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Celebrating Christmas in Distant Jungles During World War II

Updated on December 17, 2011

Memories of My Father's Tales from World War II

While a great number of fascinating Hubs have been written about this week's HubMob topic of Christmas, the three about Christmas in the Philippines -

Merry Christmas from the Philippines by maudine_05

How We Celebrate Christmas in the Philippines by emievil

Top Sentimental Christmas Songs in the Philippines by Philent

and, Christmas in Indonesia by febriedethan

caught my eye.

While these Hubs themselves, like the others on this HubMob topic, were great, these Hubs reminded me of the fact that my Father had spent two Christmases in this part of the world during World War II. As a child I remember him telling us stories about some of his experiences in Australia, New Guinea (the western half of which is now the Indonesian province of Paupua) and the Philippines during World War II.

My Father was a teletype operator in the 16th Signal Battalion of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and he was in the front lines of some of the campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines during that war.

While he spent Christmas 1943 on Goodenough Island, in what was then the Australian administered eastern half of the Island of New Guinea and now the Commonwealth nation of Papua New Guinea, he spent time in Finschaafden (or Finch Haven) and Hollandia (now Jayapura City) in what was then the Dutch controlled western part of the Island of New Guinea and now the Indonesian province of Papua during much of the following year.

A Previous Hub Dealt With An Uncle's Christmas in World War I

In a previous Hub, Christmas in a War Zone - From a World War I Soldier's Diary, I discussed and included excerpts from the diary of my great-Uncle Walt who was in the artillery and unit band in the U.S. Army in France during World War I.

Even though he did see action in some major battles, My Uncle Walt's 1918 wartime Christmas experience occurred following the armistice that took effect on November 11, 1918.

While the purpose of the armistice was to halt the fighting and allow the diplomats a chance to try their hand at finding a peaceful end to the war, there was no guaranty at the time that the efforts of the dipliomats would result in an end to the war.

Fortunately, the armistice stuck and a peace treaty signed, but on that Christmas in 1918 my Uncle and the other soldiers on both sides were basically marking time and enjoying the peace which they prayed would last, but didn't really expect it to last.

Christmas 1942 - Camp Wood, New Jersey

In my Father's case, he ended up spending three Christmases, 1942, 1943 and 1944 in the Army and away from his home and family during World War II and, had he and the unit he was in not been lucky enough to be among the first of the initial occupation troops to be sent home from Japan, he would have spent Christmas of 1945 in Asia as well. As it was, his unit was returned to the United States and he was discharged just in time to make it home for Thanksgiving in 1945. Here is his account of Christmas away from home in wartime as excerpted from his poetry and journal of his wartime experiences.

My Father, an excellent writer and poet, was drafted into the Army in September 1942 and by Christmas of that year had finished his basic training and found himself in advanced training at Camp Wood in New Jersey. Even though he was about 300 miles from home, he couldn't get a pass to leave the Camp, however, he and his fellow soldiers did have both December 24th and Christmas Day off. In his book, G.I. Diary (copyright 1942-1945, 1992 by Charles J Nugent Sr., used with permission), he describes Christmas 1942 as:

Christmas day dawned cloudy and mild. At Mass, the altar was decorated in a simple but beautiful manner. Christmas music was played all during the service, and did give one a certain spirit of the season in spite of being in an Army camp. It was rather hard being away from home, giving up all the customs and traditions that had governed my past Christmasses. But, on the other hand, everyone else in the barracks was in the same boat.

There was one custom to which I was able to cling, and that was the opening of all my presents on Christmas day. While all the other fellows had opened their presents upon receiving them, mine had been put in by barracks bag until Christmas morning. Then, to the amusement of the rest, especially Bohannon, I piled all my presents on the bed, and proceeded to open them. It took quite a while due to the fact that there were so many. The folks at home did well by me. My bed was covered with all sorts of presents. However, there was still something missing.

