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Introducing Olga and Harvey (part 2)

continued from part 1

Those were years of revolution in Mexico. Sofia and the girls had to be evacuated by the U.S. Navy on two occasions, and the mother was wounded by a stray bullet; she would bear the scar on her left shin for the rest of her life. Their parents soon decided to get the girls out of Mexico. For a time they went to a convent school in Nogales, Arizona; then Sowers settled his wife and daughters in Los Angeles. Given their uncertain schooling, each girl was placed two years behind her age group in the Los Angeles schools—a gap their father neatly finessed by declaring her to be two years younger than her actual age. This was easily done in the 1920s, with its relaxed attitude toward vital statistics.

Olga enrolled in Polytech High School in North Hollywood, not far from her home at 2019 North New Hampshire, on Hollywood’s eastern edge.   Fluent in Spanish and her prettily accented English, Olga also studied French and starred in plays put on by the French club. She had a literary bent, Alicia recalled. And she was a stunning young woman, with eyes so green that they tended to emerald—“well, not that bright, but more green than blue.” Her natural hair color was light brown, “but she was always doing something with it,” as Alicia explained. Often enough, this involved the application of henna, so that it came out dark brown or reddish. She was a bit above medium height, but “held herself so proudly” that people took her for several inches taller. (Olga’s Mexican passport says she stood 1.74 meters tall, or five-foot-eight and a half inches; her American passport says that she was five-foot-six.)

Olga probably graduated in 1929—nineteen years old, according to Polytech records, but actually a mature twenty-one. In high school or soon after, she worked as a model at Bergdoff-Goodman and other Los Angeles department stores. She was “friendly, attractive, and knowledgeable,” her sister said, then corrected herself: “She was beautiful. Whenever she entered a room, everybody looked. She demanded it.”

When I visited Alicia Schweizer in Camarillo, California, in January 2002, I understood that this is a family trait. At ninety-two, Alicia is still beautiful, and she still attracts attention when she enters a room.

* * * *

       As so often happens when families set up separate households, Sofia Sowers fell in love with another man, an Angeleno businessman named Hugh Fillmore. They married in 1930 and had two daughters of their own: Sofia and Florence Ann, the first with Alicia’s coloring, the second with Olga’s.

Hugh Fillmore had a friend who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and who one evening brought one of his classmates to the house on North New Hampshire. Born in Superior, Wisconsin, on November 14, 1897, Harvey Greenlaw was well into his thirties when he was introduced to Olga Sowers. He was a big man, five-foot-ten with blond hair and blue eyes, and the life of any party he attended or was able to stir up, though he himself didn’t drink very heavily. “He would come into the room, put on a baby hat, sit down at the piano, and play honky-tonk,” recalled Olga’s half-sister Sofia, who was a baby at this time but who knew and adored Harvey after the Greenlaws returned from China in 1942. “He loved honky-tonk.”

When Olga made her First Communion in 1916, Harvey might well have been training for service in World War I, which was consuming a generation of European young men and was about to involve the United States. He missed the war by getting an appointment to West Point. According to a classmate, John Goff, Harvey was “a popular, cheerful and active cadet” who led the bugle corps, played saxophone in the orchestra, and “excelled in basketball and on the undefeated hockey team.” His photo in the Howitzer yearbook shows him as an extremely serious young man with a long face, direct gaze, Prussian crew cut, and a surfeit of nicknames: Greenie, Runt, and Maggie. For a time he sported the stripes of a cadet lieutenant, so the faculty must have seen leadership potential in him, but he was not the most ambitious of young men. As the yearbook editors wrote, in the awful prose of the time and genre: “Like his Great Countryman (Harvey swears the hospital gave him that nasal parabaloid he wears), Gustavus Adolphus, our Maggie is a master of strategy. For whom other than he is H.R.H. Drum Major of the bugle corps? What Kaydet could better deadbeat a soiree than Harvey? As oft quoted, ‘What is more rare than a day in June?’—verily one erg of work out of Harvey. He wore chevrons—until he demonstrated that there wasn’t room for a Kaydet and an S.O. to pass on diagonal. Our Maggie, always a cheerful lad (thought a bit noisy at times on his saxophonesoiree), will go out into the Service with more friends to his credit than files.”

       Harvey graduated 246 out of 273 newly minted second lieutenants, a rank that guaranteed he would never reach high rank. Furthermore, even for a cheerful young man with lots of friends, 1920 was a poor time to start a career in the U.S. Army, which was shrinking as it always did in time of peace. Lieutenant Greenlaw served successively with the infantry, the cavalry, and the Army Air Corps. As Colonel Goff tells the story, he was trained as a fighter pilot and assigned to Chanute Field in Illinois, where he became friends with Claire Chennault. More likely they met at Brooks Field near San Antonio, Texas, where by Olga’s account Harvey was a flight instructor, and where Chennault was stationed from 1926 to 1930.

* * * *

       Harvey served eleven years as a lieutenant, which wasn’t unusual in the stagnant peacetime army. Chennault (who likewise missed overseas duty in World War I) was a talented if contentious officer, and it took him twelve years to earn the twin silver bars of a captain.

