The battlefield has always been a poignant place to spend the holidays. During the 1943 Christmas season in Italy, where three quarters of a million American soldiers would serve in World War II, troops draped their Yule trees with C-ration foil and bid each another "Merry typhus!"—the disease was epidemic in Naples. Filthy, bearded soldiers took communion on their knees at altar rails in a hundred remote Italian villages. "I prayed that there would be no more wars after this one," a private from Denver wrote his family.
Quartermasters trucked 170 tons of Christmas turkey to the Italian front, along with 112 tons of Sicilian oranges. But gifts from home—polka-dot neckties, black silk socks, and cologne—suggested a certain rear-echelon misunderstanding about combat conditions that in midwinter ranged from inhospitable to horrible. "Morale crates" sent by an Army recreation office to combat units mired in knee-deep mud included tennis rackets and masquerade costumes. A clerk in the badly mauled 36th Infantry Division sorted through incoming Christmas packages and scribbled "KIA" (killed in action) on those to be returned to the sender; at length, utterly spent, he sat at a typewriter and pecked out, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."
That innumerable good men, and women, were aiding their country midway through the war was no small consolation for those consigned to Italy, where 23,501 GIs would be killed in action. Not only did 16 million Americans serve in uniform around the globe, but virtually all the rest of the nation's 137 million citizens were invested in total war to a degree that seems unimaginable 64 Christmases later.
Worthy cause. Soldiers then and now may wish for no more wars, but what they most crave is palpable support from home: a sense of shared sacrifice and the assurance that their lives are risked in a worthy cause. As the fifth Christmas of the Iraq war arrives, it's evident that neither gift will be forthcoming from the American people. Opinion surveys show that substantial majorities now doubt the cause. And a trip to any shopping mall this week will confirm that genuine home-front sacrifice remains as elusive as perpetual peace.
The situation was very different in 1943. Go shopping? For what? An automobile industry that had produced 3.5 million cars in 1941 would assemble only 139 more during the rest of World War II, instead turning out tanks, jeeps, and bombers. Sugar, tires, and gasoline had been rationed first, followed by nearly everything else. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" became a consumer mantra. To save 50 million tons of wool annually, the government outlawed vests, cuffs, patch pockets, and wide lapels; hemlines rose, pleated skirts vanished, and an edict requiring a 10 percent reduction in the cloth used for women's bathing suits helped lead to the bikini. International Silver turned out Browning automatic rifles rather than tableware, and various lipstick, typewriter, and hubcap manufacturers produced, respectively, cartridge cases, machine guns, and helmets.
By that Christmas, hardship and sacrifice had annealed the nation for the greater hardship and sacrifice still to come. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who remained the Allied commander in chief in the Mediterranean through 1943, told reporters outside Naples two days before Christmas: "Sometimes it just gets down to the dirty job of killing until one side or the other cracks." To a people utterly absorbed by total war, that came as no surprise.
For a few sweet hours in Italy, the dirty job would be suspended by an informal holiday truce. In the Adriatic port of Ortona, eviscerated after savage street fighting, British troops sat at plank tables in a candlelit church for a Christmas dinner of roast pork and pudding. A lieutenant with the wonderfully seasonal name Wilf Gildersleeve manned the pump organ while a battalion padre led the caroling. Radio calls to units on the perimeter began with a few bars of "Silent Night," played by an adjutant strumming a mandolin near the microphone.
And in the U.S. 34th Division, an infantry captain assembled his company near Monte Cassino to read aloud from the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. "Glory to God in the highest," he proclaimed, "and on Earth peace and goodwill toward all men." How good it must have been to believe.
Rick Atkinson is author of The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. His An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history.