“Silent Night, Holy Night” — A Korean War Christmas

koreachristmas2MacArthur said the boys would be home by Christmas.

They weren’t.

KOREA — Christmas Eve, 1950

They clanked their cans together and took a drink of the icy cold beer. It was the first beer either tasted since the regiment withdrew to Chunju. They were about to take a second drink when they suddenly stopped. It had gotten eerily quiet outside and that’s when they both thought they heard what sounded like some far-off singing.

“Did you hear that?” Bobby asked. “What do you reckon that is?”

What Bobby and Harold thought was singing started low, almost like a whisper and had grown louder and nearer. They recognized the song immediately. One by one, the men in the platoon walked out of their tents to find the source of the mellifluous melody, which turned out to be a dozen young Korean boys and girls aged around ten or eleven huddled together with a middle-aged Korean man around a fire burning inside an empty fuel drum. Bobby, Harold and the rest of the men who came out of their tents to investigate, gathered around these tiny carolers and listened to them sing.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin, Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

It was the first time that most of the men had close contact with any Koreans, especially children. They came across thousands of refugees fleeing burning villages along the Pusan Perimeter last summer and passed thousands on the road to Pyongyang. Seeing all those refugees always put a different perspective on the war for the men, but this was different.

Flames from the fire burning inside the fuel drum danced in the cold night air and illuminated the dirty, rosy-cheeked faces of the children. The girls were bundled up in thick woolen jackets over traditional Korean hanboks while the boys wore similar jackets over baggy trousers. They sang slowly and eloquently, enunciating each word clearly and carefully.

The men stood silent, transfixed by the carolers and their sweet, angelic voices. A few of the men with children of their own back home thought about them and how much they missed them, especially at this time of the year. Those without children thought about parents, brothers, sisters, and other loved ones at home. Almost all of the men were a little misty-eyed, even First Sergeant Marshall, who was never known for showing any kind of emotion in front of the men, looked a little choked up.

After the children finished singing, they all bowed. Bobby and a few other men ran into their tents and returned with candy and chocolate they received in Christmas packages from home and passed them out to the children. The children bowed again and then moved toward another cluster of tents.

The men watched the children leave and then stood around the fire, warming their hands over the flickering flames.

“Don’t you men have anything better to do?” Sergeant Marshall inquired.

A few of the men dispersed and returned to their tents; others continued to warm themselves around the fire.

“That was really nice, wasn’t it, Sergeant?” Floyd Brown, the radioman from Second Platoon said. Brown was another one of the company’s replacements having only been in country for a week. He was the platoon’s third radioman since Kunu-ri. “Sounded like little angels.”

Bobby and Harold also thought so as they gathered around the fire. Marshall, who stood across from Bobby and Harold, stared at the fire quietly. That’s when Bobby noticed Harold was still holding the can of beer. He motioned to Harold to offer Sergeant Marshall one of the last two cans of beer they had in their tent.

“Sarge, would you like a beer?” Harold asked. “You know, it’s Christmas Eve and all.”

“Reyna, where the hell did you get the beer?”

Harold looked at Marshall sheepishly.

“You didn’t swipe them from the jeep that was parked outside the CP this afternoon by any chance, did you?” Marshall asked.

“Let’s just say that I requisitioned them for awhile, until our beer ration comes in,” Harold said grinning.

“Sure Reyna, I’ll have a beer with you and Washkowiak.”

The three men sat in the tent around a small stove fashioned out of a fuel drum. Although the tent was drafty, at least they were out of the raw, bone-chilling cold that would undoubtedly drop even farther during the night. Harold opened another can of beer and handed it to Marshall. Outside they heard the singing of the children serenading another group of soldiers a few tents down from their tent.

Read the rest of it here.

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