FOGGIA, Italy — It was Christmas Eve, 1944, in Foggia--4,000 miles, 19 bombing missions and an eternity away from home.
I stood in the late afternoon watching the Italian skies darken. A squadron of bombers, lumbering along beneath a deep, gray bank of clouds, floated over the "spur of the boot" of Italy, droning like bees.
A P-51 flashed above the treetops, leaving the whining, whirring noise of its propeller dying in its wake. The playful pursuit ship faded rapidly into the somber darkening evening and I turned from watching it to walk toward the club.
It began to snow.
As I came to the edge of the olive grove that was the camp of the 419th Bomb Squadron, a truck, laden with roughly cut logs, turned off the Foggia-Lucera Road.
It came to a stop alongside me and Lt. Jack deKruif of Grand Rapids, Mich., stepped down from the cab. A spark of pleasure in his eyes leapt when he saw me admiring the cargo and spread to laughter on his tired face.
"Look what Santa Claus brought," he said.
He was red from the cold and his hands were raw. There was a smear of dirt across his nose. His sleeve was torn. Hanging loosely around his hips, cowboy fashion, dangled a belt and holster which carried an Army .45.
We walked around the rear of the truck and I asked him where he had gotten the logs, for firewood was a scarce and precious item in the areas surrounding Foggia. He told me that he had gone into the hills near Ariano with Pasquale, an Italian POW who was his helper. They had bought the load from a farmer.
"It will be a red-hot Christmas in our fireplace tonight," Jack said.
About 8:30 that evening the most unusual Christmas party I had ever attended began.
A voice called over the loudspeaker, announcing that the bars were open in both the enlisted men's and the officers' clubs.
Hundreds of fliers and ground-support personnel, dressed smartly in class-A uniforms, their brass polished, shoes glistening and trousers pressed, came gradually out of their tent and walked up the paths between the olive trees.
There was an inch of snow on the frozen ground and winter flavored the air with snappy gusts of wind that whipped swirling flurries from the branches of the trees.
Someone had hooked the loudspeaker connection to the radio and from the Army station in Foggia came gently, homey Christmas music . . . "Silent Night" . . . "White Christmas" . . . "Adeste Fideles" . . . "I'll Be Home for Christmas" . . .
I went into the club with Lt. Tom Lubeski of St. Louis, Mo., one of my new tentmates. We kicked the snow from our best shoes and hung our coats on nails near the door. There were more than 70 pilots, navigators, and bombardiers dressed as though for a general's inspection, throughout the club.
At the farther end of the building stood a Christmas tree which Jack had brought from the hills. Someone had decorated it with real candles that had come in a package from home.
My co-pilot, Chuck Whiting of Norwell, Mass., was behind the bar. He had on a red bow tie and a homemade apron. Sgt. Bill Rogers of Brandon, Miss., who would be shot down a few weeks later, was stirring something in a gigantic bowl at one end of the bar.
A group of fellows clustered about the fireplace, with glasses of Italian rum and grapefruit juice in their hands, singing Christmas carols while Lt. Don Higgins of Sacramento, Calif., lovingly worked the keys of an ancient piano. The fire was crackling.
Tom and I stood at the end of the bar with four or five friends and talked about home, about combat, about the wonderful party we were having.
Everyone was in a holiday spirit.
At the height of the party, shortly before midnight, a homemade stove that had been installed in a corner of the building set fire to the papered ceiling and the flames spread rapidly through the club, putting an end to the celebration.
We fought the fire with buckets of water at first, but the roof, built of wood and decorated with highly inflammable materials, caught up quickly.
We stood outside in the snow and watched emergency fire crews extinguish the flames. When the fire was out, Tom and I went back into the charred building to view the damage.
The crude chairs and tables had been broken and partly burned. The Christmas tree was a black skeleton and water, pieces of burned paper and wood covered the floor. Jack deKruif came running inside. "Come on you guys," he hollered, "get to work."
He looked at the fireplace. It was dripping water and the ashes were wet. Jack took a stick, scraped the fireplace and went outside. He came back in a moment, carrying an armload of wood.
Pasquale brought in a huge log and placed it in front of the fireplace while Jack lit another fire.
Someone had put new candles on the mantle. Chuck said, "Hey you guys, I salvaged a case of beer . . . of course, it's a bit warm, but it's beer."
We sat down on the log in front of the fire. Pasquale opened the case and passed out the drinks. Chuck told him to sit down and have a beer with us.
Pasquale raised his bottle, smiled and said, "Buono Natale."
"Yes," Chuck said, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Pasquale."
But the stench from the burned buildling soon got to us and we had to leave.