I’ll be Home for Christmas

The Final Chapter of the Historical Society of Easton’s Easton in the Service series.

In 1943, lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent took a poem written by song writer Buck Ram and turned it into one of the most popular Christmas songs ever recorded. In October of that year, Bing Crosby recorded the melancholy words using his signature style to spark the hope and desire that America’s soldiers serving in WWII would soon be returning home. I’ll be Home for Christmas quickly shot up the charts of Billboard Magazine, soon reaching number three and staying on the charts for eleven straight weeks. It became the most requested tune at USO holiday shows that year. Unfortunately, the final five-word line of the song proved to be all too true – “If only in my dreams.”

It would be two more years before most of America’s fighting forces would see another Christmas at home – and those would have been the lucky ones – the ones who survived.

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My father had last spent Christmas at home with his mother and six siblings in 1939 when he was fifteen. Two days after Christmas, he left the family home in Aroostook County, Maine headed for Connecticut where he had heard that work was plentiful. With no working papers that verified his age, employment in one of Connecticut’s bustling factories was out of the question. By the time he got to Bridgeport, the ten dollars he had borrowed from a friend was all but spent, and he took one of the few jobs he had been offered, pumping gas at the Socony Mobil station at the corner of Park and North Avenues.

Upon turning eighteen in the summer of 1942, my dad received his draft notice. Two months later he was on a train to Arizona where he would receive his basic training. Ironically, on November 11, 1943, he set sail to England with several thousand other young American soldiers unsure if they would ever see these shores again. Bing Crosby’s song surely evoked both fond memories of Christmases past and at least some hope for family reunions for the holiday in the future.

Sergeant Nelson in Luxembourg, January 1945

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. But that didn’t mean that America’s fighting forces there were heading home. Most were told that they would be going to the Pacific where the war with Japan was still raging. Luckily for men like my father, the logistics of getting that many soldiers more than halfway around the globe proved painstakingly slow. My dad was still in Belgium when the Japanese surrendered in August.

Getting the troops back the United States would still take months. Men were shipped home based on a points system. The longer you had served, the more points you were given. Married men with children received extra points as well. Single young men like my father wouldn’t see the port of New York until late in the fall.

It was late November when my father walked down the gangplank in New York. He was then assigned to Fort Dix to begin the process of receiving his discharge papers and mustering out pay while the army arranged for extra train cars to get the men where they needed to go from New Jersey. His final stop before heading to the family home in Northern Maine would be Fort Devens in Massachusetts, but much to his consternation, he was given the task of making sure that the enlisted men in his unit all made it Devens before they would be officially released from the service of their country.

Since Christmas was nearing and many of those men resided in Connecticut, keeping them from leaving the train on stops in Bridgeport and New Haven would have likely required a good deal more than a single twenty-one-year-old technical sergeant with a side-arm that he wasn’t about to use on one of his own. By the time the train pulled into Fort Devens, the men in my father’s unit had dwindled by more than fifty percent. My father was all but sure that he wouldn’t be leaving the army as a sergeant and that he might not even be released from duty in time to make it home for Christmas.

Luckily, he was mistaken. He received his discharge and caught a train to Boston where he would transfer to another headed north. The Maine Central Railroad ended service at the Northern Maine Junction just outside of Bangor. There, passengers headed to remote Aroostook County would wait to transfer onto cars operated by the Bangor and Aroostook Line. On the final leg of his journey home, my father found himself in a car with only one other occupant, another soldier heading home.

But this was not just any soldier, it turned out to be a young man from my dad’s hometown of some 700 people. Roy Carter was a year older than my father and they rode the last eighty miles together. It would be the first time that either of them had seen their mothers in over five years. It was during that journey that my dad learned that one of their other hometown childhood friends wouldn’t be returning home that Christmas or any other. He had perished somewhere in France in June of 1944 shortly after the D-Day invasion. The war may have been over, but memories of those who had been lost would linger on.

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As we close out our Easton in the Service series, we would like to highlight a few of the other Easton residents who answered the call to serve. Like my dad, not all of them were born in Easton, but they all either lived or worked here sometime during their lives.

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Thomas Ambrose Marsh was born in England in 1835. He was the eldest of Thomas and Eleanor Ambrose Marsh’s eleven children. Along with his parents and the other seven children born to the couple while still living in England, he arrived in Easton in 1850. In 1861 at the age of twenty-six, he mustered into the Connecticut’s 17th Regiment, Company D. In the early days of July,1863, Thomas was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. Those injuries resulted in his loss of the use of his left arm. He was transferred to the Veteran’s Reserve Corps before eventually being discharged with a disability pension on August 12, 1865.

Upon returning to Easton, he rejoined his wife and daughter and despite his disability, he continued in the family tradition of farming, first working with his father and brothers, and later farming his own land on Flat Rock Road. In 1868, he purchased the land at today’s 35 Flat Rock Road and built the house that still stands there today – sans the Queen Anne style tower that was added by a subsequent owner after Thomas had moved to Fairfield in his later years.

Marsh was an accomplished singer who performed regularly with his brothers in the choir of the Jesse Lee Methodist Church in Easton, as well as being a guest soloist at numerous other Methodist churches across the state. He passed away in 1913.

Thomas Ambrose Marsh c.1890

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Doctor Robert William Berry proudly served his country during two wars – WWII as a collegiate apprentice seaman and then again during the Korean conflict as a flight surgeon. He and his family lived in Easton from 1960 until his death in 1995. He was a cardio thoracic surgeon who, along with his partners, performed the first open heart surgery done in Bridgeport.  He played banjo with the Jackson Pike Skifflers and was also a member of the Easton Banjo Society, accompanying them to perform at the White House in 1981.  He and his wife Jeanne were the proud parents of five children.

