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A Christmas Story

“Home for Christmas” was the rallying cry as United Nations forces, spearheaded by American troops, were well on their way to clearing the entire Korean peninsula of Communist North Korean forces who had invaded South Korea in June, 1950. Then, in late November, in the dead of one of the coldest Korean winters on record, more than 300,000 troops from the Communist People’s Republic of China poured across the Yalu River and entered the war bent on the annihilation of U.N. forces and the installation of a Communist dictatorship for all of Korea. Within a few short days all hopes for a joyous Christmas dashed. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of all U.N. forces in Korea, said, “We face an entirely new war . . .”

    Approximately 120,000 Chinese troops battered and besieged U.N. Forces around the port city of Hungnam, in Northeast Korea. When the U.N. command decided that the Hungnam area could not be held, a mass sea evacuation of troops, equipment and about 98,000 refugees began in mid-December.

    It was a bone-chilling, dark, dingy day, and amid the clamor, the confusion, and the dockside noises accompanying a forced evacuation, my company boarded a freighter and we began a cold, forbidding, four hundred-mile journey to South Korea’s southernmost port city of Pusan. Upon arriving in Pusan, we clambered aboard an unheated train, plunked ourselves and our gear onto hard wooden benches and tried, unsuccessfully, to cover the broken windows, through which howled icy blasts of air.  

Our train would take us north, to the town of Kyong-ju, a seventy-mile trip.

    When we finally arrived at our destination, we were a cold, tired, unkempt, dispirited group. Even though we recovered from our strep throats, our colds, and assorted ills, the awful memories of the suffering, the violent deaths, the brutal unremitting cold, and the destruction which we had witnessed and endured left scars that would never heal.

    The days flowed on, one into another, and soon Christmas would be upon us. “Home for Christmas” was a forlorn hope, but we still hoped to be able to observe, in some small way, the birth of the Prince of Peace, here, in the midst of war. Then, the tiniest of miracles occurred! Someone, possibly an archangel disguised as a comrade in arms, said that the Catholic church in Kyong-ju would be holding a midnight Mass and transportation would be made available for anyone who wished to go. Our prayers were answered, and we would be privileged to help celebrate Christmas in a very special way.

    Before boarding the trucks that would take us to the church on that Christmas eve, we exchanged holiday greetings with our comrades who had been assigned to guard duty patrolling the company perimeter. It was a clear, cold, starry night; someone began to quietly sing, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

    The exterior walls of the small church were pockmarked 

and some of the windows were broken. We noted with surprise that there were separate entrances, one for men and the other for women and children. The men of the parish entered through the door on the left and we followed them to the left side of the church where we sat on tiny wooden chairs. As the women entered through their entrance on our right, they covered their heads with white shawls, took off their shoes, which they placed in neat rows at the rear of the church, and picked up straw kneeling mats from a large pile that was stacked near the door. Infants were carried on the backs of their mothers, supported there by wide bands of cloth which were tied above their mother’s waists.

    While waiting for the Mass to begin, I glanced around and saw that the ceiling had many shallow cavities, each one marking a spot where a chunk of plaster had come loose and fallen. The church was unheated, but no one really noticed. An inner warmth radiated from the few candles on the altar and also from small, colorful silk banners which were suspended from the craggy ceiling. The banners, on which were written Korean figures, carried, we assumed, Christmas greetings. However, in deference to the American guests in the congregation, one banner proclaimed, in bright letters, “Mahry Xmas!” The spelling may not have been perfect, but the sentiments of those wonderful people was obvious and I, for one, would not have wanted it any other way.

    A complete Nativity scene filled the area to the left of the altar, which was draped in silk and decorated with flowers and candles; a “real” Christmas tree, completely trimmed with tinsel, ornaments, and garland, stood on the other side of the altar. The sight of that beautiful tree set off a whole train of memories of another Christmas tree occupying, at that very moment, a place of honor in a warm, loving, caring home 10,000 miles away which was “Untouched by the evil that is war . . .”

    Schoolchildren from the parish 

ably and lovingly shepherded by Korean nuns, occupied tiny chairs at the very front of the church. The large, heavily starched, snow-white headpieces of the sisters stood in sharp contrast to our wrinkled, stained, and torn trousers and parkas, but such was the love and gratitude that was showered upon us that we did not, even for a moment, feel ill at ease.

    At the rear center of the church stood an old, rickety, out-of-tune organ which was played by one of the Korean nuns. She accompanied a choir of schoolgirls who sang Christmas carols. Even though the choir occasionally sang off key, we knew what carols were being sung because we could, with some difficulty, recognize the music that was played and, while the choir sang in Korean, we sang with them, but in English. It was a riot of sounds, but to our ears it was positively joyous and – almost – heavenly.

    Father Kim, the celebrant, said the Mass in Korean, but when it ended, he turned to face the congregation and then, in a final emotional gesture, he gave us his blessing. “The Mass is ended; go in Peace.”

    Many Christmases have come and gone, but when the approach of winter heralds the beginning of another Christmas season, my thoughts and memories traverse the many years and the thousands of miles and I recall a very special Christmas in a tiny jewel of a church in Kyong-ju, Korea, and for one brief shining moment, the war is forgotten. I’ll never know what happened to Father Kim and his devoted flock, but I sincerely hope and pray that they have a truly Blessed Christmas.

 

This story was written by:

Army PFC, Norman Deptula