Christmas in Alaska

When the Vietnam War ended, we found ourselves in the early 1970s living in Alaska. There I flew interceptor missions of Russian aircraft off the coast of America. The Russians routinely tested American responses, and I assume that somewhere off the coast of Russia, American aircrews did the same thing to them. Winter in Alaska by definition began in September and could last until June, when the final frosts hit the gardens.

The winter days were short in Anchorage, where we lived, only about 4 hours. The sun rose about 10 a.m. and was set by 2 p.m. (In contrast, the summer days went from about 1:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. when dusk would begin to fall, but that is another story for another time.)

Alaska Christmas Day

The photo above shows the sun at noon on Christmas day, barely above the horizon, in Anchorage Alaska.

In preparation for the Vietnam War, I had attended three survival schools: basic survival which included a simulated POW camp, grim but important training that all air crew members bound for SEA experienced; water survival in the Gulf of Mexico in case you ditched over the ocean, and finally Jungle survival in the Philippines so that you were prepared if you went down over Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia.

Flying in Alaska was a different challenge where cold was a deadly killer. To prepare for our missions there, all aviators attended Arctic Survival outside Fairbanks in the interior. There the days were even shorter and survival training entailed three days living in the bush. My training took place in December when the average temperature was about 35-50 below zero. I quickly learned what it was like to be on the planet Mercury with one side of me facing a fire – warm and the other side away freezing. We built snow shelters, which basically entailed covering boughs of fir trees with snow, and cocooning oneself inside a snow coffin. In the interior – not for the claustrophobic – the temperature rose to about 25-30 F from your body heat.

In addition to “camping” in the woods, we also experienced several Alaskan Christmases. A card we sent at the time showed “ An Alaskan Twelve Days of Christmas:”

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me – a Ptarmigan in a Spruce Tree
On the second day… Two Caribou
On the third day … Three Spruce hens
On the fourth day… Four Beluga Whales
On the fifth day… Five Malamutes
On the sixth day… Six Women dancing
On the seventh day… Seven Bears a fishing
On the eighth day … Eight Seals a barking
On the ninth day … Nine Walrus sunning
On the tenth day… Ten Sourdoughs panning
On the eleventh day… Eleven Reindeer prancing
On the twelfth day … Twelve Salmon jumping.

So as we approach Christmas, we wish you all a joyful holiday with “a Ptarmigan in a Spruce Tree.”

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About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in Air Force, American History, Ancestry, Norvell Family History, Social History, Vietnam War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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