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The following is an excerpt from River of January: Figure Eight
For three anxious days reports trickled in from the Pacific, dispatches that were spotty, vague, and inconclusive. When details emerged of this first-ever clash in the sky, the United States Navy found much to celebrate and, tragically, as much to mourn.
The particulars surfaced days after the attack, presenting a clearer picture of the Battle of Midway. At a morning briefing, base personnel learned firsthand the events surrounding this aerial showdown. “The Imperial Japanese Navy,” began an officer Chum recognized as Lieutenant Commander Kirby, “in an attempt to eliminate US forces on Midway Island, launched multiple airborne assaults. The number of enemy aircraft carriers present in the attack has convinced the Department of War that the Japanese military intended to occupy the island in order to menace US installations farther west in Hawaii.” Kirby paused, somberly measuring his words. “The Empire of Japan has utterly failed in their effort.” The lieutenant commander smiled faintly. “Of the six Japanese carriers under Admiral Yamamoto’s command, four now sit at the bottom of the central Pacific.”
For a moment, the gathering seemed to hold its collective breath, pondering the lieutenant commander’s words. When the full significance sank in, the men jumped to life, roaring in satisfied approval. After the shouting and fraternal backslapping, the crowd finally stood together in a rousing standing ovation.
Kirby couldn’t help but grin at the enthusiastic response, but quickly quelled the celebration with a brief “As you were.” When everyone was seated again, he continued. “Ahem. Yes, this is good news, good news.” Glancing down at his notes and taking a deep breath, he said, “Gentlemen, this great triumph has come at a grim price for the navy. Fellas, we have lost the USS Yorktown. An enemy sub took the old girl down. She was too disabled from the Coral Sea campaign to maneuver away. Our losses so far are sobering—over three hundred casualties at latest count.”
Kirby’s eyes scanned the crowd. “Among the dead, five squadrons of Devastator torpedo bombers from both the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet. These bombers were utterly blown from the sky while executing attacks on Japanese vessels. The Department of the Navy verified the few who survived the shelling were slaughtered in the water by the enemy rather than rescued. Initial reports from Honolulu indicate that Wildcat fighters, assigned to protect these torpedo bombers, lost all contact, leaving the Devastators hopelessly exposed to Japanese ordnance. Boys, we lost them all, all of our torpedo bombers and pilots—but one, a pilot from Texas.”
The room fell silent, as if there had been no good news at all, no victory in the Pacific. Kirby concluded the briefing with, “Their brave sacrifice made it possible for the rest to find and sink those Japanese carriers.”
Seated among his fellow pilots, Chum shook his head sadly, reminded of a conversation nearly fifteen years before, when he was just a boy—a Seaman, First Class. After a morning of training—of war games—he and a buddy were perched on stools at the base canteen in Panama. Flying his torpedo bomber yards from service vessels had left him unsettled, and he said to his friend, “We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”
“A suicide mission,” he repeated, in a hopeless whisper, coming out of his reverie.
“Permission to speak, sir,” came a voice from the rear of the hall.
Kirby responded, “Permission granted.”
“How does a sailor go about transferring to the Pacific, sir? With all due respect to our mission here in New York, I want to whip those Japs bad.” Murmurs of agreement swept across the room.
“Fill out the proper paperwork, son.” The lieutenant commander sounded weary. “Complete with your commanding officer’s signature.”
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com or at Amazon.com
Sure he was far behind, Mont Chumbley pushed his Waco Cabin C through the night sky. Fresh from the Navy, the young aviator found himself wondering why in the world he’d agreed to enter this “Darkness Derby” competition in the first place.
Called “Chum” by his friends at Roosevelt Field, the pilot had begun a civilian career out of a Western Aircraft Company (Waco) hangar near Mineola, Long Island. Transporting press photographers and reporters to breaking news locations, plus teaching flight to the rich and famous, including Jaqueline Cochrane and Kathryn Hepburn, he found his niche. A 1933 flight to a horse track in Maryland set Chum’s course for the night race he now anxiously questioned.
