Keeping Christmas alive, 3,000 away

During the Christmas season many people become nostalgic, remembering Christmases past, especially the happy ones spent with family and friends or an unusual one. This is true especially for those of us who are in our senior years. Since our energy levels are lower, we spend more time sitting, remembering those happy times of years gone by.

Recently, during one of my nostalgic “remembering sessions” I held during the most recent Christmas season, the Christmas of 1951, 70 years ago, came to mind.

In the summer of 1949, an army reserve unit, the 426 Field Artillery Battalion, was organized with units in Mount Airy and Winston-Salem. “A” Battery and the Medical Detachment were located in Mount Airy with the rest of the units located in Winston-Salem.

When the Korean War began in June 1950, the 426 was immediately activated and ordered to report to Fort Bragg in September. There were 78 men from Mount Airy/Surry County who were activated and ordered to report to Fort Bragg. Some of those men soon were released for various reasons and returned home.

The 426 remained at Fort Bragg until the summer of 1951, when it was deployed to Dolan Barracks, Schwabisch Hall, Germany.

The men from Mount Airy/Surry County served in important positions throughout the battalion, especially “A” Battery. A vast majority were veterans of World War II; most had families with children back home in Mount Airy.

As Christmas of 1951 approached, the question arose as to how we could best celebrate the Christmas season 3,000 miles from home and families. There was a general consensus that we should do something special which would exemplify the true spirit of Christmas giving.

After a period of discussion by the men, we decided to give a Christmas party for the young children in an orphanage located near our army base. There were approximately 50 children who were residents of this orphanage. Most of the parents of those children were killed during the battles of World War II. We wanted to give this Christmas party with our own money without the involvement of the military command. Led by the senior NCO’S from Mount Airy/Surry County, we took a collection and several hundred dollars were donated.

The plan was to bring the children onto our army base, feed them a meal of traditional Christmas foods, have Santa Claus pay a visit and give each child a gift and a treat of candy and fruit. The army mess hall was decorated with a Christmas tree, Christmas lights, and other Christmas greenery and decorations such as would have been done at home. Never had an army mess hall been so elegantly decorated for Christmas.

The children were brought onto the base a few days before Christmas so that the men could have their own celebration on Christmas Day. A soldier would serve as a host for each child (my guest was a little 5 year old who did not understand English; neither did I understand German but the spirit of Christmas overcame language barriers).

The plan worked perfectly; the children were visibly excited even among a group of strange men in army uniforms and in an army mess hall. The men were equally excited with the spirit of Christmas and the opportunity to make a group of children happy. They enjoyed a touch of Christmas similar to that which would have been celebrated back home in Mount Airy. The children enjoyed a wonderful Christmas party and treasured their meal, the gifts and treats.

These men from Mount Airy/Surry County provided Christmas cheer for children 3,000 miles from home, children who, probably, would have had little to celebrate in a country destroyed by the ravages of World War II. There had been little recovery in Germany since the end of the war. Destruction was to be seen everywhere; millions of the German military and civilians were killed during the war including many of the parents of the children we served. The German economy had not recovered and a vast majority of the population were being fed by American relief efforts under the provisions of the Marshall Plan.

What was done by men from Mount Airy/Surry County for some German orphans at Christmas 1951 is typical of what American servicemen do wherever they go, whether it be Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan.

The Mount Airy/Surry County men known to be in Schwabisch Hall on Christmas 1951 and who supported the Christmas program for the orphan children included the following: FSGT Zack Blackmon, PFC Frank Haynes, MSGT Thurmond Miller, SFC Joe Bill Neal, SFC Jack Leach, SGT Calvin Welborn, SFC Robert Holder, FSGT Austin Perdue, SFC Jack Robertson, SFC James Callahan, MSGT George Carroway, SFC Harold Sells , SGT Cecil Chandler, SGT Russell Inscore, SGT Aubrey Wall, SGT Dennis Chilton, SGT Charles Allred, SFC Howard Beeson, SGT Harry King, CPL Paul Welborn, SGT Kent Gibson, SGT George Worth, PFC Buford Harvey, SFC Robert Riggs, SFC Harold Moxley, SGT John Browne. (If I have missed someone, please forgive).

All of these men, except Robert Riggs and I, have since passed on to their eternal reward. No doubt this act of kindness shown to a group of orphan children is a part of their written record. Their children and grandchildren can take pride in what their fathers and grandfathers did to make Christmas a happy occasion for some orphan children 70 years ago. They followed the example set by the Master Teacher when He said “Let the little children come to me and don’t prevent them. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven. And he put his hands on their heads and blessed them” (Matthew 19:4).

I end this nostalgic trip down memory lane on a personal note: John Browne and I rode the train south to Goeppingen, Germany, home base of the 28th Infantry Division, to spend Christmas Day with my cousin, Grover Holder. Once there we met other men from Mount Airy including Bass Shelton, whose home was located on Franklin Street. Fred Murphy, who, along with his brothers, had a country music program on WPAQ Radio in the late 1940’s.

John Browne, upon returning home, was in the office supply business for many years. He served for nine years on the Mount Airy City Schools Board of Education and for 22 years as a Mount Airy City commissioner. Grover Holder became a Baptist pastor serving churches in North Carolina and Virginia for over 50 years. Fred Murphy, upon returning home, continued his country music career. I served as teacher/administrator for 36 years in the Mount Airy City Schools and Surry Community College.

Christmas 1951 could have been a lonely, depressing day but the true American spirit of helping one’s neighbor brought joy and a spirit of celebration, both to a group of orphan children and to a group of men, 3,000 miles from home. The true spirit of Christmas giving can be found and practiced wherever one finds himself on that special day.

Editor’s Note: Reader Diary is an occasional feature in The Mount Airy News, featuring recollections and stories from local residents.