Times Past

In dreary postwar Germany, SLO soldier celebrated a memorable Christmas

Jack Pierce, in Army uniform, receives saxophone instruction from a professor at the Munich Opera Conservatory in 1951.
Jack Pierce, in Army uniform, receives saxophone instruction from a professor at the Munich Opera Conservatory in 1951.

“I bought a brand new alto sax at the factory in Paris with money from the sale of my monthly cigarette ration of one carton per week,” recalls Jack Pierce, longtime conductor of JP’s Swing Band in San Luis Obispo.

In 1951, Pierce was stationed at a U.S. Army band school housed in the former SS barracks at Dachau, one of Adolf Hitler’s most infamous concentration camps.

Germany was in ruins. Jack recalls, “The economy was driven by the black market, which dealt mostly in cigarettes, some scarce foodstuffs and used clothing.”

The former prisoners’ barracks housed displaced people from Eastern Europe. Most of these “DPs” had been forcibly taken from their homelands and put to work in German industries by the Nazis.

They were victims of the same lack of records that plagues today’s Syrian refugees: “Their needs for clothing, food and shelter were taken care of by the U.S. Army. We were ordered to have no contact with them.

“The attitude toward American soldiers was one of dislike, distrust and sometimes verbal assault. I remember one time getting on a street car when a little German woman hit me across my butt with an umbrella and said, ‘Germans first.’ 

Yet one of Jack’s favorite Christmas memories was here.

“All of Europe was socked in with heavy fog from late in October. The fog was present day and night, with only a few respites. It was very cold and damp. The fog was so persistent that flights were mostly canceled or rerouted. Nothing was coming in or going out.

“Away from home and family, one of the most important things becomes receiving mail. With planes grounded, mail delivery came almost to a standstill.

“Morale became as dismal as the weather. Everybody was suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or as it is more commonly known, SAD. Of course, the colonel in command of the school had to face this problem, with more than 70 soldiers becoming increasingly morose. ...

“By mid-December, all leaves were canceled because of the treacherous travel.

“Then the CO came up with an idea. We would help the city of Munich celebrate Christmas. All the Army musician students were tested to determine if they were tenors or baritones or basses. Students were assigned to music copying groups and busily began to transpose the Messiah so that all men could sing it rather than the usual mixed choir. We rehearsed with the Munich Opera orchestra.

“The dismal days continued, but everyone was so busy that the time went by very quickly. We were now partway through Christmas week. Small groups of soldiers were bused into Munich, where we spent about an hour each evening caroling in neighborhoods and business areas.

“Munich had a famous cathedral with two huge domes. It had been badly damaged by bombing, and the domes were only partly restored. Large sections of the main roof were also not quite repaired. When we arrived at the cathedral on Christmas Eve, there were large bonfires outside to warm people, and inside there were large oil drums made into stoves that were cranking out the warmth.

“The orchestra was in place, we were on risers and the building began to fill with German civilians and American military. ... We had about 40 minutes before downbeat when we heard something we had not heard for over a month.

“We could hear airplanes. We looked up, and through the gaps in the ceiling we could see stars. The fog had vanished.

“The concert went great. When we were finished with the Messiah, the Salvation Army had hot coffee and tea and, of course, the ubiquitous doughnuts for the audience, the orchestra and for us.

“The next morning, Christmas Day, when we awoke we could see in the winter sunlight that the month of fog had frozen on the trees and building and everything looked as if it was coated in silver. The Army Post Office people had worked through the night sorting plane loads of bags of mail, and shortly after breakfast there was mail call. Everyone had letters and packages, and we watched our SAD disappear.”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.