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WORLD WAR II DIARY: Remembering America’s First Thanksgiving at War…. 75 Years Later

November 25, 2017 GMT

Thursday, November 26, 1942 found Americans observing their first Thanksgiving holiday during World War II, exactly 75 years ago. The previous Thanksgiving, in 1941, had taken place only days before Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor had forced America’s entry into the global conflict. Now, as families attempted to gather together once again for this annual, uniquely American, day of feasting and giving of thanks, much was different from previous years. Many sons and brothers, and some daughters and sisters, were away at war or preparing for war. Other family members had taken defense related jobs in distant places, and were unable to make the long trips necessary to gather with loved ones. Gasoline and rubber rationing added to the travel difficulties facing all Americans. Besides these things, stringent rationing of all kinds of food products made preparation of the yearly feast a challenging undertaking. Americans still cherished their beloved Thanksgiving holiday, but this year things were just not quite the same.

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November 1942 would eventually be viewed as an extremely pivotal month during the long saga of World War II. America, initially unprepared militarily to offer significant help to the Allies, was now slowly beginning to assume the leadership role in the fight against Nazi and Imperial Japanese tyranny.

In the Pacific, the long, costly struggle for an inhospitable, but strategically critical island called Guadalcanal had finally come to a head. After three failed successive attempts to destroy the U.S. Marines holding the “Canal” and to recapture the precious airfield, the Japanese made one more massive push to reinforce and re-supply their troops there. This replenishment effort, all by sea, took place in mid-November 1942. It’s ultimate purpose was to mount a fourth, and this time overwhelming and unstoppable, offensive against the tough, but exhausted Marines of America’s 1st Marine Division.

From November 12-15, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the U.S. Navy slugged it out in the legendary Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Both sides suffered heavy losses of men and ships, but, in the end, the U.S. would prevail. The Japanese would never be able to mount their planned massive fourth offensive. By the end of the year, with their forces on the island now literally starving, the Japanese high command would reluctantly choose to abandon Guadalcanal altogether. Although they would not know of their enemy’s decision until later, the weary U.S. Marines and Navy had won the day. Their courage and sacrifice during America’s first offensive in the Pacific would become legendary. When the Army relieved the 1st Marine Division in mid-December, many of the Marines were so weary that they had to be helped aboard Navy transport ships waiting to carry them to Australia for desperately needed rest and recuperation.

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On the other side of the world, the U.S. had finally landed ground troops, and lots of them, in the fight against the Nazis. Operation Torch, a joint American-British effort to oust the Germans from North Africa, had commenced on November 8, 1942. Torch was the first Allied step in the liberation of all of Europe. Within six months, the Germans would be pushed out of North Africa, and the Allies would move on to engage the Nazis on the European continent.

Also, during November, the Russians would mount their first major counter-offensive against the invading Germans on the Eastern Front near Stalingrad. The roaring tide of the Nazi advance into Russia was now grinding to a halt. Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic Ocean, a graveyard for hundreds of Allied transport ships over the last year, the Battle of the Atlantic was now slowly turning. The much-feared German U-boats, deadly, prowling submarines, were now increasingly becoming the hunted, not just the hunter. Thanks to better ships, better technology, and better tactics, the American and British navies were gradually gaining the upper hand.

On the home front, the miracle of U.S. industrial war production was expanding at a dizzying pace. America, the arsenal of democracy, would fuel the Allied cause for the duration of the war. It is no wonder that many view November 1942 as the pivotal month of World War II. During that month, the Allies, led by the United States, would take the offensive away from the Germans and Japanese and never again relinquish it.

But, for Americans, November is also the month of Thanksgiving. Historically, the U.S. military has embraced a tradition of attempting to provide American fighting men and women with a taste of home on Thanksgiving Day, wherever they may be. November 26, 1942 was certainly no exception.

Almost three weeks into Operation Torch in North Africa, having generally tasted success in the campaign thus far, U.S. Navy ships served up a smorgasbord of Thanksgiving fare. One vessel, the cruiser USS AUGUSTA, printed an elaborate holiday menu and served up such scrumptious, and humorously named, dishes as Cream of Tomato Soup a la Casablanca. She and her crew had just come through the Naval Battle of Casablanca. Ashore, in Morocco, an Army surgeon wrote to his wife of enjoying a “real Thanksgiving Day dinner—no turkey but rather roast beef—it was real good.”

Out in the Pacific, the last place one would have expected a Thanksgiving Day meal was on Guadalcanal. Although the enemy was in the process of deciding to retreat from the island, fighting continued and conditions were generally miserable. At 3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, an air raid siren blared. Daybreak was to find the Marines, as had been the case on so many other days, with raw nerves and the lingering effects of a lack of sleep. One can only imagine the emotions that were stirred in the battle-weary Marines as U.S. Navy transport planes began to arrive at Henderson Field, ferrying the fixings for a full Thanksgiving meal. With the enemy still quite active and powerful on and around Guadalcanal, such a culinary mission was not at all free from danger. That day makeshift ovens were assembled to roast the turkeys, and the Marines enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal, a meal which included a cold bottle of Pepsi for each man. It would remind them of home and of what they were fighting for.

By November, tens of thousands of American troops were arriving in England. They would ultimately take part in the fighting in Europe over the next two and a half years. In early November, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had crossed the Atlantic and visited them and their English hosts. Partly as a result of her trip, the British people decided to help their guests celebrate an American Thanksgiving. Although they had no such holiday themselves, they would show appreciation to their new friends with a day of celebration and thanksgiving all throughout the country, and they would celebrate together an American Thanksgiving in England.

Thanksgiving services were scheduled in both small town churches and big city cathedrals all across England and Northern Ireland. Parades were held and dances were organized. Though no U.S. serviceman was ordered to go to any of these events, what happened at historic Westminster Abbey in London would reveal just how meaningful this day was to the Americans and how deeply they appreciated it. When the doors were opened there for the Thanksgiving Day service, the 3000 seats were almost immediately filled, with others standing in the aisles. U. S. Army corporal Heinz Arnold form Patchogue, N.Y. played “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the organ, and later the entire congregation sang “America the Beautiful” and “Lead On O King Eternal.”

Americans worshipped in the ruins of St. Andrew’s Parish in Plymouth, the church where some of the Pilgrims had met to pray before leaving for America on the Mayflower in 1621. St. Andrew’s had been badly damaged by German bombs in March of 1941. Others participated in another service in Plymouth, along the very docks from which the Mayflower had set sail, 321 years earlier.

The Thanksgiving Day celebrations in England that year worked both ways, with American also reaching out to their gracious hosts. Many a U.S. camp invited British war orphans to a feast in their own mess hall, following up with bobbing for apples, pinning the tail on the donkey, and lots of lively conversation. Tons of turkeys had been shipped across the U-boat infested Atlantic for American GIs in England. In a heart-warming act, typical of the spirit of thanksgiving, those same servicemen donated their precious turkeys to the thousands of British soldiers who had been wounded during the previous three years of fighting the Germans.

During the service at Westminster Abbey, President Roosevelt’s 1942 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation for the American people was read. He began with a quote from the Bible, Psalm 92:1, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” Later he urged Americans to heed Psalm 23 and quoted it in its entirety. In between he simply, yet powerfully stated, “we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.”

Let us remember that eventful Thanksgiving Day, 75 years ago, and those who, while fighting to preserve freedom, were unashamed to give thanks to God.

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are…” Ronald Reagan

NOTE: All of Donnie Hudgens’ WWII Diary articles can be found at ww2diary.wordpress.com.

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