WASHINGTON - Of all the ghosts of Christmas past, none haunts our history like the ghost of Christmas 1941.
Was there ever a bleaker Christmas?
Peace on Earth seemed the impossible dream after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than three weeks earlier. Salvage crews were still pulling bodies from the oil-oozing wrecks along Battleship Row.
Instead of coming together at Christmas, families remained separated by the necessities of war. Shipyards and defense plants worked around the clock. Furloughs were canceled, basic-training courses accelerated. The midshipmen at Annapolis and cadets at West Point didn't go home for the holidays; neither did most of the nation. All but essential travel was deemed unpatriotic.
For Eleanor Roosevelt, weeping softly as she spoke to her secretary in the West Sitting Hall of the White House, "it was difficult to believe it was Christmas."
The only stocking hung by the fireplace in the Blue Room was lettered in tinsel with the name "Fala," the first dog, Franklin Roosevelt's beloved Scottie. The Roosevelt's sons, James and Elliot, had gone off to war. None of the grandchildren would be coming because Winston Churchill and his entourage from Britain occupied every spare bed.
Now there were maps and charts pinned to the walls of the Monroe Room and strategy sessions dragged on to all hours in the president's oval study. "The whole place had been turned into a command post," Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her "My Day" column. The only child in the house was 10-year-old Diana Hopkins, daughter of presidential adviser Harry Hopkins.
The British prime minister thought it "a strange Christmas." He restlessly paced the carpet of his second-floor bedroom in his blue zip-up "siren suit," a long Havana clamped in his mouth, in a rampant rage like the British lion on his red-leather dispatch case.
CHURCHILL WAS ILL
Dosed with "Mothersills Seasick Remedy," he had arrived in Washington after a gale-swept, 10-day Atlantic crossing on the battleship Duke of York, dodging U-boats and buffeted by 60-foot waves. Only two weeks before, Japanese torpedo bombers had sunk her sister ship, the Prince of Wales, and the cruiser Repulse off the Malay Penisula. Among the 840 seamen drowned was Adm. Thomas Phillips, Churchill's jovial best buddy from their old days at the Admiralty.
But seeing Roosevelt again lifted his spirits immensely. They got along famously from the moment the prime minister insisted on pushing his wheelchair into West Hall for the welcoming cup of tea Eleanor had waiting, although the star boarder immediately made known his preference for "more stimulating refreshments." The White House staff was astounded by Churchill's drinking and bathing habits and his two-hour afternoon naps punctuated with explosive snoring.
Churchill's bedroom was down the hall from the Roosevelt family quarters. Early in the visit he was in his bath, sipping champagne - a pint a day was a health fetish with him - when a knock came at the door.
"See to that, please, Tommy," he called out.
Inspector Walter Thompson, Churchill's Scotland Yard bodyguard, wrote in his memoirs: "I was astonished to discover the President of the United States in his wheelchair all alone. I opened the door wide for him, then saw the president look curiously beyond me, not with fright but with something very unlike approval. Winston Churchill was stark naked, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other."
Roosevelt abruptly turned the chair around, but Churchill waved him back. "Come in, Franklin, we're quite alone. You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide."
Wrote Thompson: "I don't believe Mr. Churchill would have blinked if Mrs. Roosevelt had walked in too."
The British delegation, 80 in all, counting Churchill's daughter, Mary, "made quite a houseful," Eleanor Roosevelt remembered. "I hurriedly sent someone to buy gifts for them to put around our Christmas tree."
On the day Churchill arrived, Monday, Dec. 22, Wake Island fell and 40,000 Japanese troops landed on three beaches in the Philippines.
On Christmas Eve, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wearing the gold-braided cap of a field marshal in the Philippine Army, boarded the interisland steamer Esteban for Corregidor, "The Rock," 30 miles across Manila Bay. With him was his wife, Jean, their 3-year-old son, Arthur, and Philippine President Manuel Quezon, who was dying of tuberculosis.
The government moved into the vast catacombs of the Malinta Tunnel just in time. While Quezon and his Cabinet were at midnight Mass in the dank tunnel, Japanese bombers devastated Manila's old Walled City, hurling streetcars into the buildings along Calle Victoria, where MacArthur had his headquarters. The port area was in shambles, but the planes ignored the miles of snarled traffic that marked the flight of Gen. Jonathan Wainwright's main force to the Bataan Peninsula.
Christmas Day in Manila was bright, with huge pillars of flame rising from the city's oil-tank farms and the planes, hangars and barracks of the Philippine Air Force, set ablaze to keep them from falling into enemy hands.
That night the street lights suddenly came on. The blackout was over. A radio station announced MacArthur had declared Manila an open city to save it from further destruction.
On Christmas morning a Boeing flying boat approached Honolulu. Adm. Chester Nimitz, arriving to take command of the Pacific Fleet from Adm. Husband Kimmel, relieved after Pearl Harbor, wondered about the many ships anchored in the lagoon. "Full of drowned sailors and Marines," he was told. Navy divers were still bringing up bodies from the sunken ships off Ford Island.
Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler's dream of "wiping Russia off the map" by the end of the year, lay buried in a snow-covered graveyard of abandoned guns and frozen trucks and tanks. Temperatures of 35 degrees below zero and a freezing fog that grounded the Luftwaffe had halted the advance on Moscow within sight of the Kremlin spires.
At his log-cabin retreat, built over an enormous concrete bunker in East Prussia, Hitler had ordered his secretary to have no Christmas tree. His only companion at Christmas dinner was Frederick the Great, leering down from an ornate oval frame.
All that Christmas week trains, loaded with human freight, lumbered east across the Polish border. "Endlosung," the final solution to the Jewish problem, was off the drawing board. New gas ovens were being installed in the bathhouses at Auschwitz, and lethal blue pellets called Zyklon B already had been tested successfully on Soviet prisoners of war.
Eleanor Roosevelt spent Christmas Eve distributing food baskets to the poor at various churches in the capital area, returning to the White House late in the afternoon to be hostess at the party for the household staff. The president then invited Churchill to join him in lighting the municipal Christmas tree. The ceremony had been moved to the south lawn of the White House because an anti-aircraft battery occupied Lafayette Square.
A crowd of 20,000, stretching almost to the Washington Monument, shivered in the icy twilight. Roosevelt addressed them as "my fellow workers for freedom" and called on his house guest for a few words. With England gone dark since the blitz, the tree lighting affected Churchill profoundly. In his remarks, he evoked the peace of Christmas past, the old-fashioned Christmas of his boyhood:
"May we cast aside, for this night at least, the cares and dangers which beset us and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern tasks and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that by our sacrifice and daring these children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world."
Impromptu and unrehearsed, it was one of his briefest and most poignant speeches.
Christmas dinner at the White House "was the biggest we ever had," Eleanor Roosevelt wrote. Sixty guests gathered at the table in the State Dining Room.
Insisting "everyone had worked hard enough," FDR chose the movie "Oliver Twist" as the evening's entertainment. Before the first reel was shown, a band of carolers came calling.
Across the frost-silvered slope of the lawn, came words to match the mood of that Christmas night:
"Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."