A little Christmas tree — a story about a seaman, and Christmas, and a tree

Published 12:42 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the journal of Edward “Sonny” Smith, “Bridges That Just Won’t Burn.” Smith was born and raised in Picayune and he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Christmas was just over a month away when we finished covering the occupation of the Gilbert Islands on November 21, 1943. It was there that I saw my first casualty and burial at sea. I didn’t know any of those fellows who died because their duty station was at a different part of the ship than mine, but, as we stood at attention, listening to Taps, I felt a part of me went with them as their bodies slid off the plank and into a watery grave without any of their families around.

We were in route to rendezvous with supply ships to get ready for our next engagement and on December 4th we began to see action. Our raids on Kwajalein Atoll began and we were launching aircraft from daylight until dark and we were always under attack from Japanese bombers that had slipped through our Fighter Plane screen.

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On the last day of the raids we lost one of our buddies. We had a lull in the raids and they opened the mess hall for a short time. Russell, Davis, and I were relieved from our gun mount and went to catch a bite. Davis and I finished eating before Russell, so we left him in the mess hall and returned to our gun mount. We were only there about five minutes when another attack began. During the raid we had a near miss from a bomb and the gunner on the Jap plane did some strafing — covering an area with machine gun fire — of our flight deck as the plane was pulling out of his dive. Russell was running across the flight deck trying to get to his duty station when he got hit from machine gun fire. He was the first friend I saw killed.

Late in the evening when all our planes were safely aboard we left the war zone and began burying the dead. It’s hard for me to explain the feeling you get deep down in your heart watching your buddy being buried in a watery grave with no immediate family around. I truly believe, all of us in our division at that time were his “family.” There were tears in our eyes as they played Taps and a thousand thoughts ran through my mind.

When the funeral was over the officer of the day barked out the order “As you were!” Now we all know that order means for you to go back to what ever you were doing. I took the order, but the phrase stuck in my mind and the more I thought about it the more it became a burr under my saddle.

Davis said, “We best go below and get some sleep, we go on duty at midnight.”

“You go on ahead,” I answered. “I’ll be along in a bit.”

I walked around for a while on the flight deck and wound up on my gun station. The moon was so full you could read a newspaper and the sea was so smooth it looked like ice. We were moving about 30 knots an hour and as the bow of the ship split the water it would roll over and sparkle in the moon light. It reminded me of them old sparklers we got at Christmas time.

I was standing with my arms over the railing thinking what a beautiful sight this is. It would be a wonderful place to be if it wasn’t for this dammed old war I thought. I was brought back to reality by Davis’s hand on my shoulder.

“Hell Smitty, I couldn’t sleep either and figured you might be up here. I’ll keep you company,” Davis said.

I nodded my head and for awhile neither of us spoke. “Davis, when the officer dismissed us at the burial service with ‘as you were’ I took it literally and it sure rubbed me the wrong way,” I said. “After all of this is over, will we ever be the way we were?”

“Smitty, I can’t answer that,” he answered back. “Hell, we’re not the way we were last week!”

It took me years to realize we can never go back in time and be “The Way We Were.”

Davis and I stood there for quite awhile, in silence, enjoying the beautiful night with the cool breeze blowing in our faces. We had been out of harm’s way for several hours now and we began to relax just a bit. As usual our thoughts turned to home.

“Smitty do you know it’s just nine days until Christmas?” Davis said.

“What made you think of that?” I asked.

“Well, when I went below to sack out, Steve Torrez was making a Christmas Tree out of wire and rope he had found somewhere.”

I didn’t answer him. I glanced at the time on my watch and said, “I guess we better mosey down to the mess hall, get our “Spam Sandwich,” it’ll be time to report for duty soon.”

Back on duty, we had a quiet night, spending most of it talking to each other about home and what plans we had for our future.

We were relieved around 6 a.m. went to the mess hall for breakfast and afterwards went below to take a bath and get some much needed sleep.

I slept all day and was awakened around 7 p.m. by Truman telling me I had about 30 minutes before the mess hall closed. Davis’s bunk was above mine so I reached up, gave it a jerk, and woke him up.

We headed for the mess hall, finishing dressing on the way. We were on our way to our compartment when we ran into Steve. He told us about the Christmas tree and wanted us to save the foil from gum and cigarette wrappers and anything that was shiny. We told him “sure.”

When the tree was finished I will admit it wasn’t much for pretty but it seemed to light up our compartment like Canal Street on a Saturday night.

Later on we drew names and put the gifts under tree. We didn’t have any stores to shop in but everyone got a gift whether it was cigarettes, candy bars or pens wrapped in old hometown newspapers we had scrounged up for wrapping paper.

I contacted the Chaplin and he paid us a visit on Christmas Eve and we had a short service and sang a few Christmas songs. At first, we started out singing at the top of our voice, and I’m here to tell you, we would have never made the Hit Parade.

The last song we sang was “Away in a Manger,” but, we never finished it because one by one we would become emotional and walk away until no one was singing. The Chaplin left without a word and soon silence filled the room leaving each of us with our own thoughts.

The next morning laughter and joking once again filled the room as we exchanged gifts.

Since that night I have spent many Christmases with beautifully decorated trees, their branches sparkling with twinkling lights and colorful ornaments hung with care, but that scroungy looking Christmas tree made out of wire, rope, and foil, the Christmas tree that gave each of us some hope and joy during a time when there seemed to be none, is still the most beautiful tree in my heart. Forever that little tree and the memories of that night will remain in my memory and in my heart.