Reading’s Boys #10: December 1944-January 1945, Part 3

A White Christmas

It was remarked in the Globe that Christmas Eve, 1944, out of the three past wartime Christmases resembled the pre-war feeling the most. Thousands of people attended church that night, and large swaths of people came out to sing Christmas carols. It was almost as though they knew that their boys desperately needed it, as though they were singing for all the world to hear, in hopes that their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers would hear them all the way across the ocean. On the morning of December 25, the Boston Globe’s front page read at the very top, “A Child is born to us…and His name shall be called…The Prince of Peace.” Directly below it, in larger black font, were the words, “NAZIS AT STANDSTILL.” 

Although it is unclear to me when exactly Robert Dexter Jones, of 24 Charles Street, joined Company A, 276th Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Division, if he had joined the unit soon after it reached France, he would have been with the unit as they traveled to the front line on December 23. Onboard uncomfortably cold boxcars, with wind blowing in through the cracks in the wooden walls, the men of the 276th Infantry Regiment suffered. On Christmas Eve, 1944, as the people of Reading laid down their heads, the air outside dropping down to the mid-twenties, Robert Jones and many other Reading GIs were nearly freezing to death. Christmas Eve certainly didn’t stop Robert’s train to the front, and throughout the night, the train continued on its way. I wonder if any of the men bothered to sing, or if they even knew what day it was. On the morning of Christmas Day, though, any doubts were washed away when the train came to a stop, and men were allowed off to participate in a brief Christmas service officiated by the unit’s chaplain. 

The story was quite similar for Harry Beeth of the 12th Armored Division and Joseph Keenan’s Company L, 329th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. Harry would thankfully be out of the fighting for Christmas, and his unit was lucky enough to receive new warm tanker uniforms. Joseph’s Christmas was similarly quiet, with a warm turkey dinner arriving for them to enjoy. It was far from what these men had wanted, so far from home, and in so much danger, though. Joseph’s mind probably wandered to his folks back in Roxbury, and Harry’s, to his family in New York. 

Out of all of the Reading boys, I will be including in my articles, the one that I believe had one of the most fascinating Christmases overseas would have to be James Francis Arsenault. In case you have forgotten, James was captured by the Germans after landing at Anzio back in February 1944. In May, after arriving at Burzen Kommando 1637 in present-day Poland, James became very close to the men he was imprisoned with. In a book he helped put together titled Brothers of War, James wrote about his memory of the Christmas of 1944. 

According to his writing, he explained that on Christmas Eve, the German overseer of the camp informed the people of the town of Burzen that if they wanted, they could come and look at the prisoners through the fence that lined the camp’s borders. A funny proposition to think about; it definitely showed how little these people had to do. It wasn’t like they had a whole lot to celebrate. So, on Christmas Eve, the prisoners, with James among them, were ushered outside. Slowly, the people of Burzen trickled down the road to view the gangly and foreign figures standing inside the fence. In his book, he says that he recalled singing “Silent Night” with his American comrades. As the people began to catch the tune, slowly, the German guards and the commoners started to sing back with their own version of “Silent Night” called “Stille Nacht.” I wonder if any of the Americans smiled as they sang and if any of the civilians looked at each other and then at the prisoners in surprise, with small smiles spreading across their faces. Not long after this, the small number of French prisoners at the camp began to sing their “Silent Night,” as did the Poles. Though this was an isolated incident, and Christmas time for most Allied POWs was not anything to really celebrate other than another day survived, there have been many stories over the years of Christmas carols echoing across the Western Front during World War II. However, hostilities never ceased as a result of them, the way they did during the Christmas Truce of 1914 in the last war.

Unfortunately for Joseph Warren Keenan, the days following Christmas would not be pleasant. On December 26, the 329th Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Division received a slew of confusing and contradicting orders. After the situation was cleared up, the unit finally agreed that they were supposed to proceed to the area around Rochefort, Belgium. Arriving on December 27, the regiment was sent almost immediately into combat. More confusing orders came to the regiment, but finally, in the afternoon of the 27th, Joseph’s 3rd Battalion began moving south towards Humain, where the 2nd Armored Division was currently engaged in heavy combat. Through some miracle, the 2nd Armored Division was actually able to clear out most of Humain by midnight, just as the 3rd Battalion of the 329th Infantry Regiment was closing in, and took over for them, allowing the tankers and their infantry battalions to fall back to rest briefly. Tasked with defending the small town while the other two battalions went forward on the attack, Joseph and his men did their jobs perfectly. 

On December 30, in the early hours of the evening, men of the 4th Battalion, Welsh Regiment; 6th Royal Welsh Fusiliers; and the 2nd Battalion of the Monmouth Regiment came in to relieve the 329th Infantry Regiment. I imagine handshakes were exchanged, playful banter, and wishes of good luck and happy new year. On December 31, after some pretty hectic fighting, Joseph Warren Keenan would be relieved of his command of Company L. It is unknown if he was relieved for any bad reason. Still, since Joseph would soon be commanding another company in his battalion, I can’t imagine he’d done anything wrong. 

Whatever way you look at it, the Christmas of 1944 was a truly heroic and tragic holiday. With the 101st Airborne having held out at Bastogne while being completely surrounded, the 99th Infantry Division repeatedly throwing back the German advance to the north, the 106th Infantry Division fighting against all odds to hold the area around St. Vith, and the resilience of American POWs everywhere, making the best out of their captivity, it’s hard not to be proud of the American grit that so many young men and women found in the cold depths of the Ardennes Forest. But the losses that winter were truly horrendous: out of roughly 610,000 American troops that participated in the Battle of the Bulge in one way or another, nearly 75,000 would become casualties, with almost 20,000 of those being men that were killed.

So, as you lay down your head on Christmas Eve this year, remember what one generation gave during that dreadful winter of 1944, and remind yourself that if they could do that, then surely, we can survive the current health crisis that has caused so much pain for our country and others.

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