BRADENTON -- On Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor, leading the United States into World War II. Two weeks later, 18-year-old Archie Lee joined the U.S. Navy, eventually serving on the destroyers USS Mitchell and the USS Corry in support of U.S. military operations in the South Pacific.
Lee, a gunner's mate second class by the end of the war, spent his first Christmas in Pearl Harbor as the Navy recovered from the surprise attack and spent the remaining holidays at sea.
Veterans serving in combat zones tend to go one way or the other when it comes to thoughts of Christmas. Some want to treat it like any other day and forget about missing home, while
others try to make the best of what holiday cheer can be mustered.
Lee is like many who say, "If you weren't home, it was just another day. It's not a big thing except with your buddies, and it's just a meaningful handshake."
But thoughts of home and family were stronger during Christmas, especially with a young wife at home. He knows what today's warriors are going through as Christmas approaches, but he's happy Americans have come full circle in honoring their veterans.
"I think the country is doing great again," said Lee, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10141 in Bradenton. "I appreciate every time people reach out and help veterans."
Today's generation may not realize that a group of talented American pilots were fighting the Japanese well before the 1941 attack. In the late 1930s, Japan's forces were dominating the Asian arena and taking a brutal war to the Chinese people. China didn't have much ability to combat the Japanese air assaults and began to hire American pilots to counter Japan's premier air weapon: the Japanese Zero.
Dozens who saw the Japanese threat expanding left for China. A journalist who was following the American airmen once wrote, "They fight like tigers," and the Fighting Tigers were born into legend. When America joined the war, the Flying Tigers were incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Ruth Heckinger was a beautiful 21-year-old Army nurse when she traveled to the Asian theater to help support the Flying Tigers in early 1945. She served in China, Burma and India and flew on dangerous missions to rescue wounded servicemen and pilots to get them back to rear hospitals for treatment and recovery.
"We'd pick up the wounded in China and bring them out of Burma or to Calcutta," said Heckinger. "It's hard to understand what war is like. It's a schizophrenic affair. One day you are flying to treat wounded pilots and the next you were in Casablanca, young and lively and ready to party. But you never really escaped it. I remember being in Casablanca sitting under a palm tree and just crying."
Heckinger's first Christmas overseas was a happy one, since it was December 1945 and the war was over. But the memories linger.
"I still block a lot of it," she said. "You see, Christmas 1945 was a happy time because we knew we were going home. The heartbreaking thing for me is going to weddings and knowing how many young nurses would never have one."
There are an estimated 400 nurses who were killed in combat during World War II. Eighteen of Heckinger's friends were killed in one plane crash -- a plane she was supposed to be on had it not been for an injury just prior to the flight.
Heckinger had a simple, but elegant message for today's soldiers serving overseas at Christmas.
"When we want to tell someone to be of good cheer, we had a phrase growing up for when we were down. Keep your chin up, kid."
Christmas in Korea
Konrad Ortner spent 14 days aboard an old WWII vessel and another four days on a troop train before arriving to his unit in the waning months of the Korean War in 1953. Ortner served with the U.S. Army's 40th Infantry Division, and he eventually wound up on top of a Korean hill with three other men in a bunker observing enemy movements as a forward observer.
Ortner continued that duty until the ceasefire was signed on June 27, 1953. The action brought a halt to combat, but it didn't end the war. Technically, America and South Korea are still at war with North Korea.
"Fortunately, my first Christmas was after the ceasefire was signed, but we didn't really believe the ceasefire," said Ortner. "We were all still carrying our weapons and, if you are carrying a weapon, you are assuming something could happen at any moment. But it was a pretty happy time. We got a great meal with turkey and all the fixings. That was pretty great after months of eating C-rations."
Ortner said Christmas in a war zone can go either way for soldiers.
"Some can get pretty depressed," he said. "Keep heart and think of the people back home because they are really thinking of you."
Christmas in Vietnam
"Uncle" Jim Long, a U.S. Marine sergeant, served in Vietnam from 1967-1969. He started his tour of duty as a combat policeman and eventually volunteered to serve in a mortuary, a duty Long called a privilege in serving his fallen comrades. At Christmastime in 1968, Long was serving in the mortuary when the North Vietnamese broke a ceasefire agreement and launched the Tet Offensive. That briefly sent the country into chaos and is considered to be the turning point of the war in swaying American public opinion against the conflict.
"It was tough being there on Christmas, especially for someone like me who is so sentimental about Christmas," said Long, who lost his mother at the age of 12 and spent the remainder of his childhood in an orphanage before joining the Marines at 17. He knows hard times and wants today's servicemen to understand that whatever happens is not in their control.
"It's a privilege to fight for America and the American flag," he said. "That's an honor. So from my heart I would say that I know everything is in God's hands. We're not in control of anything. It may sound strange, but that's what got me home."
Christmas in Afghanistan
Tony Rivera's bloodline is rooted in military service with generations that served before him, "and I wanted to do my duty and do my part," he said.
In March 2005, Rivera was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom where he was attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade as engineer support personnel delivering equipment to teams responsible for clearing improvised explosive devices that littered Afghan roads. During his year in country, four men from his unit were killed by an IED and his roommate lost an arm and a leg in another explosion. His base fell under enemy mortar attack frequently.
"There was one time I was talking to my wife and she started asking what all the explosions were," said Rivera. "I just told her that everything was all right and I had to get to a bunker."
It was daily life in a war that featured no boundaries, but Christmastime was especially rough for Rivera.
"I called my wife a couple of days before Christmas and she was crying," he recalled. "The kids were yelling and screaming, 'Merry Christmas.' I volunteered for guard duty on Christmas day. I just didn't want to be around anybody. I just decided to pull guard duty and write my wife a letter."
Christmas at war gives Rivera a new appreciation for being home for the holidays.
"It's just sucky being away from home at Christmas," he said. "Nobody is jumping up and down. It's a somber time for the guys. What I would tell those still serving is to hang in there. This, too, shall pass. I never thought it would end, but it did. You just do your duty and then all of a sudden they say you can go home. I have a much greater appreciation for this time of year than I ever have."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.