Christmas Movie Memories From Seven Decades Ago

  When World War II ended in 1945, my advanced communications unit was assigned to provide movies for Navy crews on boats docking on Manila’s Pasig River fleet landing. There were hundreds of warships anchored in nearby Manila Harbor.

We worked in a big metal Quonset hut and lived in tents next to it. Our crew also serviced movie projectors for the Navy ships and land bases in the area. The equipment included 16mm and the big-reel, theater-sized 35mm units. To test the repaired ones, every night we projected movies on a big white bedsheet on the outside back of the Quonset hut.

We set up benches in front of the sheet, and invited guys from nearby Army and Navy units. We had a regular supply of the latest films fresh from the States, and vintage films we exchanged with ships’ crews at the fleet landing.

Some Manila street kids showed up one night to watch the movies. Then, entire families came. Because English was and still is the second language of the Philippines, everyone in the audience could understand and enjoy the films.

Their favorites were musicals, especially those with kid themes, such as 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh”, the Navy film starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jerry the Mouse in a dance number with Gene. We got many requests from locals in the audience to repeat films, so they could invite relative families from nearby neighborhoods. We were happy to oblige, because we knew the movies let them forget their wartime troubles for an hour or so.

Earlier that year, Manila had been devastated by the retreating Japanese soldiers in the last months of the war. They deliberately blew up much of the once-beautiful Pearl of the Orient, as Manila had been called, Because Filipinos were loyal to the U.S. the Japanese had also wantonly killed thousands of civilians. Many of the kids who came to our movies were war orphans living on the streets.

As Christmas 1945 approached, we came up with an idea to help local kids and families. During mid-December, we told crews aboard ships in the harbor and other Army and Navy guys attending shows that it was no longer free.

Each time a military viewer arrived, he had to bring at least one article of food. Soon, a corner inside our Quonest hut was stacked with candy bars, cakes and cookies swiped from nearby mess halls. Many guys received food packages from home, so we also had canned meats, fish, chicken, vegetables and fruits. 

By Christmas Eve, our repair crew had put together a Christmas tree made from old projector parts. They draped them with pieces of damaged film, burned-out projector bulbs and hung the tree out on the edge of the bed-sheet movie screen.

As street kids and families arrived for the show, we handed out gifts. The movie for that special evening was, of course, “Anchors Aweigh”. The audience of GIs, sailors, Manila families and street kids sang along with the theme and other familiar songs from the film.

Even though 70 years have passed since that night, no other Christmas since has been as memorable. Any time I hear music from “Anchors Aweigh”, I recall the heartwarming experience as if it were yesterday.

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