Christmas 1943 - Goodenough Island, New Guinea

The following year found my Father on Goodenough Island off the east coast of what was then the Australian administered portion of New Guinea and now the Commonwealth nation of Papua New Guinea, and in the middle of the South Pacific Theater of World War II. His unit had moved inland from the main base on the island and the Christmas presents sent by family and friends were held up and did not arrive. In his book my Father wrote:

It was hard to imagine spending Christmas on this island. There was absolutely nothing to remind us of Christmas. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't work up any of the real Christmas spirit. It was easy to see that this would be one of our most unusual Christmases, in a strange land, thousands of miles from home. (G.I. Diary, copyright 1942-1945, 1992 by Charles J Nugent Sr., used with permission)

Sitting in a remote tropical jungle on Christmas Eve in 1943 with a war being fought around him, my Father composed a beautiful poem contrasting the experience of this Christmas with past Christmases shared with family. He sent a copy of the poem home in his next letter and my Aunt Helen hand typed (this was before the invention of photocopiers and personal computers with word processing software) a few dozen copies which she shared with friends and family members abroad. Years later, after I had learned to read, she gave me one of the copies she had typed.

Excerpts From an Emotional Poem

The poem begins with a description of the end of the day on December 24th,

A hot, blazing sun, a sultry breeze, the jungle's noises dinning in our ears,

In addition to the usual noises of this jungle in which he and the members of his unit found themselves this Christmas Eve, is an additional, man-made one as
Overhead, the air is split asunderWith the thundering roar of man-made birds returning from their mission --Of death.

In the twilight between night and day as the dark of Christmas Eve rapidly approaches, he wrote:

There came to me a vision.There stretched a robe of white before my eye,And cold white flakes fell gently from the sky.Then to my ears came music sweet and clear,The tinkling sound of sleighbells on the air.The vision changes, and I see a room,And people, whose gay laughter banishes gloom.Among them are the ones I love so dear....But those days are gone, and only God knows whenMy lonely soul shall live those scenes again,...Quietly I arose and made my way to the tiny, thatched chapel,Where there were gathered those To celebrate the coming of the Infant Child.But some of us were missing...(G.I. Diary, copyright 1942-1945, 1992 by Charles J Nugent Sr., used with permission)

Christmas Day - Typical Army S.N.A.F.U.

The Midnight Mass in the little thatched chapel ended and he returned to his tent to get some sleep in the early morning darkness of Christmas Day 1943.

Despite the fact that presents and cards from home were delayed somewhere and there was little to remind one of Christmas other than the date on the calendar, things started out alright otherwise on that day. The Army even managed to serve a traditional turkey dinner in the jungle. His account of Christmas continued saying,

...It was after dinner that the trouble started. I was idling my time away with the teletypes when Raines came in.

"Hey, Nugent , you fellows will have to get your tent moved into the jungle by tonight."

"How come?" I asked. "We don't even have our area cleared, let alone our platform built."

"Well, those are the Colonels orders. All tents have to be moved by tonight."

. . . The issuing of such an asinine order on the spur of the moment was not exactly unusual, and knowing the exasperating futility of any attempt towards sensible reasoning, we set to work moving. The members of Sgt. Stevans tent helped us, and we helped them. It took us all afternoon, but by night, our tent was all set up and ready for occupancy." (G.I. Diary, copyright 1942-1945, 1992 by Charles J Nugent Sr., used with permission)

Thus ended Christmas 1943 in the jungles of New Guinea with war raging around and above the area his unit occupied.

For Soldiers in the Field, Any Little Thing Brings Joy

In the months that followed, his unit moved to Finschaafaden and Hollandia in western New Guinea before following General MacArthur when he made good on his "I shall return" promise to return and liberate the Philippines with the landings on Leyte in October 1944.

Christmas 1944 found my Father encamped with his unit in a coconut grove about two kilometers south of the town of Tolosa in the province of Leyte in the Philippines. To the reader, things don't see much different, however, the tone of my Father's writing is more upbeat.

Of course, for soldiers in the field it is the little comforts that count and he and his fellow soldiers had some of these by Tolosa. The ground where they were camped was sandy which meant that they didn't have to deal with the mud that they had endured earlier in the Leyte campaign. While they were interrupted frequently with air raid alerts there were no real attacks by bombers as had been the case earlier. Also, the tide had turned for the Allies and in both Europe and the Pacific we were advancing and with our advances was the promise of an eventual end to the war.

Finally, by Christmas 1944 my Father had been in the Army for almost two and a half years and it had been thirteen months since his unit had left the security and relative comfort of life in military barracks in Brisbane, Australia to live in tents in the jungle in the midst of war. People adapt and eventually get used to new surroundings.

