When the United States Army first landed in Great Britain in 1942,it took many months to bring them all in, brief them and organize them into battle-ready troops. During the war more than one and a half million soldiers passed through Great Britain, staying for a few years, months or weeks.
On two days in January of 1942, over thirty-five thousand servicemen arrived in Belfast. Thirty thousand of the soldiers who passed through British lands brought home British wives. During their free time many American soldiers, away from their families and feeling lonely, chose to spend Christmas with orphaned children.
Others threw all-out Christmas parties for schools and small towns. Rarely seen promotional videos shot in Britain show American servicemen throwing Christmas parties in orphanages and playing Santa Claus for the children. Children were given Christmas gifts and indulgent sweets such as cakes and cookies and jellies that were scarce for British citizens because of strict food rationing.
Great Britain had already been at war with Germany for three years and in 1940 had suffered considerable damages during the three-month “Blitz” bombing campaign that targeted mostly London and the surrounding area as well as nautical ports. Day by day, more children were orphaned, maimed or killed by German bombs. The total number of British citizens who died during this time surpassed forty thousand with over one hundred and thirty thousand injured. The property damage was massive.
It seemed as though the rubble that was once a family’s home was on every street. Many of the children of London were sent out to the country to live with volunteers who would take care of them until the bombings ceased. Those who lost their parents were shipped back to London to live in orphanages already overfilled and underfunded.
When the American army and air corps arrived in Great Britain, they paraded through the streets with British citizens waving flags and handkerchiefs proclaiming them heroes. Before leaving the United States, servicemen were given a booklet advising them on how to behave properly while in the British Isles.
One memorable piece of advice was, “The British will welcome you as friends and allies, but remember that crossing an ocean does not automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants in Britain who have lived through more high-explosives in air-raids than many soldiers saw in first-class barrages in the last war”
Civilians welcomed American soldiers into their homes for Christmas dinner. Families were encouraged by the government to save a seat at the table for an American soldier or airman. The GI came bringing along treats such as chocolate, fruit juice, bacon, coffee, sugar, rice and even a can of spam to share with the family, all courtesy of the Americans.
Normally, these foods were strictly rationed. They would have a homemade Christmas dinner, sing Christmas carols, snap crackers, and after 1939 they would gather around the radio and listen to BBC special radio programming including King George VI’s Christmas message, a tradition still carried out by his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Lifetime friendships may have formed because of these happy events.
Presently, most career military servicemen are required to do several tours of remote duty for a year at a time on a base that is in an area not necessarily hospitable for families. Lonely for their families they still visit hospitals and orphanages and hold holiday parties for local children.
This writer’s father did remote duty in Taiwan in the 1960s. He and some of his military friends would visit the local orphanages and sometimes take a child out for the day to have some fun. Unfortunately, when these children are old enough to go out on their own, they end up living on the streets.
My father grew attached to a particular little girl, and when his tour was coming to a close, he asked my mother to send him money to put her in a convent school and because of the financial exchange rate, he was able to provide enough to educate and house her until she was an adult. One hopes others did the same.