“I’ll be home for Christmas,” promised Bing Crosby in 1943 in one of that year’s top hits. “I’ve been here all year anyway,” quips one of the myriad of memes trending on social media at the end of 2020. Both allude to situations in which protagonists long to be reunited with their loved ones for the holidays, though the circumstances differ: being home-bound during a pandemic, or far away from home during a war. Several DeGolyer Library manuscript collections document experiences of Dallas people who spent more than one holiday apart from their families while fighting in wars or as prisoners of war.
The John C. Cox papers include the letters, postcards, photographs, army periodicals, ephemera and artifacts documenting the Dallas native’s deployment to the Pacific during World War II. One of the first photographs in the collection is dated March 1943 and illustrates a fully decorated Christmas tree with gifts underneath. Prior to his departure for military training in California, Cox’s family organized an out-of-season Christmas, unsure whether their son and brother would make it home for the actual holiday that year – or ever.
The correspondence with his family reveals that Cox was spending Christmas in the Philippines in 1944. A letter from December 26, 1944 recounts the events of the previous two days, starting with a Japanese bombing on Christmas Eve: “The celebration started on Christmas Eve. The Japanese were helping us celebrate, I think … [They] gave us a show. They raided us about 4 times during the night.” But further down, the letter reveals the attempt at spending the holiday as close to tradition as possible amid the attack: “I had just gone to the chapel to the Christmas Eve carol service, where I was going to act as an usher … when the red alert went on. We had an overflow crowd [and] had some Filipino soldiers and their families with us.” “A meal was served consisting of “hot coffee and hot cocoa, plus coffee cakes and candies” – apparently not the usual fare, given the letter writer’s appreciation: “All were very good and really hit the spot.” What he really appreciated, though, was finding “five letters and 3 Christmas cards. So, it was really heavenly,” he writes, along with receiving “one Xmas package from you, Mom, containing the fruit cake in a can, the Vienna sausage and rolls of mints. So fine a package,” he concludes before wishing his family a very Happy New Year. The following year, Christmas would find Cox among other American soldiers returning home aboard the USS Tabora (AKA-45) cargo ship. His letters from December 1945 and the discharge papers from January 13, 1946 show that he had just missed another holiday season with his family.
Half a decade after the end of World War II, the Korean War would also cause numerous families to spend the holidays apart. Among the materials included in the Sam Johnson congressional papers, there are several photographs and memorabilia from the earlier period of his life, when he was an Air Force pilot. This photograph from November 1952 documents how Sam, wife Shirley and their young son celebrated a combined Thanksgiving and Christmas right before Sam’s deployment to Korea, where he flew more than 60 combat missions.
Johnson also flew for the Air Force during the Vietnam War. In April 1966, Johnson’s plane was shot down and he was injured and captured as a POW. No correspondence was allowed to and from his prison cell in Hanoi, where the days were counted with marks in the wall, according to Captive Warriors, his autobiography published in 1992. On the first Christmas in captivity, Johnson was offered a” dish of candy and a bowl of bananas” by one of the prison officers, who looked suspiciously benevolent; though tempted by the rare sight of fresh fruit, Johnson and his cellmate turned them down fearing that Christmas was used as “another opportunity for propaganda” by their captors. Being injured and imprisoned brought “many reasons for sadness and loneliness,” but he instead thought of his family and “visualized Shirley and the children spending Christmas without me. I felt their loneliness… and I wanted to reassure them, to let them know that I was going to be okay.” It turned out that six more holiday seasons would pass before Johnson’s release and return to the United States in February 1973.
Whether memorialized in songs, letters, social media or marks on a wall, time away from family or friends is not easy on anyone. Browsing collections such as the papers of Congressman Sam Johnson or John C. Cox reminds us that celebrating the holidays in unfamiliar and hostile places during a war can be particularly hard. Nonetheless, they also inspire us to appreciate the little things and every minute we get to spend with our loved ones.
Best wishes for a very happy and much better 2021!
Contact Ada Negraru for information about the John C. Cox World War II papers and Congressman Sam Johnson papers (in process).
John C. Cox World War II papers, DeGolyer Library, MSS 105
John C. Cox World War II digital collection: https://www.smu.edu/libraries/digitalcollections/jcc
Sam Johnson congressional papers (in process)
Sam Johnson and Jan Winebrenner, Captive warriors: a Vietnam POW’s story (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992).