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Flying Tiger memories (continued)

© 2012 Pamela Woodward Happe

The occasional bungalow lay within sight of our road. At least three or four were inhabited (or had been lived in) by English people, if our judgment of the flowers and the layout of the gardens was correct. Quite likely these were the homes of people who had retired there after a lifetime of service to Burma and /or their companies in Burma. Thoses gardens were filled with love. I'm sure they were tended by masters and servants who loved each other and who loved the country and who loved the way of life they had chosen.

There, in the midst of war and suspicion, was the evidence of love.

I know that these couple of days of running north were as pleasing to Blackie and Pete as they were to me. Blackie was a keen observer, and he had a basic love for people - there was no cruel or cynical part within him. His observations were straightforward, not mitigated in any way by writers of former generations. Blackie never presented himself to be more than he was - an honest workman, simple and straightforward. He was so direct that he never resorted to four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, even after 20 years service in the Army. He observed well, but spoke rarely - when he thought we might have missed a sight of significance.

Pete Petach was different. Aged perhaps 24, Pete was innocent, idealistic, extroverted, and interested in whatever went on. It could only have been those four qualities (plus the other one all of us must have had: Adventure) that caused his discovery that he was a military fighter pilot. He was university educated, majoring, I believe, in theology. I am told he was the son of a Greek Orthodox priest. At any rate, Pete had a good, rounded classical education.

So here were the three of us - a classical scholar, a semi-educated fellow, and one who did not read for pleasure. And the three of us could not have been better matched for a tour. Blackie would observe a thing, look at us to determine if we had seen it. If we did not react to its meaning, Blackie would explain it. Since I was driving, and also because I was country-reared, I probably learned less - and needed less - than Pete, whose sheltered big-city Philadelphia upbringing led him to be joyously surprised by things that go on in the country.

There I was, intellectually in the middle. Blackie in his youth had been economically deprived of learning to drive. Pete had been so sheltered that he (or his father) found he did not need to learn.

Blackie speaks little, but almost every comment of his elicits questions and proposals of reasons from Pete, whose intelligence and curiosity spark both Blackie and me. And, strangely, throughout the trip not one of us enquired of the background of another. Nor did we offer. It was enough to be there in Burma, in a war, in lovely country. To be surrounded by strange and beautiful people. We were content.

(Later it was observed that innocence and idealism were not likely to operate in favour of a fighter pilot. I regret that his idealism led Pete Petach to volunteer for two additional weeks after the formal date of the disbanding of the group. He was killed in that period.)

Early the next week, our last in Loiwing, three fellows went with their trucks off to Lashio - the railhead from Rangoon - to salvage what might be saved from the Japs. Human nature probably arranged the takings. One sensible chap brought back an overload of bottled goods:- Dry Sack, whisky, Martini, gin, port. Another brought us a mixed bag of booze and groceries and importantly loads of Nestles Condensed Sweetened Milk. The third truck arrived back a day late. Drivers got sleepy, he said. What did he bring? Sixty-three Beauty Rest matresses from the airport hostel!

In the course of April and early May 1942, some of the ground observers (with radio) in East Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam had been swept away by the Japanese. Our system was in disrepair. As a result we lost some machines on the ground and other more disastrously in the course of takeoff

One aircraft at Loiwing had all the navigational instruments shot out, and there were no replacements for them. Lashio had fallen, and we were not much nearer to the Burma-China border where the road rises into China than we estimated the Japanese to be. Cliff Groh (without blessing) flew the aircraft off towards Kunming (400 miles). Six weeks later he led a village group into [illegible] with the engine suspended on bamboo over the shoulders of 20-odd villagers. Others carried machine guns, radios, wheels, parts of the empennage. At least he salvaged that much.

Just across the river from our field (Loiwing) was the CAMCO Aircraft Factory. This first day in May, after taking tools and parts (about 300 lbs) and a drum of gasoline (350 lbs), and setting the factory in flames, Jack Overly and I laid out our course in the Ford Jeep for Kunming.

We arrived at the normal border, Wanting, crossing the Burma Road before the Japanese did..

But the supply elements of the fleeing China 5th Route Army were there in force. The road was packed with trucks. Through that first evening and night Jack and I took turns in clearing traffic jams. We marvelled, too, at the simplicity of their clearance. Here we were, two Caucasians in the midst of tens of thousands of Chinese who wanted to stop and rest.

The only authority we had to put them back to work was that of our white skins and fierce personalities.

One particularly long holdup was encountered about midnight. It was my turn to clear, while Jack guarded our Jeep. After trudging along the file of trucks fot three-quarters of a mile I found a bridge. Half over the bridge was a truck. The truck was in possession of an officer and about 20 infantry troops. He and his troops and others were trying to get the machine back onto the bridge.

The size of the jam (about 150 vehicles) testified their failure. And here was the first and only "white face" we encountered that night. At the scene of the incident on the bridge, was one of Mr. Hertz's lieutenants (Hertz of car rental fame was traffic consultant for the Burma Road at that time). Taller than any of the Chinese around, and very well dressed and very well-intentioned, he was trying to help the Chinese captain get the truck back upon the bridge. He did not carry a gun.

continued in part 6