Used to it he was, as I remember reading a letter from my Father to my Mother written while in the Philippines in early 1945. Both were becoming more confident that the war would be ending and that he would be returning home in the near future. My Mother was looking forward to marriage and a home and had apparently started window shopping for furnishings for their future life together and must have asked his opinion on them in her letter. His response was that he had been sleeping on a cot in a tent in the jungle for so long that he had forgotten about things like beds, carpets, curtains, etc. Here is his account of Christmas 1944:

My Father's Account of Christmas 1944

Christmas Eve was to be a big night. There would be a movie in the new area by the mess hall. This would be preceded by singing of Christmas Carols. Then after the show, there would be truck to take us to the Engineers chapel for Midnight Mass. But things didn't turn out as well as planned.

The singing fell flat due to the erratic conducting of Sgt. Gullickson, and also because it was impossible to stir up any of the necessary Christmas spirit. The movie had barely started when an alert sounded that lasted almost a half and hour. Soon another long alert sounded. Hardly had the picture gotten underway when there came a third alert. This was shorter, but it was also getting late. The fourth alert sounded at eleven o'clock.

So, instead of waiting, a bunch of us went to Midnight Mass, driven under blackout. The chapel was all in darkness except for the altar candles. The mass was preceded by a short sermon, and the singing of hymns, which were broadcast to the States. Mass was nearly over when the all clear sounded, and the lights came on.

Then we had our first glimpse of the place. It was small, but very lovely. White parachute silk was behind the altar, and blue silk was draped from the roof above it. The pews were made of bamboo, and there was a bamboo floor. Palm leaves were placed along the walls as a sort of decoration. It was a shame that we had spend most of the time in the darkness when there was so much beauty around to be seen.

We returned to the area in time to see the rest of the picture without any more interruptions, and it was two o'clock when I finally went to bed. But I still had an enjoyable evening, and felt happy about it. (G.I. Diary, copyright 1942-1945, 1992 by Charles J Nugent Sr., used with permission)

There is nothing said about Christmas Day itself or packages from home so I presume that the mail and packages arrived for everyone on time and that the day was relaxing and uneventful.

1945 - Home for Christmas

My Father took part in the landings on Luzon in the Philippines in January 1945 and the subsequent liberation and pacification of that island. While the recapture of the Philippine Islands was continuing, Allied Forces continued to close in on Japan itself.

On May 8, 1945 the World War II ended in Europe with the final surrender of the Nazi Government of Germany and on August 15th (in the Western Pacific areas west of the International Date Line, August 14th in the United States) the Emperor of Japan radioed that his forces were ready to stop fighting. The formal signing of the surrender took place a couple weeks later on September 2, 1945 on board the U.S. Battleship the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

May Father's unit left the Philippines and arrived in Japan with the initial wave of occupation troops on September 25th.

His stay in Japan was short and by the third week of November 1945 he was back in New Jersey at Ft. Dix where he was quickly processed out and discharged.

November 20th found him on a train from New York City bound for Rochester. Four years and three Christmases had passed since 1941 when he had last celebrated Christmas at my grandmother's home with his family and fiancee.

Christmas 1945 found him again celebrating in my grandmother's home with his fiancee, friends and family.

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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      9 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      linda-patriot -Thanks for the nice comments. However, these were my Father's experiences not mine. He was the one who fought in World War II - I wasn't born until after the war.

      Chuck Nugent

    • linda-patriot profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Hub Chuck, Thanks for sharing your experiences! You really have a gift for writing! i hope your Christmas is the best ever this year! God bless you!

    • bobmnu profile image


      9 years ago from Cumberland

      Hmrjmr1 I would also like to thank you for your service. I have two sons in the military. My older son spent one Christmas in Iraq. Unless you have experienced it you do not understand the damper it put on the families christams too. Thank you Chuck for sharing this experience with us. Hearing it in the first person, your father, truly gives us a rare insight inot thier thoughts.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      9 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Hmrjmr1 - That must have difficult having to be away from you family of Christmas for so many years. But thanks for your service.


    • Hmrjmr1 profile image


      9 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Thanks for a great hub Chuck, I spent 15 Christmases away from family during my 22 years in the Army and another 4 while contracting in Iraq and one traveling home to lay my son to rest. It's great to read how some others have celebrated it during the trying times. Thanks

    • rmcrayne profile image


      9 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      Thanks Chuck. I have had a special interest in WWII for some years now. Thanks for sharing this.


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