“An Excellent Turkey Dinner”: Christmas Overseas in World War II

A hot meal and packages from home provided solace for millions of servicemen abroad during WWII.

In December of 1943 and 1944, millions of servicemen spent Christmas apart from their families. Christmas Day was an especially difficult day for millions of soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed thousands of miles from their homes. 

In 1943, over 500,000 US soldiers celebrated the holidays in England. On Christmas Day, Captain George Nabb Jr., of the 115th Infantry Regiment wrote home to his wife and young son that “it doesn’t seem like Xmas in the least. We do have the day off and have had an excellent turkey dinner.” Food was one of the greatest comforts to soldiers regardless of their posting. As a result, the US military devoted its incredible logistical network to supplying turkey dinners to nearly all soldiers regardless of where they were stationed on Christmas. Combat soldiers especially appreciated the festive fare. Still, Nabb and his comrades found it hard to celebrate without longing for home. “We all drank a toast just before dinner to our next Xmas in the U.S.A. I hope and pray we shall be there.” Unfortunately, George and millions of other Americans would still be fighting overseas the following Christmas. 

A sergeant in the US Fifth Army enjoys some turkey in his machine gun position. The National WWII Museum Digital Collections.

 

Christmas of 1944 was characterized by sub-freezing temperatures and heavy snows across much of northern Europe. On December 26, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Polk related to his wife, Josephine, how he spent his Christmas in command of the 3rd Cavalry Group on the Franco-German border. “My Adorable Wife,” Polk began, “I spent most of Christmas day inspecting the front-line troops and they did amazingly well. The adaptability of the American soldier is a never-ending source of amazement to me.” Polk observed his soldiers bringing a little touch of home to the front lines: “There are many Christmas trees in the river-town billets and even in the gun positions, all decorated in great style. The German ornaments are the same as ours and we looted a lot of them. Sentries and patrols and gun crews were rotated so that everyone got turkey and some even had baked pies and cakes in their little rear area.” When Polk returned to his headquarters after visiting his men, they “sang a few Christmas carols and wished that [they] were home.” Despite his homesickness, Polk recognized he was fortunate. Just thirty miles to the north, one of the largest land battles in the US Army’s history, the Battle of the Bulge, was being fought in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. 

A group of US soldiers joyfully prepares a Christmas turkey feast. The National WWII Museum Digital Collections.

 

Mail was another solace soldiers relied on to connect them with loved ones. Polk received a package from his wife, Josephine, and his mother on the day before Christmas. He told Josephine how he waited to open them until Christmas day. To his delight, he found it contained cigars, coffee, socks, hankies, and soap. But Polk wrote what made it truly special: “It was really the wrappings that I loved—the little personal touches of just your own.”

Soldiers race to a truck bringing mail from home. The National WWII Museum Digital Collections.

 

American soldiers treasured these gifts from home, but sometimes the efforts of family members led to humorous moments. Journalist Margaret Bourke-White observed that “The saddest sight in the Army is to see some GI receive a package from home, open it all smiles, and find he is the recipient of the same Spam, politely termed ‘luncheon meat,’ which the quartermaster has been feeding him for months, perhaps years.” To prevent such disappointment, Bourke-White offered a helpful guide to the kinds of gifts soldiers hoped for and could not get through the Army. She recommended family photographs, books, and magazines. Soldiers clamored for reading material of any kind, but especially sought out works of fiction that allowed them to escape the reality of the war. Other welcome gifts Bourke-White endorsed included “fruitcake, which keeps, [and] the kinds of candies rarely available at the PX (Post Exchange) such as fine chocolate or peanut brittle.” One GI Bourke White encountered told her that he had a hankering for salami, and he had begged his parents to send him some. Every soldier’s situation and desires were different, making soldiers a particularly hard group to shop for at the holidays! 

Renowned war correspondent and photographer Margaret Bourke-White pictured here in 1955. Credit: Bureau of Industrial Service

 

Fortunately, the majority of US servicemen returned home in time for Christmas in 1945. Among them were Captain George Nabb, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) James Polk, and Margaret Bourke-White, all of whom survived the war and returned home to celebrate many more Christmases with their families. 

Contributor

Tyler Bamford

Tyler Bamford is the Leventhal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum. He obtained his PhD in history from Temple University and his BA in history from Lafayette College.

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