Richard Ross, a financier who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, was the horse fancier who hired Chum. Ross needed a quick hop to Harve De Grace Track outside Baltimore, Maryland for a horse he had going on the afternoon card. Extremely impressed by the young pilot’s skill, (Chum landed his Waco in the track’s infield) Ross soon offered to pay for modifications to Chum’s Waco if the flyer would agree to enter the transcontinental Darkness Derby. Considering $1,500 in prize money that could really help him out, the young aviator agreed to enter.
Chum set off on September 29th, heading west, flying cross-country to his final destination—Glendale California’s Grand Central Terminal, the starting point for the air race.
Seeded second in a slate of seven planes, positions rated by horsepower and speed, Chum lifted into the growing dusk on October 1, 1933. Guided by a compass and tracking a full moon, the determined young pilot found conditions perfect, the clear night air permitting his Waco a smooth passage.
Before takeoff, Chum studied his competitors, becoming familiar with the pilots and aircraft he had to beat. Merle Nelson of Los Angeles flew a Stinson Cabin powered by a 200 hp Lycoming engine, and looked tough. Frank Bowman of El Paso, Texas in his 90 hp Lycoming engine Monocoupe appeared to be a contender as well. His own Waco Cabin purred with a 210 hp Continental engine, and Chum knew he could open it up to over 130 miles an hour, if necessary.
The moon as his guide, the Mojave Desert illuminated below, the little Waco pushed onward. Setting the aircraft down in Albuquerque, the pilot dutifully checked in with the ground judges, and then hurried to re-fuel. Making small talk with the teenager servicing his plane, Chum was told someone else had already landed and gone. Panic stricken, he cut the conversation short, and returned to the air as fast as he could. It was now that he pushed that plane full bore, resolved to catch up and beat any opponent.
At 9:37am, Mont Chumbley taxied onto the ground in Wichita, completing the first leg of the race in 12 hours and 17 minutes. There had been no other plane, at least not in this race. The kid in Albuquerque had been wrong. Four hours later Nelson arrived, and three other planes still in contention lagged far behind. Following a bit of rest at the field, then carefully inspecting the soundness of his equipment, the derby leader once again rolled down the runway, lifting off into the eastern sky.
Following another quick stop in Indianapolis to check in and fuel his Waco, the pilot learned he still held on to the lead. Satisfied, he returned to the darkness, fairly certain of a pending victory. However, that assurance evaporated when layers of cloud-cover compounded with darkness convinced the pilot that he had become utterly lost. Pushing on, buffeted about by worsening conditions, Chum began to worry he was squandering valuable time. Wracking his brains for deliverance, his aviator eyes suddenly spotted a break in the thick swirling mist. Not hesitating a moment, the Waco slipped through the hole that fortune had sent his way.
Underneath, clearly defined in the infinite blackness beamed a tiny, dim light. One. Chum decided to take his chances and try to figure out where he was. The landing didn’t go well. In swells of bumps, the Virginia farm boy realized his wheels were pounding on furrows of newly cleared fields. Drawing closer to that isolated light, Chum made out the side of a house, with an extended porch. Someone had to be inside.
He rapped on the weathered door, and waited. Sounds of scraping and thumping grew louder until the door opened revealing an equally weathered farmer, and his disheveled wife holding a candle. Chum smiled through the entryway, and in a friendly voice explained his dilemma. The farmer stared a moment, measuring the stranger’s sincerity, then decided to let him in.
As the wife poked the coals in the wood stove, and reached for the coffee pot, the farmer spread out maps on the table. Chum soon learned he had landed in western Pennsylvania, and wasn’t too far off course. Profoundly relieved, the young man stuffed cake in his mouth, downed a cup of coffee, and in a rush of heart-felt thanks again bumped over the dark fields back into the sky.
