It was December 1944, and I was serving in an infantry division in World War II. We had fought in France and had just crossed the border into Germany.

If you have ever watched John Wayne movies, you would get the picture that Americans were self-reliant, tough, resourceful soldiers who were invincible in all situations.

In truth, in the early stages of the war, at least, we were mostly a bunch of scared kids, not long out of high school, masquerading as soldiers. We wondered what we were doing so far from home — killing and being killed, in places we couldn't pronounce. Months of combat wrought changes, aging us beyond our years.

It was December and we were well into winter. We didn't have winter clothing yet and had been nursing our frostbitten body parts and battling the effects of trench foot from endless days in cold and muddy holes and dugouts, with our feet never dry. Violence and death were our constant companions.

Gen. George Patton had told us when we crossed the border into Germany we could move into houses, if they were available, to get ourselves out of the snow and cold. After all, he said, they had invited us to their country.

My section found an unoccupied house that was surprisingly intact, considering the recent battle in which we had pushed the Nazi troops out of the rural village. The German family who owned the house had retreated with the German soldiers.

During this lull in battle, we were getting warm for the first time in weeks. We were appreciative of the German farm family for the unintended hospitality.

My three little sisters had sent a package, which mysteriously got to the front from Idaho, almost half a world away. In it was a miniature Christmas tree about 1 foot tall, along with some icicles and tinsel.

It was nearing Christmas. We set up the little tree on a fireplace mantle and decorated it. The thoughts of each of us went thousands of miles away to our own family circles and what was happening back home.

As we feasted our eyes on the little tree and our minds went on long journeys, we heard a noise in the barn attached to the house. We had been careless in the flush of victory and had not made a thorough search of the buildings. Snatching our rifles, we opened the door into the barn from the house. There was a big pile of straw in one corner. With rifles ready, we watched as one of our men approached the straw pile. From out of it appeared the frightened face of a young girl who emerged, trembling with fear.

We got her into the house. She was in rags, cold and hungry and crying from fear. She said her name was Anna and she was from Poland. One of our group could speak Polish. Anna told us that when the Nazi army overran Poland in the early stages of the war, she was taken prisoner with all of her family. She was sent to be a slave worker on this farm where we found her. She'd put in four years with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow, cleaning the barns and tending livestock.

She gratefully wolfed down the meager rations we were able to share with her. We assured her she had nothing to fear from us and gradually she stopped trembling. When she spied the little Christmas tree on the mantle, she went over and gazed at it and then started to cry. Hitler's godless Nazism wasn't "tolerant" of Christian observances or symbols, so she hadn't seen anything like it since her capture.

As she cried, four American soldiers, months in combat, shed tears with her.

We had just exchanged gifts with Anna. We had given her the blessed gift of freedom from slavery. She gave us the gift of her gratitude — and we felt gratitude that our mothers and sisters had not been brutalized as she had been.

For the first time I understood fully why we were involved in this war and why we had to win.

After more than half a century, and from half a world away, thanks again, Anna, for your gift that Christmastime. I've had many wonderful Christmases in the intervening years, but I've never had a gift more meaningful.