A World War II Christmas

It was Christmas 1943, and all five of us in our bay were far from home. We were women Air Force pilot trainees at Avenger Field, in Texas, and had nearly finished primary training. Everyone in our bay but me had received her Christmas package from home.

It looked as though I would have nothing to open on Christmas morning for the first time in my life. But one of my baymates went to the PX and bought me a small bottle of cologne, so I would not be left out. Her kind gesture made my day.

That afternoon, we went in different directions. Two other pilot trainees and I had been invited by a chaplain to the Army base in Abilene, Texas, to have Christmas dinner and spend the afternoon with soldiers stationed there. After two months at an all-female air base, we looked forward to that.

When we arrived in Abilene, a 30-mile drive, we were driven to the base and met by our soldier hosts. Going into the base, we noticed the festive Christmas decorations on all the barracks except one, which had very sparse decorations and was surrounded by mud, with wooden planks laid across to walk on.

We wondered why it was so bleak in comparison with the others.

''That's the German POW barracks,'' an officer told us. ''They will be waiting on tables during dinner. But you are strictly forbidden to speak to them or fraternize with them in any way.''

Of course we knew that when a superior officer gave us an order, the only possible response was ''yes, sir,'' ''no, sir,'' or ''no excuse, sir.'' We had learned that at the beginning of our induction.

We enjoyed the turkey dinner, sitting at long tables in the mess hall with other soldiers, our hosts, and the chaplain. The POWs served us in silence, and we paid them no attention.

But this bothered one of my fellow pilots, and she discussed it with me. We knew how we felt to be this far from our families and home states, even though we were enjoying the hospitality of others. How much worse it must be for these young men thousands of miles from their home country and loved ones, serving their ''enemy'' on Christmas Day.

She also felt that since we would still have to coexist with them after the war, it would be better to be friendly now, to let them know that most Americans really wanted peace.

I agreed with her. We knew the penalty for disobeying an order, but this was Christmas, and we felt there was a higher order in effect for this special day.

We got up and went over to some POWs and wished them a Merry Christmas. We did not know if they understood English, but they knew our meaning and wished us Frohliche Weihnachten in return.

Either no one noticed or our superiors chose to ignore our brief ''fraternizing.''

It was a small gesture, like the bottle of cologne I was given that morning, but it warmed our spirits, and we hoped it did theirs.

As we left to go home, dusk was falling. The POW barracks seemed bleaker than ever in the fading light, with its sea of mud. An officer told us they were having their own Christmas celebration and turkey dinner. As we passed their building, we heard the beautiful sound of Christmas caroling.

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