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Flying Tiger memories (continued)

© 2012 Pamela Woodward Happe

Pete wanted to fuel [the P-40] and try to fly out. I knew the value of the plane (the value to us - not just in dollars) as well as Pete did. And I knew the value of our pilots. With wheels up to hubs in soft sand, there was no way for that machine to fly out.

We all three worked for four hours to salvage radio gear, guns, propeller, ailerons, elevator, rudder, and wheels. The sun blazes white upon the sand, aircraft (all Japanese) buzzed overhead, our truck had to be alongside to load the gear and to tilt the plane so that so that we could pull the wheels. At mid-afternoon we had taken the most critical parts. We were frightened not only by the planes aloft, but the ground fire of small arms seemed to be on three sides. And we were tired after two nights without sleep.

But now we would do it! Nothing left but to burn the plane and take off to safety and rest.

Pete went down for lack of fuel. The plane, now tail down, had dry sump plugs. We tried to fire that miserable derelict for 40 minutes, perhaps not thinking very well because of our fear and fatigue. Finally we soaked a hemp line in the truck tank, inserted it into a virtually empty wing-tank, set the line afire, stood back when she blew and smoked and smoked. We scampered out.

Back twenty miles to the north where General Stillwell gave us a place to sleep. In the morning he told us he was leaving that very day - to take a walk to India. We offered him a lift, he declined.

Then it was back to the north up the road which now carried a much larger part of marching infantry. Tedious progress. Though I knew Blackie did not drive I was disappointed that Pete (pilot) had never managed a road vehicle. He was willing to try, but after every couple of minutes of his driving Blackie and I each volunteered to join the marching Chinese.

Notable in that tiring drive to the north was the visit to a burnt-out Mandalay where the great walls of the fort still stood. But we were really too tired to appreciate the historical significance of the tragedy we witnessed. Most memorable, though, was the purchase of fresh strawberries just to the west of Maymyo. There, in utter peace, was a roadside peddler with baskets and baskets of the most beautiful fruit. The afternoon was sunny and warm and drowsy. The shade from the tall trees gave us a respite from the hot cab of the truck which had been trudging for four hours in bottom gear up through 22 switchback turns which lifted the road from Mandalay to Maymyo.

Vehicles, but not trudgers, of the China Fifth Route Army kept the road busy, but not jammed, because we were by this time in advance of most.

The berries were sweet beyond imagination - and refreshing. By dark we were into Maymyo - that hideaway of tranquility where even the Government escaped in the monsoons. But now it was the tranquility which had escaped. The normal community consisted of some Burmese - Burmans, Shans, Karens - but mainly Europeans and Indians. Now they could see all of us fleeing - Chinese, British, British Indian Army too - all flying.

The town (it always gave the appearance of being a village) was in chaos. All the Europeans and Indians wanted out. Many begged for petrol to get their cars towards Myitkyina - or China. There was near panic in the eyes of those with wives or children.

Quite a lot of Continental Europeans were there. Operators of trading companies, hotels, restaurants, mines, timber. Whether, at the end, thay may have been better off in Japanese prison camps - many perished there, too - than in the walk most took towards India is not up for good judgment. It was, in fact, another week before the Japanese troops went through.

I have never learned to my satisfaction why Stillwell took his walk, with only a handful of followers, out through the difficult country to India, instead of going up into China with the Fifth Route Army which he (nominally, at least) commanded. Romance, Pride? After the Burma retreat, he still looked after the training grounds near my [future] wife Audrey's home - at Ramghar, Bihar - only 20 miles from Hazaribagh, India.

We were still tired and we stopped the night in Maymyo at a hotel I knew from an earlier trip. The next morning was like June in Surrey - like a summer morning in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It was soft, without a zephyr, cool and golden. We spent a couple of hours gathering a few things we thought may be necessary. Strangely, we did not have a single application to join us. Perhaps everyone thought that either the British or the Japanese would have destroyed the Goteik bridge by that time.

We were rested and well fed. And at peace. We worried not about bridges, nor roads, because the day and the countryside were exquisite. Pete and Blackie were the best of company. The traffic was thin, the road good, and the scenery through the semi-mountains was magnificent. We moved north into Shan country. The appearence of the people was quite different from that of the Karens and the Burmans.

The Shan clothing I remember was of lighter, whiter color, but the skirts were black. Friendliness had been lost from all of us by this time - self preserving suspicion was the best we could muster, be we Shan or any other variety.

By this time I was beginning to think that the Orient - the Orientals - were something more than romance. Oriental masses of Chinese were fleeing oriental masses of Japanese. Civil strife between Burmans, Karens, Shans, Indians - Chinese and Japanese shop-keepers and merchants and other parts of the civil populace were evident. Suspicion - I suppose as in all peoples afflicted by war - was rampant.

Between Maymyo and the Gotiek Gorge is a small valley. I've only know it by three trips through - in March 1942 and up and down this time in April 1942. Each time I vowed it was the most peaceful, lovely land that one could know. The hardwood trees - probably none were deciduous - were bounding the meadows, interspersed with conifers. From our single tarmacadam road led lanes of grey-red soil, all embraced by large graceful trees. The terrain was mountainous around the valley, but of old soft round mountains that meant no harm to anyone.

continued in part 5