The darkness soon transformed to early morning, and Chum wondered again where his fellow competitors were located. He knew he hadn’t lost too much time with his unexpected stop, but still fretted, uncertain about the status of the other flyers. Worried about the constant cloud cover that didn’t want to clear, he decided, as a last resort, he’d head out over the Atlantic, look for another break, and duck through. But once again luck smiled, and in the perfect light of morning, a providential clearing appeared and Chum took advantage.
On October 4, 1933 Montgomery Chumbley landed on Roosevelt Field #2, seeming the winner of the 2006 miles long Darkness Derby. However, judges and spectators rushed the plane, arms waving, and clipboards flashing to warn him he’d landed on the wrong strip! Shutting down his plane would have meant disqualification. Without a pause, Chum quickly taxied to Field #1, then turned off his engine, and in 24 hours, 12 minutes (two added for the last minute taxi) won the transcontinental air race.
The competition had been set as a preliminary event leading to Roosevelt Field’s National Air Pageant. The widely lauded landing launched the festivities planned for the rest of the week, including an exhibition by German stunt pilot, Ernst Udet. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the pageant, with proceeds earmarked for her charities, and Warner Brothers shared by premiering their newest film “Night Flight,” starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. On the evening of October 5, in a theater filled with flyers, Miss Hayes presented Chum with a trophy and his winnings, before screening the film. (Merle Nelson received $750 for second place, and Bowman $500 for coming in third.)
As for Chum in the days and weeks after the race? He became a minor New York celebrity, with aspiring students and eager press lining up for his flying services. In 1934 Waco hired him sending him to Rio de Janeiro to sell equipment to the Brazilian, and Argentine air ministries. By the time the Night Flight winner returned to the States in 1936, Mont Chumbley was the most prolific overseas salesman Waco employed.
By Lex Nelson
An avid history junkie from a young age, Gail Chumbley never meant to be a writer. She spent the first half of her life clocking in 33 years as an American History teacher before retiring from Eagle High School in 2013. Along the way, she married Chad Chumbley, who, she said, told stories about his father the pilot and his mother the showgirl, which were almost too fantastical to be true. Favorite accounts included how Montgomery “Chum” Chumbley and Helen Thompson met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Chum sent a note backstage; the time Helen acted alongside Bela Lugosi before turning her sights to ice skating; and the day when Chum, not yet a World War II pilot, shared his cockpit with Katharine Hepburn. Eventually, Helen’s dancing career and Chum’s military service disrupted their marriage.
The stories were true, confirmed by endless boxes of photographs and papers Chad had saved and an oral history Gail conducted with her father-in-law before he passed away. While Gail found the tale of star-crossed lovers compelling, it wasn’t until Chad was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010 that she decided share it.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her Garden Valley home, Gail opened up about the eight years of writing and research that resulted in two self-published books—River of January (2014) and River of January: Figure Eight (2016)—and a movie script. Chad, largely recovered from his cancer, sat in, and her script writing partner Ray Richmond joined the conversation by phone from Los Angeles.
Ray, let’s start with your role. What got you on board with turning Gail’s books into a script?
Ray: I could see [the story] on a screen when I was starting to read it. We have a pioneer aviator, we have a dancer from the golden age of entertainment and vaudeville and, you know, my only questions when I was reading were how [Helen] had managed to avoid murdering her mother, because I thought, this woman is just a natural, wonderful villain … and why this movie wasn’t made 20 years ago. It’s got the war as a backdrop, it’s got Hollywood, it’s got all of these great names in aviation, it’s got a little bit of Amelia Earhart, a little bit of Howard Hughes. It’s like history just jumps off the page.
Was it difficult to combine two books into one script?
Ray: Not really. It’s mostly about the second book … It’s really about their relationship and the whole backdrop [of WWII]. There’s a lot of female empowerment and disempowerment here. And there are so many different tentacles to that, because you’ve got the meddling mother-in-law who knows best, and the problem is, she really does know best, but she’s a harridan and horrible in the way she comes across while she’s conveying it. She did know that her daughter shouldn’t be with this guy who wanted a traditional life, and that [Helen] was destined to be a great dancer.
