Dad's Hope for Our Best Christmas Ever, 1942

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Lt. Ernest Chamberlain left his expectant wife and son on December 31, 1941 and headed for Fort Lewis Washington. This real-life story tells of our family's desire and challenges to be together for Christmas in 1942. When will he receive his call to the war overseas? No one knows.

Dad’s Hope for Our Best Christmas Ever, 1942


It was 1942. My dad and mother desperately wanted our family to be together until the inevitable phone call. When that call will come, no one knows. If we are still together in December, dad promised, it will be our best Christmas ever.

My father, Lt. Ernest M. Chamberlain, left for Fort Lewis, Washington on December 31, 1941. My mother, Agnes Fay Barney Chamberlain, and my brother Martin moved in to her parent's home in Salt Lake City. Dennis Chamberlain (aka me) became part of the Chamberlain family in March.

Ernest and Fay Chamberlain wrote to each other almost every day during World War 2. Fay saved every personal letter and card she ever received. She therefore preserved the story of our family during the war.

The World in March 1942

The world was not a very inviting place in March 1942. Nevertheless, I had been invited and was on my way. Gratefully, my destination was the USA, and to loving parents Ernest and Fay Chamberlain, and to the peaceful home of my grandparents, Archie and Livonia Barney.

In March 1942 the world was a mess and our freedom was in serious peril. The Imperial Empire of Japan scored a major victory in the naval battle of Java Sea, and they were well on their way to occupy all of Dutch East India, (Indonesia). They surrounded the Philippines. General Douglass MacArthur narrowly escaped with his family and staff. In Australia he declared, "I shall return."

A German submarine near Cuba torpedoed and sank the USS Texan an American Cargo Ship. At Riga, in Nazi occupied Latvia, 3740 men, women and children (Jews, Gypsies and those who opposed the occupation) were taken into the nearby woods and shot.

This was the state of the world when I arrived.

March 18, 1942

On the morning of March 18, 1942 Fay Chamberlain opened the trap door in the bathroom floor and dumped the laundry through the hole. It fell into a basket on the floor in the basement. "At nine am", she wrote in a letter to her husband, "the pains started and were every ten minutes apart. I went down and did the washing without telling anyone about them."

The washing machine hummed a soothing rhythm as the clothing swished back and forth. She took the clothes out of the water, placed them piece by piece through the ringer, then pinned them on the line to dry.

In her letter she continued: "By 11:00 the pains were quite hard and I decided I might as well tell them and get it over with." Fay did not like to be the center of attention, especially during times of distress. Therefore, she always understated her pain and discomfort. "The pain got pretty good and I called the Doctor. He said 'Go to the hospital Immediately!"

Her pains were now 4 minutes apart.

Her father, Archie Barney, came home from work and got her and Livonia and they where on their way. There was one minor detour. Fay had to stop at the Bank in downtown Salt Lake to get money to pay the hospital. "So, Dad took me to the bank to get the money. Wasn't I crazy? I could have had it on Main Street! I hadn't told them how hard they were and Mom and Dad figured there was plenty of time. We got to the hospital at 2:30"

Archie and Livonia were unaware they were carrying a ticking time bomb. Fay preferred they were not present for the main event. So, she told them everything was fine and sent them into town to run their errands. "Just as they left the room the water broke." She called the nurse at 3:10 and at 3:15 she was in the delivery room.

I arrived on the scene at 4:02 pm.

"Mom was sure mad when she got back... She was happy it was over but mad at me for sending her away." Fay wrote to Ernest.

Archie wrote in his journal with a hint of disgust: "Fay told us to take our time not hurry. The baby boy was born between 3:30 and 4:00 pm while Livonia and I were at Z.C.M.I."

Our first family reunion, May 1, 1942

Ernest was lonely, especially on weekends. He wished Fay was there so he could take her to the occasional big dance party in town for the officers.

