Thursday, December 26, 2002

Away from home for Christmas

Published in the Current

For Christmas 1943, Harry Foote got no rest, “no presents, no party, no big meal.” He and the rest of the First Marine Division spent Christmas Day that
year, and about three weeks afterward, attacking Japanese positions on the Pacific island of New Britain.

U.S. strategists thought the Japanese would not expect an invasion on “that sacred day, ” said Foote, who later became the editor of the American Journal newspaper. “But it was war, and the First Marine Division landed.”

They started at the airfield on the western end of the island, at Cape Gloucester. “As we landed, they bombed us and strafed us on Christmas Day,” Foote said.

“We were in rain and mud from that day on.” Instead of luxuriant holiday meals, they ate “Spam and canned hash.”

Twenty years later, Matt Martinelli was in the Navy, stationed in Sicily for Christmas 1963. Sailors at the base invited the kids from a nearby orphanage over for a holiday meal of spaghetti. The kids got gifts of sweaters, stockings and candy.

The sailors also gave the orphanage a new oven and refrigerator.

“It was amazing how possessive they were of the little things we gave them,” said Martinelli, who now lives in Scarborough.

Martinelli served on three aircraft carriers, and despite involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars, got lucky, always having “clean sheets and showers.”

The year before the Italian orphans’ feast, he had been stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and had just come through the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the admiral in charge of the base told the men that they could count on being overrun if Castro decided to attack.

At Christmas, Bob Hope was elsewhere, so “Perry Como came to entertain us,” Martinelli said. The film version of “West Side Story” had also come out, and Martinelli remembered the USO brought down a copy of it to show as well.

And despite the recent threat of war, the base was quiet and peaceful on Christmas.

“It’s always an emotional experience being away on a holiday,” said John Rich of Cape Elizabeth, who served in the Marines during World War II and later became a war correspondent through Korea and Vietnam, and even reported on the Gulf War in 1991.

“We always got our turkey,” Rich remembered of his days in the service.

Even at the front, where soldiers “were busy enough,” the military always managed to get them hot food for the holiday meal.

New Year’s Eve 1943, he was in San Diego helping load ships preparing for the landing in Kwajelein.

The more senior officers were in town partying. “It was their last New Year’s in the U.S.,” Rich said. “For a lot of them it was.”

Behind a wall near the loading area, a few men had a bottle or two of alcohol, Rich remembered. “We got more and more screwed up,” he laughed, as he recalled everyone sneaking behind the wall to take a few nips of New Year’s cheer.

In Korea, Chinese troops decorated the lines between the forces. “The Chinese came down and hung some things on the barbed wire,” Rich said.

Christmas in Afghanistan
This year, Army Capt. Geoff Crafts of Cape Elizabeth will spend Christmas in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He returned to the main U.S. base in the country after three and a half months in the hinterland on intelligence-gathering missions, said his father, Stephen Crafts.

After all of that, it was on their way out that Capt. Crafts thought he might die. The helicopter that was taking him back to the base lost power in one engine. “They thought they were going down,” his father said. They did not, and managed to have a “hard landing,” but a safe one, in Kandahar.

Now, “they’re getting ready to celebrate Christmas,” his father said. The Crafts family has sent Geoff “a lot of stuff,” including 358 pounds of food in weekly packages over the past few months.

Last week, the troops got a visit from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, and the Army ’s highest-ranking non-commissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack Tilley. Drew Carey and Roger Clemens also visited the camp.

His family has sent Crafts a miniature tree, battery-powered lights and “all that tacky stuff,” his father said. “They hang it all over their tents.”

And though they are far from home, Crafts and his comrades are doing well. “Spirits are high,” his father said. The men are almost constantly together in training or in wartime, so “they’re almost like family. ”

At the Crafts home, the family is gathering. The other two kids are visiting, one from college and one from right nearby where she lives.

“This is the second out of the last three Christmases he’s been gone,” Stephen Crafts said.

But they got a special treat: a call from Geoff a couple of days ago. Even though it was over a satellite phone with a long delay and an unspoken set of rules about what questions family can ask, Stephen said his son is doing well. “He’s always kept his sense of humor. ”