It was a frozen Christmas Day in 1949, in the elastic aftermath of World War II, when a dozen U.S. soldiers with the 27th Infantry Regiment “Wolfhounds” accompanied a Red Cross representative to the Holy Family orphanage, tucked into the snowy streets in Osaka, Japan.
But it was there that the battle-hardened men saw something that broke them.
The decaying home was a reeking, underfunded place overstuffed with barefoot, tiny children — their limbs like sticks beneath their ragged clothes. Those were raw flashes that helped the likes of Sgt. Hugh Francis Xavior O’Reilly — on his third enlistment and still embittered about the enemy — see the Japanese with a fresh set of eyes.
On their next payday, the soldiers — led by O’Reilly — tossed what they could spare into the collection and donated it to the ailing orphanage on New Year’s morning. But many could not forget what they had seen.
Over the next six months, the regiment — dubbed the Wolfhounds — continued to compile funds for the orphaned children, and by the following Christmas Day, the soldiers were dragging sleighs of supplies and toys, bringing “Father Christmas.”
The annual tradition endures, 71 years later, with 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry (IN) Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division (ID) coming together Dec. 4 at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, to donate and wrap gifts to send to the Holy Family Home in Japan.
“The children loved to interact with us and their eyes lit up every time we arrived. One day I played so hard with them outside that I blew out the dress shoes I was wearing with my uniform,” Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas J. Heston, senior enlisted advisor of 1-27 IN, who made a personal Christmas visit to the orphanage for the 70th anniversary of the exchange last year, told Fox News.
“Their eyes lit up every day we showed up, and all they wanted to do was play. I could go on and on about the different awesome experiences I had over there.”
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which means that the soldiers can’t hand-deliver the gifts to the orphanage and the children can’t visit Hawaii as they normally do, more than 600 donated gifts have been sorted, packaged and shipped some 4,000 miles from the 27th Infantry Regiment base in Hawaii to Osaka.
It’s a legacy that comes with tremendous responsibility. It speaks to the Wolfhounds creed of “ferocious in battle, compassionate in peace” and embodies the tenet of upholding the values of those who volunteer to serve in many more ways than one.
And as noted by 1st Lt. Hayden Florence, a 2-27 Infantry Battalion Public Outreach Officer and the assistant officer in charge of the Holy Family Home program, it points to the bigger picture beyond one’s military duties day in and day out and taps into something deeper.
“I do not know of a longer standing, and possibly more impactful, Army/Civilian relationship to date. Furthermore, the extent that both organizations and individual people have gone through to keep this alive and flourishing is astonishing when you look over the past 71 years,” he said.
The 27th Infantry Regiment, as part of an Allied Expeditionary Force, garnered the imposing “Wolfhounds” label in the dwindling days of World War I, given their fierce resistance against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Three years later, the Wolfhounds established their homestead in the Schofield Barracks in the Territory of Hawaii and, in 1941, were folded into the 25th Infantry Division.
And when the Japanese struck the heart of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 that year, the Wolfhounds were among the first to fight back on the front lines and during WWll at Guadalcanal, the Northern Solomon Islands, and Luzon.
In later years, as word of their Holy Family Home support circulated through the broader U.S. military community, that tag was softened to the “Gentle Wolfhounds.”
“This relationship sends a powerful message — it sends the message that while we are sending troops away to fight for what we believe in, what you can give back is [just as] important,” Heston said.
The Holy Family Home was started by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul as something of an unofficial shelter for the children of the war dead, the abandoned, the lost and the runaway children impoverished women and the elderly. In 1947, following the passing of the Child Welfare Act, it became a registered orphanage.
But as the East Asian island strained to rebound from the relics of a lost war and atomic bombs that had brought entire cities to its knees, there was little left over to support the smallest victims.
But for the men and women in uniform, sustaining the tradition — even in the face of a global health crisis, shuttered borders and an uncertain future — is about more than just offering a helping a hand. It’s about being a slim ray of light in a dim landscape — and it is a light that shines both ways.
“This really does the change the lives of the soldiers when they get the chance to be part of this — the interaction,” Heston said. “It speaks to our hearts, and at the end of the day, we [can see] that kids don’t have an agenda. They need love and guidance in the right direction, and this is an opportunity for us to do that.”
Florence echoed such a sentiment.
“When speaking with the former soldiers who have traveled to Japan for Christmas, it can only be summed up as a life-changing experience to witness the gratitude of the children opening their gifts on Christmas morning,” he added.
“The humility and pure love that exists within each of the children is truly moving and explains why this traditional has lasted for so long, and why it is not going anywhere anytime soon.”