Fayette veterans recall wartime Christmas memories
Veterans who served overseas during World War II found Christmas celebrations limited or nonexistent, depending on their location and enemy action.
Four veterans from the Connellsville area were invited to the Connellsville Canteen recently to have their stories captured on video for the Veterans Breakfast Club project and the Senator John Heinz History Center.
There, Kevin Farkas and Brian Chemini from the project used video and still cameras to record the veterans' memories.
Preparing the transport aircraft
Jesse Ridgway, 91, of South Connellsville, while in the Army in 1943, said he was able to spend his first Christmas holiday at home in Connellsville.
At the time, Ridgway was stationed at a training facility at Orangeburg, S.C., in preparation for an assignment overseas with the 438th Troop Carrier Group. He was just 18.
Ridgway said he asked if he could get a ride home to Connellsville for the Christmas season. He and several other soldiers were able to hitch a ride to the Pittsburgh airport with a pilot from the area. From there, they hitchhiked to Connellsville.
The pilot told the soldiers to call him in four or five days and he would let them know when to come back to Pittsburgh for the return trip. They called and were told to call back in another three or four days.
In all, he was able to spend “a couple of weeks at home,” Ridgway said.
Ridgway was trained as an aircraft engineer and was assigned to the engineering and operations section maintaining the transport aircraft of the 438th Troop Carrier Group of the 9th Air Force.
When he returned to South Carolina, his unit was transported to Camp Shanks in New York by railroad. They were transported by ship to Glasgow, Scotland. The C47 aircraft and air crews flew across the ocean, eventually uniting with the rest of the members of the group and moving to RAF Greenham Common, England.
Christmas in England was good for the group members, Ridgway said. They enjoyed good food and lived in Quonset huts, which were reasonably comfortable. The 438th became part of the Normandy invasion, transporting airborne troops and dropping them into France.
Ridgway's group was lucky, he said. Of the planes involved in the parachute drop, only one suffered battle damage and all returned to England.
The group moved into France later to support other campaigns.
In all, the group was involved in seven campaigns during the war, including Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
Near Christmas in 1944, his group got leave in Paris. They were put up in a good hotel with feather beds, he said.
Ridgway celebrated his next Christmas in Connellsville.
“It was great to be home,” he said.
His mother was happy to have him home again. He was the only son of six children.
Later, Ridgway married Dorothy and they started a family of two boys and a girl. He worked for Anchor Hocking before taking an early retirement.
Ralph Riter, 92, of Pennsville said he remembers very little of the holidays while in combat in Europe. He was sent into the breech head in Normandy on June 6. He was put off a ship in the bay and onto a sandbar. From there, his group of forward observers stormed the beaches.
Those who survived made their way north through France, Belgium and Germany. The men in his group would move forward, becoming the first on scene. They searched and cleared buildings.
The casualty rate was high. Of the almost 200 men in his group, only 13 came home, he said.
Before the invasion, Riter found himself and his unit in Northern Ireland. There, he saw generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. He said Patton was a loudmouthed bragger, but Eisenhower was well-liked. Eisenhower treated everybody with respect and appreciation, Riter said.
“I was in combat at the time (his Christmas in Europe,)” Riter continued. “We didn't get too much chow, not where I was at. Mostly, I was in a forward observation post. I can't remember that first Christmas in combat.
“It wasn't easy. It was dangerous as hell.”
Camdon W. Inks Jr., 95, of Uniontown trained on B-17 and B-24 bombers before being sent overseas.
Inks was on the HMT Rohna, in the Mediterranean Sea and on his way to India with other members of his Army Air Force unit when the Rohna was struck by a guided bomb dropped by a German plane.
Inks and a friend were able to grab onto a plank and stay afloat for more than eight hours until he was picked up by the British destroyer, HMS Atherstone, he said.
Inks never did find out what happened to his friend, Leonard Deutsch. He credits Deutsch with saving his life, giving him half a candy bar after they crawled onto the plank. All together, 1,015 U.S. service members died in the sinking.
Inks spent Christmas in 1943 in North Africa.
“It (Christmas) was not much of a deal,” Inks said.
From there, he was shipped to India and assigned to the Third Air Depot, a unit of the air transport command, at Agra.
“We had a celebration in India,” Inks said. “Natives brought us flowers to go around our necks.”
Art Graham of Connellsville was assigned to an Army base near St. John's in the Canadian province of Newfoundland after basic training at Fort Lee, Va., in 1942. Fort Lee was the location where Graham's father took basics during World War I, he said.
“I couldn't tell anybody where I was,” said Graham of his assignment in Newfoundland, at a 250-bed hospital which treated mostly burn patients from ships that had been torpedoed.
He was a carpenter with the rank equal to that of a corporal.
The Newfoundland base had been started before the war by regular Army personnel, according to Graham. Many of those regular Army personnel were married and had families with them.
With the dependents on the base, Christmas was a pleasant time with good food and decorations, he said. The facilities on the base were also pleasant with concrete barracks, latrines, mess halls and recreation facilities.
“In Newfoundland, I was kind of busy,” said Graham, so he really didn't miss not being home for the holidays.
All of the streets and buildings were built on curves to prevent enemy planes from strafing entire rows of buildings. That made for a pleasant layout. The base was supposedly the most beautiful U.S. Army base ever built, he said.
Winters were harsh, but the troops could ice skate on a lake that ran alongside the buildings.
Graham remembers enjoying movies in the theaters. He said the movies were changed every two days. They often saw colorful musicals, but when the movies were over, they exited into a world of snow.
The dependants were evacuated for safety when word came that German battleships had sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean, Graham said. The facilities were defended, however, by 16-inch guns that could fire out to sea.
While at the base, there was an epidemic of jaundice with 384 cases being treated. Graham was a carpenter, but everyone was assigned to pitch in and help. He remembers having to clean the dinnerware, made difficult because of the soft diet the sick had to be fed.
Graham spent two Christmas holidays in Newfoundland before being sent to England in January 1944 in preparation for the Normandy invasion. He spent Christmas in 1944 at that facility, he said.
Graham's unit in England was a 1,000-patient general hospital and a 1,000-patient rehabilitation ward. There the nurses laid white sheets on the tables on a huge mess hall and rounded up candle holders for each of the tables. Wreaths were also made and everyone seemed to have a good time, he said.
Graham came home on Oct. 10, 1945, spending Christmas there. He was married on Feb. 17, 1946.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3538 or firstname.lastname@example.org.