December 1, 1944, was a dismal day for Captain Harold Jarrell’s B-29 crew in Tashkent, Russia. Thanksgiving Day, just passed, had been no different from any other monotonous day since our internment and the chances of getting out of Russia soon were mighty slim.
This is the story of how we homesick Americans brought Christmas to the middle of Russian Turkestan. It was a Christmas with as much meaning and faith as any I have ever known. It moved us and helped us---and I have a feeling it sank into the hearts and minds of some of the supposedly non-religious Soviets who witnessed it.
We had been hit by ack-ack over the Jap-held coke and steel ovens in Mukden, Manchuria, on July 29, and crash landed in Siberia.
That was the start of a four-day, 4,000-mile journey across Siberia that ended at the more or less modern airport at Tashkent, the capital city of the Uzbek S.S.R. We were taken to an old Russian villa on the hilly edge of the city, where we met about 40 Navy fliers who had come across Siberia from the Aleutian campaign.
One night Leonard Karkosznyski, a Polish gunner from Dixon, Pennsylvania, appeared with a large white cloth under his arms. “I’m going to paint the prettiest Christmas scene you ever saw,” he promised. And that is what he did.
That white cloth became the center of our decorations. With a piece of charcoal Leonard sketched the figure of an American soldier kneeling at prayer with the Christmas star shining gloriously overhead. The rest of us got some colored paper and snipped out the usual yuletide candles, wreaths and holly.
George Hummell, a gunner on our crew who had been a baker in civilian life, obtained a special ration of flour and beet sugar. He worked a whole day, mixing up a delicious batch of cookies and cake. The Russians hadn’t restricted our plans in any way. They did look in occasionally to see that we weren’t destroying anything, but we figured their vigilance was more curiosity than anything else. Several days before the party, out of courtesy, we sent an invitation to the NKVD officers and they surprised us by readily accepting.
Christmas Eve arrived cold and clear. Sam’s choir softly caroled “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and other religious numbers by the flickering light of two dozen candles in a large candelabrum. With Leonard’s drawing dimly showing in the darkness, Major McGlinn stepped forward to read the Bible account of the First Christmas. When he finished no one said a word. I think all of us for a short time forgot where we really were. In our minds we were back at home with our families, gathered around a tree, shouting Merry Christmas and exchanging gifts.
I think we saw carolers riding through the snow, softly singing the message of that First Christmas---“Peace on earth to men of good will.”
Even the Russians sat in respectful silence until the explanations they whispered to one another brought us back to the present. The lights flashed on and the choir broke into “Jingle Bells.” We were shouting and singing when one of the fellows stood up with a paper in his hand. Seeing that he was about to make some kind of a speech, we all became quiet again.
He began to recite a little poem, poking fun at our Russian Commandant who sat sternly throughout the performance. When he ended with a particular gibe at the ignorance of Russian commandants our entire group roared with laughter. So did “Mama.” “Stand up and take a bow,” she told the commandant in Russian. The poem was for you.” Seriously, he smiled, and bowed from the waist. We howled with delight until dinner was served.
The menu was a pleasant change from our usual diet of rice and goat meat. We eagerly devoured roast chicken, potatoes, pickled cucumbers, green onions, bread, tea, and George Hummel’s white cake. When we had finished eating, the commandant stood up and motioned toward the door. In marched several soldiers carrying a half pint of vodka for every one of us.
Then came some more entertainment. Four of the gang sang some barbershop numbers. There was the usual poetry and amateur show jokes. Two of the boys put on a good exhibition of “jitterbug dancing” which amazed the Russians. They warmly applauded for several repeat performances.
We then broke up into small groups and more or less entertained ourselves. The Russians produced an old gramophone and played some tangos and polkas. We took turns dancing with the women workers who were present.
It was about this time that the younger Russians became a bit inquisitive. “What is this feast of Christmas of yours?” several of them asked. “Is it the birthday of one of your leaders?”
We tried to explain that it was the birthday of Jesus Christ. The commandant was eyeing us suspiciously. But we felt good, and wanted to talk. We weren’t making much headway, however, because of the language difficulty, when one of the NKVD colonels came to our rescue. To our great surprise, he fully explained our feast of Christmas, its origin, the exchange of gifts and other customs. Several of the older officers remembered such celebr
ations in their youth many years ago.
The young Russians continued to ask questions for quite some time until the commandant finally barked a short command in Russian. The soldiers came to attention and marched from the room.
The NKVD colonel who had explained Christmas for us had used the phrase, “Zabavnia Rojestvo Kristovo.” Just before the party broke up I slipped over to “Mama” and asked her what that meant. Very softly “Mama” replied, “Merry Birthday of Christ.”
And that’s what it was.
-by Jerome C. Zuercher, as told to Joseph F. Beckman, Jr