Gerald Stein made an odd Santa Claus. For one thing, he was thin and dressed in olive drab.
For another, he was Jewish.
Yet, on Christmas in 1944, he brought a bit of yuletide cheer to a bitter corner of France.
Stein, a radioman with the 94th Division, fashioned a Christmas tree for his buddies out of pine branches, a few scrounged items and sweets from home.
And for a few moments, three GIs could forget about the war.
"It was Christmastime, and I thought I should make Christmas for them," Stein said.
They belonged to the 94th Signal Company, attached to headquarters as the division battled German troops left in besieged Brittany ports.
Stein, now 83 and a retired optometrist in State College, was a corporal that clear night when he climbed into a three-quarter truck serving as a mobile communications post.
He had the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. watch, his turn to monitor transmissions.
Six lonely hours with a headset wasn't what he imagined back at Penn State.
A 1943 graduate, he had been in ROTC, aspiring to be an infantry lieutenant -- until he washed out of Officer Training School. The Army remade him into a radio operator.
"I was upset," Stein said. "But, you know, it saved my life, because the officers who I was with were up on the front line, first thing. Two of my friends were killed right off the bat.
"In fact, I can remember one fellow who was at Penn State with me, really bright guy. They asked him to go out and take a look and see what was ahead. There he was, shimmying up over a little hill to look, and he never came back. We could never find him."
For the most part, though, Stein lived differently than foot soldiers once he arrived in France via Utah Beach in September 1944.
He did dig a foxhole once but shot off Morse code rather than his carbine. Behind the front, he traveled with other communications specialists in a truck crammed with radios and electronic equipment.
They linked headquarters to battalions and other line units, a job well done in the opinion of a company lieutenant who was the unit historian.
"The more research I did, the more I was convinced that it was the teamwork that made the 94th Signal Company one of the most revered signal companies in U.S. history," wrote John Krupp.
That camaraderie motivated Stein on a frigid Christmas Eve.
While his pals slept inside the barn of a country farmhouse, he went to work. Pine boughs gathered in secret the day before became a tree.
Next, he carefully made three paper boxes. Inside each went candy sent by his parents and a penny. They joined ornaments crafted from foil wrappers on the tree.
From medics, he cadged some cotton for snow. He cut out a paper star himself.
"That star was so cockeyed, but it was a star," he said.
Lastly, he set out cookies and cakes from home, arranged Army candles, and placed the tree in the middle of the cab. He let his replacement sleep in.
Then it was time.
"At 6:30, I went up to the building that they were in, and I said, 'OK, I want you fellows to get dressed and come down at once,' " Stein said. "It was still dark outside, and I went back and I lit the candles."
Before the war ended, Stein suffered frostbite. He raced across Germany with Gen. Patton's Third Army to Czechoslovakia.
None of it stands out like the moment three sleepy, puzzled men in overcoats trudged up to the back of their truck.
Stein didn't make them wait.
"I just opened the doors and said, 'Merry Christmas!' "
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.