Christmas in wartime

Here's what legendary Sunpapers war correspondent Lee McCardell wrote to his children on Christmas Eve, 1944.

The Evening Sun's Lee McCardell was a formidable war correspondent. The first Sunpapers writer to get into the action after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he reported on the fighting in Italy and covered D-Day from the air. He was reportedly the first American correspondent to reach liberated Paris and was also among the first to write about Nazi death camps. But Baltimore readers got to know a personal side of him as well from the letters he sent home to his three young daughters, Mary Ann, Abby and Tillie, every Christmas and which The Sun ran on the front page. Seventy years ago, he was with the United States 3rd Army during the last major German offensive of the war, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Here is what he wrote:


Dear Children,

The real name of the town where I am is Luxembourg, but on Christmas Eve, I'd rather call it "toyland." With its funny little houses, its sharply pointed twin church steeples and its tiny trolley cars no bigger than Gleason and Lutts's delivery truck, Luxembourg really looks just like toyland.

Luxembourg is built on steep hills overlooking a river valley, just as Ellicott City overlooks the Patapsco River. But Luxembourg is much, much older than Ellicott City. There are ruined castle towers on some hills. The little river winding along their feet is crossed by beautifully carved stone bridges standing on high, slim, graceful arches.

Christmas Garden Town

Yesterday it snowed, and now Luxembourg, with its funny houses, sharp church steeples, ruined castles and high arched bridges looks exactly like a little town in a Christmas garden under a Christmas tree.

It looks as if it has been covered with dabs of white cotton and powdered with the same kind of sparking, artificial snow we used to buy at the 10-cent store for our Christmas garden. The tiny trolley cars look just exactly like the little trolley car we had in our Christmas garden at grandfather's long ago at Christmas time — except our trolley car was red and yellow, and those of Luxembourg are green and yellow.

Once upon a time, a happier Christmas time, we all went to Keiths on Lexington Street to see a moving picture called "Babes in Toyland." It had a song, "Toyland, Toyland, Little Girl and Boyland." Do you remember? It keeps running through my mind.

Abby Hid Her Face

The people who made that moving picture put some things into it which I do not think Mr. Victor Herbert, who wrote the song, would have liked. There were some robot soldiers who frightened the people in Toyland. They frightened you, too, Abby. You were a very little girl then. You hid your face and held my hand tightly. Do you remember?

Well, on this Christmas Eve some real robot soldiers of Hitler, grown men old enough to know better, are frightening the people of Toyland — I mean Luxembourg. They are only 20 miles away, and the people of Luxembourg don't like it at all!

But I don't think the German soldiers will ever get here, because our American soldiers are fighting hard to keep them out of Toyland.

Tree On A Cannon

This isn't a very happy way for anybody to be spending Christmas Eve, especially when they are so far from home. It's cold and wet and muddy, and tonight it will be dark and lonely out there where our soldiers are fighting. There will be no Christmas candles, no Christmas music, except perhaps a little that a few soldiers may hear on the radio.

When I was out there yesterday, I saw only one Christmas tree. Some soldiers posted along a road had set it up on top of their cannon which was aimed toward Germany. They had no Christmas bells and no tinsel with which to decorate it, but I think it was the bravest Christmas tree I have ever seen.

Until a few days ago it didn't seem at all like Christmas. Even in the bigger towns of Lorraine, like Metz and Nancy, there were no holly wreaths, no red ribbons, no bright shop windows. Somebody told us they saw one Christmas tree in the window of one store in Nancy, but we never saw it. Big balls of mistletoe grow wild in the tree tops of Lorraine, but nobody seemed to take the slightest interest in it.

Battered Baby Carriage

In the majority of the poor little country villages where the armies have been fighting there aren't even any shop windows. They've all been smashed to pieces. Houses have been burned and blown to bits. Their broken furniture is scattered all over the streets.

The other day I saw a little girl about as old as you, Tillie, wheeling a battered baby carriage out of the wreckage of one house in a ruined village. I wondered if she'd expect a new one on Christmas morning. I hope not, because I am afraid if she does she will be disappointed.

And the poor little village churches! They were the prettiest buildings in most of the villages. Many of them have been knocked down. All the colored glass windows, which would have glowed so softly when the churches were lighted up tonight for the midnight services, have been shattered.

Church roofs have been blown off. Their pew sand pipe organs and altars have been smashed. Their steeples have been knocked down. But there was one little village named Mittersheim where the churches are still standing, and where the church bells, silent last Christmas, will ring tomorrow morning.

Church Bells Taken By Nazis

A few days before Christmas last year, Nazi soldiers took all the bells out of Mittersheim's church steeples. They took the bells to the railroad station at the next town, Fenetrange. People think they meant to put the bells on the train there and send them back to Germany, probably to melt them and make bullets out of them.

But something happened and the bells never were sent to Germany. Maybe our airplanes bombed the railroad so badly the trains could not run. Anyway, when some American tanks captured Fenetrange, the bells were still at the railroad station. The American general sent the bells back to Mittersheim.

Letter Of Thanks

The other day the general got a letter from the Mayor and two village pastors of Mittersheim. They wrote:

"For all of us, Catholic and Protestant, it is the most beautiful Christmas gift imaginable. This Christmas we shall again hear the chimes which we missed for so long a time, and which, thanks to the 4th American Armored Division under your command, have this day been returned to us. Please accept as the general of the division, the thanks of a grateful community."

Perhaps because he's so busy in America on Christmas Day, Santa Claus works in France and Belgium on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which this year fell on December 5. That was the day on which he delivered a limited supply of toys to luckier children in those two countries.

We've forgotten to ask exactly how Santa operates in Luxembourg, but from the looks of this toy town, he'll be doing the best he can tonight. Not that there are many toys in the shops, but the shop windows are the gayest and brightest we've seen this side of the ocean in the last three years.

There are Christmas trees with glittering bells in these windows. There are lighted pasteboard Santa Clauses. There are red candles and paper cornucopias stamped with pine and holly. And little packages of ginger cakes tied with colored ribbon, and sprigs of evergreen and tinfoil Christmas stars.

Down in the square near the railroad station, there's a man selling Christmas trees. A short while ago I saw a woman hurrying home with a little bunch of red-berried holly. Of course, the soldiers haven't been fighting in the city of Luxembourg, as they've been fighting in the little villages of Lorraine. The stores, houses and churches haven't been knocked to pieces.

Fortunate To Be There

I am most fortunate to be in Luxembourg on Christmas Eve. So many other homesick fathers will be in muddy foxholes tonight. It makes me ashamed to look around my hotel room, clean and tidy, with white painted woodwork and carpeted floor. My bed has clean white sheets and a soft white pillow. However homesick I may be, I will not be cold or wet or hungry.

In a world of miserable men this Christmas Eve, who am I that I should be comforted by the knowledge that my three children will sleep this night in warm, dry beds; that you'll awake tomorrow morning, bright-eyed in a cheerful house with a roof and all its doors and windows?

Good Night, God Bless You

So many, many other children of Europe will sleep tonight in houses without roofs, without doors or windows. Many will sleep on straw in cold, damp cellars where Santa Claus, even if he should extend his continental activities from St. Nicholas Day through tonight, will never find them.

In fact, though this is the third Christmas I have been away from home, I think it will be the happiest I have ever spent. Not the merriest, mind you, but the happiest. Happiest because God, by being so very good to you, is being good to me. At least there is peace this Christmas Eve in your world of men of good will. Good night. God bless you as bountifully as he has blessed me. And a Merry Christmas.

Dada

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