“The lonely soldier” is a perennial holiday storyline all around the world. The hollow sounds of holiday greetings only taunt the heart as duty keeps the soldier apart from loved ones and home’s distant comfort. Our neighbor Harry Puncec tells us what it was like to live the old movie cliché in real life, doing what soldiers do, just being there and, in military parlance, “maintaining readiness.”
By Harry Puncec
Memories of Christmas in Verdun back in 1959 overtake me each year at this time. Thinking back, the impression I have of the caserne (French for barracks), the fort, and the town could be summed up in a word: drab. As always it was a cloudy day, no snow on the ground but cold and damp as usual. In that sense it was a totally unremarkable day.
For the life of me I can’t recall any outdoor decorations or lights. World War Two had been over not quite 15 years and there were other things that needed fixing before they had the luxury of American-style conspicuous celebration.
By late afternoon of the 25th I was thoroughly bummed out. I had been with C Company only a month and hadn’t formed any friendships yet so was missing home and family big time. To cap all that Caserne Maginot1 where we were stationed had a loud speaker system which was dedicated to playing Christmas music all day. “Joy to the World” definitely excluded Verdun in my mind.
By evening I had had enough. I borrowed $5 from one of the guys and walked down toward the center of town until I encountered the bar safely away from the music. Inside a few guys were talking quietly and sucking on their beer. Refuge!
At some point I had acquired the buzz I was seeking and settled down to a morose, quiet evening alone at which point a guy walked over to the jukebox, dropped in a coin, and selected “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” There was to be no escape!
Two years later things had changed. Now I was one of the “old soldiers” and my unit had been relocated to Étain, a small town to the east of Verdun. Our base was Caserne Sidi Brahim.2 My first impression was that the barracks were old stables made habitable for humans. I was wrong, they were actually rebuilt after World War One for the French 6th Military district and served in that capacity until the Germans returned in 1940. They probably would have come out of the war all right but the U.S. 3rd Army under General Patton requisitioned it in 1944 and we still had them.
We had much to feel sorry about at Sidi Brahim. We were back in squad rooms with everyone shoehorned into a small area. The buildings had an inadequate heating system that struggled from the day we arrived. Only the first one or two people in the morning and evening found lukewarm water in the showers, and nobody found really warm quarters.
Memories of Étain days are saved by an event around Christmas. The 97th sponsored an orphanage near Vitry-le-Francios and I joined the modest contingent of troops from C Company who attended the holiday party. The kids were shy yet happy, and the nuns as sweet as any out of a Hollywood flick. I recalled my few months in St. Vincent’s Orphanage as a kid3 so I easily related to their confusion and surprise. The party was a big success and made even more memorable when the bus we were riding back to base slid on some black ice and smacked into some other spun out vehicles. Nobody was hurt but it seemed somehow fitting. We spent the night at a small Army base nearby and finished the trip “home” in the morning.
It’s revealing that I note with irony that I remember Christmases in France better than many spent here in the States.
One of the highest duties in the military is standing guard, to stay awake at night while your buddies sleep: their lives in your hands. Looking back it’s clear that we were standing guard for the American people so that they could sleep while waiting for Santa, and today I feel safe because members of our “new” military have taken our place. I hope they get warm showers from time to time.
Harry Puncec, Veteran, Company C, 97th Engineer Battalion, United States Army, is a resident of Lakewood and a founding member of not only the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association but the Southern Gables neighborhood itself. To see more of his stories, click on his name in the dateline at the top of the article.
- Maginot Barracks, a military base west of Verdun used by the French and American armies since the 1920s.
- Sidi Brahim Barracks, a former army barracks (base) established before WWI and used by French and American armies until the 1960s. It is now a civilian industrial area.
- Story, The Orphanage, September 9 2021