Gail, how did you make the decision to start writing your in-laws’ love story?
Gail: I’d look at [the photos and papers] and put them back and say, “I’ve got to write this book.” I meant it, and I didn’t mean it. I knew I should, but I didn’t know how. Then Chad got so sick and nearly died—he was in the ICU for eight days. I won’t let him show you his belly, but it just ran out of real estate for all the stuff they had hooked to him … it was horrible. I didn’t know what to do with any of that. Teaching worked to a point, because that’s sort of my living room, and I could really get comfortable, but when it came right down to it, I had all this unvented anxiety and fear and just PTSD. And I knew it. I knew I was crazy, and I knew I was feeling really nuts. When I got home at night, I was just a wreck. So the summer he started chemo and radiation … I was sitting up here every day going through all these letters, trying to make sense of it. [The draft] was horrible, and [my editor] fired me, but I wouldn’t give up because I couldn’t. I had no choice. I read Ron Chernow’s biography of [George] Washington, and there’s a line there he used that really resonated with me. It’s “the clarity of desperation.” I had the clarity of desperation.
You ended up writing the books.
Gail: I wanted someone else to [write Chum and Helen’s story] so badly. I tried to talk a bunch of people into doing it for me that were really good writers, but it’s like, you’re going into labor and no one else is having that baby. You’re going to do it. No one else was going to do this. It fell to me, and in a way that was wonderful, and in a way, it was a sentence.
What was it like transitioning from teaching to being a writer?
Gail: You hear about people who are in the military or the public service, and they retire and decide to teach. And I always thought, ‘Are they crazy? It’s hard work!’ Now, that’s rich. I go from one hard job, thinking writing would be a nice way to pass my job retired—and that’s hard work! I mean, there is no easy cheesy way to go into your retirement.
What was the research process like, going through Helen and Chum’s old papers?
Gail: The history part wasn’t hard for me. What was hard was to give voice to Helen, to give voice to Chum. Now Chum was easier, because I interviewed him. I had like 15 hours of oral history with him, and I knew him. I didn’t know Helen [who died in 1993].
But considering what happens at the end of the books, there must have been some difficulty in talking about Helen and Chum as parents.
Gail: [Chad] didn’t have a very happy childhood in that house … I think there’s something to that, sometimes really famous people are really lousy parents. Chum and Chad ended up very close though, because he died here, he died in Boise in 2006, and Chad was there every day.
Will you ever write another book?
Gail: I’ve thought about writing a book about generals who were very jealous of each other in wartime, and how those personal quirks and jealousies impeded the war effort. Like between Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant … I feel like writing is the most basic form of communication that you can share without speaking, it’s as unique as a person’s fingerprint, and I think it’s really cool to do.
And Ray, what’s next for the script?
Ray: Well, what’s next is that I have some contacts at the Hallmark Channel, and I’m trying to convince them that they don’t need to make every movie about Christmas … But I really feel good about this. If it’s a great story and it’s meant to be, and it’s got so many vivid elements to it and such great characters, it’s going to be done.
This is World War One flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Young Rickenbacker soared the deadly skies over France as a member of the 94th Aero Squadron. He engaged in dogfights piloting Nieuports and Spads, earning the distinction of most decorated American pilot of the war. The insignia of the 94th was the “Hat In The Ring,” seen above.
Here is Captain Rickenbacker in the 1950’s while he was president of Eastern Airlines. He is lunching with Mont Chumbley, a proud career pilot for Rickenbacker’s “Great Silver Fleet” from 1940 until retirement in 1969. Mont, known as “Chum” is the subject of my two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”
And here stands Mont Chumbley next to his Pitts Special Aerobatic plane in the 1980’s. In memory of his famous employer, “Chum” stenciled the “Hat In The Ring” to his sports plane.
Gail Chumbley is the author of both titles available at http://www.river-of-january.com. Also on Amazon.com.
“So buddy, I was wondering if you have any plans tonight,” Fred Murphy said as the Mariner throttled to the Alameda dock. “It’s nice to head over to San Francisco when the opportunity presents.”
