A portrait of my grandfather: how I came to possess a mysterious portrait of my grandfather that I never knew existed , 70 years after its creation in the wartime jungles of Burma
Yesterday was my father’s 76th birthday — happy birthday, Dad! — but we celebrated as a family a few weeks ago since my folks are enjoying themselves together this week on a long-planned visit to Alaska. For his birthday, I was proud to present my father with a portrait of his father, which he and I and the rest of our family didn’t know existed until a matter of weeks ago. It was painted in 1944 when my grandfather was 33 or 34, and it found us 70 years later when I received a mysterious email from the artist’s son-in-law.
The artist was Milford Zornes, serving at the time in northern Burma like my grandfather, Buck Buchanan, during World War II. My granddad served in something called the Special Services Division of the U.S. Army as a reporter and editor of the Buck Sheet, a daily roundup of news on the war effort from around the world, made available to Allied troops stationed in the ‘CBI,’ or China-Burma-India theater of operations. Much of that effort was focused on carving a supply artery through the monsoon-plagued and nearly impenetrable mountainous jungles of far northern Burma, connecting India to Kunming, China, in order to circumvent the Japanese stranglehold on Burma further south. An engineering marvel that struck even those building it as perhaps a futile folly, the Ledo-Burma Road was designed to supply the allied Chinese nationalist troops then fighting the powerful Japanese 18th Division in the Chinese mainland. My granddad spent the vast majority of his posting ‘Along the Ledo Road,’ as his datelines usually read when filing dispatches for the CBI Roundup newspaper (though one story without a dateline called “Somewhere in Hell” is a gripping must-read — scroll a third of the way down the page).
Milford Zornes, an accomplished American artist, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and sent to the CBI, making drawings and paintings as he traveled through India, Burma and China. On his journeys — including time spent traversing the Ledo-Burma Road — he drew portraits of the people he encountered, including Naga tribespeople, Chinese villagers and American GIs like my grandfather. He sent his artwork to the War Department, which used some of it in propaganda efforts, while returning some of it to Zornes after review. His portrait of my grandfather ended up tucked away amongst hundreds of drawings, paintings, prints, photographs and letters from the war era.
After the war, my grandfather returned home to his wife and young son — my dad — and his job at a big Baltimore ad firm. It was the only company he ever knew, and he worked his way up from teenage copy boy to senior executive, eventually joining the board of directors after he retired. I don’t remember hearing him talk much about his time in the Army but he did speak longingly of India, and he kept in touch with some of the men he met during the war. He died in 1998 in Baltimore, not long after losing his wife of many decades, May. Zornes continued painting, teaching art and exhibiting his work, and had a long and prolific career, conducting painting workshops right up until he passed away at 100 in 2008.
Since Zornes’ death, his daughter Maria and her husband Hal Baker have taken on the colossal task of organizing his archive. Hal has made it a personal project to hunt down some of the people whose portraits his father-in-law drew or painted during the war, often with very little to go on besides a cryptic note or a scribbled name. In the case of my grandfather’s portrait, Zornes had helpfully written his name, along with a few more identifying clues in the lower-right. It reads, “Cpl Buck Buchanan, Publication group, Editor of the Buck Sheet — Formally advertising agency man — Baltimore.”
How Hal located me goes back a few years ago, to a holiday visit with my family when we found ourselves discussing a little booklet my grandfather co-wrote in early 1945 to document the monumental effort to build the Ledo Road. Called "Stilwell Road: the Ledo Lifeline" (after completion, the road was re-named for commander of U.S. forces in the CBI theater Gen, Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell), the booklet was published by the Office of Public Relations of U.S. Army Forces. Sitting with my dad, I searched online and found that an amateur scholar named Jyotirmay Bareria had scanned and posted the booklet on his blog.
My dad was tickled to see it, and I dropped a quick line to the blogger to say thanks for the post and how much it meant to my dad to see his father’s book captured online for posterity. Jyotirmay wrote back to say it was his pleasure. That was four years ago.
One morning at the end of July, I woke up to an email from Jyotirmay, introducing me to a man named Hal Baker who was cc’d on the email. It read simply: “this man has something for your family.” I had to scroll down and read the old thread to remind myself who was writing to me. I replied and was soon on the phone with Hal. He offered to send me the portrait, as he was in Sacramento. This was a Wednesday. As it was, I was flying into San Francisco on Friday morning, 36 hours away from a long-planned California visit.
“How about we come see you and pick up the portrait?” I asked, and Hal agreed.
My sweetie Heather and I picked up our rental car at the airport upon arrival in San Francisco and drove straight out, and found Maria and Hal in their Sacramento ranch home with my grandfather’s portrait on an easel in the living room, and the Milford Zornes archive filling out the newly-built standalone room out back.
We went out for lunch and enjoyed their gracious company, exchanging stories of Buck Buchanan and Maria’s memories of her dad Milford, and Hal’s quest to repatriate various portraits of other GIs created during the war. We drove away with the portrait of Granddad rolled up in a cardboard tube, carting it up and down the California coast before finally bringing it home a couple of weeks later.
A few weeks ago, our small family gathered at my sister’s home in the Philly suburbs to celebrate my dad’s birthday. As we sipped Old Fashioneds, I related the story of coming to have the portrait, unraveling it slowly and deliberately, as I was paranoid about the shape of my dad’s heart. But he was fortified with whiskey, more curious than anything, and simply amazed at the serendipity. Most of all, he was grateful for Hal and Maria Baker’s big-hearted effort to bring our family this treasure we never knew existed.
I brought it to my dad as-is, so he could see it how I found it, and how it was tucked away amidst the artist’s papers for seven decades. I’m working on having it properly matted and framed.
For me, ultimately, the arrival of this gift is a lesson in the power of gratitude. It was our quick email to Jyotirmay, the amateur scholar, to express thanks for his post that enabled Hal Baker to find us, when a few years later he reached out for any clues about a ‘Buck Buchanan from Baltimore’ to people he knew were interested in CBI history — Jyotirmay among them. So, I pass it along again — thank you, Milford Zornes. Thank you, Jyotirmay Bareria. Thank you especially to Hal and Maria Baker for taking the time to bring us this beautiful gift that was hidden for 70 years; that brought memories of Granddad more presently into our lives; and that brought our family closer to each other.