Santa Wears Dress Blues

By Major General Thomas Wilkerson and Captain Jeff Jurgensen, USMC

Major Hendricks enlisted the holiday help of his fellow Marines in the Los Angeles area, and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program was born. Working together, they soon found the need far exceeded their expectations. If help were not forthcoming, thousands of children, disadvantaged by poverty and circumstance, would go without the gift of a toy during the holidays. Major Hendricks and his group of dedicated Marines, many of them hardened veterans of World War II's bloody battles in the Pacific, eagerly confronted a new enemy. The cause they joined was to ensure that every local child would know the joy of the holidays through the simple gift of a toy.

"There was a great deal of spirit that year among the Marines who were helping collect and give away toys," said Lieutenant Colonel John Hampton, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired), himself a World War II veteran and one of the original Marines involved in Toys for Tots. "Many of the Marine reservists worked all night for seven straight evenings just before Christmas to get the toys collected, sorted, wrapped, and delivered. And they were all volunteers, none of them getting paid for their time."

"I remember one night in particular just before Christmas of 1947," Hampton continued. "I went in uniform to deliver toys to a local orphanage and I had with me what was probably the biggest, meanest-looking corporal in the Marine Corps back then. After we passed out toys to each of the children and were ready to leave, the sweetest little girl, probably six or seven, ran up to that corporal and threw her arms around his big neck. Her arms barely made it all the way around his collar. She was in tears, and when I looked at the corporal's face, so was he. I couldn't tell which of them was crying harder. I knew then we were on to something special."

The program proved so popular that the very next year, the Marine Corps Reserve adopted Toys for Tots as a nationwide charitable effort. From those beginnings, the Toys for Tots program has grown into the largest holiday charity in the United States. With the support of Hollywood's biggest legends, including John Wayne and Walt Disney, the image of a U.S. Marine in dress blues handing a toy to a deserving child has become an annual icon of the American holiday season. In the 50 years that have passed since that Christmas in 1947, Marines have delivered more than 220 million toys to more than 110 million children, brightening holiday spirits for three generations.

The 1997 holiday season will mark the 50th anniversary of Toys for Tots, and Marines will once again be out in force in cities and towns across the county collecting, sorting, and distributing new toys "in every clime and place," true to the words of the Marine Corps Hymn.

"The Toys for Tots program is one of the most important tasks we have in the Marine Corps," said Colonel Jimmy Whitson, a Marine who flew combat missions over Vietnam and is now a public affairs officer for the Headquarters of Marine Forces Reserve in New Orleans. "It's become part of who we are; part of being a Marine. We're not just warriors; we're members of the communities we live in. Through the Toys for Tots program, we're able to bring a little hope to those around us who need it the most and, believe it or not, that makes us better Marines. It makes us better Marines because it makes us better people."

To some it may seem odd that an institution renowned for its fighting esprit and the bravery of its members in combat is able to devote itself so wholeheartedly to bringing a little happiness to the lives of so many children. But the Marines, who each year feel the warmth and hope the program engenders, know why they do it.

"It helps each of us realize that caring for each other and for our children is really the most important mission in life," says Staff Sergeant Mary Reba, who is stationed with the Marine Reserve unit in Newport News, Virginia. The stories behind this remarkable program are often both heartbreaking and uplifting.

  • Last year, Marines loaded toys into cargo planes and airlifted them to the remotest villages in Alaska, using snowmobiles laden with gifts to traverse the final 20 miles of Arctic terrain.
  • Marines deployed helicopters, normally used for ferrying troops and equipment into combat, to airlift toys to the residents of the Havusupai Reservation in Arizona, a proud and ancient Native American community accessible only by aircraft or on foot.
  • Marines in dress blues marched into the gritty streets of West Philadelphia to bring hundreds of toys to children at a local youth center. With tragic irony, many of these youths exchanged "war stories" with their Marine benefactors—war stories borne from the often-violent neighborhood where these children live.

"Giving these children a toy didn't just mean they had something new to play with that day," says Staff Sergeant Mike Hughes of the Marine Reserve Unit in Philadelphia. These Marines make holiday deliveries in tough sections of the city. "It gave them the belief that there was something better out there, just over the horizon. These kids need that."

