On the morning of December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese airplanes and bombers launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing over 2,000 American men, women, and children. The United States was at war with the Empire of Japan and her allies, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The nation was in shock but immediately went to work on the war effort, buying war bonds, donating blood, and enlisting. Christmas was only two weeks away, and many wondered if the Christmas spirit was dead. On the twenty-third of December, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, visited Washington to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt. It was a surprise to many and rejuvenated Christmas cheer in America.
The following are excerpts from my book, “December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World.”
THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF DECEMBER
“Fall of Philippine Isles Inevitable, Japanese Boast”
– Birmingham News
Winston Churchill was surprised to find he was served not one but two eggs with his breakfast. All of Great Britain had been on a ration of one egg per day and to set an example, Churchill followed suit. In addition to his solitary egg, the prime minister normally had only toast and tea. This was a gustatory moment, and he enthused about it “with boyish glee.”
Roosevelt spent the day in meetings with Churchill. Much of the discussion centered on how to best allocate the resources of the other members of the Allied powers in combating the Axis. They also went over a detailed memo analyzing the political state of the world, including relations between the Third Reich and the Arab World.
Earlier that day, the White House announced that Churchill and Roosevelt would attend church together the next day at the Foundry Methodist Church for the 11:00 a.m. service. Security would be tight. Unless someone were a regular congregant or a member of the prime minister’s entourage or the White House staff, or they held a special ticket, there was little chance of getting in.
Mrs. Roosevelt had sympathized with Churchill, lamenting that he was “so far away from home on Christmas.” He replied, “Holidays and work days are just the same. Until this war is over, there is nothing else but work that can be in our minds.”
That afternoon, Churchill and FDR both addressed a crowd of twenty thousand on the South Lawn of the White House and the nation by radio, as the president flipped the switch to light the big Christmas tree. It was the first time the White House Christmas tree had ever actually been placed on the White House grounds. Previously, it had been on the Ellipse, Lafayette Park, or Sherman Square. The Marine Band played and the crowd sang Christmas songs just before the lights of the cedar tree were turned on.
It was noted that some in the crowd had waited as much as a whole hour before being admitted through the Southwest and Southeast gates. After a time, the gates were closed and no one inside would be allowed out until the proceeding had been completed.
At 5:00 p.m., FDR’s and Churchill’s remarks began. In his plummy aristocratic baritone, the Englishman opened by saying, “I have the honor to add a pendant to the necklace of that Christmas goodwill and kindness with which my illustrious friend the President has encircled the homes and families of the United States…” Continuing, he said, “I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the center of the summit of these United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association, which through all your kindness, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys.”
Concluding with a climactic poetic grace, in a way that only Churchill could, he intoned, “Here then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly lit island of happiness and peace… And so, in God’s mercy, a Happy Christmas to you all.”
That evening, Churchill joined the Roosevelts for Christmas Eve dinner, where instead of the British favorite of goose, he dined on turkey and cranberries.
THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF DECEMBER
“Japs Claim Capture of Hong Kong”
– Birmingham News
“War Casts Shadow Over Christmas Joy Throughout Land”
– New York Times
In the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur was now facing possibly 200,000 Japanese fighting men who had landed on the island since the beginning of hostilities, and they were advancing quickly on American and Filipino strongholds. Given the situation, the U.S. announced it might have to withdraw its forces from the Philippines, making it one of the lousiest Christmases for FDR and the American citizenry.
The tattered British garrison at Hong Kong finally succumbed to the Japanese as well, making this Christmas lousy for Winston Churchill and the British too. The Japanese government made the announcement of the British capitulation, and London did not deny the claim. Tokyo’s propagandists twisted the knife when they announced on state radio that the island was a “Christmas gift” from the military to the Japanese people.
Churchill went to church in the same car as Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. The prime minister was in a “dark blue topcoat” and carried a cane for the 11:00 a.m. service. Security was extremely tight and government agents and police were everywhere; only a few of the onlookers caught a glimpse of the two men. Many regular congregants had to stand outside of their own place of worship, the Foundry Methodist Church, unable to get in. FDR walked in holding a cane in one hand and the arm of his ever-present naval aide, Captain John Beardall, in the other. While in church, they were spotted singing out the carols, Churchill wearing his reading glasses and FDR with his trademark pince-nez eyewear.
After the service, Churchill and Roosevelt spent much of the day in war planning. The White House let it leak out that Roosevelt was “too busy” to open his Christmas gifts, but even the most ardent Rooseveltians had to roll their eyes at this too-obvious public relations ploy.
The White House looked surreal that evening. Most windows had been shrouded in blackout fabric as seen from the south. No other lights appeared except those on the Christmas tree on the South Lawn and some ground lights that illuminated the South Portico.
Given the news of the day, Christmas dinner was somber, though the meal itself was sumptuous enough. The menu included oysters on the half shell, soup with sherry, roast turkey with chestnut dressing, giblet gravy, venison sausage, olives and fresh vegetables, sweet potato casserole, grapefruit salad, cheese crescents, plum pudding, cake and ice cream, and even bonbons.
Following dinner the plan was to call friends and family members separated by the war. Via a transatlantic phone call, the prime minister’s wife, Clementine, and their daughters “sent their greetings” to their father and husband. Roosevelt also sent “Mrs. Churchill” a cablegram wishing her a Merry Christmas. “It is a joy to have Winston. He seems very well and I want you to know how grateful I am to you for letting him come. Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
In preparation for Christmas Day, the War Department ordered 1,500,000 pounds of turkey for the men who had not been granted a leave for Christmas. In 12,000 cafeterias, men would also have sage dressing, mashed potatoes and Hubbard squash, buttered peas, soups, fruits, nuts, mince pie, ice cream, mints, and candy.
Christmas in Honolulu took on a serious and sober air of its own. Several days after the seventh, things had loosened a bit, but now officials tightened things up even more. On guard to the point of paranoia about another surprise attack, officials imposed the strictest possible blackout measures and martial law was enforced, including a prohibition of all hard liquor. Purchases of gas were restricted to 10 gallons per month, and stores had to close by 3:30 so workers could be home by 4:00 p.m. Sightseeing was banned.
The first casualties from Pearl Harbor who could be moved appeared by ship in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Day. The name of the ship was not released for security reasons, but from Hawaii to California, it had to pursue a “zigzag” course to avoid possible torpedoes from enemy submarines. All of the men had stories of bravery and death. They were, the New York Times noted, “filled with cold anger at the Japanese…”
For the first time, members of Congress were required to carry photo identification for security reasons to enter the U.S. Capitol, because, while the Capitol Police recognized the members, the new soldiers guarding Capitol Hill did not. The business of government went on despite the holiday. The Office of Price Administration announced price controls on shoes and many other leather products. The Office of Production Management put out a call for old flashlights, urging Americans to find their old ones before purchasing new ones …
Craig Shirley has been hailed from many quarters as one of the leading Reagan biographers, having written four books and hundreds of articles and given hundreds of lectures about the Gipper. He was named the first Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater, and he is a member of the board of governors of the Reagan Ranch and has lectured at the Reagan Library.