I stood up on an old easy chair in the living room, backward, facing over the high back of the chair watching a beautiful 1940’s wooden electric clock I wish I had today. Maybe I was 4 years old. I remember the smoothness of the second-hand and the pleasant whirring noise it made. I kept asking, over and over, “when will my father come home?” My grandmother had told me when you see the little hand reach here, and the big hand reach there, your father will be home.” I watched that clock all day. I remember it was so slow.
Finally, my father arrived. He was so handsome, so beautiful I remember, in his Army Air Corps uniform – khaki pants, and the olive (was it?) jacket with his pilot’s wings and captain’s bars. It was the best looking uniform ever! If only I had it today – my mother threw so many things away.
I really didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, but I remember looking forward to being with him. I didn’t understand, of course, until years later why he spent so little time with me that day, instead disappearing with my mother.
He had been away a total of five years.
Like other men who returned from the war, he spoke little of his experiences. I cannot remember a single story he told us of his exploits. He and I did spend time together. At various times he owned a Piper airplane, a Cessna 140, and later when he could no longer pass the flight physical, a beautiful old 1930’s wooden cabin cruiser boat, and he taught me what he could at my young age. I loved navigation best, he showed me off to his friends because I could hold a compass course and tell directions at night from the stars. He taught me the various propeller airplanes of the day.
Eventually I could tell him the type of aircraft just from the sound of it flying overhead. The memories of that time with my father sustain me today.
Soon after the war, my father and his brother-in-law bought a 65 horsepower Piper J3 aircraft. Like so many other experienced airmen of that time my father thought there were great opportunities in private aviation.
They had bought a piece of land on the shoreline of the Potomac River, south of Washington (if we had that today, we’d be very rich), and opened a seaplane base where they were going to instruct students. They bolted floats onto the Piper at National Airport and my father had put the plane and floats on dollies, taxied out to the runway, and flew the plane off the dollies – letting them shoot down the runway. I wish I had seen it. A slightly embarrassing story soon followed. I was 6 years old and my sister 3 or 4. He took us to the seaplane base for the first time. I took one look at that small fabric-covered airplane bobbing at the dock and said “I’m not getting into that!” My younger sister took the first flight with my father. I decided not to ever repeat that mistake again! I flew with him whenever I could, first in the Piper seaplane and later in the Cessna 140 tail dragger. We flew the little two-seat Cessna to his sister’s farm in upstate New York. We landed on a grass strip in a farmer’s field and I got to visit my aunt Margaret and Uncle Bill.
My father had a workshop in the basement. He made toys for us by hand!
He made a tool chest for me. The kid up the street had an elaborate Lionel electric train set. My father bought manual track switches, wound his own electromagnets and changed them to electric track switches. He handcrafted wooden trestle bridges and town scenes. He built a beautiful miniature Hoosier cabinet for my sister’s play kitchen. He built me a scooter and a wagon. He was a terrific carpenter and craftsman. The 1950’s was an era when families craved new “laborsaving” appliances. My father and another uncle built their own 20 cubic foot deep freezers – from wood, masonite, metal tubs, copper tubing, fiberglass insulation, spring-hinged doors, interior lights that turned off automatically! I remember that they didn’t know whether they bought the right sized compressor for the size of the freezer.
So, my father put an old clock in a coffee can, fashioned an aluminum disk that fit the hour hand shaft, and cut round pieces of paper to lay on top of the slowly turning disk. Then he rigged a coat hanger to the compressor and attached a pencil to the other end. Each time the freezer turned on or off, the vibration caused the pencil to make a mark on the paper to record the time the compressor had to run. He built a solid oak workbench with an array of handmade drawers that I still use today. The most treasured object I now have is a finely crafted mahogany chest he built to contain his Kodachrome color slides from the war. It deserves an article in Fine Woodworking magazine.
He taught me photography, woodworking, electricity – we enclosed an old porch on our house together. We went camping, took the boat out onto the Chesapeake Bay, in the days when there were no other boats as far as you could see, slept overnight, and I cooked breakfast with the early morning mist rising off the water and duck and geese nearby the tall grasses on the eastern shoreline. He taught me to do things right, or don’t do them at all.
He taught me a Greatest Generation trait that now has all but disappeared, good old American “know-how.”
He was proud of me, too. The boat had an old 6-volt electrical system and the engine was sometimes hard to start. At age 10, I figured out how to wire a switch and cable to another battery allowing him to throw the switch for a few seconds during starting to boost the system to 12 volts. Many decades later his brother told me that he had proudly told him this story about what I had done.
