“This is friendly town, always has been,” said Mary Jane McNamara, who was in her early 20s when Camp Fannin was in operation. “We made friends with them, and sure enough, all those Yankees turned out to be just like us.”
John Anderson, president of the Camp Fannin Association, said the Army infantry replacement camp, at what is now The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, trained more than 200,000 soldiers and employed about 3,000 civilians during its three-year existence.
Anderson said at any one time, there were about 30,000 soldiers going through training, which lasted 13 weeks in early years and eight weeks as the war neared the end. The camp functioned much like its own little city, bustling with activity.
Ms. McNamara, 88, of Tyler, volunteered at the USO in the camp, which helped keep the troops entertained with shows and dances.
She said the seven major churches downtown fed the troops breakfast each Sunday, and many families (including her own) would bring the soldiers home on Sundays for dinner and make accommodations for the soldiers and their families in their spare bedrooms.
Ms. McNamara said during wartime, each family was rationed on certain items such as sugar, oils, canned goods, gasoline and meats among other things. Each family was given a certain number of coupons for the items, and when they ran out, they had to wait for the next month to get more. She said every family had victory gardens, canned their own vegetables and saved anything that they could.
“We didn’t mind a bit feeding them,” she said. “I don’t know how the women like my mother and those who cooked and served those breakfasts — I never figured out how they saved up enough coupons to give them bacon once a month.”
Anderson said the camp trained replacement soldiers for established regiments overseas, and their mortality rate was high. For the soldiers, Christmas at Camp Fannin could be their last, and Tylerites did their best to make it special.
She said gifts were rarely exchanged unless the family was very close to the individual soldier, but they would help them shop for gifts to send home.
“Christmas was a big preparation, and they wanted to send things home to their families,” she said. “Everyone did their best to help them find something suitable and not over priced.”
Married women with sons would help them find suitable gifts for their mothers and wives in the right size and color, and sometimes they had to bargain with vendors or buy in bulk to achieve a reasonable price, Ms. McNamara said.
And with only one hotel in town, the Blackstone Hotel, residents opened their homes to family that visited the soldiers in the holidays.
Jeanne Price wrote the story when she came to Tyler to see her husband Jack in Tyler for Christmas in 1943. In the story, chronicled by the Camp Fannin Association, Mrs. Price said she had not seen her husband in four months and stayed with a cousin, who made sure the trip was as romantic for the young couple as they could, despite the cold, icy weather.
The married couple stayed in the Blackstone Hotel Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve under a fictitious name.
Several soldiers could not make it home for the holiday and were taken in by local families. Lois Whiteman was a Tylerite known for her kindness to soldiers.
“They let them stay in their home,” said Linda Miller-Conine, curator of the Fitzgerald House in Tyler. “They had them at their Christmas. They just took the soldiers on, cooked for them, gave them gifts. They were like a surrogate family.”
Mrs. Whiteman was like a mother to many, and kept up correspondence with the soldiers and their families. They wrote to her from the battlefield, and family members sent her letters notifying her of when their ultimate sacrifice was paid.
Letters between many of those trained at Camp Fannin and Mrs. Fitzgerald are chronicled in the book “The Fitzgerald House” by Kim Groff.
“I can truly say that Christmas was one of the finest I have ever had, and it was made possible because of you,” Pfc. William C. Butler wrote. “Everything was just as I had hoped a Christmas might be. … Honestly you made me one of the happiest boys in the world, and I’ll never forget those few days as long as I live.”