“What did you have in mind, Murph?” asked Chum.
“Is that a yes? Because there is this place pilots really like—but it’s a kind of a surprise, and you’re gonna have to trust me.”
“You, Fred? Trust you? Should I pack my service revolver?”
“Just trust me, Chum.” Murphy smiled.
That evening, a yellow taxi crawled up the steep incline of Telegraph Hill in the drizzling rain—Coit Tower front and center in the foreground. From his vantage point in the cab, Chum studied the illuminated monument—the raindrops and the wipers making it an abstract, streaky blur one moment, a defined structure the next. Their cabbie downshifted, doubling horsepower for the uphill climb to a line of apartment buildings stacked along Montgomery Street. The taxi stopped at a plain stucco building, the simple design a contrast from the adjoining buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies. Murphy paid the cab fare.
“This doesn’t look like much of a nightclub, Fred,” Chum remarked.
“Trust, remember? Besides, this is the best place in the Bay Area for fellas like us, pal. You just wait—she’s gonna love you.”
“You know I’m married, Fred.”
“Ha! Funny, Chum. So am I.”
The men ducked under the stoop and Fred gave a quick knock on the door. After a moment, a small Asian woman opened the door. She’s smaller than Bertha, Chum thought. The maid maybe?
“Lieutenant Murphy! Welcome back, welcome back,” The woman’s smile transformed in warm recognition. “You have escorted someone new to meet me, I see. Is he as skilled as you, my dear lieutenant?” Chum felt his jaw drop. Murphy laughed.
“Hello, Mother.” Murphy stooped and pecked the woman’s cheek.
Under her wire-framed spectacles, “Mother” shifted her appraising eyes back to Chum. “Welcome to my home, Lieutenant. And you are . . . ?”
Still unsure about why he was there, Chum stumbled over his answer. “Chumbley, ma’am. Lieu . . . Lieutenant Montgomery Chumbley. But please call me Chum.”
“Delighted to meet you, Lieutenant Chum. I can see that Fred did not prepare you for this visit.” Mother’s eyes returned to Murphy, conveying a light reprimand. To Chum she said, “I am Doctor Margaret Chung, but as you have already witnessed, all my sons refer to me as ‘Mother.’ Lieutenant Murphy has brought you here tonight to not simply meet a nice Chinese lady, but—I would guess—for your formal adoption into my family. Please come in, come in.” Dr. Chung gestured down a long, cluttered hall, and the two pilots complied.
Presented with such a confusion of artifacts, it was hard to know where to look first. Framed glossies of smiling aircrews, salvaged pieces from Nakajimas and Zeros—propellers, pieces of fuselages, wings—graffiti-strewn flags bearing the distinctive rising sun, spent torpedo casings, Hellcat and Corsair unit insignias, and hundreds of news clippings and snapshots of smiling pilots . . . her walls a chaotic collage of air war memorabilia. Dr. Chung studied Chum’s incredulous face as he absorbed the massive collection, visibly pleased with his reaction.
“Please find a seat, gentlemen, and allow me to explain my haphazard museum to our guest,” Dr. Chung said. Chum slumped into a stuffed wingback chair, his eyes still sweeping the memorabilia. “As you already know, Lieutenant Chum, China is presently suffering under the cruel occupation of the Japanese Empire. You need look no further than the barbarism that took place in the city of Nanking to understand my natural revulsion.”
Chum nodded. He had seen newsreels of the butchery in that city.
Dr. Chung’s eyes reflected both tragedy and determination. “I have made it my mission to raise not only awareness but also funds for the suffering people of China. It is men like you, our skilled pilots, who are striking most directly against the foe, and that kind of bravery has made you one of my dearest sons.”
Dr. Chung dropped her gaze and reached over to an end table, picking up a leather-bound ledger. She shuffled through the pages, passing inscribed signatures, finally chancing on a blank space. Holding her fountain pen, Mother began scribbling into the register. “There—done.” She glanced at Chum. “You, Lieutenant Chum, are now officially a member of the Fair Haired Bastards. Ah, let me see”—Dr. Chung silently calculated—“you are son number three hundred and ninety-two.”
