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Thanksgiving during World War II

Thanksgiving by the roadside (Photo: U.S. military)

Few holidays, if any, are as uniquely American as Thanksgiving. It is not a religious holy day, it does not commemorate a political event, and it is rooted in American history. It's not surprising that both American soldiers fighting abroad and their families back home were keen to celebrate it during World War II. Of course, celebrations don't always come easy in a time of a global armed conflict, so it's not surprising that compromises had to be made. This collection of trivia is our way of giving thanks for the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation.

Thanksgiving by the roadside (Photo: U.S. military)
Thanksgiving dinner in Italy, 1944 (Photo: The National WWII Museum)

President Roosevelt changed the holiday's date for business reasons. Thanksgiving had been traditionally held on the last Thursday of November since the early 19th century. However, in 1939, the first year of World War II, that day also happened to be the last day of the month. This was considered to be bad for retailers' business: at the time, stores considered it bad form to put up Christmas decorations and start Christmas sales before Thanksgiving, and such a late Thanksgiving meant a shorter-than-usual Christmas shopping period. Roosevelt decided to prop up stores by declaring Thanksgiving to be on the second last Thursday of the month, thus giving them an extra week of brisk business.

Roosevelt carving the Thanksgiving turkey in 1933 (Photo: National Archives Catalog)
Roosevelt carving the Thanksgiving turkey in 1933 (Photo: National Archives Catalog)

The new date, nicknamed Franksgiving for the President, met much hostility, and many states stuck with the traditional arrangement. Roosevelt eventually backed off and reached a compromise with a 1941 joint resolution which fixed Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of the month (which is not always the last, as some Novembers have five Thursdays).

Thanksgiving footage from Italy, 1944 (Video: YouTube)

Turkey was not rationed, but still hard to get. Turkeys never fell under food rationing restrictions, but they still became sparse before Thanksgiving during the war. The reason was simple: the government wanted to make sure that all soldiers fighting overseas got a taste of home, and bought up so many turkeys that there weren't enough left for civilians. A serious black market developed to serve the needs of the lucky, and alternative Thanksgiving recipes were circulated for the benefit of housewives who couldn't get their hands on a turkey (or butter, sugar or spices).

Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell (Image: National Archives and Records Administration)
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell (Image: National Archives and Records Administration)

Folks back home often couldn't meet their families, but some dined with strangers. Families obviously missed fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who were fighting overseas, but many of them also missed seeing other family members. Gasoline and car tire rationing often meant that people couldn't visit distant relatives by car, and the government discouraged civilians from traveling by rail, since the Herculean task of moving stateside soldiers where they needed to be regularly kept trains full. Similar campaigns were launched also during other holidays, such as Easter (Read our earlier article – Easter in World War II).

World War II poster used to discourage civilian train use (Poster: Office of Defense Transportation)
World War II poster used to discourage civilian train use (Poster: Office of Defense Transportation)

Families living near military bases, however, often filled that empty chair with a stranger by inviting a local serviceman or –woman to join them at the dinner table.
 
The boys far from home had their fill. The military was deadly serious about getting every man overseas a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In 1943, two Liberty ships, a type of cargo ship built specifically for the war (Read our earlier article – Liberty Ships), set out across the waves, carrying not just an unimaginable quantity of turkeys, but also similar-sized hoards of trimmings, cranberry sauce and even various pies.

A sergeant preparing two turkeys for his comrades in the field (Photo: U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum)
A sergeant preparing two turkeys for his comrades in the field
(Photo: U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum)
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Delivering such a feast was not always easy or safe. In 1942, U.S. Navy transport planes braved potential Japanese attacks above Guadalcanal in order to land at Henderson Field and surprise the battle-weary Marines on the island with the taste of a good American Thanksgiving turkey. Every man was also delivered a cold bottle of Pepsi to make the event all the sweeter.

Lieutenant Colonel W. W. Stickney cutting a Thanksgiving cake with a Japanese officer's sword on Guadalcanal, November 26, 1942. (Photo: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections)
Lieutenant Colonel W. W. Stickney cutting a Thanksgiving cake with a Japanese officer's sword on Guadalcanal, November 26, 1942. (Photo: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections)

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes, this dedication ended in tragedy. On November 23, 1944, bloodied, demoralized and exhausted U.S. troops were fighting in the Hürtgen Forest along the Belgian-German border, stuck in a battle that would earn the name "Green Hell" (Read our earlier article – The battle of Hürtgen Forest). First Lieutenant Paul Boesch, a former professional wrestler, was called to the field telephone in the evening and informed that there was a hot turkey dinner on the way for every man in his outfit. Unfortunately, some of his men were already up on a nearby hill, very close to the Germans. Despite Boesch's outburst against the absurdity of the order, a carrying party went up the hill to deliver the turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and cigars to the men in the front line. Just as they reached the men, a German artillery barrage hit the hill, killing and wounding men left and right, turning a well-intentioned but poorly thought-out gesture into tragedy.

1st Lieutenant Paul Boesch (Photo: slamwrestling.net)
1st Lieutenant Paul Boesch (Photo: slamwrestling.net)

In the Pilgrims' footprints. American soldiers brought Thanksgiving to far corners of the world. Many soldiers stationed in or near Plymouth in South West England said Thanksgiving prayers at St. Andrew's Church, a church that was badly damaged by German bombs in early 1941. It was the same church were some of the Pilgrim Fathers gathered to pray before setting sail to America on the Mayflower in 1621. Other Americans held service along the docks of Plymouth, were the Mayflower departed from.

St. Andrew's Church after it was hit by German bombs (Photo: Plymouth Herald)
St. Andrew's Church after it was hit by German bombs (Photo: Plymouth Herald)

An American holiday in England. The British people were quick to embrace the American soldiers who started arriving to their homeland in 1942 in large numbers. Though England has no Thanksgiving tradition, the locals had decided to give the welcome guests a chance to celebrate. Thanksgiving services were scheduled everywhere from small town churches to massive cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey in London, where English (and later British) Kings and Queens were crowned and buried.

American soldiers chasing turkeys in Norfolk, England, after a local farmer gave them permission to take their pick for Thanksgiving (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
American soldiers chasing turkeys in Norfolk, England, after a local farmer gave them permission to take their pick for Thanksgiving (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The Americans returned the kindness. Many U.S. camps invited British war orphans to a Thanksgiving feast and an evening of games and conversation. Many servicemen also passed up their own portions of turkey, giving them to wounded British soldiers.

English orphans at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by U.S. troops (Photo: The LIFE Collection)
English orphans at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by U.S. troops (Photo: The LIFE Collection)

Giving thanks for not being dead at least. Even German POW camps did not go entirely without Thanksgiving celebrations. American prisoners of war interned at the Stalag Luft IV POW camp wrote their own newspaper, Kriegie Kronikle, "Kriegie" referring to Kriegsgefangerener, the German word for "prisoner of war". The November 30, 1944 issue of the paper featured a topical article on the "Chow Chuckers," who "perform the tasks which are inevitable & necessary in unpacking, sorting, repacking & loading of the chow we all idolize (the word is a masterpiece of understatement!)"

The 1944 Thanksgiving edition of the Kriegie Kronikle (Photo: The National World War II Museum New Orleans)
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