On April 8 Fay wrote: "I'm getting anxious and excited about coming up now. I am frightened every time the phone rings and it is for Mrs. E. M. Chamberlain. I'm afraid you are calling to say good bye. I don't think I could stand it if I didn't get to see you, and have you see your sons before they grow up too much."

Ernest wrote on April 12: "Let's throw caution to the winds... If we gamble and I see you for but a moment, no money was ever spent better."

Ernest found a vacancy at the Holly Auto Court on the main highway about two miles east of Olympia Washington. Our plane left Salt Lake City on May 1 and we met Dad at the Seattle airport. It was wonderful to be together for the first time as a family of four.

Long Days for Fay

After three weeks together, Ernest had to leave Fay and us boys in the motor court. Three days later, Fay wrote:

"These have been the longest three days. I don't know what the next two weeks will be like. Maybe if the sun would shine it would help, huh?"6

She complained that It rains whenever she puts the clothes on the line and soaks them.

Finally, Ernest returned on about June 15th. They were happy to be together for their fourth wedding anniversary on June 29.

However, Ernest soon received orders to take a Communications Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The course was TD (temporary duty) and would terminate in about three months. Upon completion he would return to Fort Lewis, Washington.

Our family left Washington and we arrived in Salt Lake City at Fay's parent's home about August 24th.

Fort Sill, Oklahoma August 29, 1942

Ernest left us behind in Salt Lake with great hopes to get together soon. His train arrived at Fort Sill on August 29. He studied hard on his classes which included electricity, map reading, telephone, radio and secret codes and Morse Code.

He missed his family and was counting the days until they would be together again. However, Martin needed to have his to tonsils out in Salt Lake. Also, Ernest wanted to buy their first car. This would solve some problems, but cash would be tight for a while.

Big plans for Christmas

Fay was excited about the car and wanted to see pictures and know more about it. Hopefully, she could meet Ernest in Oklahoma, and at least come back with him. "When am I coming to see you?" She wrote. However, this dream was fading. The car down payment, insurance and $50 monthly payments, caused them to reconsider their plans to get together at Fort Sill.

"The money alone is not important, Ernest wrote, but the fact that to get to Fort Lewis will probably take all or more than we can save up and after we get there it will be December. I want this Christmas, if we are still able to be together, the best we have ever had".

The big day finally arrived and on Friday November 20, Ernest graduated from the army Communications Course. The next morning, he went to the ration board to get a little extra gas and bade goodbye to old Fort Sill. He arrived in Salt Lake City about November 23.

Back to Olympia, Washington

After their brief visit in Salt Lake, they loaded Fay's sewing machine and supplies into the car. She was an excellent seamstress and liked to modify her own clothes and planned to make Christmas clothes for the children. She was delighted the family was together and that she would have something she enjoyed doing when Ernest was away.

When they arrived in Olympia, they found a motel along the highway near Fort Lewis. They decorated it and fixed it up. Fay was happy about her new home and sewing set up. Ernest was excited about Christmas. It was now only a few weeks away.

On Tuesday, December 8, Fay drove Ernest to Fort Lewis.  He wanted to be sure she learned the route so she could get back to the motel. Ernest watched as Fay, Martin and Dennis traveled two blocks and turned onto the highway.

Ernest then walked up the stairs to headquarters, but found the building vacant except for two enlisted men. They told him his unit was training at the firing range in Yakima, Washington on the other side of the mountain. "Get on the kitchen truck, it is leaving in a few minutes!"10

He had told Fay he would be back for dinner, but instead he was now heading for the firing range in Yakama.

It gets worse

Early the next morning Ernest was at a train station in Billings Montana frantically writing to Fay.  He knew she would be upset. He had to explain to her his incredible experiences of the last 24 hours, and why he didn't call her sooner.

"Here is my story", he wrote at 3 am, "I haven't really had any sleep since I last saw you".

He told her he had to leave for Yakima, "We finally managed to leave at 9:20 am".