The next year, in the season of his 40th birthday – he died. He went to work one morning and never returned. He knew – a week before he took me for a walk and told me that I was the man of the family and that I would have to take care of my mother and three younger sisters. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was 14.
The burial was at Arlington National Cemetery, on the central hill 100 feet from where now President John Kennedy lies. Full honors with a horse drawn caisson and a 21-gun salute. I had the memory of the years I had spent with him as a youth. I was awed by the ceremony at Arlington. But I didn’t think then to make the connection between the honors he received there and what he might have done during the war.
Our family began to unravel. My mother, Mary Helen, was a 1950’s housewife with no career. She was a brilliant woman, but how she raised her four children alone, by herself, I do not understand. I had spent 10 years with my father, so I had some sense of family, some sense of his companionship, some sense of being guided by a father. But my three younger sisters: Shirley had known him 10 years, but Joanne (dad’s favorite) only four years, and Stephanie only 18 months. Dad had died of a kidney disease that induced heart failure. Had he lived another year until the dialysis machine was introduced he might have lived. His kidney disease was contracted, then amplified, by health problems he experienced in India and Burma.
I didn’t know what to do. All of us children felt a loss of pride and a sense that we were not as good as other families we knew, shame almost. Without our father, in a fractured family, we foundered.
More than a third of a century passed. My youngest sister, Stephanie, herself aged only 40 years, died – partially I think from having been nurtured by her dad for only her first 18 months of life.
I had failed my father. I did not take care of the family as he had asked of me.
Our family, as a family, no longer functioned in the traditional sense. Except . . . except . .. there was a tiny hidden thread back to my father I as yet knew nothing about.
A few years later in the 1990’s, before she died, my mother was cleaning out her records. One day she handed me an old letter. “It’s from your father”, she said. I opened it. His handwriting so beautiful – something not seen anymore. He had written the letter in July 1945 when flying a C-54 across the Pacific on a long night flight. He said to me that he was sorry that he had been away during the important first years of my life, that he was sorry that on his return visit I didn’t know him, and that when he finally returned “we will have so many things to do together, and so many things to learn together.” He said “I have an important job to do and maybe someday you’ll be able to tell your children that you didn’t have to go off to fight a war right in the prime of life because their granddad and a lot of other men like him saw to it that the last one was done up right.” Further, he said “Yours will be the job to see that it remains that way. It’s your life, your world, and your job.” “I’ll make it up to you, son, for being absent in this time, and hope you’ll someday think there is no one like your dad – that someday you’ll be proud of what I did.” Then, “Love, Dad.”
I was stunned. This letter from my father traveled halfway around the world, and through a half of a century of time, before it reached me. And he was speaking directly to me. All of the time that our family had lost its way without our father. . . all of this time, this letter was making its long journey to my hands.
I knew that it would take some time, but that it would change everything. We knew that my father was in the war. We knew he was a pilot. That’s all.
More than that, he told us nothing. My mother told us little. My father’s older brother didn’t remember. How could I be proud of what my father did if I didn’t know what he had done? I vowed at that moment to find out, to trace his history in the war, to follow his footsteps from so long ago.
I was lucky. My father took hundreds of color slides in the war. I found his flight logbooks. I rescued many of letters he wrote home to mother.
I contacted the Army Times newspaper. I was surprised that they were so kind to me. They suggested that I contact the China-Burma-India Veterans Association and the Hump Pilots Association. I was elated. The thought that these organizations that were connected to my father’s experiences still existed and that I might find people who knew his history or even remembered him filled me with emotion. My initial hope was that I would soon find someone who remembered my father. If I found someone who knew him, they would have an adult memory of him, and a memory of him in the war in CBI, to supplement our childhood-only memories.
I first phoned Homer Cooper of the CBIVA. I described the situation and he invited me to the 2000 National Reunion in Texas. As I talked with Homer, telling him what I knew of my father, my tears began. He told me that was normal for people who finally made a long delayed contact. I also met, by chance, Rudy Gaum of the CBIVA, at a WWII air show in Frederick, Maryland. I saw his CBI patch and just walked up to him and started a conversation.
I traveled to the reunion in Texas. Initially I feared that I would be greeted as an outsider, an intruder, a camp follower, but just the exact opposite was in store for me. Homer introduced me at the meeting and I described my quest for my father’s history to the whole assembly. I distributed war-time photos of my father and a paper I had written of his history as I knew it at that point — in it asking if anyone remembered my dad. There I also met Sy and Faye Kantor. Sy and I hit it off immediately — we talked for hour upon hours about CBI aviation stories Sy knew so much about WWII aircraft that in a later visit we made to the Smithsonian together, the historian there was asking Sy questions. Faye adopted me as her honorary CBI son. I took some of my father’s color slide from CBI to the meeting and I showed them to Dario (who later worked on the Mercury, Apollo, and Lunar Lander spaceflight programs) and Annette Antonucci, Bill and Angela Toy – who I admired greatly, and Carmen and Joan Germano, now dear friends.
