In 1952, after I got lucky and married into the Burnett Clan, we did what most young marrieds did – we planned the best Christmas experience we could. When
our three children came along, we always made certain that they enjoyed Christmases to remember.
However, there are a couple of special Christmases from the era before children that I remember with great clarity, and they were separated by just two years.
I’ll tell you of the second one first.
In the Spring of 1951, I was an Army Corporal plucked from my military position near an airfield in South Korea to be a member of the Honor Guard for General Mathew B. Ridgeway, the Commander in Chief, Pacific (who had just replaced General Douglas MacArthur) in Tokyo.
Those chosen had to have had combat experience, been awarded a Combat Infantry Badge or a Purple Heart and stand between six feet and six feet, four inches tall.
Early in 1952, now a Sergeant, I managed to secure the attention of a young US government intern from Oklahoma, and we went through the rituals… and she said yes. Because I was being transferred home in late December, we had to get busy. Almost at the last minute, everything worked out and we were married by: the Chaplain, the local Tokyo Prefecture (the license is in Japanese) and the U.S. Consul.
With but a few days before I was to leave (She had applied to end her contract and would be a month behind), we managed a short leave to be together. On the day our leave was to begin, a heavy package arrived from my Mother in Georgia. It was her first ever attempt at baking a fruitcake, and she had put everything into her effort, including about a quart of bourbon ( A teetotaler- where did she get THAT recipe?)
Mother’s special fruitcake made that Christmas special. We were terribly young, a long, long way from home and families, and we had few close friends with whom to celebrate, but we had the blessings of our two families and we had Mother’s fruitcake… We clung to those moments.
Two years prior to that Tokyo Christmas, I had experienced a more unusual one, a Christmas not ever to be forgotten. That December 25th of 1950 found me and my crew (It was a tank with open turret and twin 40 mm guns) dug in at the Hungnam city dump, alongside the harbor!
For a month prior to that, we had been pulled back to positions in and around Hamhung to cover the withdrawal of all UN Forces after the intervention of a few million Chinese. We had moved from a mountaintop in November and had dug in alongside a UN -commandeered train loaded with military supplies meant for our forces. Although the train and the entire area had been wired for explosion, we plundered the train cars for materials to build a shelter to keep out the terrible wind of this “Coldest Winter.”
The US Battleship Missouri was lobbing shells the size of Volkswagens (they glowed at night) over us and aimed at the unseen enemy).
We watched as all US and other UN Forces were taken aboard ships that departed for the South. Finally, the ships were taking away civilians who wanted to flee North Korea. About that time, looking around, we found that we were alone near the beach, except for the Army Engineers preparing to blow up the entire harbor.
We remained in radio contact with our Battalion Commander who informed our six- man crew that we would most likely have to destroy our tank and take a small fishing boat out to one of the few remaining ships. The radio code for our imminent departure was “Operation X-Ray” – I kid you not! Every time the radio crackled we expected to hear the dreaded words.
However, on Christmas Eve, an LCT (Landing Craft, Tank, (?) ) was sent in to pick up the tank and take us out to a very small US Navy ship. The crew sent our tank on to some rendezvous we knew nothing of, then welcomed us aboard, gave us some navy fatigues to replace our own, worn since October, and had us take saltwater showers. Then the Navy crew summoned us up on deck to watch the demolition of the harbor.
We were all standing on deck when the whole world erupted. When the smoke cleared, the supplies and most of the buildings in the harbor had disappeared. We slept that night wherever we could find space. Next day, the small Navy Crew asked us to share their Christmas dinner.
We six derelicts could not believe it, but everything we saw and smelled and tasted was Heavenly! We had chicken and dumplings (from cans, we were told), stuffing, cranberry sauce and fresh baked bread. For dessert, there was homemade ice cream (They had a machine). Before, during and afterwards, we had fresh brewed, REAL, coffee!
You have to know that from late September until Christmas Day, we had been eating “C” Rations!
Next day, we were handed off to another ship and later rejoined our units. Back in South Korea, our battalion, which had until then been used by the Marines in ground-support missions, was assigned to protect airfields.
Although we thanked those sailors on that tiny ship and although I never forgot their kindness in making that a special Christmas, I fretted over not being able to say more to them. However, about ten years ago, I saw a photograph of that explosion in December of 1950 and in the foreground was THAT small ship, identified in the photo as the SS Begor. And since there was nothing between the Begor and the exploding waterfront, I knew that it was THE Ship.
By Googling, I discovered that the SS Begor was a small “Spy Ship” and that it was there at that particular time to assist the withdrawal. I found that, although the Begor had since been decommissioned, former crewmembers were active and held regular reunions. I contacted the members, some of whom recalled that Christmas. They retold my story and “PFC Charles Brady” was made an honorary Crew Member.
If you are interested you can Google “SS Begor” and find out more about the Ship’s history, and you can find the little Christmas 1950 story as well.
So, what else can we say about this most written-about Season, long after we have for many years been grownups who moved on with their lives and usually with children, even grandchildren, of our own?
Well, as do most others of our age, we hold onto many of those traditions and continue to celebrate somewhat like we did those many years ago.
However, at last our family has begun to spend less on Christmas and we appreciate that. We know the love is there without the colorful but wrong-size pajamas. And, if they wish, I will regale them with stories of long ago winters, and Christmases on small ships.
What in the heck is Christmas for?
Said the Grinch to Simon Legree.
– For selling that stuff that comes in a box
Like alcoholic drinks and Sony TVs.
And what’s in the head of mopie old guys?
Said Christmas Now to Christmas Past.
– That’s hard to say ‘cause the old and gray
live where they don’t move fast.
Then why do they tell those sad old tales?
Said hard working Dad to Tiny Tim.
– It’s a trick of the mind, and kind of kind –
They all thought cold was colder then.
– Charles Brady