The trip should take about four hours. However, due to heavy rain and snow and an over turned gasoline trailer, the 180-mile trip around Mt. Rainier took 12 hours. They arrived at 9:30 pm.

When Ernest got to Yakima, he walked into the adjutant's tent to report in. The adjutant looked at him and said, "Aren't you at Fort Sill?"

Obviously, he was not.

"I just came from Fort Sill. I finished my course there and returned to my permanent station", Ernest replied.

"We sent your orders to Fort Sill, didn't you get our telegram?" They told Ernest that he is supposed to take another three-month course at Fort Sill since he is already there. "School starts tomorrow morning, December 9, the soonest you can possibly get there is the 10th. You need to be on the next train to Fort Sill!"

Poor Ernest was a day late and $60.00 dollars short, for he had no money to buy his train ticket. When they got to the train station, Union Pacific had just left. Northern Pacific took a longer route, but now would arrive sooner. "Finally, miracle of miracles, I found a fellow that would take my check for $60.00." he wrote. He then bought his ticket on NP.

What else can go wrong?

Ernest felt sick. It would have been just as easy to make the trip with the family back to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma as it was to go to Ft. Lewis, Washington.

Suddenly it dawned on Ernest that it was after 10 o'clock and Fay was waiting for him back in the motel in Olympia. And now, he was about to board a train for Oklahoma. Not only that, he didn't know the phone number of the motel!

He looked through the phone directory. There was no listing for Hi Way Motor Court or the manager's name Rowe. In desperation Ernest called the Switchboard in Olympia Washington. At that time, live operators conducted all telephone service. The operator was very patient and accommodating and connected him with the Highway Patrol. They read Ernest the long list of motels found between Fort Lewis and Olympia. None of them sounded familiar.

Ernest got the same operator back and she graciously began calling each of the motels along the highway to see if they had a Mrs. Chamberlain registered there. Finally, one manager told her that the Hi Way Motor Court might be listed under the name "Gibson". And it was. They recently changed the name.

He called the number and the manager, Mr. Rowe answered. He confirmed that Mrs. Chamberlain was indeed registered there.

Where is Fay?

Ernest told Mr. Rowe he needed to talk to Mrs. Chamberlain. So, Mr. Rowe went and knocked on the door. He came back to the phone and told Ernest: "Mrs. Chamberlain is not home. The car is there, but the newspaper has not been taken in."

Ernest said: "Please give her a message as soon as you see her. Tell her I am on my way to Fort Sill and won't return." He then rushed off to catch the train.

As he boarded the train his mind was whirling. "Where is Fay?" He worried about all the possibilities. "Had she gotten back from the post OK? Was he sure her car was there? If that was our car, why wasn't she home?"

Billings Montana, December 9, 1942

The Northern Pacific train pulled in to Billings Montana at about 3 am. It was over one hour behind schedule, so he missed his connection with the train to Kansas City. The next train would not leave for seven hours.

He immediately started writing to Fay. He wrote a quick note on a post card and mailed it before the morning pick-up. The post card note read:

Dearest Fay - I certainly have felt punk today worrying about you and thinking of how I messed up X-mas. Write me by airmail what you plan to do. Will send you complete letter soon as possible. Love, Ernest.

He then composed a six-page letter with the woeful details of his day. Since he missed the connection to Kansas City, he boarded the next train to Lincoln, Nebraska. The train finally left Billings, Montana and chugged its way to Lincoln where he missed his connection again.

Abandoned at Hi Way Motor Court

The manger told Fay the message from Ernest the next morning. Last night she was exhausted and didn't wake up when the manger knocked on the door. The paper on the porch was some free advertisements which she ignored.

When she got the message, she felt angry and abandoned. "I don't know whether I'm more homesick, lonesome or plain scared, but the combination leaves my quite ill", she wrote in her letter to Ernest.

Fay spent that afternoon at the rationing board to see if she can get gas. And tomorrow she had to go to the fort to get authorization from some Colonel. "I'm using up all my gas trying to get more gas. If I do get the gas how will I get home?