Here I also talked with a veteran, Jarvis Moore, who only a few days after I first met him told me this story: In the jungles of Burma he happened upon a GI who had been mutilated by the enemy. He described the horrible detail.
The GI begged him to kill him. Of course, he could not. As he told me this, his eyes were overflowing with tears and his trembling hand, I remember, was touching my shoulder. He told me that he had kept this story secret all of his life, not telling his wife or children. But he told me – after knowing me for just one or two days. We embraced as we departed. I felt a great love and empathy for him and wanted to talk again with him at the next meeting the following year but he died before we could see each other again. I wrote a small article in the Fall 2001 CBI Sound-Off magazine about our meeting and the story he told, revealing it to his family. I asked his wife and children to know the secret he carried in his heart for 55 years with great pain – and to be exceedingly proud of him.
Six months later I attended the Hump Pilots Association national meeting.
Here, too, I feared rejection, but soon met Jay Vinyard, the president of HPA, and his wife Sally. Jay talked to me about my father and Sally, too, adopted me as her honorary CBI son. I met George and Patti Saylor, friends to this day. George went on to fly F-86s on high altitude reconnaissance flights years before the famous U-2 flights. Also, Roy and Pat Ladd – Roy was a B-36 pilot after the war – a B-36 had 6 propeller engines and 4 jet engines.
I’ll tell you: it’s not possible to talk to a B-36 pilot enough! With all of these new best friends I’ve shared many stories and experiences since then. At the HPA meeting I learned that a large group of veterans recently traveled to China and had been greeted with warmth and love by the Chinese. I knew from my father’s logbook that Kunming, China was a frequent destination so I was sad that I had missed that trip. So I decided to travel to China myself!
I have many Koda-chrome photos my father took in Kunming in 1944. I flew to Kunming and as I rode a taxi to the hotel I showed the photos of my dad to the taxi driver with emotion I guess I did not conceal well. He spoke no English, but had a kind heart that you could see in his face – he knew what I was saying. A few hours after checking into the hotel, the taxi driver found me again, in a Denver- sized town, walking near the downtown lake. In those few hours he had contacted the Kunming Veteran’s Aviation Association, the Spring City Evening News newspaper, and the Culture Exchange Bureau. I had come to Kunming with no plans, no itinerary, no contacts. But thanks to the taxi driver, I soon had a full week of astounding events. I appeared in a front page newspaper story the next day with several of my father’s photographs of Kunming from 1944, printed in full color. The article told of my quest for my father’s footsteps and said that I was looking for a Chinese soldier, maybe 14 years old during the war, who my father had photographed and whose photo accompanied the article. The newspaper articles and my father’s photos continued on the front page of the Kunming newspaper as a serialized story for five straight days. I became a local celebrity. I had refreshed their memories of the time a half century earlier. People began calling into the newspaper wanting to meet me and tell me their war-time memories of the Americans who had helped to save their city, and wanted to give me artifacts, souvenirs of the Americans’ presence long ago, that they had hidden during the Cultural Revolution (at some risk to themselves). Two war-time Chinese pilots met with me to share my photos and their stories. Ben, from the Cultural Exchange Commission, acted as my interpreter and could not have done more to facilitate a crowded week of spontaneous events and meetings. I visited the beautiful Hump Pilot’s Monument in the hills overlooking Kunming. I visited the wreckage of an American transport plane that had been found in the mountains after 55 years – a young Chinese man sacrificed his life, dying next to the plane he was guarding until it could be carried down the mountain to Kunming. The taxi driver transported me around all week refusing any pay. Then invited me to his home for dinner with his wife and son. Now I felt . . . I felt it myself – in person . . . something I had not thought to expect before – how could I have known? I felt firsthand the sincere love the Chinese have for the Americans who came as young men to faraway China to the aid of their country in their time of greatest need. They have not forgotten. I have never experienced so much kindness and human affection – and I am the second generation.
I told my family back home that I felt my father’s hand in the events, to me unplanned, of my extraordinary trip to Kunming.
In subsequent years there were incidents that generated tension between the governments of China and the United States. But I have personally experienced the fondness the Chinese people have for us, and the American CBI veterans have told me of the fondness they feel for the Chinese people.
If, in the future, we can remember that our fathers and grandfathers fought side-by side with this bond of mutual respect, I think we, China and the U.S., will be alright.
