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Friday, December 24, 2010

Remembering The First Christmas After World War II

The National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. (afagen/Flickr)

The National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. (afagen/Flickr)

On Christmas Eve 60 years ago today, President Truman touched a button and the National Christmas Tree was ablaze with thousands of red and green lights. The tree had been dark during World War II. But now it was time to celebrate as the U.S. military started to bring as many GI’s home as possible.

Matthew Litt reminds us of this history in “Christmas 1945: The Story of the Greatest Celebration in American History,” excerpted below.

Were you around for Christmas of 1945? Tell us what you remember, or send us your photos and stories.  If you’re too young to remember, send us your family’s photos.

Listener Mary Stellhorn Roth of Ann Arbor, Mich. sent this photo with her father, who had just returned returned from war.

From listener Mary Stellhorn Roth of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Listener Barbara Aldrich of Essex Junction, Vermont sent us this letter about her father.


I frequently listen to your program and heard your request for memories or family stories of Christmas 1945. You referred to it as possibly the best Christmas ever. It may have been for many families in America, but it must have been a terrible time for many families in Europe and most definitely for my father. He was 17 years old in North Germany (Bremen). He had lost an older brother on the Russian front, his family’s apartment building in Bremen had been bombed out. They lost everything.

My father had been trained to fight fires at the docks of Bremerhaven on the North Sea and that is where he was when the war came to an end. He would have joined the Navy had the war continued. He became a prisoner of war under the British. The rest of his family found an abandoned farm house outside of the city and took up residence there until the family who owned the home returned. It was an awkward situation, but they eventually allowed my father’s family (father, mother, sister and grandfather) to live in the root cellar. There was hardly any food to be had and they were often hungry.

My father didn’t often speak about this time of his life. He came to the United States years later (around 1956) and made his life here. But I know that he and his family suffered in 1945 because of a war they did not choose. They were not Nazis and they did not support Hitler, but they were German and fought for their country just as anyone who fights for his/her country’s security and well being. I can only imagine that Christmas 1945 in my father’s family was filled with sadness, loss and suffering. I will remember this as my family celebrates the holiday this year.
Merry Christmas and best wishes,

Barbara Aldrich

Author Matthew Litt sent us this newspaper clipping, from the front page of the Nevada State Journal, 12/25/1945.

The front page of the Nevada State Journal, 12/25/1945.

Christmas 1945: The Story of the Greatest Celebration in American History

By Matthew Litt

President Truman began the nation’s Christmas just seconds after 5:00 p.m., as he was shuffled by Secret Service officers through the crowd gathered on the South Lawn, unanimously anxious for Christmas to begin. This was to be the first tree lighting since December 24, 1941, when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill led a somber ceremony only seventeen days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The national tree, like almost all Christmas trees in the United States, remained dark from 1942–1944 to conserve resources for the war. The nearly ten thousand in attendance on the snow-covered grass, and the millions listening from their homes on radio, waited for Truman’s signal that it was once again proper to celebrate Christmas with old-fashioned cheer. Small towns and homes throughout America had their own tree… The President climbed the stairs of the ceremonial platform and acknowledged the crowd with a short smile. The Washington Choral Society sang O’ Come, All Ye Faithful and audience participation was encouraged.

The press too, contributed substantially to the great celebration. At the time, information flow was provided by wire connected newspapers that brought homes, communities, and towns together. When the hearts of American citizens were tapped for their intrinsic goodness, it was the newspaper, ever on hand for a good human interest story, that enthusiastically reported it. Numerous streams of affection, love, and “good will toward men” were brought to public attention by the press sharing the nation’s abundant Christmas spirit with its readers. This book is about that special Christmas when reaching out to the less fortunate, the grieving, and the wounded, played a larger role than opening a present under a tree.

Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Litt

Music From This Segment

Music in this piece:
“Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” performed by Ginny Simms
“O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” performed by Dinah Shore
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” performed by Bing Crosby
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” performed by Judy Garland
“It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” performed by Bing Crosby
“Hark, The Herald angeles Sing,”  “O’Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” recordings are from a CD called “A Night With The Stars: The 1945 Command Performance Special.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://n/a Maile Simmerer Rose

    The first Christmas after the end of WWII had to be a very sad one for my father, Ernest Simmerer. He had served the navy in San Fransico, designing naval vessels during the latter part of the war. Meanwhile, his wife, Norma Simmerer, had come down with Rheumatic fever, and the couple only had insurance that would cover her hospitalization in Seattle, WA. So, he continued on with his work in San Fransisco, while friends and family visited Norma in the hospital in Seattle. (Somewhere in my closet I believe I still have letters she wrote him.) Norma did leave the hospital & come down to live again with Ernie aboard their schooner the Kitone for a while, but passed away unexpectedly on November 25, 1945. She had only been gone a month, when Christmas came that year. It has taken me till now to realize (if that is truly possible,) what a sacrifice my dad made for his country.