       But it is also true that Lieutenant Greenlaw blotted his copybook, as the British say. He married a young woman with a proclivity for running up debts, and in time they were divorced. (They may have had a son, though no one in Olga’s family seems to know of him.) For one of those reasons—the debts or the divorce—Harvey was given to understand that he had no future in the U.S. Army. Olga, who likes to put a pleasant gloss on events, wants us to believe that he resigned his commission in order to join Colonel John Jouett’s aviation training mission to China. But the chronology is wrong: Harvey quit the army in 1931, a year before Jouett went to China, and in any event wasn’t among the original group of flight instructors; he replaced a pilot who was killed in an accident.

Olga Sowers Greenlaw

However that may be, Harvey Greenlaw was divorced and out of uniform when he courted Olga Sowers. They were married in a civil ceremony in Los Angeles on February 23, 1933. Three months later, Harvey set out for China to take up his job with the Chinese Air Force flight school. Olga was to follow him in July, but didn’t want to travel by herself, so she coaxed Alicia to come along. “Harvey was very generous, very thoughtful,” Alicia told me, and showed me a booklet he’d made for his bride, with all the information she’d need on the trip, and assuring her that there was money enough for both sisters, “if you economize.” The two young women boarded the passenger-carrying freighter Muncaster Castle on July 2, arrived at the teeming port city of Shanghai one month later, and took the train ninety-five miles south to Hangchow.

Alicia soon fell in love with one of the original instructors, John Schweizer, who as the story is told was the model for the comic-strip hero “Smilin’ Jack.” By November, Alicia and John were married, too. At about the same time, Olga and Harvey had their wedding blessed at the Catholic mission nearby, but even that did not calm the tumult in their marriage. Harvey adored his wife but was forever criticizing her in such matters as how she fixed her hair, while she was a strong-willed woman who hadn’t invested as much of herself in the marriage. “She didn’t love Harvey,” Alicia told me. “She married him to go to China.”

The Greenlaws and the Schweizers each had one of the two-story homes that were provided for the married faculty. It was an elegant life, with obsequious servants and respectful students, who saluted the wives as snappily as they did the husbands. But it only lasted two years. Then the Italian government came up with a package deal on Breda trainers, Fiat fighter planes, locally built Savoia bombers, and a flying school headed by a general, no less, on terms too generous for the Chinese to refuse. The Jouett mission closed its doors in 1935, and the Americans returned to a country still mired in the Great Depression. John Schweizer was lucky enough to find a job as a pilot for Humble Oil (later Exxon) in Texas. As for Harvey, he toyed with the idea of going to Mexico and managing the Durango mine for his father-in-law. Edward Sowers had been devastated by the breakup of his marriage; his health was failing; and he had an additional worry in the form of his eldest daughter. In a letter to Alicia, he pondered the mystery of the Greenlaws’ marriage and vowed to find a way to stop their bickering. “He’s always picking on Olga,” Sowers grumbled. But he never solved the problem, for he died in 1937 at the age of fifty-nine.

Instead of going south of the border, Harvey found a job with North American Aviation, a small conglomerate that built superlative training planes—low-wing, single-engine aircraft that could also be equipped with machine guns and bomb racks for combat duty. The factory was in San Diego, but the Greenlaws apparently divided their time between there and Los Angeles: when Olga applied for a Social Security card, she gave her address as 2443 Sichel Street, not far from the present site of Dodger Stadium. She put down her birth year as 1912—four years off the mark—and signed the application with a lovely, Palmer Method signature of the sort that has now almost vanished from the world.

       When Japan invaded China in the fall of 1937, North American decided that it needed a sales representative in China. Who better than Harvey Greenlaw? So they sailed west again, settling this time in Hengyang, on the southern edge of the populous and comparatively prosperous Yangtze Valley. Because the Japanese had already occupied Shanghai, Harvey had his planes shipped to the British colony of Hong Kong, then overland by rail to his assembly plant in Hengyang. And he renewed his acquaintance with Claire Chennault, who’d come to China as a flight instructor but ended as aviation adviser to the dictator Chiang Kai-shek. In the spring of 1938, Chennault was fighting a losing battle on two fronts—against the Japanese air forces and against the Russian advisory group and combat squadrons that were becoming increasingly important to China’s defense. (The Italians had been evicted like the Jouett mission before them.) To pacify the Russians, the Chinese sent the craggy-faced American to Kunming in the western highlands, there to set up a new flight-training program for the Chinese Air Force.

Olga on the waterfront

       As the Japanese moved up the Yangtze, Hengyang became increasingly vulnerable to attack, so Harvey moved his operation to Haiphong in French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). From Hanoi, a narrow-gauge railroad carried airplanes and other war materiel over the mountains to Kunming. The climate disagreed with Olga, and there wasn’t much for either of them to do. She was sick and bored, she wrote her mother in July 1939. (Olga would write one letter to her mother in Spanish, the next in English, and then again change languages in the middle of a paragraph.) She and Harvey were “waiting for something to happen—something that will change our lives again.”

continued in part 3