The Heartfelt Wish Of Homesick GIs

By Carl Zebrowski

It’s almost impossible to conceive of Christmas without Bing Crosby. Kids born long after his heyday still hear him croon about sleigh bells and hearth fires as they cruise the malls every December. Over the years, Crosby has sung all the seasonal standards, starred in a couple of classic feel-good holiday movies, and appeared in annual Christmas television specials as Crosby family patriarch. Bing Crosby is the undisputed secular king of Yule.

Harry Lillis Crosby—“Bing” came from the hillbilly newsletter parody “The Bingville Bugle” that he enjoyed in the newspaper as a boy—had at one time planned to be a lawyer. He attended Jesuit-run Gonzaga College in his native Washington State and maintained a B-plus average. But when a local music group he’d joined started making too much money to ignore, he dropped out of school and never looked back.

By the start of World War II, Crosby was already famous as a singer, but it was during the war years that he began his ascent to the Yuletide throne. In 1942, he appeared in the movie Holiday Inn and sang “White Christmas.” A shortened version of the song was released as a single, and copies of that recording would eventually end up in millions of American homes. It would become and remain the top-selling Christmas song of all time.

Crosby followed up that success a year later with another instant holiday standard. Backed by the wistful strings of the John Scott Trotter Orchestra, Crosby’s melancholy yet hopeful rendering of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” struck a common chord among Americans during a holiday season that arrived two years into a world war whose end was nowhere in sight. Guided by a stirring melody from Walter Kent, Kim Gannon’s lyric could hardly have missed, sung by Crosby in his inimitable style, offering the words as though they expressed his personal feelings of the moment. There wasn’t a soul in America in whom his gentle baritone didn’t arouse feelings for the GI pining to return home. The song jumped onto the sales charts and remained there for 11 weeks, peaking at number 3.

Twenty-two years later, NASA control radioed the Gemini 7 to ask astronauts James Lovell and Frank Borman what song they would like to hear. So many miles from home in mid-December, and having spent nearly twice as much time in space as any other man, they responded, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”—sung by Crosby, of course. The recording became the first song request intentionally broadcast to a destination in outer space. The next day, December 18, 1965, the Gemini 7 splashed down in the Atlantic. For the two national heroes inside, unlike the national heroes of 1943, the holiday homecoming was more than a dream.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

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