Friday, December 7, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Seventy-seven years ago today the Japanese launched their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrusting the United States into a bloody worldwide conflagration and forever altering the lives and destinies of millions.  It also cast a somber pall over Christmas festivities getting underway stateside just as the last vestiges of the Great Depression were being shaken off and folks had money to spend for a change.
Take the story of one family.
Robert and Florence Lounsbury of Woodstock, Illinois were nice people—the kind of people who were the back-bone of any small town without actually belonging to the local elite of business owners, lawyers, bankers, and the like.  Robert had managed the local A&P Grocery for twenty years expanding it from a little storefront and had recently opened a new, modern store based on what the local paper described as the super plan, complete with departments for meats, green groceries, baked goods, canned goods, and staples all available for self-service shopping.  Robert would spend ten hours a day or more at the store and knew most of his customers by name.
Florence was what used to be called a Church woman and Club woman.  She was an active member of the Congregational Universalist Church where she belonged to the Friendly Aid, a woman’s group that met on Wednesday afternoons to socialize and do good works for the church and the community.  The local librarian also taught Sunday School.  In 1937 Florence and some of the other ladies from church organized a chapter of the Red Cross Auxiliary.  Called the Gray Ladies because of their uniforms, the women provided countless volunteer hours to the Woodstock Hospital, conducted blood drives, and helped set up classes in First Aid.  Out of this commitment she was named to the Hospital Board.
Robert and Florence had three children, James, Helen, and Thomas who was born in 1921, the year that they arrived in Woodstock so Robert could take over the local A&P.  Tom grew up to be a handsome, slender dark haired boy.  At Woodstock High School he did well, if unspectacularly at his studies and played on the athletic teams.  The local newspaper noted that Tom had “a legion of friends among the younger set.”  After graduating in 1939 he stayed in town, working for local merchants and dating pretty local girls.
But in 1940 with the Draft looming, Thomas told his parents that he would rather enlist in the Navy than wait around and end up in the infantry.  Besides, he was a young man who had never really been anywhere and who was ready to see the world. 
Tom was sent to nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station for boot camp.  After brief postings he got the sea duty he requested on the USS Arizona, sailing for its new station at Pearl Harbor in February of 1941.  There the battleship joined several of her sisters where they were beefing up America’s naval presence in the Pacific as a deterrent to Japanese aggression.
Rated as a Seaman Second Class, Tom settled into the sometimes monotonous life of a sailor who spent most of his time in port.  Of course the lures of Hawaii, including a famous and very crowded red light district near Waikiki, likely provided some diversion for the young man.  He wrote home to his parents, but not often enough and was light on details of his life.  Word was he was also writing to a pretty girl back home as well.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1941 he celebrated with another Woodstock boy, Wilber Kiefer who was stationed on the USS Oklahoma.  The boys may have been homesick.
Florence and Robert probably got the word about the attack on Pearl Harbor sometime after Church on Sunday December 7.  Maybe they were listening to the radio.  Maybe a friend, knowing they had a son there, called with the news.  They must have been worried frantic about their son.  But no news about his fate was forthcoming.  When President Roosevelt addressed Congress the next day to ask for a Declaration of War, the public still had not been told about how disastrous the losses were on the “Date that shall live in infamy.”
Back in Woodstock, the Lounsburys tried to get on with their lives.  On December 10 Florence and the Friendly Aid held an afternoon craft bazaar followed by a cafeteria style supper featuring “a fine menu of ham, creamed chicken, mashed potatoes, rutabagas, escalloped corn, salads, cakes, and pies.”  On the 15th the A&P honored Robert for twenty years of service.

The USS Arizona sinks to the bottom of Pearl Harbor taking Thomas Lunsbury and  1,176 other crewmen to their death.
On December 21 the Navy Department sent the Lounsburys a wire listing their son as missing in action.  No one knows exactly what happened to Tom that day.  He is presumed to be among the 1,177 crewmen killed when a Japanese bomb ignited a forward powder magazine.  That was more than half of all those killed that day at Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks, and Ford Island.
Young Tom Lounsbury was one of two local boys killed that day, officially the first, but far from the last casualties of World War II from Woodstock.
With a long war ahead with families and sweethearts wrenched by separation and fear, people turned to music for comfort, especially at Christmas time.  There were many war-time Christmas songs written and recorded—almost every Big Band with a singer had at least one in their repertoire.  They filled the holiday radio shows and were transcripted to be played for the troops around the world.   Many of the songs were forgettable, but some have become timeless classics.
For my father, First Sargent W. M. Murfin posted to a forward American field hospital attached to the British and Anzac forces under Field Marshall Montgomery in North Africa in 1942, the song that brightened a cold night in the desert was White Christmas, the Irving Berlin song that made its debut in Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  Its wistful note of nostalgia plucked many hearts and cemented its place as the most beloved secular American Christmas song.
Later in the war, millions thought that Judy Garland was singing for them as well as for Margaret O’Brien when she crooned the melancholy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Bing Crosby on a USO tour in Europe. 
In 1943 Bing Crosby scored again with a song aimed directly at lonely servicemen far from home and their families.  I’ll be Home For Christmas by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent—Buck Ram was latter also given credit after a law suit because he had written a poem with the same name and similar sentiments—was released by Decca Records and became a top ten hit and Crosby’s fifth Gold Record. 
The song has been covered by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, Connie Francis, The Carpenters, Anita Baker, Kelly Clarkson, Michael Bublé, Pentatonix, and Demi Lovato among many others.
But Der Bingle did it best.

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