Photo Credit: Photo by John Duguay
Happenings and Holidays in History
Christmas Eve, 1942- A Sailor Considers Going AWOL to Milwaukee
by Kathy Warnes
The Sailor Longs to Extend His leave in Milwaukee
Christmas Eve, 1942. He stared at the Chicago and North Western Railroad tracks running near Great Lakes Naval Base and imagined following them the 95 miles to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A month after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy had announced an expansion in its recruitment capacity to 45,000 men and by the end of 1942, about 75,000 were training at Great Lake Naval Base. Over the course of World War II, the Great Lakes Naval Base supplied about a million men, more than a third of all of the personnel serving in the United States Navy. The sailor was one of the men in training at Great Lakes Naval Base.
It wouldn’t be hard to go AWOL and return home to Milwaukee for an extended visit. It had been so hard to leave his family the day before Christmas. He didn’t understand why he had to be back before Christmas. His mother had cried and even his father had tears in his eyes. His leave had been far too short.
He had to travel only about two miles from the Chicago and North Western Depot at the Milwaukee lake front to get home. Through a misty haze of home sickness he visualized the house on the corner of 58th and Chambers Streets. His cocker spaniel, Bing, would be in the window waiting and watching for him. His mother had told him that Bing rarely left the living room picture window.
The Sailor Has Family Reasons for An Extended Leave
The sailor’s brother already served on the Battleship Texas and even though his mother and father were carefully cheerful in their letters, he knew that they were worried about both of their sons. When his father had come to see him off at the Chicago and Northwestern Depot, he had let the tears run unashamedly down his cheeks. In his own youth, the sailor’s father had tried to volunteer with the troops chasing Poncho Villa, but over indulgence in the bribery beer and the fact that his wife was already pregnant with their oldest son, had kept him from serving.
Four years later he, the youngest son, had been born in Milwaukee. He loved Lake Michigan even when he fell off the break wall as a boy and nearly drowned before fisherman rescued him. Now he was going far beyond lake Michigan. The Navy had told him he was going to the Mediterranean and that he could not go home for Christmas.
The Sailor Would Have An Easy Time Going AWOL
It wouldn’t take much to go AWOL. All he had to do was jump on the train and he’d be home in less than an hour and a half. Bing would rush from the window and greet him with tail wagging and a tongue dripping shower. With tears of joy in her eyes, his mother would ask him to go to the attic and get the special Christmas box. In it she kept the ornaments that he had made for her every year since he had been a small boy. With surprisingly gentle big hands, he had fashioned a church and other small buildings out of paper Mache and animals out of cardboard. He had rigged up electric lights for the buildings and even made a manger scene.
What would his mother do this year with both of her sons gone? Would she set up the manger scene and the church anyway? If he started for home right now, he would get there in time to go downtown shopping with her for last minute decorations. His mother loved to go into the stores at Christmas time because she thought Christmas brought out the magic buried in people’s hearts the rest of the year. His mother loved the lights, the decorated Christmas trees and the carols. She loved the Christmas cooking and baking and basting and tasting and even the Christmas clutter and constant vigilance it took to keep Bing from biting a certain blue light on the Christmas tree. He ignored all of the other lights, but the blue one which he tried to attack and destroy. The sailor laughed, thinking of the yearly battle between his mother and Bing.
A Christmas When the Sailor’s Father Wouldn’t Let Him Go AWOL
The sailor remembered another Christmas tree that had been damaged when he and his brother and cousin were in their early teens. They had received pop guns for Christmas, the kind with corks that made satisfying thunks when they hit their targets. Before any of them realized it, the ornaments on the Christmas tree had become their targets. Before any of them realized it, at least one third of the ornaments had ended up under the tree in shattered colored pieces. His brother had finally stopped the shooting frenzy by remind them that their parents would be home soon.
Like good soldiers, they tried to cover their tracks. They swept up all of the glittering, colorful glass and rearranged the remaining ornaments on the tree. He had thought about making new ornaments to cover the painfully obvious bare spots, but there wasn’t time. His father had noticed the steep decline in the ornament population immediately and figured out its cause. He had confiscated the pop guns and ordered him and his brother to make or buy new ornaments. The sailor hadn’t been able to go AWOL then!
This Christmas the Sailor Could Go AWOL
Close by, the sailor heard the whistle of the train and his feet started walking toward the depot. He knew that if he went home again, the day would light up for his mother and father. Bing would even abandon his post by the blue light. He would be in a normal world for a few more hours before he had to re-enter this twisted, strange, war-world.
He stood rooted to the spot, listening to the train whistle, the same whistle that his mother and father and Bing would eventually hear in Milwaukee. As much as his mind and heart old him to go, something held him back. There was something inside of him that his parents had instilled there – a hard, often barren something they called “doing the right thing.” He called it responsibility. Sometimes he cursed it, but he had it. He felt responsible to his country, so he turned around and headed back to the barracks.
The Sailor Earns His Stripes in the Mediterranean
The sailor took special training and passed his sonar exams. The United States Navy assigned minesweepers to sweep mines ahead of the invasion forces at Anzio Beachhead and Sicily. When his minesweeper wasn’t taking part in invasions, it visited different Italian and French ports to clear mine fields that the Germans had planted. The sailor earned his third stripe for minesweeping off the coast of France.
The Sailor Still Would Resist the Train Whistle
The sailor survived World War II. He knew that a minesweeper was one of the most dangerous places to serve in a war, but he still would serve again because it was the right thing to do for his country. Train whistles still make him sad and stir memories.
Clark, Lloyd. Anzio: Italy and the Battle for Rome – 1944. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.
Grant, H. Roger. The North Western A History of the Chicago & North Western Railway System. Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Jones, H.G. The Sonar Man’s War A Memoir of Submarine Cashing and Mine Sweeping in World War II. McFarland, 2010.
Recording veteran’s stories is an important addition to the historical record, and listening to them lets veterans know their sacrifices are appreciated
Organizations that Record Veteran’s Stories
The Great Lakes Naval Museum Website
Veterans History Project
Take a Veteran to School Day