By Dan Smaczny, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator
Aviation Radio Technician 1st Class Gilbert Hotchkiss began his letter to his parents, dated December 16, 1943, with “Dear Mom & Dad, Merry Christmas – in words only, so far.” Sailors like Hotchkiss often weren’t able to travel home for the holidays, but they were able to wish their family and friends “happy holidays,” whether in a telegram during World War II or via email today.
The National Museum of the American Sailor’s archives are filled with many historic materials which shed light on the historical experience of the enlisted Sailor. In 2018, the museum received an outstanding collection of photographs and letters from the family of Aviation Radio Technician 1st Class Gilbert Edwin Hotchkiss. Born in Kansas in 1916, Hotchkiss enlisted in the United States Navy on December 5, 1939. He served on several ships including the USS Manley (APD 1) and USS Merak (AF 21) and had various assignment stations, including Key West, Florida; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and San Juan, Puerto Rico before his honorable discharge in 1945.
“This card is one of 21 I ordered. Sent them to the ‘usual’ ones and some others in Manhattan (Kansas).” Gilbert’s letter to Mom, Dad, and his brother Earl, December 23, 1939. National Museum of the American Sailor Collection.
When Hotchkiss began boot camp at U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes on December 6, 1939, the holidays were right around the corner. While he wasn’t able to enjoy any home-cooked holiday dinners that year, he did describe his boot camp Christmas dinner in a letter to his parents on December 31:
Hello Everyone…Christmas dinner – Here we go – The composition top tables even had tablecloths on them. Plates were set at each place with olives, pickles, salad, fruit cake, pie, ice cream, celery, fruit cocktail, cranberries, and that’s all I remember now. We took our regular trays and passed in regular file by the cafeteria counter for turkey, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, dressing, gravy, rolls, bread and butter, and I believe one or two other things. Everyone was really stuffed that meal. It was a little bigger variety but home cooking is a little tastier.
Like many sailors, Hotchkiss regularly wrote and received letters while at boot camp and his communications with his family and friends continued throughout his tour. During the war, correspondences specifically omitted key details so that they could be stamped “Passed by Naval Censor.” That fact is evident in his mentioning of “the other place” in the lines he wrote on December 26, 1943 describing that year’s Christmas dinner:
Dear Folks…Dinner here yesterday was only slightly “special,” and compares nothing to what we know the other place was having. Fellows here say the Thanksgiving feed was the same thing, so the bunch of us that are here now kinda missed the feast at the other place.
Mid-December 1940, Our Navy magazine cover and cartoon from the Gilbert Hotchkiss Collection. National Museum of the American Sailor.
Sailors like Hotchkiss’ received more than just letters and greeting cards during the holidays. On December 23, 1939, Gilbert gratefully described his gift from his sister – “Hazel’s gift was the swellest thing possible. It is a leather cover, with a zipper, paper, envelopes, 24 3₵ stamps, address book, & calendar. And just the right size.” He may still have been using Hazel’s gift a year later when he wrote home from Naval Air Station Key West, Florida on December 28, 1940:
Dear Folks…PS – Earl and Fanny’s package of candy arrived yesterday as well as A. Mildred’s box of stationary. Today a toilet kit arrived from another Manhattan friend. Your stationary is perfect for size in carrying, and is plenty light for airmail. Hope you don’t mind my using both sides—but it saves paper.
December 1942, Christmas Card sent to Gilbert Hotchkiss from his parents via Air Mail. National Museum of the American Sailor.
The holiday gifts he received in 1945 were likely his most cherished in years. Aviation Radio Technician 1st Class Gilbert Hotchkiss was able to personally wish his loved ones “happy holidays” as he was discharged on December 10, 1945. As these sentiments are timeless, we close out this blog with a rhyme from the final lines of Gilbert’s December 19, 1941 letter to his sister, Hazel:
“The words are always the same, and we still have the same name, but to all you at thirteen twenty-one, my deepest greetings to you, each and every one. The very Merriest of Christmasses!”
Read more about U.S. Navy sailors and the holiday season in these two Sailor’s Attic articles by NMAS: Season’s Eatings: Naval Holiday Meals and Playing With the Navy.
For more information on the National Museum of the American Sailor’s collection go to our website.
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