RINCON — The colors of Christmas were all around James Sapp in 1943. The red and green didn't adorn pretty bows and other decorations, however.
Sapps's holiday red came in the form of the blood of his friends. The Yuletide green came from the color of his U.S. Army uniform.
Leading up to Christmas Day 1943, Sapp and his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division had been engaged with German forces in western Italy for weeks. The enemy enjoyed an advantageous position atop 4,000-foot Monte Sammucro, called Hill 1205 by U.S. forces.
The conditions were difficult. It was cold and wet, and many U.S. soldiers didn't have winter uniforms or gloves.
Furthermore, mountain fighting required hand-over-hand climbing on jagged rocks. As the Americans made their way up, the Germans rolled larged large boulders toward them.
"The regular infantry (34th Division) couldn't take that mountain and the Rangers went up and didn't take it," Sapp said. "We (504th Parachute Infantry Regiment) were up in (other) mountains in Italy and General (Mark) Clark called us down, and we went (to take Hill 1205). We came off of it on Christmas Day 1943."
The victory wasn't easy.
"We had 56 men killed and 224 wounded on that mountain from my unit," Sapp said.
A 96-year-old Rincon resident, Sapp returned to Hill 1205 in 1999 for the placement of a memorial marker for his fallen friends.
"My company commander and buddies all around me were killed," Sapp said. "Somehow I came home."
Sapp's didn't get to go home immediately, however. After a brief break in Naples, his unit was sent to Anzio, where more of his friends were slaughtered.
His next stop was Holland during Operation Market Garden before deploying to Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge, the second-most lethal American battle in history. More than 19,000 were killed.
Sapp, a native of Stilson, endured 371 days of combat over a 29-month overseas stretch.
"To tell you the truth, I like to have gone nuts when I got home — for almost a year," Sapp said.
Sapp got out of the Army in September 1945 and has few recollections of his first Christmas back in the U.S. He does remember making a vow to himself that year that he has yet to break.
"When I came home, I said the best way for me to honor some of the finest men I ever met who gave their lives for my freedom and your freedom was to be the best person I can be — and I've done that," he said. "I've never touched a drop of alcohol, I've never smoked or used a word of profanity."
Sapp, who rose to the rank of staff sergeant, was the best soldier he could be, too. His military military medals and award include: the Bronze Star; Good Conduct Medal; Presidential Unit Emblem of European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with six stars; World War II Victory Medal; Army of Occupation Medal; Expert Combat Infantry Badge; Belgian Fourragere (an ornamental cord worn on the shoulder); Netherlands Orange Lanyard; Honorable Service Lapel Button; World War II Parachute Badge with three stars and the Bronze Arrowhead.
The horrors of war strengthened Sapp's appreciation Christmas and other holiday celebrations.
"There was no acknowledgement that it was Christmas," Sapp said while reflecting on his 1943 Italy stint. "It was just another day. We didn't have time to think about it (because of the fighting)."