Dr. Robert Berry (far right) in operating room at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center c.1960.
The Jackson Pike Skifflers. (l-r) Bob & Gert Chamberlain, Jeanne & Bob Berry, and Brabara & Will Tressler. 1981


Enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1944, Apprentice Seaman Berry attended Dartmouth College through the Navy V-12 program.  V-12 was a 12-month year-round program geared towards pre-med students that was created to send young men of high ability to college so that the country would get a continuing turnout of capable medical officers for the duration of the war.  He remained in the V-12 unit at Dartmouth from July of 1944 until the end of the war in 1945.  He had been inducted into the service, passed a physical, given a uniform, and went through what he described as mostly, “dull classroom training.”  Under the program he received an education, clothes, food, and $50 per month as an ‘apprentice seaman.’  There was a dorm commander who orchestrated the daily revelry, followed by half an hour of calisthenics.  All students marched to their classes.  There were passes given for weekend relaxation and family visits.  If a student washed out due to poor academic performance, he was sent to sea, so the incentive to do well in school was certainly strong. 

Dr. Robert Berry (far left leather jacket) aboard the U.S.S. Palau in 1953

During the Korean conflict in 1952-1953, Doctor Berry operated as U.S. Navy flight surgeon aboard the U.S.S Palau.

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Staff Sargent Harold F. Martelli served in the 1st Cavalry, US Army in occupied Japan after WWII. During the Korean conflict, his unit made an amphibious landing in Korea and pursued the North Koreans all the way to the frozen Chosin reservoir.

Harold had grown up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was a golden gloves boxer as teenager before he joined the army when he was 17 years old. The army quickly recognized Harold’s ability to visualize in his mind troop and artillery emplacements for defense of a position. He would frequently be assigned to a two-seat, single engine plane flying over the enemy to determine their movements and how to combat them. Wounded once in combat he declined the Purple Heart.

Staff Sergeant Harold Martelli

Upon returning to civilian life, Harold enrolled in college to become a mechanical engineer. He worked for most of his career for Pepperidge Farms in Norwalk, CT and ITT / Continental Baking, the maker of Wonder Bread, where he helped to design new bakeries as well as streamline older ones as they added new equipment.

When the family moved to Easton in the mid-1960’s, he found the town to be exactly what he had always wanted: a beautiful countryside, good soil to grow vegetables, peace and solitude.

He and his wife raised 3 children in Easton and lived on Barrows Road until his death from Leukemia in 1982 at only the age of only 54.

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Salvatore Giardina and his wife Sharon have been residents of Easton since August 1993. Sal was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY.

USS Briscoe

Sal served in the United States Navy between 1981 and 1985 during final years of the Cold War. He was stationed on Spruance class destroyer, the USS Briscoe DD977 out of Norfolk, Virginia.  That ship would participate in the invasion of Grenada in 1983, a mission known as Operation Urgent Fury. Giardina was also aboard the vessel during 1982 in the Persian Gulf and again in Beirut during 1984.

His role in Navy was as a quartermaster (navigator) before the switch to global positioning satellite guidance (GPS). That required the ability to rely on celestial navigation to guide the vessel through open waters.

Quartermaster Salvatore Giardina

While the USS Briscoe was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 1983 for refresher training, it received a visit from members of Naval intelligence who determined the ship was up to date on their charts regarding Grenada. The crew was given a briefing about their new mission to proceed to Grenada. The crew was allowed to call home via scrambled military satellite communication but were not allowed to say where they were headed.  All Giardina was allowed to say to his father was, “I am going on a mission, and I love you and mom.”

As navigator, Giardina was required to report on the weather every hour and submit a synoptic report every 4 hours to Navy Command back in Washington DC. He was the only qualified master helmsman aboard the ship. The master helmsman is the only person allowed to control the movements of the ship under adverse or dangerous conditions such as Condition One (battle stations), refueling at sea, and sea and anchor detail (when the vessel leaves and arrives in port).

Quartermaster Salvatore Giardina plotting a course on the bridge of the USS Briscoe

The Briscoe’s mission was to support U.S. forces during the invasion of Grenada. It was to blockade the island. Since Giardina was single with no dependents, he volunteered to go on a landing party with other members of the crew, but his offer was refused by his superior officer since Giardina was the one and only master helmsman aboard.

The invasion forces suffered several casualties, including some as a result of friendly fire. Giardina was concerned how the families of those lost or severely injured would take the news – every casualty had a mother and a father, and perhaps siblings or a spouse. While every soldier and sailor is prepared to fight, the thought of being wounded or killed is seldom considered until they find themselves in the midst of a battle. Returning home is suddenly a priority that consumes every fighting man and woman engaged in war.

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During the ensuing years since “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was first recorded, there have been countless thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and air personnel who have spent that holiday facing dangers abroad. After WWII, it was Korea, then Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to mention just some of the major deployments that put American forces in the crosshairs of enemy fire during the holidays.

This year is the first in over twenty that American forces are not actively engaged in some form of mortal combat. Let’s hope and pray that it stays that way.

The Historical Society of Easton would like to thank all those members of our community who have supplied information for this series. A special thanks goes to Christine Berry Walker, Dan Martelli, and Sal Giardina for their contributions to this article. But more importantly, we would like to thank all those who have served. Without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have survived as a nation. While many of our service personnel will spend this December serving in some far-reaching corner of the earth, they will still undoubtedly make it home for Christmas… if only in their dreams. We wish them all a safe and happy holiday!

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