Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Christmas in Puyallup, 1941

Christmas in Puyallup, 1941
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this article appeared in the Puyallup Herald on December 2, 2009)

On December 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 260th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment cut short its training at Fort Bliss, Texas and boarded trains. “We didn’t know where we were going,” said gunnery sergeant Warren Eddy of Washington, DC, who had joined the 260th Regiment a year earlier, just before it was called to active duty for training. “Finally we found out we were going to the Northwest.”

Within a few days, the 260th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment of the Washington, DC National Guard found itself in Washington State, tasked with protecting it from Japanese air attacks. First Battalion was assigned to Boeing Field and the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. Second Battalion was assigned to guard the recently-opened McChord Field. Without adequate housing for 600 Guardsmen at McChord, the battalion arranged to take over the Puyallup Fairgrounds while awaiting more permanent quarters. “It was the only place they could put [us],” said Eddy.

Lt. Col. Curt Hammond, who was a young second lieutenant in December 1941 and who today at age 93 is the only living officer from the 260th, recalls arriving at the train depot in Tacoma and immediately moving into the Fairgrounds on December 13, 1941.

Not that the Fairgrounds had proper accommodations. “We slept in our bedclothes on a cement floor in the horse pens,” said Hammond. According to Eddy, “You just lived wherever you and your fellow soldiers could find a place to lay down. I remember laying on one of the vegetable stands most of the time. The cold weather set in and the pipes in the Fairgrounds froze up. There was no running water, and the toilets weren’t usable.” Families who lived around the Fairgrounds generously opened their homes for Guardsmen to use their bathrooms.

Eddy recalls carrying his gun with him in downtown Puyallup. “Not knowing what the Japanese were going to hit next, we were always required to take our weapons with us with ammunition.” The sight of uniformed, armed men from the East Coast must have been a strange phenomenon in the Valley, the first visible sign that the war had come to Puyallup.

Christmas was also coming. Men like John Morris of Baltimore, who had just turned 18 the month before, were a long way from home.

"And then the citizens of Puyallup took over,” Morris recalled in an article several years ago. “[P]retty soon, cars were stopping at the main Guard Post (on Meridian) with cookies, cakes, pies, offers of dinner, pots of steaming coffee in their own coffee pots and on and on … cars would be lined up for half a block just to drop something off. And this was not just during daylight hours; many was the lonely sentry on the midnight to 4 am watch that would have people stop by during their shift with hot coffee and a goodie.”
“And as it got closer to Christmas we got so many invitations to Christmas dinner that we didn’t have enough guys to fill the invitations. The primary reason for that was that we could only release ten percent of the unit at one time. That did not deter the wonderful people of Puyallup; we could only be gone for four hours at a time, therefore, on Christmas day, some families would have one group of guys at noon, and a second group at 5 pm. Other families actually postponed their family dinners to another day to insure that they would get to have some of the youthful soldiers as guests.”

Morris was the bugler for the battalion. Each morning that winter, Morris would climb to the top of the Grandstand to play reveille, and taps in the evening. As part of the 260th Band, Morris recalls marching up and down 5th Street Southwest. It didn’t take long for the children of Puyallup to notice the new band in town. “[W]e would have 20-30 kids and their dogs marching along with us. The dogs would be yapping and playing and the kids, girls and boys alike would skip along beside us in time to the music. Some of our older bandsmen must have presented a father figure to some of the kids, as they would play their horn with one hand and have a kid hanging on to the other.”

The 260th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, 2nd Battalion remained in the Fairgrounds for three months. Some Guardsmen organized a basketball team. “We used to go to Puyallup High School and practice,” said Eddy. “I remember playing the high school basketball team and we were soundly beaten because we were so badly out of shape.”

In early March 1942, the men of 2nd Battalion moved to new barracks at McChord.

Many of those stationed at McChord kept their ties to Puyallup throughout the war. The 260th band provided entertainment for a dance in the Fruitland Grange hall one March evening in 1944. John Morris played the trumpet. And that night, Morris met the woman he would marry, a pretty Puyallup High School senior named Dorothy Heil. In May, Morris was transferred to Camp Hann, California, but he made a quick visit back to Puyallup in July for the wedding and returned to California with his bride. John Morris later organized the 260th alumni association, with annual reunions mostly around Washington, DC, where most of the Guardsmen lived.

“It was a big deal for all of us who lived in Puyallup that they were a part of Puyallup,” said Dororthy Heil Morris. “Here they were far from home. It was all a new experience for them.” It was a new experience for Puyallup too.

Contact Hans Zeiger at or 253-905-8160.

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