A Christmas card arrived at the Oceanside home of Jack Del Monte last week, reminding the World War II U.S. Army veteran of the cold, bleak winter holiday season he spent near the Rhine in 1944.
"We spent that Christmas Day in the cellar of a farmhouse," said Del Monte, 88, who was 23, and a corporal with the 191st Tank Battalion that year. "We found beer and wine in the cellar, so we had something to drink. But as Christmases go, I wouldn't recommend it."
A short time later, Del Monte met a French family and their teenage son while his unit was in the tiny village of Petersbach - just northwest of Strasbourg - and they showered him with a mixture of curiosity and gratitude. A friendship was formed that has lasted to this day, 65 Christmases later.
"My mother is very talkative and that is how we met the soldiers," said Marc Kern, who was the teenager Del Monte met in France. "She had no fear of the American soldiers. They gave us sugar and cocoa, which we didn't have, and we gave them milk and butter and eggs.
"They would park their tank right in front of my house," said Kern, now 79, alternately speaking in French, German and English by telephone from his home in Strasbourg. "The crew would stay with the farmer across the street."
Keeping in touch
Del Monte and members of the French family, united by a brutal war, have kept in touch almost ever since, writing letters, paying visits and exchanging Christmas cards as a reminder of the hardships of that winter season and the friendship that came from it.
The card Del Monte received last week was from Kern, who apologized for having not written since May. He wished Del Monte "good health, much joy and peace in our hearts," and, as the two men always do when they correspond, signed off as "your old war comrade."
"The fact that he could speak English was a big reason we got to know each other, because hardly anyone else there could," said Del Monte of their meeting.
War had scarred Kern's family while they lived under Nazi occupation in France's Alsace region. Kern's older brother died in a Russian prisoner of war camp, after having been drafted by the German army. His father, a railroad stationmaster, fled with his family to the countryside to avoid shelling that targeted the railroads.
"We were refugees," Kern said.
Del Monte, a Brooklyn native who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said Kern's family helped lift his spirits during his wartime stay in France. They treated him to warm apple tarts, plum preserves and home-cooked meals - seemingly unimaginable treats after months of GI rations.
In turn, Del Monte took the boy, then 14, under his wing, indulging his affection for such American delicacies as chewing gum and chocolate bars.
Even after Del Monte's battalion repositioned itself to a nearby French village, Del Monte returned for a visit with members of his crew, and offered to take Kern back to their encampment to watch a movie.
"Jack Del Monte sat in the turret and I sat to his right and we drove through the forest until we got to the next village," Kern said. "He closed the hatch as we passed so his commanders wouldn't see me.
"To me, it was a wonderful game," Kern said. "Jack Del Monte was very friendly and his comrades, too. It was great fun."
A welcome visit
For a while after the war, Del Monte exchanged letters with Kern's mother. But the correspondence petered out during the 1950s. In 1953, Del Monte settled in Oceanside with his wife, Marilyn, built a career selling paper, and raised two boys.
By the 1970s his curiosity about what happened to the French family tugged at him insistently. While on a boat tour up the Rhine, he made a side trip to the village where the family had lived. Residents there told him he might find Kern, then an administrator for a sheet-metal company, in Strasbourg.
"We met for the first time since the war," Del Monte said. "We have been in touch ever since."
With Del Monte now approaching 89, Kern nearing 80, and a long day of air travel separating them, the two men may have seen each other for the last time.
"He is old now and doesn't travel anymore, so unfortunately we won't see each other again," said Kern, who like Del Monte has stashed their written exchanges in a treasured box.
"It's a little sad," he added. "So these letters mean a lot to me."