This column originally appeared in the Dec. 24, 2014, edition of the Watertown Daily Times. The event discussed occurred 75 years ago today:
Christmastime can feel rather empty when you’re far from home.
Those in the U.S. military are all too familiar with this experience. Since the American Revolution, they have devoted themselves to protecting our nation’s interests at the expense of the holiday merriment the rest of us enjoy.
It’s one thing for service members to be stationed away from home at Christmas when there are no global conflicts. But fighting in a war during this sacred time is unfathomable.
Celebrating Christmas in wartime has long intrigued me, and my family has a cherished memento of loved ones juggling these conflicting ideas. The photograph accompanying this column shows my father, Jerry, spending Christmas with his older brother Robert a few months before the end of World War II.
Both my father and Uncle Bud (as everyone called him) were members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, although in separate divisions. They focused on building and repairing roads and railways. My father’s division, in fact, constructed a bridge over the Rhine River so Allied forces could pursue German troops.
My uncle was stationed at Liège, Belgium, in late 1944, and my dad had relocated into the area with his unit on Christmas Eve. He heard that his older brother was nearby, so he obtained permission to spend time with him.
My father tracked my uncle down, and I’m certain it was the most joyous reunion either of them ever had. Being faithful Roman Catholics, they attended midnight Mass together at a church in the area. My father had to leave, so they parted company on Christmas Day.
The photograph was taken sometime during their visit. It can be found in the homes of every member of my family and those of my cousins.
It’s special to us because of the story it tells and how it visually displays what we all know to be true: The most important thing in this life, particularly during holidays, is family.
Who could calculate the odds that two brothers from Chicago’s South Side, knocking around Europe during World War II, would bump into each other on Christmas Eve? What must have gone through their minds when they got together? And did they believe this could be the last time they would see each other — ever?
Like many families, spending time together is essential for my mother and siblings as well as our relatives. It’s where we experience the deepest love and draw the strongest support. As social beings, family is a lifeline on which most of us rely.
So it must have been an extraordinary moment for my dad and Uncle Bud when they reunited on Christmas Eve in 1944. The comfort of being in the presence of someone they knew so well could not have been sweeter for either of them.
While their primary jobs involved rebuilding infrastructure, my father and uncle were still in the middle of combat. And war is the breakdown of all civility. Regardless of what side of a conflict it’s on, any nation must carry out horrific acts to achieve its goals.
Yes, we fought a malevolent force bent on subjugating millions across the globe in World War II. This made stopping the Axis powers necessary. But it’s still war, and war involves human beings killing other human beings by whatever means possible.
I can’t help but believe that my dad and uncle were often haunted by the vulgar nature of war during their time abroad. Neither one spoke much about his experiences in the military, which is typical for many who see war up close. How can someone put into words the sights and sounds that stem from the worst human cruelty possible?
Toss the thought of celebrating Christmas into the mix, and you have a real dilemma. This is the holiday that helps us get over the doldrums of our everyday lives under normal circumstances. How can anyone consider promoting this season of peace when the world is at war and untold numbers of people are being killed every day by design?
I have never been in the military and have no clue what it’s like to be in the midst of an armed conflict. So I cannot imagine how anyone endures such state-sanctioned violence.
Perhaps celebrating holidays like Christmas is the only way to get through something like a war. It’s an excuse to feel joy at a time when this sentiment is in such short supply.
This is what happened 100 years ago during the acclaimed Christmas Truce of Word War I. In 1914, British and German troops took it upon themselves to stop fighting — albeit temporarily — to live out the spirit of the season and spread some good will.
They shared a common religious heritage and looked at each other as brothers rather than as enemies. This gave fits to commanders on both sides, and the holiday cease-fire was brought to an unfortunate end. But for a brief moment, these soldiers discarded the drumbeat of war and heeded the voice of peace.
This is why the experience our fathers had is so precious to at least two branches of the Moore family. A chance encounter 70 years ago represented what this season is all about.
The greatest gift the world received that Christmas was the knowledge this conflict was coming to an end. The greatest gift my dad and Uncle Bud received was the chance to spend the holiday with each other. And the greatest gift we as a family received was the memory of how they carved out a slice of Christmas peace in the midst of a world war.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.