The Best Gift Is Hope

Early in the evening of 24 December 1996, the Marines of the 4th Light Antiaircraft Missile Battalion, Hayward, California, received a phone call from the East Bay Agency for Children. The caller related the story of Christina, who was six and a half years old. Christina, her two siblings, and their mother, Julie, had been forced—just days before—to flee to a nearby shelter for battered women. Christina's father, dependent on drugs and accused of physically abusing his wife, had left the family and taken all their possessions, including their furniture, food, and money.

Fortunately, Julie was able to reach the safety of the shelter with her three young children. But as she began to check in, Christina, with a child's innocence and knowing that the holidays would soon be upon them, asked her mother, "But how will Santa Claus find us, if we're not at our home?"

Her mother, heartbroken, replied, "He won't find us this year, honey."

Each night in the shelter the mother tried in vain to comfort her young child, tried to reassure her that Santa might come next year, but each night Christina's tears would not stop.

On hearing this story, the Hayward Marines assured the East Bay Agency for Children that they could and would help Christina, Julie, and their family. Workers from the shelter brought the young family down to the Marine Corps Reserve Center, where the Leathernecks hastily had placed Christina's name on a new bicycle and had found toys for each of her siblings as well.

As the young mother, alone and struggling to rebuild a life for herself and her children was led into the room where the Marines had stored the family's gifts she saw the new bicycle with her daughter's name on it. She began to cry. Her voice choked with emotion, she thanked her "angels in blue" and vowed they had restored her broken faith in humankind.

A Child's Simple Generosity

At about the same time, on the same Christmas Eve day, some 2,500 miles further west, Marines from the Reserve Unit in Honolulu, Hawaii, were making their way up the leeward coast of Oahu Island in a van loaded with more than 200 new toys. This would be the final toy delivery of the season before the Marines went home to celebrate the holidays with their own families. They arrived at a lonely and desolate camp, where many local homeless families lived in their cars or in makeshift tents. As the Marines pulled off the main road into the camp, their vehicle was swarmed by smiling, delighted children. The children were poor, but each had his or her own hopes for the future and for maybe—just maybe—a gift from Santa this year. The Marines stopped and patiently handed out toys to the children, slowly making their way through the camp. For most of the youngsters who lived there, this would be the only Christmas gift they would receive.

As the Marines drove further into the campsite, they came upon an old van. A woman peered out of the window on the driver's side of the vehicle, and seeing the camouflage-clad Marines she yelled for her children. Two bright-eyed, dark-haired young girls, not more than three or four years old, ran up to the Marines.

"We love you, Santa Claus!" said one of the girls.

A burly Marine gunnery sergeant took both of the girls by the hand and led them to the side of the Marine van. When he opened the sliding door and the girls saw all of the toys inside, their eyes grew wide with excitement and anticipation. Neither one said a word.

"Would you like some toys? Each of you can pick a couple out and keep them." said the gunnery sergeant.

After looking at their mother to make sure it was okay, each little girl picked out a small doll.

"Go ahead and take another toy," encouraged the gunny.

"Oh no, Santa, we can't," replied the girls, whose only home was a van with a tarp for a front porch. "We want to leave enough for the other children."

Standing By to Help

This coming holiday season, as in each of the past 50 years, thousands of U.S. Marines will work long hours and travel great distances to bring joy to the hearts of our nation's children. Theirs is a special spirit—a spirit that may have begun with Major Bill Hendricks but is not limited to those who wear the uniform of a U.S. Marine. It is a spirit that runs through us all; a spirit that speaks to the best that is in each of us. This year, while you're walking out of a department store or down the street to finish your last-minute shopping, you may see a uniformed Marine standing alone near a Toys for Tots collection barrel.

As harried and as pressured as you may be from your own holiday schedule, stop for a moment. Reflect for just a second on the true and lasting meaning of the holidays, and, if you have time, place a new, unwrapped toy in the barrel and shake that Marine's hand. Nearly one million people in the United States will donate to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program this year, spreading the priceless spirit of giving to children everywhere.

Remember to add to the traditional seasonal greetings a hearty and proud "Semper Fi!" from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program.

Major General Wilkerson is CEO, U.S. Naval Institute, and former Commander, Marine Forces Reserve, New Orleans. Captain Jurgensen served as his aide-de-camp.

Click here for more information or to find out how you can get involved in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program, or contact your nearest Marine Corps Reserve Unit or the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in Quantico, Virginia, at 703-640-9433.


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