More China Memories

November, 1944. My turn to serve again as Forward Base Operations Officer at Hellbird Group’s China base (A-5)–near Kiunglai, Chengtu Valley.

Weather now chilly, but not freezing cold. Surrounding rice crops harvested. Construction on base completed–gone, most of nearly 90,000 construction coolies–just enough left to care for repair and maintenance of runway, taxi strips and hardstands.Chinese troops still guarding all B-29s.

Operations now stepped up.More missions being flown against targets in southern Japan, Manchuria and Formosa. Forward bases serving their purpose of bringing war home to Japan’s strategic targets.

The role of Forward Base Operations Officer (FBOO) was, in essence, that of forward Base Commander. Except for those hours when Group Commander, or Deputy, was on base during a mission, the FBOO had final responsibility and authority–reporting to Group Commander in India on important matters. A busy and exciting experience–many day-to-day activities demanding attention–also memorable special happenings and events. Standing out from the routine, here are some special memories.

Outpost Ingenuity

Some matters required a bit of ingenuity. Examples:

1)  When B-29s were staging through A-5 on a mission, my aircraft and crew were among those participating–with an alternate pilot. Flight Engineer, Lt. Howard Lapin, came to speak with me–worried. He explained that on Hump crossing, number two engine had consumed more fuel than others. While working to correct problem–disassembling a component deep within engine nacelle–hard to reach–a very small piece resembling soft washer slipped from his hand into inaccessible area. Without that piece, the engine would not safely function. No supply of such item at forward base–must ask pilot to abort mission–wanted me to know first.

Went with Lapin to aircraft for a look–obvious that missing part could not be retrieved. I asked for a precise description of item. Lapin sketched picture showing form and dimensions–said it felt like hardened but flexible rubber. I took off one of my GI high-top shoes–cut piece of leather to size and shape of drawing. Fit OK. He got component put together and started engine–ran like new. Only he and I knew that the plane was made operational by a piece of GI shoe! The plane completed mission and returned across Hump to India with no problem.

2)  One of our senior Master Sergeants serving permanent duty at base asked to show me something–took me to a small hut he had fashioned behind his workshop. Inside was a rigged-up old fashioned still–in operation. He was proud of his accomplishment–invited me to sit down and have a glass. Okay, just a sip.Sure enough, it was real moonshine stuff.

“You know,” he said, “the local rice wine these Chinese make is pretty terrible to my taste, and there is no way to get a good drink up here. Believe me, guys working as hard and long as we do need a little refreshing nip now and then.” Went on to tell he had grown up in Kentucky hill country–learned about stills–how to make and operate them. In his view, this forward outpost in China was a perfect place to put such special knowledge to practical use.

I congratulated him–said I was sure he knew how to handle his product with discretion. He confided that his output was small–just enough to warm up his, and a few close friend’s, bellies from time to time when off duty.

The Sound of Music

It seemed strange–at this far away outpost–but a Chinese symphony orchestra from Chengtu came to A-5 to give a performance. Don’t know what I expected–but it was a performance to be remembered. A full symphony–smartly dressed, talented musicians–playing western classical favorites–complemented with equally lovely Chinese pieces. For almost two hours I was spellbound–completely immersed in this unexpected, genuine taste of civilization–overwhelmed by its beauty and perfection. Gone was the war, with its horrors, heartaches and troubles. Thank you, talented musicians from Chengtu, for bringing us this most memorable and rewarding interlude.

Japanese Bomber

It was a clear moonlit night. Our B-29s had just returned from their mission. Call came from Chinese Intelligence–Japanese bombers were following trail of returning B-29s–we should prepare for imminent attack on our base. The alarm went out–all scurried for foxholes–away from expected target, parked aircraft. Soon we heard the sound of a Japanese twin engine bomber. It came into sight–flying low–no more than 2,000 feet. Made two circles around base–apparently selecting bomb run over parked B-29s–their silver bodies reflecting moonlight.

