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Christmas in Corsica, 1944 by Genevieve Norwood, Army nurse

This story comes to us from Rich Norwood (USAF, ret), whose aunts Genevieve and (right) and Katherine Norwood (left) were Army nurses in WWII. Genevieve served in North Africa, Corsica and Italy. Katherine served in France and England. After the war they settled in Canonsburg, PA, to resume their lives and careers as nurses. Genevieve wrote this story for an assignment in English Class at the University of Pittsburgh after the war.

It was Christmas morning in a GI tent hospital on the isle of Corsica during World War II. I was an army nurse and the night supervisor. Dawn was just breaking. The weather was cold and bleak.  I was homesick and tired.  We all were. I had this terrible feeling of sadness.

Suddenly I had the desire to go outside and look at the sky.  Back home, from childhood on, we had a game.  Every Christmas morning as children we would examine the sky  — just maybe we would get a glimpse of the star of Bethlehem.  I felt the urge to do this now – maybe it would make me less homesick. I stepped out onto the dark road between the hospital tents and looked up to the heavens.  I saw a light, high over the prisoners’ tent.

Shocked, I thought, am I really seeing the star of Bethlehem? I ran down the roads between the tents to get a better look.  Indeed there was a light hanging  over the prisoners’ tent. Bright it shone –“Merry Christmas” it spelled out.

I learned later that a young British lad had fashioned this light.  An empty lard can was polished brightly.   With a file and crude drill he had punched out the holes in the can.  One of the soldiers from Australia had helped him wire it and had stolen a light bulb from the supply sergeant, painted it red and what a  cheery sight it  was.  The Britisher was too badly wounded to shinny up the pole to place the Christmas greetings but one of the Hindu troops had done it for him.

My cure had begun and my spirit brightened. But it was just the beginning.  I heard voices and noise and looked up the road. Our Chaplain was wheeling a decrepit old organ down the cobble stones.  I followed him.

He went into the tent where our American lads lay sick.  He pushed the organ  through to the middle of the tent and started the words and music to “Silent Night”.  His own voice was quavery and not too true but  our lads soon joined in and “Silent Night” rang out triumphantly.  The next tent housed Italian boys.  There the Chaplain started the same anthem,  only in Italian this time and fresh young voices took up the refrain.  The next tent was the Polish Pine Tree Legionnaires:  in Polish the hymn was taken up with vim and vigor.  Then, those in the French tent took it up.  Remarkable in all this was the fact that I knew positively that our Chaplain, just  a month before had spoken only English.  How had he learned all these words in the various languages?  Just part of the miracle of Christmas that wintry morning. The ice about my heart was thawing. I went to my office—a small tent between two large tents of the soldiers stricken with hepatitis.

As I sat down at my desk, a wooden packing box, I noted a startling thing: someone had made a manger. I learned later that a young male aide who is Jewish had worked for weeks on it.  The manger was made from an empty shoebox.  The straw came from what dropped from donkey carts as they passed our hospital road.  And the figures, small and delicate they were. The infant came out of a Cracker Jack box.  The Virgin was made from cotton:  her cloak was gauze, dyed blue with methelene blue. Joseph’s coat was a brilliant mercurochrome red.  The angels had curly locks from the wood shavings in the  carpenter shop tent. The tears were making it hard for me to see all the details of my wonderful shoe box manger.

Then I looked up to see two aged patients making their way between the cots to my office. This was a French couple in their late seventies. They had been involved in some illegal activities and had been beaten up by some  hoodlums.  To avoid an international incident they had been secreted in our tent hospital for treatment.

They passed me with a soft “Bon Journo”.  Then the woman looked up and saw the shoe box manger.   She clutched her husband and pointed to the manger.  Both of them fell to their knees and adored for many minutes.

My cure was complete. It was such a nice Christmas feeling.  I suddenly knew the true meaning of Christmas. It is the spirit that makes it.  And this spirit is all powerful.  It can swim oceans, climb mountains, break down man-made barriers that separate colors, creeds and nationalities.  This war-time Corsican Christmas  — when Christmas lights were an empty lard can and our choir was led by an aged minister with a decrepit, wheeled, hand organ and the manger where we adored was a pathetic little shoe box taught me the real meaning of Christmas:  it is the spirit of universal brotherhood.