The Allies’ first land campaign in the Pacific during World War II took place at Guadalcanal. The siege, led by U.S. Marines but involving every branch of the military, began on Aug. 7, 1942 and continued for about six months, until Japanese forces abandoned the island on Feb. 3, 1943.
Guadalcanal was an important early win for the Allies in World War II, but victory came at a high cost; 1,592 Americans were killed in action, another 4,183 were wounded and many more suffered from tropical diseases. On the Japanese side the toll was even greater, with 14,800 killed in action.
In Guadancanal, war was indeed hell. It’s something to keep in mind when viewing these photos of the joyful Christmas celebrations that the troops were able to muster on that remote and battle-torn island.
The pictures shot by LIFE staff photographer Ralph Morse ran in LIFE’s issue of March 1, 1943, when the campaign was over. The photos were part of a much larger story that was built around an excerpt from a book that would become a classic of war reporting, Guadalcanal Diary.
The Guadalcanal Christmas featured touches that American soldiers would have found familiar. A chaplain led midnight mass, a choir performed songs, and the troops were served a holiday meal that included turkey and pie.
Of course there were differences too. Santa was walking around in shorts because they were in the tropics and it was 90 degrees out. He wore a military helmet instead of a red stocking cap. The presents he distributed were provided by the Red Cross. The only family these soldiers could be with was the found family they had made with each other.
And if the energy in the photos is any indication, they were grateful for all of it.