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Book Revisits Wartime Xmas

The night before Christmas 1941, with the aftershock of the Pearl Harbor attack still raw and burning, the prime minister of Britain helped an American president light the White House Christmas tree.

"This is a strange Christmas Eve," Winston Churchill said, with the war "raging and roaring about us over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes."

But for just one night, he said, the world could put war aside and resolve to "make the children happy in a world of storm."

"Let the children have their night of fun and laughter," the prime minister said.

Illuminating a tree on the White House lawn, Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt displayed a determination that millions of Americans embraced throughout World War II. Christmas lights and spirit would be kept bright, no matter what.

The Library of Congress has drawn from its shelves a treasury of wartime diaries, oral histories, heartfelt letters to and from the front, photographs and cartoons and put them in a book, "I'll Be Home For Christmas," published by Delacorte Press.

Familiar to all who lived through it, the book offers a frankly sentimental story of men and women who needed the sustenance that sentiment offered.

At home, for those wartime Christmases, people sent mail by the ton. One naval commander said 200 pounds of morale-building mail did more for the war effort than all the experts Washington could send him.

Official propaganda and newspaper cartoonists drafted the popular symbols of Christmas into the cause of winning the war.

One cartoon shows a double line of reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh across the sky in a "V for Victory" formation.

The diary of a 17-year-old high school girl in Hawaii records study halls, a sorority election and attending, on Dec. 3, 1941, a Technicolor movie, "Dive Bomber," starring Errol Flynn.

Four days later the dive bombers were real. She wrote: "Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941: BOMBED! ... Pearl Harbor in flames."

Jim Wood, a 16-year-old in Beckley, W.Va., remembered the war bulletins mingling with Christmas carols from loudspeakers on Main Street.

"Listened...until about 9 o'clock, then separated and made our way home because tomorrow was another school day," he remembered. "We didn't know that December 7 had changed our world forever."

Across that world, Army medics decorated would-be Christmas trees with hot water bottles and rubber gloves. In 1944, one young couple, at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., collected tin cans from the mess hall, "more tin cans than Popeye on a good spinach day" and cut them into stars and snowflakes.

Eleanor Roosevelt captured the mood at Christmas 1942. "How completely the character of Christmas has changed this year," she wrote in her newspaper column. "I could no more say to you `a Merry Christmas` withut feeling a catch in my throat than I could fly to the moon!"

By 1944, the tide of war was definitely turning.
But if there were advances there were also costs. They were measured in rows of white crosses.

In September 1945, Navy chief radioman Walter G. Germann wrote his son from a ship anchored in Tokyo Bay to tell him that the formal surrender of Japan would soon be signed.

"When you get a little older you may think war to be a great adventure -- take it from me it's the most horrible thing ever done by man," he wrote.

"I'll be home this Christmas and every Christmas from then on. Home (H-O-M-E) that's the place to stay. Take good care of mama till I get there."

In Washington, on Dec. 24, 1945, the White House tree was decorated once more and a new president lit it; this time in a world at peace.

"This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years," Harry S. Truman said.

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