Holidays & History: Nothing warms the heart and soothes the soul like coming home for the holidays — a feeling that’s as true today as it was a hundred years
Holidays & History: Nothing warms the heart and soothes the soul like coming home for the holidays — a feeling that’s as true today as it was a hundred years ago. Read more stories about Christmases past.
It’s Christmas morning 1943. The USS North Carolina is moored in Port Havannah, a village on Efate Island in Vanuatu, west of Fiji in the South Pacific. The slate gray warship sits in the dark water, its crew preparing to get underway.
The USS North Carolina has been in action throughout the fall — from Pearl Harbor to the Gilbert Islands to Nauru — as the antiaircraft screen for carrier task forces. The loudspeakers’ call to battle stations is a constant, forcing the crew of almost 2,200 to scramble as Japanese fighters and bombers attack.
General quarters, general quarters. All hands man your battle stations.
But as the sun rises on Christmas morning, a different sound wakes the sailors. Instead of a shrill alarm warning them of the pending danger, carols play over the battleship’s loudspeaker.
The first whiff of turkey wafts from the ship’s galleys as the cooks prepare the Christmas feast: turkey, Virginia baked ham, cranberry sauce, oyster dressing, giblet gravy, and Parker House rolls.
Compared to dinners on the home front, the sailors eat very well.
“Christmas dinners back home weren’t quite as elaborate as before the war,” says author Sarah Sundin, whose grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. “Rationing of sugar and butter meant fewer sweets. Meat, including ham, was rationed. Although turkey wasn’t rationed, the armed services worked hard to provide turkey dinners to the servicemen overseas, which meant fewer turkeys on the home front.”
Rationing makes preparing a holiday meal difficult for civilians. Red meat, coffee, and butter is limited, with most going to the military. Americans adapt by eating meatless dishes and growing vegetables in Victory Gardens. Even if families saved up their ration stamps for the holidays, relative luxuries like sugar are hard to obtain — families mostly used corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup as substitutes.
Esther Royster, a North Carolinian living in New Jersey, finds wartime recipes published in The State too extravagant. But in a January 1943 issue, the columnist “Carol Dare” defends the recipes: “I consulted several friends, and they all agreed that they had rather save up for several weeks and make one really glamorous cake than to make several using war-time substitutes.”
The USS North Carolina stretching two and a half football fields long, is the first in a new class of battleships with a sharp bow and a fat waist that barely fits through the Panama Canal. The ship is in significant battles throughout the war, and by the end, it is the most decorated American World War II battleship in the Pacific theater.
For the crew, that means there is no real holiday season. No parties. No Christmas trees. Christmas is just another day in a long war, but not without joy in the form of a celebratory meal. Food connects the sailors to home.
“The way you could tell it was a holiday was that we were served turkey and ham,” Fire Control Technician 2nd Class Leo Drake writes in a letter home.
On this Christmas morning in 1943, the ship is underway to support a carrier attack near New Georgia Island. While the bow cuts its way through the South Pacific swells, below deck about 100 men — including dozens of cooks and enlisted sailors — are preparing for a Christmas dinner at sea.
The kitchen crew serves the 2,000 enlisted men in a galley with three serving lines, cafeteria-style. Meals are like a factory assembly line, sailors with full trays replacing those leaving with empty ones. The entire process takes about an hour.
In the Wardroom on the Main Deck, things are a little more refined. Officers eat in what one officer describes as a “country club” — part dining room and part social club — where the ship’s 100-plus officers congregate to relax or conduct small meetings. Like the enlisted sailors, they sit at long tables, but the officers’ tables are set with linen tablecloths and napkins and U.S. Navy tableware and flatware. Steward’s mates wearing mess jackets serve from silver trays. Officers pay for their food, about 10 to 20 percent of their salary. The food, according to one officer, is “almost gourmet”: roast turkey, raisin dressing, brown gravy, cheese-stuffed potatoes on the half shell, creamed onions, and Parker House rolls.
Steward’s Mate 1st Class John Seagraves was an African American cook in the Wardroom Pantry. Seagraves, who served aboard the battleship from May 1944 to December 1945, makes eggs and hash browns, including breakfast on Christmas Day 1944. Seagraves says one benefit of working in officer country is the food. He and the other pantry stewards eat what the officers eat. They get real milk and eggs instead of the powdered variety served a few decks below. But he does more than just cook and serve. Seagraves is the first African American to man a 20-millimeter gun on the USS North Carolina, and in April 1945, his crew downs a Japanese kamikaze. Now 96, his son David captures his father’s wartime experiences in a biography, Uncommon Hero: the John Seagraves Story.
Up early, he serves breakfast on Christmas Day and runs errands for the executive officer, the ship’s second in command, before retreating to the lower decks to eat his holiday meal in a segregated area of the ship.
“As far as the Blacks on the ship, this was just a regular day as far as I’m concerned,” Seagraves says.
George Sugg, an Electrician’s Mate Third Class, remembers the battleship Christmas spread. He grew up in Grifton and served aboard the battleship for two years, working on the ship’s communications systems and standing watch at the electric board. The juicy turkey and buttery potatoes stick out in his memory. But even more memorable, he says, is the mail.
“It would come in every three weeks and liven up the ship,” he says. “The mail got better when it was Christmas.”
Cookies from home. Small gifts from family. Before and after the meal, crewmen swap treats and read letters from home.
But Christmas 1943 aboard the USS North Carolina is special. The ship’s chaplain — Lt. Cmdr. Everett Wuebbens — had collected $5 from each sailor and sent the money to Macy’s Department Store in New York City to buy gifts for the crew’s children. On Christmas Eve, Wuebbens gets a group together to put on a comedy show to entertain the crew. After the show, which lasts past midnight, the chaplain starts the ship’s projector and images of families receiving the gifts flashes onto the screen. In addition to providing the presents, Macy’s also films greetings from home. Families wish their loved ones a Merry Christmas from thousands of miles away.
Sailors attest to the emotion of the evening in letters home. “I don’t believe there were many dry eyes that night,” writes Boatswain Mate 1st Class Bill Taylor.
Less than 12 hours after getting a glimpse of their families, the crew of the USS North Carolina is underway again to join an operation west of New Georgia Island in the South Pacific. Peace is still two years away as the crew eats its meal. The next day, the loudspeaker won’t serenade the crew. It will send them back to battle stations. Christmas will be a distant memory.