Matthew Litt is the author of the new book, Christmas 1945: The Greatest Celebration in American History. It is the story of the first Christmas following the end of WWII, with the soldiers coming home and President Harry Truman declaring an unprecedented four-day federal holiday.
The U.S. Military launched “Operation Magic Carpet” to get tens of thousands of GI’s in Europe and Asia home for Christmas, and at home, the U.S. Army and Navy launched “Operation Santa Claus” to process those thousands of GI’s for discharge in time for Christmas. The newly-discharged veterans set out for home, clogging rail depots, bus stations and airports creating, at that time, the greatest traffic jam in the nation’s history. Some of the more fortunate were driven thousands of miles home by grateful citizens doing everything they could to show their gratitude and create a happy homecoming.
Across the nation, people reached out to wounded veterans, children who lost fathers,and neighbors who lost sons. Americans in big cities and small shared their renewal of spirit and prayers for peace. Mr. Litt answered my questions about his project.
How did you get started in researching the first post-WWII Christmas celebration?
I didn’t intend this to be a book at first. Back when I started my research in 2004, I was practicing a different type of law – white collar crime / insurance fraud. I was on the good guys’ side, but I was dealing with a disappointing element of human nature on a daily basis. I had trouble leaving my work at the office, and needed something to help me unwind when I rode the subway home at the end of the day. I set out to find the best in human nature, and came up with the idea to research Christmas of 1945. I started printing out newspaper archives from the week of Christmas 1945 for my ride home, and became hooked.
What were your primary sources?
Mostly newspapers from December, 1945. I did everything I could to diversify the sources, drawing from papers from big cities, small towns, the east and west, north and south, etc. I also used Church bulletins from across the country, period magazines and Army and Navy newsletters.
Were you able to conduct interviews with veterans and their families?
I was able to conduct interviews with many veterans and their families thanks to the cooperation of senior communities throughout New York and New Jersey. These were indispensable in giving me an accurate context for Christmas 1945.
How many military were able to make it home?
“Home” is a loaded word relative to Christmas 1945. The military tried to get as many men as possible to their homes, but were overwhelmed by the sheer number. Storms at sea delayed transport ships, and delayed countless thousands. The services did a good job getting men home in the sense that they were on U.S. soil for Christmas, but countless thousands didn’t make it to the family dinner table in time for Christmas. There’s a great quote in the book from a soldier who had just hung up the phone with his mom. He exclaims to the newspaper correspondent that she’s holding Christmas dinner until he gets home; Christmas this year would be whenever he makes it back, whether that was Dec. 25, 26, 27 or beyond. The traffic jams were the worst in history, and there’s no telling how many men made it back to U.S. soil, but celebrated Christmas somewhere in-between their point of debarkation and home.
What led to Truman’s decision to declare a four-day holiday?
The federal employees had earned it. The War meant that new and plentiful jobs were available in Washington, which drew people from all across the country. Every job was viewed as critical during the War, so these people could not be spared during the wartime Christmases for the amount of time it would have taken them to go from Washington to their hometown and back again meaning that it had been as many as 4 years since many of these men and women had been home for a proper Christmas. With the War over, they could finally be spared for a four-day holiday.
How well did public transportation and communications work during this era?
Public transportation worked well, all things considered. They were packed far past capacity which caused fantastic delays. But they figured it out as they went along and plowed through. There were no major incidents.
What did communities do to welcome the soldiers home?
There are stories of communities welcoming their boys home with huge celebrations. But more often than not at Christmas 1945, the winter weather, over-crowding at military separation centers and traffic jams meant that no one knew precisely when their soldier was getting home. I came across many great stories of soldiers who snuck into their homes late at night – their parents found out they were home when they found their coat or shoes on the mat when they woke up the next morning.
Do you have a favorite incident in the book?
My favorite is a story about a young veteran in Philadelphia. He bought an engagement ring and planned to propose to his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, but had an idea for a unique proposal. So he bought a box of chocolate from the local candy store and asked the clerk to wrap the ring box within the box of chocolate. The clerk brought the ring and the chocolate and the box to the basement to be wrapped. She dropped the box, but didn’t realize that the ring had fallen out. No more than 10 minutes later, the clerk’s mom was in the basement and found an engagement ring lying on the floor! The clerk was mortified, but she had no way to find the soldier who had just left the store. She contacted the newspaper, and the paper ran a story with the hope that the soldier would read it and return to the store. The solider didn’t see the multiple articles, but it seemed as if the rest of the city of Philadelphia (and much of the country) had. At a few minutes past midnight on Christmas morning, the soldier proposed. His girlfriend opened the box of chocolates and saw the ring box. With bated breathe she opened it, and it was empty. The commotion that followed woke up the young woman’s little sister who had been reading the stories in the newspaper and explained what happened. The soldier didn’t know what to do, so he called the candy store and, at a few minutes past midnight, the clerk was there and answered the phone! She had resolved to spend Christmas Eve and morning in the store until he called so that she could answer the phone.
What did people in the US have to give up during the wartime Christmases?
Meat, coffee, sugar, gasoline (and other related commodities that limited private auto travel), shoes, rubber goods, canned goods.
What are the most important lessons we can learn from this moment in history?
I love this question. The most important lessons are that there is nothing this country cannot accomplish, and no challenge or divisions so great that we can’t come together to meet it. The domestic challenges facing this country at Christmas 1945 were unprecedented in scope, and nearly as great as the international challenges during the War. After four years of wartime selflessness, America had to deal with labor strife, issues of re-employment and unemployment, extreme housing shortages, clothing shortages and civil rights issues. At Christmas 1945, America was able to put these things aside, if just for four days, and come together as one for a curtain-call of sorts of wartime unity. I don’t want to minimize the domestic issues we face in this country in 2010, they are not insignificant, but they are nothing compared to what the nation faced at the end of 1945. If they could come together, then so can we.