During the Christmas season, many people feel nostalgic, remember past Christmases, especially happy holidays spent with family and friends or unusual ones. This is especially true for those of us in our senior years. As our energy levels are lower, we spend more time sitting still, remembering those happy times from years past.
Recently, during one of my “memorial sessions” during the last Christmas season, Christmas came to my mind in 1951, 70 years ago.
In the summer of 1949, an army reserve unit, the 426th Field Artillery Battalion, was organized with units at Mount Airy and Winston-Salem. Battery “A” and the medical detachment were stationed at Mount Airy with the remaining units at 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 energized and ordered to come to Fort Bragg. Soon, some of these men 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.
Men from Mount Airy/Surry County served in important positions throughout the battalion, especially the “A” battery. The vast majority were veterans of World War II. Most of them had families with children in their homes in Mount Aire.
With Christmas approaching 1951, the question arose of how best to celebrate the Christmas season 3,000 miles from home and families. There was a general consensus that we should do something special that would capture the true spirit of Christmas giving.
After a period of discussion among the men, we decided to have a Christmas party for young children in an orphanage near our military base. There were approximately 50 children in the orphanage. Most of the parents of these children were killed during the battles of World War II. We wanted to give a Christmas party out of our own money without the interference of the military leadership. Led by senior NCOs from Mount Airy/Surry County, we took a group and several hundred dollars were donated.
The plan was to bring the children to our military base, feed them a meal of traditional Christmas foods, have Santa Claus visit and give each child a gift and treat of candy and fruit. The military dining hall was decorated with Christmas tree, Christmas lights, greenery and other Christmas decorations like those that were home made. Never before has a military dining hall been so elegantly decorated for Christmas.
The children were brought to the base a few days before Christmas so that the men could celebrate Christmas Day. The soldier was a host to each child (my guest was 5 years old and didn’t understand English; I didn’t understand German either, but the Christmas spirit overcame language barriers).
The plan worked perfectly. The children were visibly excited even among a group of strange men in army uniforms and in the army dining hall. The guys were equally excited by the spirit of Christmas and the opportunity to delight a group of children. They enjoyed a touch of Christmas similar to the one that would have been celebrated back home at Mount Airy. The kids enjoyed the wonderful Christmas party and cherished their meal, gifts and candy.
These men from Mount Airy/Surry County offered Christmas lullabies to children 3,000 miles from home, children who might not have had much to celebrate in a country devastated by the ravages of World War II. There has been little recovery in Germany since the end of the war. Destruction was seen everywhere; Millions of German military and civilians were killed during the war, including many parents of the children we served. The German economy did not recover and the vast majority of the population was fed by American relief efforts under the terms of the Marshall Plan.
What men from Mount Airy/Surry County did to some German orphans at Christmas 1951 is a model of what American soldiers do wherever they go, whether it is Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq or Japan.
Mount Airy/Surry County men known to have been in Schwabisch Hall at Christmas 1951 and who supported the Christmas Program for Orphaned Children included: 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 B. 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 missed anyone, please forgive me).
All of these guys, with the exception of Robert Riggs and myself, have since moved on to their eternal reward. There is no doubt that this act of kindness appearing on a group of orphaned children is part of their written record. Their children and grandchildren can be proud of what their parents and grandparents did to make Christmas a happy occasion for some orphaned children 70 years ago. They followed the example set by the Master Teacher when he said, “Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them. This is the kingdom of heaven. And he put his hands on their heads and blessed them” (Matthew 19:4).
I ended this nostalgic trip down memory lane on a personal note: John Brown and I rode the train south to Guiping, Germany, home base of the 28th Infantry Division, to spend Christmas Day with my cousin, Grover Holder. Once we got there we met other men from Mount Airy including Bass Shelton, whose house is on Franklin Street. Fred Murphy, who with his brothers had a country music program on WPAQ Radio in the late 1940s.
John Brown, upon returning home, had been in the office supply business for many years. He served for nine years on the Board of Education of Mount Airy City Schools and for 22 years as the Commissioner of Mount Airy City. Grover Holder became a Baptist pastor serving churches in North Carolina and Virginia for more than 50 years. Fred Murphy, upon returning home, continued his country music career. She worked as a teacher/administrator for 36 years at Mount Airy City Schools and Surry Community College.
Christmas 1951 could have been a lonely and frustrating day, but the true American spirit of helping neighbor brought joy and a spirit of celebration, to a group of orphaned children and a group of men, 3,000 miles from home. The true spirit of Christmas giving can be found and practiced wherever one finds themselves on that special day.
Editor’s note: Reader Diary is an occasional feature in The Mount Airy News, featuring memories and stories from local residents.