Fay had very little driving experience and driving alone with two small children was not an option.

Her mind was full of questions: How much money is in the checking account? Should she stay here? or go to Salt Lake? or go to Fort Sill? And how would she get there? Should she take a train and store the car in Washington? Would Ernest ever return to Fort Lewis?

Fay was much happier the nest day after she received the post card. She wrote on December 11: "Dearest Ernest. Hello again. How did you like the scorcher you received previous? I hope this one will not be quite as bad. Any way I was happy to receive your card and am looking forward to the letter. Hope it is soon."

Dean Barney to the rescue, December 14, 1942

Fay called her folks in Salt Lake City. The long-distance call was $3.00 (about $44 in 2020). "Isn't that terrible", she wrote. However, she was pleasantly surprised that her call went through so quickly. It took only 45 minutes.

She told her family her sad story and her seventeen-year-old brother Dean Barney said, "I will come up."

Fay, Martin and Dennis were soon on their way back to the home of Archie and Livonia Barney.

Ernest back at Fort Sill

Plans can change fast when there is a war going on and you are in the service of your country. Only three weeks ago Ernest was leaving this post and well on his way to filling his dream of "our best Christmas ever". Now he is back at Fort Sill.

By December 16, Ernest was at his wits end and mad at the world. This was the day he received Fay's self-described "scorcher." He flunked his first test that day, but he was especially frustrated with the many futile attempts and hours he had spent trying to contact Fay. Also, the mail back and forth took so long that the situation would change. For example, by the time Ernest was upset and responding to her letter of December 10, Fay was at home in Salt Lake and the crisis was over.

Later that day he wrote Fay another letter. "Sorry I sent the last letter" he said. "I was just trying so hard to be able to be with you and the boys for Christmas." He was especially counting on watching Martin open his presents on Christmas morning.

Fay was also very disappointed that their plans for Christmas didn't work out:  "Every time I think of how we all have to be separated, I just wilt inside. We try so hard to be together and have what family life we can. Dennis was just beginning again to love his Dad and Martin misses you so much".

Ernest and Fay made urgent plans to get together at Fort Sill after the first of the year. Rumors abound, and the latest was that they would be sent overseas for the Spring 1943 offensive before Ernest even finished the course.

Christmas day December 25, 1942

While disappointed they were not together for Christmas, they also recognized their blessings. "I am happy knowing you are at least near and not "over there", Fay wrote.

Fay, Martin and Dennis spent a wonderful Christmas with Granddad and Grandma Barney. While Ernest went to a movie, "The Black Swan", one which they had hoped to see together.

On Christmas Eve, Ernest wrote to Fay the following note expressing gratitude and hope for the future:

"Here I am really not so far away, and above all whether I am far or near I have been granted the privilege of having three beautiful hearts tucked away safely in my bosom. And soon, God granting, I can have them all so very near to me. When the war is all over and Christmas comes around again that star on top the tree will really look like the Star of Bethlehem and truly shine out 'Peace on earth, good will to men'. Then we can make up for what we miss now".- Love Ernest, December 24, 1942

Three years later

That star of hope will finally shine on the Chamberlain Christmas tree three years later. On that magical night in 1945, Martin and I were sure we heard reindeer on the roof and couldn't wait for morning. The war was over. Dad came home and the family is now together. I still remember this year as our best Christmas ever.

The rest of the story....

Please click "Like" or leave a commnt to let me know you got this far.

Read the full story of Ernest and Fay Chamberlain in 1942 with photos.


Thanks to Deanna Chamberlain Grant for publishing "Selected Journals of Archie Fay Barney" and DVD with the photos to make this information available. And to Lyle Brent Chamberlain for his 1984 interview with Fay and Ernest Chamberlain on DVD. And of course to Archie F. Barney, Ernest M. Chamberlain and Fay Barney Chamberlain for writing down and preserving this information.

Submitted: December 12, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis D. Chamberlain. All rights reserved.

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