She extracted a small card from a drawer in the end table and carefully filled in the blank lines. Finished, the surgeon rose and, with a handshake, presented the card to her new visitor. Chum read:
This is to certify that
Is a member of Dr. Margaret Chung’s Fair Haired Bastard’s Club, San Francisco
Margaret J. Chung MD
Her intense eyes softened, her smile gentled. “Remain safe in those dangerous skies, Lieutenant Chum. I don’t want to lose any more of my sons.”
Chum glimpsed over to his co-pilot, then back to his exceptional hostess, grappling for something to say. “Thank you, ma’am. This is an unexpected honor, and I will do my best to defeat our enemy.”
At that, Dr. Chung beamed, offering the boys a beer. More relaxed, the doctor inquired about their aircraft, their primary duties, and what they had seen of the fighting.
“Doctor Chung, ma’am,” Chum said, still inspecting the cluttered walls. “I just have to ask. Who is Fair Haired Number One?
“Ah.” She nodded, producing a wry smile. “An excellent pilot, and he’s from this area—from San Francisco. You may know him, Lieutenant Chum. His name is Lieutenant Bancroft, Stevens Bancroft.”
Of course he is. Chum threw his head back and laughed. “Oh yes, I know him, ma’am.
Seventy-nine years ago today, the Second World War began. This excerpt is that fateful day for American pilot, Mont Chumbley–subject of the memoir, “River of January: Figure Eight.”
On a sunny morning at the first of September, Chum arrived in the town of Winslow, Arizona, bumping down the landing strip at the airfield. Taxiing off to the side of the field, he observed a crowd collecting close to the control tower. Curious, he rolled to a stop, switched off the Waco, and hopped down. “What’s cooking?” he asked no one in particular.
A boy in greasy dungarees and black high-tops chirped up excitedly. “The Germans invaded Poland, mister. And England and France have declared war!” The boy beamed proudly, satisfied with reporting such important news.
Astonished, Chum stared blankly at the kid—countless considerations flooding his thoughts. Poor Helen. She’s been worried about what would happen. She loved France. I’ll probably be hearing from the reserves. We’re not in yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
While various scenarios dominated his thoughts, Chum refueled his plane. He then carried on with his flight plan, eventually touching down in Albuquerque—his destination. With his Waco S Series plane tethered to the ground, the pilot beelined to the small airport office, anxious for any news. The day had grown hot, but Chum barely noticed. He needed water, but the news came first. Approaching a low, dark building, he heard a voice booming from a radio:
At dawn, with no provocation or declaration of hostilities, the German army has invaded Polish territory, ruthlessly violating the country’s national integrity. Intensive bombing attacks are at this moment raining death and destruction over the cities of Poznan, Wroclaw, and Danzig resulting in considerable casualties among innocent civilians . . .
“Hey, Coop,” Chum called, hailing the manager. “What’s all this about marching Germans?”
“Been waiting on you, Chum,” the man called Coop replied, turning down the news broadcast. “Got a cable here for you from Troy. And that breaking news is all too true, pal.” Coop gestured toward the radio with his thumb.
Mumbling thanks, Chum unsealed the telegram, tuning out the now-muted announcer. He read:
Finish Albuquerque demo. Then to Troy. Big meeting. Perry
“They want you back at the nest, I’d wager,” the manager said with a knowing expression.
“Yes. Yes they do. All hands on deck, as the saying goes.” Chum tried to smile.
“Jerry’s hit Poland hard,” Coop continued. “First their heavy bombers, then the tanks, then the army marching in. Poor Poles. They don’t stand a chance. Radio announcer called the attack blitzkrieg.”
The word didn’t click. “What’s a blitzkrieg?”
Coop replied in a dark voice, “Lightning war.”
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available at http://www.river-of-january.com, and at Amazon.com.