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Bob Lind, Published December 22 2013

Neighbors: 'White Christmas' links history, family

It was a rugged place to spend Christmas in 1942: Guadalcanal, where the 164th Infantry Division of the North Dakota National Guard was in fierce combat with the Japanese forces occupying the Pacific island.

The fighting had been virtually nonstop since the division landed that October, making it the first U.S. Army unit to go into offensive action during World War II, and the loss of life was high.

Then Christmas Eve arrived. The men of the 164th, far from home, took advantage of a rare break in the fighting to gather around a shortwave radio and listen to the Armed Forces Network’s Christmas Eve broadcast. And for the first time they heard a song that had only recently been released:

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know …”

It was the first time Paul J. Kessler, then of Anamoose, N.D., and a member of the 164th, had seen grown men cry.

Family tradition

Paul’s son, Tim Kessler, Detroit Lakes, Minn., says the family had a Christmas season tradition: Paul, safely home from the war, and who had a rich Bing Crosby-like baritone voice, sang “White Christmas” every year. His seven kids just took it for granted, not knowing the special significance the song had for their dad.

But one Christmas not long before he died in 2007, Paul told Tim about the time he first heard that song.

“He talked about the battle-hardened soldiers all ‘blubbering’ ” during the song, Tim says.

“Where the tree tops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”

Special pine cones

A few years ago, while Tim was visiting his father’s grave in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan, he noticed many large pine cones under a nearby tree and thought they’d make nice Christmas tree ornaments.

So, knowing what “White Christmas” meant to his father, he reproduced an image of the song’s original sheet music and a wartime photo of his dad on those pine cones from the gravesite and created ornaments for his siblings and their mother, Eva, of Detroit Lakes.

But his mom’s ornament had a special addition on it.

Back when his father was buried, the Mandan VFW honor guard had fired the salute. Later, Tim shook their hands, then “On a whim,” he says, “I picked up one of the spent 30-06 casings from the M-1s they’d fired and pocketed it. When I made the ornaments, I added it to Mom’s, because the M-1 was the weapon Dad carried.”

Tim gave those ornaments to his family last Christmas Eve. It was a nice surprise, a nice story. But then a surprising twist to that story was revealed by Tim’s brother Paul J. Kessler Jr., of Green Bay, Wis., and who is known as “P.J.”

After graduating from high school in Cando, N.D., where the family had moved, and while the Vietnam War was on, P.J. went into the Navy.

On April 29, 1975, P.J. was a seaman on the bridge of the carrier USS Hancock when the helicopter evacuation of Americans from Saigon began. Many of the evacuees were taken to the Hancock. In fact, the movie “The Deer Hunter” included actual footage of the helicopters landing on the Hancock, then being pushed overboard to make room for other evacuees.

P.J., in telling this story to his family, also told of the signal given to start the evacuation from Saigon.

He said the American personnel there were told they should move immediately to their evacuation points when they heard Armed Forces Radio play a recording of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”

So it was, Tim notes, that Paul J. Kessler Sr. was part of the first U.S. Army offensive operation of World War II, and his son, Paul J. Kessler Jr., was part of the end of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. And both had links to that much-loved Christmas song.

“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com