A GI’s Christmas Carol: Tokyo Army Hospital, 1954

A couple of years ago, Paul Zolbrod, a Korean War veteran and our museum Writer-in-Residence Emeritus, sent me a short story he’d written about his time in the Army. It was about how when he was stationed overseas, he came down with a mysterious illness which nearly killed him. While he was convalescing in the Tokyo Army Hospital, he became acquainted with some Turkish soldiers who were part of the UN troops. They were gravely ill with hemorrhagic fever and were confined to the hospital for an extended time.

Interestingly enough, at the time, I happened to be working at the VA, tasked with clearing out a storage room of old magazines and articles left behind by decades of researchers. It was interesting work, sifting through old medical journals with notes scribbled in the margins. To my amazement, I came across a stack of articles about hemorrhagic fever in the Korean War!

What a nasty disease! One of the articles from the Army Nurses’ Association detailed the role military nurses had in saving the lives of thousands of allied soldiers. They had to be inventive and come up with innovative solutions to resolve the wide range of symptoms and complications associated with the disease.

According to the article, every patient developed some degree of kidney failure. Some patients required dialysis and nurses and corpsmen set up dialysis units and monitored dialysis procedures around the clock.

It took patients 8 to 12 weeks to fully recover, and because they had lost so much weight (sometimes between 30-50 pounds), they had to eat 5-7 meals every day and take in additional nutritional supplements. They also had to have physical therapy to build up their strength.

In addition to providing care to their patients, nurses did “their best to maintain patients’ morale and keep them occupied with entertainment, games and other activities.”

Paul’s story corroborated this as he explained what life was like on the wards in the hospital. During his weeks-long hospitalization, Paul (who is Jewish), the Muslim Turks he befriended, and their fellow patients learned a great deal about each other’s faiths, customs, and countries—and during that remarkable time in 1954, Muslims, Jews and Christians all celebrated a special Christmas together—in Japan.

When I read the story, I immediately wanted to make it into a book—a picture book. I could practically visualize the exquisite watercolor illustrations and the rich details. I could hardly wait to get started painting.

Reality soon came crashing down—I’m not that good of a painter, and the story isn’t really a children’s story. What to do?

As a collector of comics and graphic novels, I thought it might be suitable for that format… but, could I actually create one? Was I good enough?

One day, Paul brought me a packet of photos and the Christmas dinner menu from the hospital, and that gave me an idea!

I could make collages: I could draw, write, cut and paste the story into panels using copies of his original photos, historic photos from our museum and from vintage magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post and Life.

I bought a few old magazines on eBay, and to my delight, they actually contained articles and photos from a military hospital and the Korean War.

My process was this: I divided Paul’s typed story into “chunks,” dividing the paragraphs into sections. Unbeknownst to me, Paul was also doing that. About the time I had my draft, he sent me his—and we were pretty much in sync.

At first, I storyboarded each panel, but pretty soon, I gave it up; I had to fit random magazine pictures, words, and ads to the panels—not the other way around. I’d just wing it.

I used 11×17-inch panels and started of at a great pace. I did almost 15 panels over a summer. I hand-lettered the story, and if I made a mistake, I had to white it out. (Perfectionism has no place in collage!)

Everything was going well—I was very excited about the project—but then I started thinking. What am I going to do with this? Make a book? Publish it?

Our museum does publish anthologies, but they are usually small paperbacks with few, if any, photos. This would have to be a full-scale colored edition, and when I priced it out, the cost to print it would be prohibitive. I also wondered what the rules were for using photos from magazines—were they copyrighted? How would that work?

Internet searches on copyright and collages were inconclusive, and so I decided to scrap the book idea. The 15 panels lay stacked on my art table, abandoned. I’d lost momentum.

Almost a year went by, and occasionally, I would look guiltily at the piles of collages. No one asked me about them; I think they were afraid to. I hate unfinished projects, and this was a gigantic one. The story should be told, and it was bugging me.

In spring 2019, I decided that if I couldn’t make a book, I could at least make an exhibit. The format was not ideal, and the number of panels needed would be daunting both for me to make, and for the viewer to read. But, I decided to go ahead and finish the project.

So in mid-November 2019, I lettered the last of the panels, and a GI’s Christmas Carol was complete. It is by no means the best art or lettering job, and the frames and mats are mismatched, but, to me it’s beautiful. It was made with love and creativity, and what it lacks in polish, it makes up for with heart. I am proud of it and I hope when Paul sees it, he’ll be proud, too.

In this day and age where there is so much petty discord, this little story shines a tiny flicker of light on the goodness of humanity. Strangers become friends, something good comes from bad.

I wish that Paul had maintained contact with some of the people in his story or that by some Christmas miracle, they’d all be teleported to Tijeras to meet again. That won’t happen, I know; but through Paul’s wonderful words they do live on forever—on paper—and in our imaginations.

The Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center will debut A GI’s Christmas Carol: Tokyo Army Hospital, 1954 on Dec. 22 in a one-day event from noon to 3 p.m.

I hope you’ll join us for some refreshments, tour the museum, and enjoy our heartwarming story of faith and friendship.

The Museum of the American Military Family is located at 546B State Highway 333, Tijeras. For more information, contact news.ind.veterans@gmail.com or 505-504-6830.

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