  • Ralph Whitehead, Jr., Amherst, MA

    One of the songs that you might play for your listeners is “It’s Been a Long, Long Time:” For years and years, my mother has played it on the piano, as she has played many other standards. But she has played it more often in recent years, particularly after my father died after 57 years of marriage. I didn’t happen to ask her about until this past summer. I knew that my father had returned home from the South Pacific on Christmas Eve of 1945. His return is my earliest memory. But, until my mother told me in June, I didn’t know that this song had been popular at precisely that time. At the age of 93, my mom is still very sharp. Wikipedia fully confirms her memory.

    For millions of reunited couples, this song was the sound of the Christmas of 1945.

  • http://tapestrytheatre.org Pat Kruis Tellinghusen

    Hundreds of people in Portland traveled back to 1945 for Christmas with Tapestry Theatre’s production of “1945 Christmas From Home.” The setting is 1945 on the stage of a live radio broadcast to be recorded and rebroadcast over Armed Forces Radio to all the troops still stationed around the world.
    The fabulous music of the era laid the sound track for radio drama vignettes based on interviews with people who experienced 1945-including a soldier-wife reunion to the tune of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”. Live sound effects punctuated the ads from 1945: Montgomery Ward selling furs for $59; Julep Cigarettes caress your throat and make your breath fresh and inviting.
    Lots of misty eyes as people relived the days of their youth.

  • Jon Strupp

    Christmas 1945 was a memorable one for the Strupp family in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was not around then, but it was my favorite story my dad used to tell about his Navy days.

    My dad’s sister, Monica, was supposed to get married on New Year’s Eve 1945. Her husband-to-be arrived home in October 1945 after being wounded in Italy the previous April. My dad was supposed to be the best man in the wedding. The problem was Dad was at Okinawa on the USS Chiwawa AO-68. On November 28 the ship left Okinawa headed for San Francisco. Everyone was anxious to get home since the war was over and many had enough points to be discharged. One of the crew painted a map of the Pacific Ocean on the bulkhead of the mess hall and a red line showed their progress toward home. It was the only time my dad said he knew when he was when the ship was at sea during the entire war. When they arrived in San Francisco on December 13 my dad had enough points for discharge, but learned the Navy had a shortage of Watertenders (my dad’s rate was Watertender 1C) and their points had been frozen so he had no idea when he would get out of the Navy. My dad got his orders to leave the ship on December 13. He went to Treasure Island to start his discharge process. He and 3 friends rented a dumpy hotel room on the edge of China Town. He had to take a train to Great Lakes in Chicago to continue his processing for discharge. He had to wait for a train with many other military personnel to get to Chicago. Every day he went to what he described as a big wharehouse and sat on the floor waiting to hear his name to be read from 8 am until they ran out of trains, usually about 2 pm. One night, Dad was awakened in his hotel room by a commotion in the hall way. A woman was running down the hall yelling and swearing. He was afraid to come out of the room, but when he did a Navy Ensign from the shore patrol told him he was under arrest for being in a house of prostitution. My dad told the Ensign that he had no idea he was in a house of prostitution and was leaving. He found another hotel to stay in. He finally got a train to Chicago. It was a troop train with standing room only and no bathing facilities. The trip from San Francisco took 5 days. They ran out of food on the last day and had only crackers to eat. The train arrived in Chicago at 11 pm. The man that greeted them told them they would be processed in 72 hours. My dad sarcasticlly thought, “Yeah, right.” But they did have them out in 72 hours and he was discharged from the Navy on Christmas Day 1945. He arrived in Oshkosh on the 7 pm train on Christmas Day. He had not been home for Christmas since 1941. When he got to Grandma’s house he hugged Grandma so hard he broke her ribs. Grandma always said it was the best Christmas present she ever got, her son back in one piece. Needless to say, he was home in time for the wedding. On Christmas morning every year until he died I said to my dad, “Merry Christmas and welcome home.”

  • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now producer

    Reading your thoughts and memories of Christmas 1945 is an education for me. My mom and dad were separated for years during World War II and Korea, and I wasn’t born until 1955. I was especially struck by the comments of Barbara Aldrich and her family’s experience in Europe. Matthew Litt’s book, Christmas 1945, which is going to be featured on Here and Now on Christmas Eve, does document a cold and hungry holiday in Europe that year, especially in Germany. According to Matt’s book, there were an estimated 14,000 homeless children in Munich alone. Many had lost both parents in the war. Some were so young, they didn’t know their names.

  • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now producer

    Christmas 1945 I was on Amchitka, Aleutian Islands, Alaska. This was just before my 20th birthday. At the time the 238 Army Ground Forces Band, of which I was a member, had just been deactivated. I remember that I played one of those portable pump organs used by the army, a field organ, at midnight maas.

    I was at loose ends, and remained so until January 1946 when I spent about 3 weeks working in the Post Exchange. Cigaretts were 5 cents, but only Camels, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield sold. Before going to Amchitka in October I was at Adak, and there they had whole large boxes of cartons of Raleigh cigarettes just inside the theater door, and nobody wanted them–they could not give them away.

    By the end of January Glenn Wood and I were operating the Armed Forces Radio Station, WXLK, Amchitka, Alaska. Every week we received a stack of 15 inch records in a box weighing 105 pounds. Those were the Armed Forces Radio Shows for the week. At the end of the week they had to be destroyed–we burned them up. The reason was because the stars recording them were under contract to NBC, CBS, ABC Blue Network, or Mutual Broadcasting Service and their contracts did not allow them to perform with members of a rival network. That meant that e.g. Jack Benny and Fred Allen could not perform together–but they did so on AFRS, so we had to destroy those shows.

    We had a good library of 78 rpm records, and every day I ran a request show. The most requested record was “I’ll be glad when your dead, you rascal you,” always dedicated to Leutenant so-and-so.

    I am sure I told you that we had recording equipment in the radio station, and we made many recordings of Glenn playing the trumpet and I the piano–those old standard pop tunes of the day. I played chords from an illegal fake book, called Black’s Chords. We also played many of the duets from the Arban book on two trumpets, and Glenn played his violin also and I the piano. Glen shipped those records home when he was about to leave Amchitka in June 1946. I left in May 1946. I imagine his son or daughter has those recordings now, if they still exist. Glenn was a music graduate of the U. of Wisconsin-Madison, and played as a violin soloist with the university band. He passed away three years aga at age 92. His birthday was on the same exact day as mine, and he was exactly ten years older than I was. Before he was drafted into the Army he was the band director at Monroe, Wisconsin, at the southern end of the Swiss Valley area in Wisconsin.

    posted by Lavern Wagner

  • LC Perkins

    I am first to enjoy the romance of a MGM musical and stories of our better nature, but my Japanese American family spent Christmas, 1945 in Utah, having been “released” from their Relocation Camp in Idaho with no means or no sense of welcoming to their previous home in Seattle, where everything was lost. African American soldiers returned to a segregated South.

  • B.E. Avery

    Hello Maile, I was just thinking of your family and the Kitone when I read your note. My mother thought very highly of your Dad’s first wife, Norma. I had not known the surrounding story.

    • Shomerah

      hmmmmm, your name sounds familiar.  what is your complete name, please?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.w.simmerer David W. Simmerer

    Hello Maile, I did not know your father, nor do I know you. However, I have traced your genealogy from your grandfather, Frederich William Karl Simmerer , who came to the States from Austria Nov.22nd, 1903. I have been working on the Simmerer Genealogy for about 20 years, and have discovered Simmerers from all over the world. I will be returning to Germany, Austria, & Switzerland this Fall to spend time with my own family, and continue my research. If you go on FaceBook you will see my page which is loaded with Simmerers (all mostly relatives). There is also a page called “clan-simmerer” that is managed by my cousin Alex Simmerer from Talheim Germany. As to your father, I can only say that you should be proud of him, and remember him dearly. If he was like most of us Simmerers, he was dedicated, loved & enjoyed life to the fullest, and most of all loved his family. Please contact me. I’d like to talk to you about your Simmerer heritage. My E-Mail is: dws144@charter.net or you may contact me through FaceBook.
    Respectfully yours, David W. Simmerer

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