Christmas is a time of goodwill and cheer, but it is also a time of sentimentality and reflection. Christmas 1943 has always been one of the most meaningful for me, because it was spent in San Angelo de Alife, Italy.
San Angelo de Alife is a valley with olive and fig orchards. Small farms dot the countryside, and a big cemetery with a high wall abuts the main highway. The war had passed the town. We were pulled off the line for a rest. We pitched pyramidal tents along the slopes of olive orchards, cushioned our floor beds with dry straw, shaved and bathed alongside a well.
The battalion was down to several hundred men. Each of us felt that perhaps this would be the last Christmas in Italy, that there would soon be enough replacements so that we could go home. “Home” was a magic word. It stood for everything that combat did not.
Each company on the Eve of Christmas tried to forget the war for a while, although the distant boom of guns echoed through the valley. A quartet hurriedly marshaled together by Chaplain Yost made the rounds of the battalion. It was a cold, clear night. In candlelight the carolers sang with gusto. Our talk was animated. Our simple comraderie [sic] betrayed our joy in being still alive. Christmas Eve was spent resting and talking by candlelight.
Christmas day brought us turkey and lots of fresh wine. Our company program was makeshift, but anything wall all right for us then— we were warm and comfortable and alive. Humphrey Bogart and his troupe brought a bit of stateside cheer that afternoon at regimental head-quarters.
I really don’t know what made that Christmas so meaningful for me. There was nothing we did on that day that was significant. The religious men, and there were some, sought meditation; the sensualists sought relief among the villagers, and some materialists peddled soap bars and cigarettes to the paisans.
We had to go up on line soon after that, and a lot of our friends were killed. But that Christmas in an ancient town among olive trees and hay has always remained with me…..perhaps because it was a break in the war raging around us and in us, a break that was a precursor of better things to come.