First Wartime Christmas Story

-from “Christmas Retreat” from the Book “Dive!” by Deborah Hopkinson

The story is from Mel Eckberg who served as a radio and soundman in Seawolf (SS-197) as the United States entered World War II

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“There wasn’t much we could do about celebrating Christmas,” said Mel Eckberg. The Seawolf had been on patrol since December 8 with no end in sight; the men would spend their first wartime holiday at sea.

Eck felt depressed about being so far away from Marjorie and baby Spike. He would miss his son’s first Christmas. Yet thanks to some of his inventive crewmates, there turned out to be some surprises. “The first inkling I had was when I strolled into the mess hall after my afternoon watch on December 24.”

As Eck and a few others were leafing through magazines, John Edward Sullivan burst in, beaming and red-faced. “Sully” was the chief yeoman, serving as the clerk for the Seawolf, handling files and supply orders, and maintaining official records.

“’ ‘Well boys, she’s finished. Want to take a look at her?’ ” Sully asked.

“ ‘What’s finished?’ ” Eck and the others wanted to know.

“ ‘Why, my Christmas Tree.’ “

Sully led the way into the yeoman’s office. There, Eck laid eyes on a Christmas tree – or at least what passed as a Christmas tree on a submarine at sea. A broom handle served as the tree trunk, with tongue depressors as branches.

“He’d made tinsel by gluing tinfoil from cigarette packages to strips of paper, and decorated the branches with that. He’d painted half a dozen flashlight bulbs green and red and silver and strung them about on a dry-battery circuit, and so his Christmas tree gleamed green, red, and silver  a work of art two feet high….

“We liked that little Christmas tree,” Eck recalled, “ The men would look at it, and someone would say, ‘Jeez, isn’t that a pretty little thing,’ and then you’d hear someone else’s voice ‘Sure wish I was home tonight.’ “

That wasn’t the only surprise. A while later, someone hung up some stockings bulging with with what Eck considered “the wildest collection of junk I’d ever seen in my life. A bunch of garlic; a twelve-inch Stilsen wrench; a can of oil.”

Eck lingered in the small messroom, unable to sleep. Just before midnight, crewmates wandered in to wish one another a merry Christmas.

“There was a lump in my throat,” he said. “I had to swallow a few times, sitting there, thinking.  Here it is Christmas, and Marjorie and Spike alone at home, not knowing if I’m dead or alive, and we’re off Corregidor, and men are dying in Bataan, and we don’t know if we’re going to be dead or alive ourselves twenty-four hours from now.”

On Christmas Day, the Seawolf’s crew got one more unexpected gift – courtesy of the cook. “Gus Wright came into the mess hall [or mess room, the area where enlisted men eat and relax] and announced what we’d have for dinner that night – mince pies. He’d been up all night baking them, twenty of them. Gus was the hero of the boat that day.

“He was a thin fellow, about twenty-eight, with buck teeth and a pleasant way about him; and the fuss the crew made over his surprise made him so happy that his eyes got watery, and he went back into the galley and banged his pans around until he got it out of him.

“A Christmas tree, mince pies – well, it was a better Christmas than the boys had on Bataan and Corregidor, we thought.”

(End excerpt)

We’re grateful for Mel and his personal story and honor the sacrifices made by the submariners of the Silent Service.

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