The best blue Christmas ever
“Spending Christmas at Fort Stevens was a prospect which pleased none of us,” said Corporal Lynn Mowat.
Before he enlisted in Ashland’s 1st Company, Oregon National Guard, and the company was sent north for military training along the Columbia River, 23-year-old Lynn had been city editor for the Ashland Tidings newspaper.
While in service, he became one of Jackson County’s most prolific letter writers; although, as the only newsman in his Army company, rather than letters heading home, he wrote directly to his hometown newspaper for publication.
As Christmas 1917 approached, the boys had been training for nearly five months; five months of lifeless Army chow that was about to be shunned in favor of the kindness and caring of the folks back home.
On Christmas Eve, the local YMCA had given the boys an enjoyable program, and the military authorities did everything they could to make the holiday fun; yet, the boys who had never been this far away before could think only of home.
“Naturally,” Lynn said, “nearly all of us had one or two blue moments when thoughts of the family circle at home intruded — but the one, big redeeming feature of the day, the feature which lifted it from of an incident to be endured into an event to be remembered, was the overwhelming success scored by the people at home.”
Letters from home on the days preceding and following Christmas nearly swamped the Fort post office.
“Everybody was remembered,” Lynn said. “Packages, letters and cards piled up until it seemed as if every soldier in our company was remembered by everyone in Ashland.”
Then, Christmas Day, the home folks had wrapped Christmas for the boys in packages — three large packing crates, heavy enough so that three men had to carry each one.
Accompanying the crates were ambassadors from home, three women from Ashland, Dorothy Hedberg, Mollie Winne and Mollie Songer. “They are spending a week here, as impromptu Santa Clauses — or, should it be Santess Clauses?” asked Lynn.
Within the crates was a Christmas stocking for each man, “full of every conceivable trinket necessary to making a Christmas a real Christmas.”
The boys reverted to boyhood, parading around the camp, unashamed, tooting toy horns and screaming and squawking like wounded ducks.
“It was a happy morning,” Lynn said, “rejoicing over a host of useful little remembrances, alternating with an exhilarating return to the delights of childhood over some little toy. Whoever it was that conceived the idea of putting toys in each stocking scored a hit on the heartstrings of the 1st Company.”
But then it was the Army’s turn to help with the surprise.
“The mess sergeant and cooks,” Lynn said, “backed by an Uncle Sam who is sensible enough to remember Christmas dinner sentiment, even in the midst of a big war, and also the people of Ashland who have intuitively learned that the way to the heart of a man or an army is through the stomach, produced a dinner which was an Achievement with a capital A. It was complete from soup to nuts, turkey, plum pudding, mince pie, oyster soup, and so forth, with all the side trimmings.”
No one was allowed to leave the mess tent “until he was absolutely jammed so full of food that his ribs squeaked when he walked.”
The men were weeks away from combat. Most would live. Some would die. But as a joyful Lynn Mowat recalled:
“Christmas Day at Fort Stevens will always be remembered by the boys of the 1st Company as the best day ever.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “Forgotten Voices of WWI.” Reach him at email@example.com.