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Introducing Olga and Harvey (part 3)

continued from part 2

       The Japanese changed it for them, by occupying northern Vietnam in the summer of 1940 and closing the railroad to Kunming. The Greenlaws then went to Rangoon, from which another route to China had been opened, north along the river valleys to Toungoo and Mandalay, thence northeast to Lashio and across the mountains and gorges to Kunming. This was the Burma Road—China’s last hope for importing war materiel from Europe and the United States. But the British were reluctant to annoy the Japanese in the Pacific while fighting for their lives at home, and for a time they closed the road in response to Japanese demands. The Greenlaws had a nice tour of Burma, but Harvey couldn’t move his North American training planes. So he left them on the Rangoon docks and went to the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in hopes of selling bombers to the colonial government there. The effort was apparently unsuccessful, for the Dutch owned no North American aircraft when Japan attacked, and no recently built bombers of any manufacture.

       With all options closed out, Olga and Harvey washed up in Hong Kong. Here Claire Chennault found them on July 17, 1941, as he was returning to Kunming to prepare a training base for the newly authorized 1st American Volunteer Group of fighter planes and pilots. Chennault had spent the winter and spring in the United States, organizing a volunteer air force to defend China from Japanese aggression, and eventually carry the war to “the wood and paper cities of Japan.” With a coterie of Chinese and American lobbyists, he persuaded the Roosevelt administration to finance, equip, and provide pilots and ground crews for a bomber group and two fighter groups, totaling 250 airplanes and 1,000 men. In the end, however, only the 1st AVG would see combat; the others were aborted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December.

       As one of his admirers told me years later, Claire Chennault was a man who could accomplish miracles “with sticks and chewing gum.” Harvey Greenlaw was one of these useful sticks. As Chennault passed through Hong Kong, he hired him as his executive officer, or second in command of the AVG. Harvey was now forty-three, and the long, lean face of 1920 had become distinctly pudgy. There were folds of fat at the back of Harvey’s neck, and a bald spot at the back of his head. But he could do the job—none better. He knew airplanes, he knew about flight training, and he was charming, though not always to the pilots of the AVG.

“Harvey Greenlaw had a lot of experience over in the Orient before, similar to Chennault, and he knew the ropes of the Far East,” recalled Charlie Bond, an AVG veteran who later became a major general in the U.S. Air Force. “He was, of course, much older than me or most of the pilots and airmen…. I remember in Burma when I was thinking about writing the regulations [a standard operating procedure for the AVG], I wouldn’t go to the Old Man; I’d go to either Skip Adair or Harvey Greenlaw, who’d talk to me. We got along great, as a matter of fact. [Harvey] always said, ‘That’s great and so forth, see what the Old Man has to say about it.’ Of course … they didn’t participate in the actual flying. None of [the staff officers] got in a P-40, certainly Harvey Greenlaw didn’t…. I didn’t grow to know him too close. He’d been an okay guy to me, and Olga was a very striking woman in my opinion…. I remember one time in Rangoon, she wanted my diary, or what I’d written so far, but I considered it personal so I wouldn’t give it to her.” If The Lady and the Tigers is any guide, Charlie Bond was one of the few AVG pilots who denied Olga anything.

A harsher appraisal came from Tom Trumble, a navy yeoman who served as a headquarters clerk in the AVG and later stayed in China as a civilian aide to Chennault. In his view, Harvey Greenlaw “was one of the lousiest executive officers the General was ever cursed with—and his wife was no better than himself.” (This may have been payback time for Trumble, whom Olga portrays as somewhat less than heroic under the threat of Japanese air attack.) Greg Boyington actively hated Harvey. “The self-made executive officer,” he wrote in Baa Baa Black Sheep, “called himself Lieutenant Colonel Greenlaw, though nobody else would. The manner in which Harvey was forever talking courts-martial to threaten a group of civilians gave me the impression that he must have been at least one jump ahead of a few himself in his military days.” And James Howard (who like Boyington won the Medal of Honor for his combat service in World War II) wrote of Harvey: “Many of us couldn’t tell just what it was he was supposed to do. He usually dressed smartly in a khaki bush jacket and spent much of his time sucking on his pipe observing others at work.” As for Olga, Howard wrote: “Her tight slacks and alluring makeup gave her a provocative look that suggested she was on the make.”

       Chennault had long since assumed the honorary rank of colonel in the Chinese Air Force, Harvey followed this example and instructed the AVG pilots and technicians to address him as Major Greenlaw. (Not lieutenant colonel, as Boyington wrote, though he apparently later adopted the higher rank.) In her book, Olga makes a point of calling him the “chief of staff,” a title he also held, and she never wavers in insisting that he was central to the AVG’s success. How to reconcile these very different views of the man? “Harvey was a pretty darn good guy,” Alicia Schweizer told me. “He was very honest, very kindly. But he had the air of being arrogant, of being proud”—and arrogance is not a quality fighter pilots admire in anyone but themselves. Beyond that, it’s likely that in the AVG he played the role of bad cop to Chennault’s good cop, with the result that almost everyone loved the Old Man, while almost everyone detested Harvey Greenlaw.

       And what about Olga? Was she “on the make,” as Jim Howard had it? The answer isn't as obvious as some writers assume. In his biography of Boyington, Bruce Gamble takes it for granted that Olga slept with the pilots she remembers fondly in her book, even to a love-in-the-afternoon session with Robert Little. I suspect that Gamble is projecting end-of-the-century morals upon the 1940s. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that whenever Olga writes in misty tones of someone, the chances are large that, far from sharing her bed, the unlucky pilot has just made an appointment in Samarra. When she sighs for a Flying Tiger—“Dear, silly Sandy!”—or bestows her gloves on Bob Little or a gold cross on Tom Jones—Olga isn't hinting at love in the afternoon, or evening. She's giving into the very human weakness that tempts us, after the fact, to claim a great closeness to the deceased.