We stood beside foxholes, watching–jumped in when bomber approached overhead. Then bombs fell–cluster bombs–bonds breaking in air–individual bomblets scattering and exploding on contact. Explosions not loud, but staccato–reminding of clusters of large firecrackers going off. Bomber soon disappeared–headed for home. No others came by .(Later learned that other Groups’ bases were more heavily attacked than ours.)

Preliminary inspection revealed none of our B-29s had suffered serious damage–waited for daylight to make full evaluation. Found only a few aircraft had suffered surface punctures from the small bomblet shrapnel. (Bomblets were only about nine inches long, including fins, and less than three inches in diameter–appeared crudely made).

I was among those inspecting planes at first daylight. Saw an unexploded bomblet sticking into soft earth with fin partly exposed.Moved dirt away to reveal fuse rotor had not spun fully out. Carefully pulled bomblet out by its fin–turned it over to Armament Section–explosive was removed and bomblet returned to me for souvenir.

Chinese Banquet

We received an invitation. Officers were invited to banquethonoring arrival of new regional Commanding General of Chinese troops. We teamed up and rode Jeeps to location of banquet—a town not far away.

The banquet hall was large enough to accommodate about 100 people–Americans dispersed among various tables. Settings included only wine glasses, chopsticks and one very small saucer-like dish for each guest. Behind each chair stood a wine waiter whose task was to immediately refilled glass after each drink.

The senior Chinese officer at my assigned table was an older, very pleasant General who spoke excellent English. He started conversation by offering a toast “to America, China’s great and honored friend”–taking the occasion to remark that he could not partake of the wine because of a problem with teeth too sensitive. (As a non-drinker, that was music to my ears. To me, Chinese rice wine brought thoughts of battery acid). All guests raised and emptied their glasses in good cheer.

I responded with a similar toast to China–took occasion to say what a coincidence it was that I, too, had sensitive teeth and would have to be careful with the wine. Again, cheers and emptied glasses–immediately refilled.

Waiters quickly brought out beautifully prepared foods. Chinese guests reached out with chopsticks to partake of dishes of their choice, seldom pausing at the small saucer in front of them–we Americans followed their example. The dishes were delicious, although I seldom knew what I was eating. As soon as it appeared to waiters that each guest had an opportunity to taste a dish, that one was taken away and replaced with something new.

At one point a whole duck, beautifully roasted, was brought to table–meat so tender it pulled away easily with chopsticks. I asked how such tender meat was achieved. The answer–they buried duck in ground for three days before baking. Another dish I was told was a wild mountain fungus. Decided to withhold further questions–just enjoy.

The dishes kept coming–also the toasts. After a while, bites became slower–toasts slurred. This continued as long as anyone could eat or drink.

Finally, when tables were about half empty of guests–most of those remaining slouched over tables–our General offered a final toast and bade us good night. He and I were the only sober ones I could spot at the time.

Back at Jeeps, our driver (an Intelligence Captain) was feeling no pain. How we arrived safely at Base was one of life’s little miracles. However, most of the fellows were either enjoying the fun or too “far gone” to care.

Slow Time Prank

One of the planes coming over from Pairdoba for a combat mission had a bad engine–needed to be changed. Crews worked diligently and had new engine installed in time to make mission. But procedures required that new engine be given an hour’s “slow time” in flight before being placed in service. I volunteered to fly the slow time.

The mission was scheduled for pre-dawn take off. Crew wake up time was 1:00 AM–mission briefing at 2:00.

I scheduled my “slow time” take off for midnight. At end of hour, held sufficient altitude for long, quiet glide to base–power at idle. Came directly over officers’ housing area–about 100 feet above tent tops–at precisely 1:00 AM (time for wake-up signal). Increased propeller speed to high RPM–pushed throttles to max power. What a roar! Was told later that officers were falling all over themselves in their rush to foxholes.

Needless to say, I did not show up at crew breakfast–nor mission briefing. Flight got off routinely. After long hours of combat mission, the wake-up incident apparently seemed not so important–I survived the aftermath of that dastardly prank with some good natured laughs.