas, was more than an exercise in devotion for Townsend. He was keeping a promise.

“When I left for the army at the train station, my mother gave me a Bible — a New Testament. She made me promise that I would read it every day. At first I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll read it.’ But when I got over there, I realized how valuable it was to me. Sixty years later, I’m still reading a chapter a day just like I promised.”

Burl Cornelius, who transported supplies into Burma along the Bengal-Assam railroad in what is today Bangladesh, said his group, the army’s 725th Railroad Battalion, also did not have time to celebrate Christmas in 1943 or 1944. A member of Central Baptist Church, also in North Little Rock, Cornelius said the holiday sadly “was just another day.”

Cornelius worked midnight shifts transporting supplies toward Burma for use against the Japanese in China and Southeast Asia. “I’d work all night and then go to bed at 6 a.m. or so. By 9 a.m. it was 120 degrees and too hot to sleep,” he said.

“You lost track of the days after a while. I really don’t remember a Christmas Day while I was gone. We didn’t exactly have days off either. And in northern India, the people were all Hindus and Muslims. They didn’t celebrate Christmas like we did when we were back home.”

Morris Ritter, a veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam and a member of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said loneliness “has a way of creeping in” at Christmastime. In Vietnam, Ritter served with the 509th Radio Research Battalion, a clandestine group that monitored enemy radio traffic in the hope of pinpointing the locations of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army units.

“Most military personnel turn their thoughts to home during this time of year,” Ritter said. At the same time, “You have to realize that the enemy doesn’t necessarily share your views about Christ or Christmas. So Christmas Day is just another day where you have to stay hunkered down like any other day.”

Unlike many soldiers, Larry Alverson is crystal clear in his memories of Christmas at war, when he served with the army’s 809th Engineer Battalion in northern Thailand. Attached to a U.S. Army Special Forces unit, Alverson was wounded during a covert operation in Laos in 1968. Shrapnel wounds to his chest, neck and face were treated at a field hospital, but he was then flown to Thailand for further treatment.

“I was in the hospital on Christmas Day in 1968. I got there and they put me in the ward. Afterward, a bunch of guys who had been hurt in a helicopter crash were brought in so they moved me to a single room,” Alverson said. Lying in his own room, Alverson received a visit from a beautiful “round-eye,” GI slang for an American girl.

The “round-eye” happened to be green-eyed movie star Ann Margaret. Alverson talked to the actress for 15 minutes before she departed.

“I remember that Christmas very well,” Alverson said. “I was a kid and I wanted to be home. Looking back, it was a really sad time.”

Today Alverson teaches Sunday School and oversees the men’s ministry at Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock, but in 1968 he was not a Christian and thus didn’t have faith from which to draw strength and encouragement.

“I wasn’t raised in a Christian or a religious family. My mom and dad weren’t Christians, and I don’t know that I’ll ever see them again. I think my dad may have gone to church a few times when I was a child, but there was nothing religious in our house — not even at Christmas,” he said.

Alverson became a Christian in 1975 following a revival service in Horn Lake, Miss. “If this is real, I want it,” he recalls saying as he drove down the road after the service. Today his faith encourages him in a way that he wishes it could have in 1968.

“I want to tell these guys serving in the military now to keep the Lord in Christmas, no matter when you celebrate. It’s not the day. It’s celebrating the birth of the Savior. It doesn’t matter even if you do it on the Fourth of July,” he said. “And if I was to speak to them, I’d tell them to be proud of what they are doing. They are protecting my liberty, and I appreciate the sacrifices they are making in being away from their families right now.”

Charlie Winters, who served in Vietnam with the HMM 262 Marine Helicopter Squadron, shares the same feelings and encouragement for soldiers serving overseas in the Christmas season. He is the pastor of Cedar Heights Baptist Church in rural Pulaski County, Ark.

“The thing I learned, what became very real to me through Vietnam and the time of recovery afterwards, the thing the Lord kept impressing on me was, ‘I will never leave you, I will never forsake you.’ He embedded that in my soul. Even in the times of rage, hurt and anger, he refused to leave me, and I am so thankful for that,” Winters said.

The Christmas of 1970 was a time, however, when Winters said there was little for which to be thankful. His unit had been the last Marine air unit to leave Vietnam, rotating to Okinawa where the Marines spent the holiday.

“Christmas Day on Okinawa was depressing. I just spent most of the day alone. I was about 20 days away from coming back to the States. As I remember, I stayed in the barracks. There were no lights and no decorations. It was standard operating procedure, except that we weren’t flying that day,” Winters said.

Most depressing to Winters, who volunteered for combat in Vietnam, was the loss of his best friend a few months prior. “My faith was a very important part of my life, but I did go through some difficult times. I had several friends that didn’t make it…. My best friend, George, was killed on a flight I was supposed to be on,” he said.

On that day, Winters, who served as a helicopter crew chief and door gunner, was en route to extract Marines involved in a firefight. Near the site of the engagement, his helicopter was hit. “We were shot down but, by the grace of God, were rescued. I was supposed to have flown later that day also, so George took my flight. They were shot down and he died in the crash.”

Winters said his friend’s death ultimately gave him a better understanding of God’s love for him. “I’m alive because he died,” he said. “It gave new depth to my understanding of my faith because God sent Christ to die in our place. I always am thankful for that at Christmastime.”
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  • Gregory Tomlin