In a letter to a Marine Corps historian, defending his claim of six planes shot down while serving with the AVG, Greg Boyington came closer than anyone else to boasting of a liaison with the executive officer's wife. As he told the story, Chennault's “secretary” was also the Old Man's mistress, and Boyington too enjoyed her favors on three occasions. After he quit the AVG, he went on, his bonus account was docked $500 for each encounter—and that, he concluded somewhat wildly, was why his record was short-changed to the extent of three Japanese aircraft. Three women worked in the AVG headquarters, but Olga Greenlaw is the obvious candidate. Certainly Boyington's biographer thinks so. In Black Sheep One, Bruce Gamble notes that she “described several romantic interludes with different individuals, though the conventions of the time prevented her from openly admitting she had sex with any of them.” Thus, when Olga says that Boyington got into the habit of visiting her Toungoo cottage “for coffee or whatever,” Gamble concludes: “There can be little doubt of her meaning of whatever.” Perhaps, but I doubt it. In the 1980s, I interviewed almost all of the surviving Flying Tigers, in person or by telephone, and whenever possible I brought the conversation around to the interesting topic of Olga Greenlaw. Not one claimed to have enjoyed a sexual relationship with the executive officer's wife, though most assured me that her favors were widely dispensed. As one veteran put it, speaking for all of them: “There were only two guys who didn't sleep with Olga—and I don't know who the other one is.” Pushed to its logical extension, the gag suggests that nobody did. (I didn't talk to Boyington, who was dying of cancer at the time.)

The best of these stories came from Kenneth Jernstedt, who when I met him was the mayor of Hood River, Oregon. When Jernstedt reached Kyedaw Airdrome in the fall of 1941—like Boyington, a late arrival—he was of course curious about life at the training base. At the earliest opportunity, he questioned Noel Bacon about “the woman situation.” Well, said Bacon, puffing reflectively on his pipe; “The executive officer has a wife that would make a dog strain on its leash.” But neither Jernstedt nor anyone else admitted to getting off the leash on his own account. Which is not to say that nobody did, of course—but if so, he was remarkably reticent about the affair.

* * * *

       Olga picks up her story in Hong Kong, packing for home on the day Claire Chennault blew into town and changed her and Harvey’s destiny. She ends it almost exactly a year later—again packing for home, this time in Delhi, India.

As a boy besotted with the legend of the Flying Tigers, I read The Lady and the Tigers a few years after it was published. I read it again, and more thoroughly, while researching the American Volunteer Group in the 1980s. The more I learned about the subject, the more I came to trust Olga’s chronology, which for the most part proved to be exact. By her own account, she wrote the book with the help of two documents she brought home with her from China: a copy of the “Group War Diary” that she kept for the first several months of the war, and her personal diary, which sadly was burned (according to her wish) when she died. So when Olga says that she met a pilot on such a date at such a place, other records almost always confirm that he was there that day. And when she reconstructs a conversation, often enough it turns out that she’s paraphrasing an account written earlier for the War Diary. She rarely gets her facts wrong—so rarely, indeed, that I point out mistakes where they occur in the text.

       More than a reliable reporter, she’s an astute observer. When Olga writes of two British generals in Toungoo that they were “interesting when they wanted to be,” she neatly captures the condescending manner of many well-born Englishmen of the time.

       Where The Lady and the Tigers does disappoint is in its gushing depiction of the AVG pilots whose adventures she shares at second hand. Caught up in the war fervor of 1942-1943, and anxious to spin a good yarn from the material at hand, Olga romanticizes not only the individuals but also her relationship with them—and especially with the pilots who are about to die. Then too, she had a collaborator in writing the manuscript, a World War I flying ace and Hollywood scriptwriter named Bogart Rogers. He probably added some hyperbole to the final text.

       Now let Olga take up the story of her year with the Flying Tigers. What follows isn’t an exact reproduction of the book published under her name in 1943. Just as she had a collaborator then, she has had another for this republication of The Lady and the Tigers. I’ve corrected slips in geography and spelling, smoothed the punctuation and sometimes the wording (Olga seldom uses one adjective if two will serve), and jettisoned some sentences and paragraphs that seemed beside the point. Where I felt compelled to correct a point or add something to the text, I’ve enclosed my comments in square brackets. Altogether, I’ve done my best to be faithful to the letter and spirit of Olga’s book. However, anyone intending to quote The Lady and the Tigers for scholarly purposes should turn instead to a copy of the 1943 Dutton edition.

       When Olga prices items in Burmese or Chinese money, I provide a U.S. dollar equivalent—but each of those dollars was worth ten or twenty of our much-depreciated greenbacks. When Olga pays $67 a month for the Greenlaw house in Toungoo, remember that a room at the New York Astor could be had for $4 a night. And the salary of an AVG flight leader—$675 a month—would have bought a 1941 Ford coupe with heater and AM radio, fresh from the factory in Dearborn, Michigan.

       For their help in reconstructing Olga’s story, I am grateful to Bruce Gamble, Earl Rogers, Tom Moore, Captain Edward Schweizer, Sofia Fillmore Taylor, and especially Alicia Sowers Schweizer. I found photographs at the sources identified in the captions; those credited to “Pistole” came from the Larry Pistole collection at the National Air & Space Museum, and those credited to “Schweizer” were loaned to me by Alicia. The cover painting is by Joel Naprstek. (That’s Bob Little’s Tomahawk, spitting bullets in the foreground.) I’m also indebted to the AVG veterans named in this preface, to the individuals and institutions cited in the endnotes, and of course to Sally Ford, who over the years has evolved from my editor to a friendly presence in everything I do. -- Daniel Ford