Next stop – Korea

excerp from The Jolson Nobody Knew

Cosmopolitan,  Jan. 1951

by Harry Akst (song writer, pianist, accompanist, and close friend)



Funny, the things you remember – and the things you forget:


The constant shuttling back and forth between the Imperial Hotel and the dispensary. Al doing his shows in the Tokyo‑Yokohama area and getting right back into bed, scribbling messages on a pad to save his voice. The flight from Haneda Airport to Iwokuni in the C‑47 transport and the show at Iwokuni, in a mess hall. The Australian contingent had lost their wing commander. They were brokenhearted. Al had to go outside and coax them into the hall and work on them until he finally had them smiling through the tears.


Itazuki ‑ “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo’bye” before thousands of GIs in the plane hangars, and then the over water hop to Korea with a new passenger on the plane – the Purple Cow, the piano that accompanied us wherever we went, painted a deep purple and dubbed by Al “a latrine on wheels.”


Pusan ‑ Eighth Army Headquarters, and the meeting with Commanding General Walton Walker. The tide of battle had begun to turn in favor of the United Nations, and Walker was feeling good. “You can’t win a ball game unless you’ve got the ball. We’ve got the ball now.”  “Are you gonna catch my show in Pusan today?” Al asked him. “Sorry,” the general said, “I’ve got a show of my own.” A few days later came the Inchon invasion.


Korea ‑ and the marvel of Al’s voice box holding out with nothing to gargle with but a little Dobell’s Solution I had managed to wangle from the Red Cross. The fanning out in all directions to the fighting front, by jeep, helicopter, L‑5, L‑17.


Chinghai, Miryana, Masan ‑ “Rock‑a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” to guys in battle dress with rifles and bazookas in their hands, and a lot of them became the first audience that ever walked out on Jolson when they were called into the line in the middle of a song. The putt‑putt‑putt, that interrupted Al. “Why don’t those crazy guys stop the rifle practice and come to the show?” “They’re not our’ boys, they’re snipers,” an officer called out, “But don’t worry, Al ‑ they’re lousy shots.” The South Koreans having a great time at the shows laughing whenever their GI buddies laughed even though they could not  understand a word of the joke. The luncheon with Major General W. B. Kean, commander of the Twenty‑fifth Division, for which occasion his cook had stolen nine Korean chickens. Jolie was going on nothing but nerve by then, and even Kean could see it in his face. “Al,” he said, “don’t you think you’ve done enough already for the boys?”


“How could anybody do enough for them?” Al replied. General Kean’s son was lying in a hospital in Osaka, critically wounded by a personnel mine. On back to Tokyo, Al  visited his bedside and then stayed up half the night to get a call through personally to General Kean in Korea to say that he had seen the young lieutenant, had shaken his hand, and it had gripped his like a vise. 


Taegu, Kyonsong ‑ more Dobell’s Solution, and “Sonny Boy” for the famed Twenty‑fourth Division. Finally back to Tokyo by way of Itazuki, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. Was it at the 361st Station Hospital, or another hospital? In the memory, they merge into one and all you remember are the wonderful, strong faces. Al had just finished “You Made Me Love You,” and a wounded boy with both hands in traction, wired and splinted, started applauding. A nurse sitting near him rushed over and pried his hands apart, “You shouldn’t do that. It’s dangerous.” “I don’t dare if they fall off,” the kid said. “This guy is good.”

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