Dating back to the American Revolution, when General George Washington famously led some 2,400 nearly frozen Continental soldiers across the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, and mounted a surprise attack on the Hessian forces at Trenton, American military personnel have known that even on Christmas it can mean business as usual. Sadly war doesn’t take a holiday, and throughout our nation’s history that has meant that men and women in uniform have been far from home on Christmas Day.
During the First World War, many American soldiers and Marines spent the holiday at sea aboard ships crossing the Atlantic heading to fight in France. A generation later, the American Army was surrounded during an even greater fight in the Battle of the Bulge, yet surrender was never considered an option even at the worst of times. For those young men, survival and ultimate victory were their greatest gifts.
Today, the sacrifices of those who served are honored at the nation’s military cemeteries. Each December, volunteers lay some 150,000 wreaths to honor service members at Arlington National Cemetery.
There are now several military traditions that take place in advance of the Christmas holiday, and among these are toy drives.
At Fort Bragg, NC, the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, “All-American,” provides opportunities for the annual “Yuletide Jumps,” which gives soldiers a chance to practice their craft and even earn foreign jump wings in exchange for donating toys to children in need. Last year, more than 1,000 paratroopers took part in what was the second annual All-American Presents from Paratroopers toy drive (A2P2), and in total upwards of 2,000 toys were provided to local children in need.
By donating a toy, each U.S. paratrooper was automatically entered into a special raffle to participate in a parachute jump with a member of the Chilean military. Around 600 of the All-American paratroopers won the prize, and earned a special foreign patch for their uniforms.
The United States Marine Corps Reserve also runs its own annual collection drive, Toys For Tots. It began in 1947 and now annually distributes an average of 18 million toys to some seven million less-fortunate children each year. Since 2001, it has been ranked as one of the top-rated charities by “Philanthropy 400,” while it maintains a 97:3 support service ratio.
Operation Santa Drop
The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) longest-running humanitarian airlift operation, Operation Christmas Drop, began during the Christmas season in 1952, when a B-29 Superfortress aircrew saw residents of Kapingamarangi Island waving. In the spirit of Christmas, the aircrew dropped a bundle of supplies to the islanders who lived some 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Today, airdrop operations include more than 50 islands throughout the Pacific, and is conducted by the Pacific Air Force, as a partnership between the 374th Airlift Wing, Yokota Air Base, Japan; the 36th Wing, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; 734th Air Mobility Squadron, Andersen AFB of the 515th Air Mobility Operations Wing, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; the University of Guam; and the ‘Operation Christmas Drop’ private organization.
Andersen AFB Guam, continues to serves as “base camp” to airlift the donated goods to islanders throughout Micronesia.
The U.S. Navy hasn’t been left out of the traditions, and over the past several decades, the service has allowed sailors who can’t go home for the holiday to bring some cheer to the ships, as the ships are decorated with lights fit for a seafaring Santa!
Many vessels also have a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) team to help ensure that the holidays onboard are also cheery and bright.
“The MWR team has done a really great job putting together some events,” said Emily Steinway, the MWR Fun Boss aboard USS Essex. “Our main focus this month was creating Christmas presents. We have a lot of ‘Art Therapy’ days, which involve making ornaments, stockings, cookie decorating – a lot of things to help keep their minds off being away from home.”
On the Essex, the MWR team announced that it has 40 events planned for the days leading up to New Year’s Day, including arts and crafts, fitness, game tournaments, raffles, cooking, parties, and trivia nights – all in an effort to keep spirits up. Other U.S. Navy vessels will hold similar events and celebrations over the holidays.
Of course, the most famous holiday tradition from the DoD is the annual efforts to track Santa Claus on Christmas Eve! Millions of families around the world track Santa’s Yuletide journey via the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s “Santa Tracker.”
It actually began as a fluke when the then Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center in Colorado received a call from a child in Colorado Springs on Christmas Eve, 1955. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, who was working the evening shift, took the phone call from a boy who had followed the directions in a department store’s newspaper advertisement that told children how to call Santa — except the number had been printed incorrectly, and instead was for the operations center.
Rather than being a Scrooge, Shoup and his team responded to that first child, and the many that followed, and kicked off a new holiday tradition.
The role of tracking Santa continued when NORAD was formed in 1958, and it’s been getting more popular and more technologically-savvy ever since. Aside from calling in to talk, kids today can now use social media and a mobile app to follow St. Nick.
According to the DoD, as Santa flies around the world, satellites track his position by detecting Rudolph’s nose, which gives off an infrared signature similar to that of a missile. NORAD also tracks Santa by using U.S. Air Force F-15, F-16, F-22, and Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter jets.
On Christmas Eve, fighter pilots rendezvous with Santa off the coast of Newfoundland to welcome him to North America. They then escort him safely through North American airspace until he returns to the North Pole. The call center opens at 6 a.m. EST on Dec. 24. Kids can call 1-877-Hi-NORAD (446-6723) to find out where Santa is or use the above website, mobile app or social media.