We found the aunt of the 14-year-old Kunming soldier. He was killed in the war. The aunt, then a young girl herself, had to prepare his body for burial.
She invited me to her home for lunch where I presented to her the photo my father took of her nephew in 1944. I have become lifelong friends with Ben and with the taxi driver and his wife and son and have returned several times to visit them. I helped the son get into college and with some of his school expenses. Later I returned on two organized trips with some of the
Hump pilots, and Flying Tigers and 10th and 14th Air Force pilots and with two pilots from the Doolittle Raiders. The receptions during these trips were grand and more formal, of course. People lined the streets to see us go by.
Beautifully uniformed school children stood excitedly in precise arrangements, waved flags, played music, and placed necklaces of flowers around our necks. I received a certificate of honorary citizenship of Kunming for my father for his war time contributions, engraved with his name! Jeff Greene published a beautiful book “When Tigers Roared” that graciously included photos of my father. Retie Hua’s son, Jianning Hua, published a wonderfully comprehensive hard-bound book “American Airmen in China.
During WW II” in which my father was again honored with the photos he took in 1944. But for me these trips did not dim the experience of my original personal trip of discovery to Kunming. In common was the overwhelming outpouring of love from the Chinese people.
In the last trip with AVG and Hump pilots that I accompanied, a woman in Kunming, Qiyu Liao, presented an opera performance, a cantata, called “Green Path and Rainbow – the Story of the Flying Tigers and the Hump Airlift”, that she had personally written over a period of years with no external sponsorship. It was performed in a theater with perhaps 60 singers that she had trained. It tells, in song, the story of the towns and villages that were being bombed from the air by the enemy. At first, the villagers didn’t know what bombs were – they thought umbrellas would protect them from these objects falling from the sky – until the innocent men, women and children were killed, bodies blown to bits, parts hanging from tree limbs. The story tells of a young American who leaves his home and parents in Texas to fight the enemy in the skies over the Chinese villages. He falls in love with a young Chinese girl. But their love is short; he is killed in an air battle defending the village. The cantata is her life-long memory of the war and her love for the young American. At the very moment in the play the young American airman lost his life, a thunder and wind storm arose outside the theater, adding a stunning impact to the drama of the story. I missed some of the performance because I couldn’t see clearly through my tears. The performers saw my emotion and pulled me onto the stage and surrounded me in a 60-person embrace. It was the most touching performance I have ever witnessed. If this cantata could be performed to audiences widely in China and the United States, the history it portrays of the cruelty of war and the cooperation between the Chinese and the Americans, from the perspective of the Chinese villagers – it would create a deep understanding between our countries.
In this trip I visited a beautiful museum display dedicated to CBI. There I saw a Kunming man carrying his 10 – year-old son Jimmy, who had debilitating muscular dystrophy, around the museum. Normally the Chinese keep their handicapped children out of view – but this father carried his son proudly. I stopped and talked to them, introduced them to the Flying Tiger and Hump pilots, including Dick Rossi, Charles Bond, and Clifford Long, and gave jimmy the CBI souvenirs I had collected. jimmy and I, and his family, have become dear friends. I went to the Hump Pilots Memorial School and made a contribution to their library, and in turn they engraved my father’s name on the memorial stone in front of the school.
I also presented flowers at the memorial for Bob Mooney. Bob was a pilot who intercepted two Japanese bombers that were harassing a silk-road era village. He shot them down and saved the village further damage, but was hit himself. Rather that bail out, he steered his plane away from the village and died the next morning after a frantic effort by the village doctor to save him. The villagers built a monument to Bob Mooney in the nearby mountains. During the Cultural Revolution, the government removed the monument. The villagers rebuilt it in defiance of the government. This happened more than once. Finally the monument to Bob survives now, and the people in this still-small village visit and care for the monument, still remembering, to this day.
Since those first CBI meetings in 2000, I attended every national reunion of both the CBIVA and the Hump Pilots Association, as well as uncounted local CBI chapter meetings with Joe Shupe of the Stilwell Basha in Virginia and Bil Pribyl of the Free State Basha in Maryland. It surprised me then, and now, that the best friends I have had in my life are from the CBI WWII generation – from my father’s generation. I’ve shared so many of the memories of my CBI friends, I feel I am almost a part of that generation, and regret only that I missed actually taking part, with them, in WWII. Originally I had hoped to meet someone who knew my father but soon realized that instead the stories I heard from the men and women of the CBI were just what I was seeking. I was hearing what it was like in the air and on the ground in India, China and Burma. These first-hand stories gave me the understanding of my father’s life and experiences just as if he had told me himself. I knew then that even if I never met anyone who knew my father, I felt his presence in all of my CBI friends.