Like their comrades-in-arms in the 32nd Division 100 year ago, many Soldiers and Airmen of the Wisconsin National Guard will celebrate this Christmas far from home as they fulfill their mission as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force with an active slate of global security missions.
Airmen from Milwaukee’s 128th Refueling Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard, continue to deploy globally and Soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard’s 248th Aviation Support Battalion deployed to the Middle East in September. Meanwhile, another group of aviators deployed in November to Afghanistan and another 150 Soldiers from the Madison-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation are wrapping up their deployment to Kuwait and Iraq.
For the majority of the 15,000 Soldiers of the Wisconsin National Guard and the 8,000 more from Michigan training in 1917 as the 32nd Division at Camp MacArthur, Texas, for World War I, it was their first Christmas away from home.
Capt. Gustav Stearns, the 127th Infantry Regiment chaplain, had spent the previous Christmas with 5,000 Wisconsin National Guardsmen deployed to Camp Wilson, Texas, for Mexican Border Service. There, he conducted services as part of a celebration that included a 40-foot Christmas tree and 100-person choir. Stearns sought to expand upon this experience and ensure a festive Christmas Eve for those far from home and family traditions.
Stearns described his Christmas Eve preparations in one of his regular letters to his Milwaukee congregation. A few days before Christmas he requisitioned two wagons and a detail of troops armed with axes.
“We went into the woods and filled both wagons with green branches from some trees which look as near like our Christmas trees up north as we could find down here in Texas,” Stearns said. “We also were fortunate in securing one extremely large tree, well proportioned.”
Stearns directed the men to decorate a bandstand with those branches and set up the tree nearby. Included above the bandstand was a 21 feet by 10 feet color billboard of the Nativity provided free by a local businessman.
“I knew I was going to spring a surprise on some of the boys which they would never forget” Stearns wrote. “I also made arrangements to have it lit up with a stereopticon,” an early style slide projector.
Stearns invited three other chaplains and Brig. Gen. Charles Boardman, commander of the 64th Brigade and former Wisconsin adjutant general, to speak during the service. The 127th Infantry Regiment Band, the 32nd Division’s finest, provided the music.
“I think there were about 5,000 or possibly more in attendance at that service,” wrote Stearns. “Our regimental band furnished the music. The words of two best known Christmas hymns, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Come Hither, Ye Faithful’ were flashed upon the screens by means of the stereopticon and everyone sang.”
Two attending the service were brothers Pvt. Edward and Pfc. Frank Wrzesinske of Company D, 127th Infantry. Both wrote letters home published in the Fox Lake Representative, their hometown newspaper.
“We all had an enjoyable Christmas, or at least most of us did,” Edward wrote. “Monday evening we had a big Christmas service. There were about 5,000 men around the stand to hear our chaplain and General Boardman speak. We all sang ‘Silent Night’ and another Christmas song. But before we got through singing there were many tears on a good many faces.”
After the ceremony, the YMCA passed out Red Cross Christmas packages containing fruits, cigars, cookies, toothpaste and writing paper.
“There was a wild scramble for the door and after a hard battle I got a dandy package,” Edward wrote. “There are two things the soldiers will never forget and they are the Red Cross and the YMCA, they both do more for the soldiers than a lot of people seem to think.”
Edward’s younger brother Frank did not mention the service but instead focused his letter on Company D’s Christmas Day feast.
“It is rather cold here today but it doesn’t seem like Christmas as there is no snow,” Frank wrote.
“We certainly had a fine dinner today. It consisted of turkey, gravy, spuds, asparagus, bread, butter, coffee, pie, ice cream and cigarettes. We all sure had plenty to eat.”
Stearns was happy with the success of the service, but he missed celebrating Christmas with his congregation.
“All this was very beautiful as long as it lasted, but when it was over I went to my tent and I supposed that I was the most lonesome boy in camp,” wrote Stearns. “I shall never get over hearing the choir in Milwaukee sing at Christmas, and it will never be Christmas as long as I can’t hear them.”
Stearns next entry was perfunctory and indicated that it was time for everybody to focus on final preparations before leaving Camp MacArthur for the battlefields of France.
“The following day I assisted at other Christmas exercises and delivered a Christmas address. That was yesterday,” Stearns said in his Dec. 26th letter. “Today, the usual military routine was resumed.”