Christmas at sea: Local veteran remembers the 1952 holiday season

For the CDTDecember 14, 2013 

It was late November 1952, I was 23 years old and had been an enlisted man in the Army for nearly a year. Among other things, I had undergone 16 weeks of infantry basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and had recently graduated from the 14-week Counterintelligence Corps School at the now-closed Fort Holabird, Md.

I knew I was being sent to Europe and that I would be assigned to duty in France as a CIC special agent. My fiancee, Jeanne, and I had become engaged in August, and we planned to get married as soon as I was separated from the service.

While awaiting orders, I was stationed at Camp Kilmer, N.J. It was during the Korean War, and those of us waiting to be shipped overseas were not told the date we would be leaving. We were expected to be able to move out on very short notice, so when not pulling KP, we spent our time hanging around the barracks, playing cards and watching crap games, reading and sleeping. However, I did manage to get a three-day pass to spend Thanksgiving at home.

A bit later than mid-December, our orders finally came through, and we proceeded to the embarkation dock in Brooklyn, N.Y. One by one, when an officer called our names, we answered “Here!” or “Yo!” and clambered up the gangplank.

A short distance away, a military band was playing marches and popular songs to keep our spirits up, I guess, but I do remember one wry selection, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.” There were no civilians waving goodbye. I wasn’t lonely or sad; I was just concentrating on getting up the steep gangplank with my bulging duffel bag slung over my shoulder.

The USS General H.W. Butner was a large military transport ship that could ferry more than 5,000 troops at a time across the Atlantic. During the long crossing — the voyage to Bremerhaven, Germany, took eight or nine days — we explored the vessel as we were restricted to a particular sleeping bay, mess hall and adjoining deck.

At Camp Kilmer, aboard ship, and until we reached our various destinations, we were assigned to “pipeline” outfits (on the Butner, mine was keeping Provisional Company 2300). These were temporary units designed to keep track of individuals in transit.

Aboard General Butner, you got acquainted with a few guys who bunked near you in the six-tiered berths, but the others were strangers. You spend most of the time between meals hunkered down on the deck, trying to nap or read, but people kept tripping over you. (I managed to somehow get through most of “Moby Dick.”)

You also hoped your name wouldn’t appear on a duty roster. There was, of course, no mail call. A mimeographed bulletin, handed out daily, provided a few items of news. One issue had a cartoon depicting a sergeant waking up a sleeping soldier with the words “Merry Christmas: You’re on KP!”

There was no Catholic chaplain aboard, so it was the only time in my life I was unable to attend Mass on Christmas. However, a small notice in the daily bulletin informed us that there would be a Catholic religious service on Christmas Eve. At about 8 p.m., 50 or so of us showed up in a wardroom. One of the fellows identified himself as a chaplain’s assistant and led the group in reciting the rosary and in singing a few Christmas carols. It was over in about a half hour or so, but it was a very moving experience.

I shall also never forget that, in my case, that cartoon proved to be prophetic, as I pulled KP on Christmas morning. Roused from sleep at about 4 a.m., I remember spending a couple of hours breaking eggs for breakfast, four at a time. Fortunately, KP duty was for only one meal.

The armed forces take great pride in serving turkey with all the fixings to their personnel wherever they may be on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and the cooks usually take great pains to create as festive a mood as possible. Christmas 1952 aboard the Butner was no exception, even with having to go through a chow line and eat off an aluminum tray. What made the most vivid impression on me, however, was that at the end of the line, each person received a surprise package in Christmas wrapping.

After eating, everyone went back to his bunk and opened his own Christmas present — sent by various chapters of the American Red Cross. You kept hearing, “Hey, look what I got!” and “Get a load of this!” Each package contained different things. There were chocolate bars, cigarettes, paperback books, toilet articles, stationery ... And Christmas cards from people all over the United States. Schoolchildren had put together small scrapbooks of cartoons or jokes cut out of old magazines.

In addition to many other such treats, my box contained a booklet of crossword puzzles snipped out of newspapers (with the solutions on the next page), prepared by elementary school kids somewhere.

One of the last things I opened was a Christmas card at the bottom of my box. Inside the envelope, there was a $5 bill and a note from a lady in Baltimore, saying the money was in memory of her son, killed on D-Day, June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach.

Many of us sent thank-you letters to the people who had thought of us that Christmas. I can’t remember what I wrote to the schoolchildren and to the lady from Baltimore, but I still feel indebted to them for their kindness.

I returned home 11 months later, just before Thanksgiving, having been stationed in France nearly the entire time, and I was separated from the service on Dec. 2, 1953. Jeanne and I were married seven weeks later.

In late 1983, an item in the Centre Daily Times invited readers to send Christmas greetings to the Marines in Beirut who had recently suffered terrible losses in a terrorist truck bombing on their headquarters. Jeanne and I sat down and each wrote personal letters.

I told the Marine a little about our lives in State College, our family, how we were looking forward to the holidays and that we were praying for his safe return home. Toward the end of my letter, I mentioned that 31 years earlier I had spent Christmas aboard a troopship far away from home.

A few weeks later, I received a nice letter from the Marine who had received my greetings. He was pleased that I remembered him and could understand what it felt like to be a long way from home at Christmas.

“P.S.,” he added. “Thanks for the five bucks.”

Gerry Brault is Edwin Erie Sparks Professor Emeritus of French and medieval studies at Penn State. He and his wife, Jeanne, are residents of Foxdale Village.

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