Memories of Christmas holidays during World War II

Courtesy photo Dick Betzler as he appeared in a World War II photo.

(Editor’s note) Kathy Kopp of New London send in letters she and her family received from her late father, Dick Betzler, on three holiday seasons during World War II.

Gifts to Strangers, Christmas 1944

(Written by Dick Betzler about Christmas in wartime France)

Christmas in Chaineaux. No tree, no presents and Reno playing that (out-of-tune) piano. Doesn’t sound like much, but it is one I’ll never forget. Christmas morning. I got up to go to Mass at the church on the bottom of the hill. We couldn’t see out of the windows. They were all covered with blankets for blackout reasons.

As I walked out the door, I was surprised to see we had a blanket of snow on Christmas Eve. Walking down the street, people were coming out to go to Mass and they all were giving me a ‘bon Noel’ (Merry Christmas). They all seemed very much in the Christmas spirit and why not, this was the first Christmas in four years that they were free.

When the collection basket was passed, I noticed that all that was in the basket was small coins with a hole in the center. That’s 25 centeens, about a half of our penny. I felt rich, throwing in paper money which was about a dollar. We had our turkey dinner and had plenty for all. It was better than the K rations. After dinner Laskey came to me and wanted to see what it was like on Christmas in the people’s homes. Laskey, being Jewish, didn’t think he would be welcome. He said let’s visit some of the homes. That was a good idea and we invited George Carroll and DuBose to come along with us. DuBose wanted to go but he had to type his three page letter to his wife, Gordene. He wrote three pages to her every night. We got some candy bars and cigarettes and went to two or three houses. The homes were very small inside with low ceilings. They had Christmas trees with homemade ornaments. They were heated by fireplaces which gave them a real Christmas look. The people made us most welcome and it was nice seeing the little children with their few gifts. The candy bar made a big hit and we visited until we ran out of candy. The fathers enjoyed the cigarettes. All and all it was a very bon Noel, one that I shall never forget.

Gifts from Strangers, Christmas 1945

While most of the world was waking up to Christmas morning with family and friends, a young soldier who had traveled 3,500 miles across the Atlantic received one of the most priceless Christmas gifts of all. On Christmas morning 1945, Dick Betzler set foot on American soil after having served in five European Theaters of World War II.

The first three people Richard F. Betzler laid eyes on in his home country were not Wise Men, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were Wise and Compassionate Women – Gray Ladies - the volunteers who had left their own homes on Christmas morning to greet the returning soldiers on the Newport News, Virginia docks and offer gifts of a toothbrush, shaving cream and a razor. There was no way the Gray Ladies could know how much it meant to be on the receiving end of such simple gifts. God Bless the unnamed women.

The Gift of Family, New Year’s Day, 1946

It took a full week to actually make it home. A long train ride through four states, up the cold East Coast to a destination he had not been certain he would ever achieve: Home. Lowry’s Lane in Garrett Hill, Pennsylvania. As Dick Betzler opened the door of his childhood home, sun glare shone through the window of the living room on Lowry’s Lane, bathing his Downs Syndrome brother Joe’s head in a halo of brightness. And the smile that lit Joe’s face was a smile that was forever etched in the returning soldier’s mind. The brilliance of the Star of Bethlehem has been told and retold for centuries. The brilliance of the smile that greeted Dick Betzler on New Year’s Day 1946 was no less celestial. Dick Betzler spoke of the joy of that brilliant smile for the rest of his life. 1946 was a very Happy New Year.

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