Thursday, December 15, 2011

The War's First Christmas

LCDR Grace B. Lally
Chief Nurse, USS Solace, 1941
BUMED Library and Archives 09-5043-039


The War's First Christmas

(Originally Published in The American Magazine, January 1945)

By LCDR Grace B. Lally, NC, USN

I was a chief nurse aboard USS Solace, Navy’s hospital ship attached to the Pacific Fleet, when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor. From that fateful morning until Christmas Eve, neither I nor the twelve nurses who served under me had much sleep or peace of mind. But in spite of weariness, all of us were aware of the Navy tradition that a tree rides the mast on Christmas, and we had managed to collect four scraggy cedars in Honolulu, together with enough tinsel, holly, decorations, toys, and knick-knacks so that every man aboard the Solace would have a gift and a celebration.

Now, on Christmas Eve, the nurses’ quarters were bustling with preparations.

Suddenly, I remembered we needed a Santa Claus.

“Get the yeoman who stands with the Commander at quarters—the plump, jolly-looking boy,” someone suggested.

“He’s perfect, “ I agreed. “Send for him, and the sailmaker.”

In our wardroom, the nurses who were off duty and I worked frantically against time.

“Trees on the mast, the quarterdeck, and in the mess hall,” we instructed the corpsmen.
“And take these trimmings to the wards. Let the up-patients help you decorate.”

“You’re Santa Claus,” we told the rotund yeoman, who grinned delightedly. “Be prepared for anything.”

“Here’s the bunting; make him a suit,” we told the ship’s sailmaker. “Get some rope and make him a beard.”

The sailmaker’s fist hit the table. “A department-store Santa Claus won’t hold no candle to him!” he swore, piloting the yeoman from the room.

Some of our presents were already wrapped; the majority were not. We had 32 pounds of candy to be divided into small, gay packets. We had one gift for each of our 327 patients and one for each member of the ship’s crew.

Fortunately, the paper held out until the last small present had swapped its cheap commercial bindings for the trappings which to every boy there would spell Christmas, and be a symbol of the gifts from which, this year, would not come through.

The nurses segregated the toys for the most critically injured, and learned that there would not be enough of the nicer gifts to go around. Over the last, a tawdry mechanical ballet dancer, they argued hotly, loyally:

“But Swenson’s blind. He’s got to have something he can feel. He could wind her up and feel her dance.”

“Look. I’ve got a machinist’s mate. He’s old and very critical. He’s got kids at home. This is the sort of silly present he’d bring home to them for Christmas. Maybe it’s his last. Maybe it would bring them closer.”

The machinist’s mate got the little dancer. There was compromise and exchange. Some of the girls still weren’t satisfied, so they went to their quarters and dug around in the bureau drawers.


The girls were beautiful that evening, I thought. They sort of shone, as if the lights had been turned on inside. There was a mother-thing in all of them that fought fiercely to protect its own from hurt, from neglect. It went beyond nursing, beyond self.

Before December 7 we had made tentative plans for Christmas Eve. A famous choir was to have come out from Honolulu and sung on the deck. But now our decks would be dark, only the black shadow of the tree would ride high on the mast. Maybe the stars would etch its silhouette.

Carols we must have, and luckily I remembered there was a corpsman who played a sweet accordion. Immediately we routed him out.

“Sure, I can play carols,” he said proudly. “I was weaned on ‘em. And I’ll get six of the boys who can sing.”

And so at nightfall, when the wards had been fed and the nurses had changed into their best uniforms, Santa Claus—more beautiful than a department store’s—with a bulging seabag on his back, led our small procession below. We sang Jingle Bells as we went, and out of nowhere the ship’s captain appeared. “I’m with you, Miss Lally,” he said.

The captain had second sight, I knew, when anything of harm or benefit to his ship was concerned. But I did not know that he was aware of our Christmas celebration, nor of how much his presence on such an occasion would mean to the patients.

He fell into step behind Santa Claus, and I followed him, first to the G.U. War, where, after the Japanese attack, we had placed our most serious burn cases. Behind us came the girls and the corpsmen, all singing. I could not sing right then, being too terribly aware of the eyes that looked at me from some of the burn-blackened faces.

War and Christmas seemed suddenly incongruous. Only yesterday these kids were sneaking down the stairs to watch their mothers and dads place the last glimmering icicle on the tree, tuck a walnut deep in the toe of a stocking. Pain now made the young faces seem mature. But even eyes that had been almost lifeless brightened miraculously as the nurses distributed their presents and Santa Claus his bounty.

“Shaving soup! You know, Miss Lally, I’ve worked for months to grow this beard. You wouldn’t be hinting or anything?”

“Hey, look at Wilkins. He got vilet talcum powder. Oh-h-h, Wille-e-e-e!”


We continued to walk, singing from ward to ward, and gradually a real procession formed behind us—a line-up of most of the ship’s officers, all the junior officers, and the crew.

Up in the nurses’ quarters we had our own party afterward. We had eggnog, and all of the girls talked at once, comparing notes on the different boys’ reactions to their gifts.

-“That big landlubber, Ogonski said, ‘Geez, the scrub me from top to toe twice a day, and then give me a cake of poifumed soap to remember them by!’”

-“We were right to give the ballet dancer to the machinist’s mate. When I went back to say good night, there he was, fast asleep, a bit of smile on his face, and the toy clutched in his hand—just like a kid.”

-“You know, it’s funny,” Tess Duggan said suddenly. “It’s the biggest Christmas Eve we’ll ever know. I mean the most important. We’ve all the ornaments, and glitter, and fine presents, and family. We’ll all have those things again, too. But it will never again be quite so big tonight.”

**A few minor edits were made to the original article

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