Panama 1932

Author Note: The following excerpt was drawn from extended interviews with veteran aviator Mont Chumbley (1909-2006), discussing his training in the interwar Navy. For the rest of the story read “River of January” available on Kindle.

Later, with his flight training securely behind him, Seaman Montgomery Chumbley received his first official orders. He and his class were assigned to Torpedo Squadron 3, located in Coco Solo, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Chum joined his fellow novices as they shipped out southward aboard the USS Shawmont.

Watching from the deck as the Florida base vanished, the pilot silently rejoiced at this milestone. He also celebrated the fact that he didn’t have to return in disgrace to Virginia. That euphoric detail made the sky somehow bluer, the clouds somehow more feathered and graceful. The young man felt nearly giddy.

After two pleasant days at sea, the Shawmont cruised into the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to refuel. Chum was enchanted by the beauty of the jungle and continued to marvel at the colorful sea life and assortment of exquisite birds circling the ship for handouts. The vast horizons he used to imagine, were becoming reality.

The Squadron’s final destination lay near Colon, Panama. Coco Solo was a vast, busy American naval installation, surprising the young pilot with its colossal size. The arrivals boarded a transport for delivery to their quarters, gawking out their bus windows in wonder at the enormity of the American base.

His awe continued after he and the boys were escorted to the adjacent submarine facility to tour that installation.

Returning to the field, the group sat through their initial military briefing, Chum, next to Win, listened as the instructor addressed the new aviators. The captain explained that a 1929 War Department directive assigned the US Navy the task of protecting the Atlantic zone of the Panama Canal from hostile threats.

“The Army’s Fort Gulick sits adjacent to us in Coco Solo, and shares our same mission,” he explained. “As some of you may already know, to the southwest, other military bases dot the entire 51 miles of the canal—all the way to where it meets the Pacific.

After the session, Chum remarked to his buddy, “I feel strangely noble defending the canal. It’s as though we all are part of a bigger picture, with America expanding into both oceans.”

“But what country would be nuts enough to attack us?” Win wondered.

War games made up much of Chum’s Panama duty. The flyers were the “red” team, attacking from the air, while the “blue” team lay in wait, aboard ships “guarding” the canal. The pilots executed their orders during these simulations, but off-duty they grumbled about the Navy’s outdated and seriously flawed maritime battle plans.

“I can’t believe they have us flying so near enemy ships!” Chum groused, crunching over a gravel path after morning exercises. Win paced alongside as they headed toward the base canteen.

“So near? What do you mean? How else could we release our torpedoes?” His friend asked as they ordered sodas at the commissary’s cafeteria.

“Think about it, Win. A torpedo aims more accurately if it detaches directly above the ocean’s surface. And it’s not the steep dive on approach that’s fatal—it’s pulling up after releasing the torpedo. That maneuver is potentially fatal. The belly of the plane is too close to enemy guns. Any surface ship could blow us to kingdom come.” He smacked his palms loudly for effect.

“But, Chum, hold on! There’s smoke laid down on the surface by the first two T3M’s. That smoke blankets us.”

“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. 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.”

The two flyers stared at their icy drinks. Perhaps Win could see his own plane exploding into the cold depths, just as Chum had already envisioned.

“Anyhow, the scuttlebutt says the brass is taking a second look at that line of attack,” Win disclosed. “The Navy wants to remodel the torpedo bombers into patrol biplanes, replacing the ordnance with fuel tanks. Can’t come fast enough for me—you’ve made me a believer,” his friend admitted.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” www.river-of-january.com Both books are also available on Kindle.

Los Angeles 1940

The supper club was cavernous. The Cocoanut Grove’s maître d’ cordially welcomed the couple and directed them through a tropical arbor of tall potted palms, sheltered under an enormous Bedouin striped tent. Moorish archways separated a dimly lit lounge from the contrasting bustling dining area and its polished dance floor. From a raised stage, a full orchestra engaged the swaying crowd with a smooth rendition of “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).” Those not dancing strolled among the tables—greeting friends, laughing, and sipping their cock- tails. Intrepid photographers, dodging harried waiters and pretty cigarette girls, snapped photos of the diners.

Helen shimmered, gowned in flowing black silk, easily melding into her chic surroundings. Chum found himself, once again, bowled over by her beauty. “You take the cake, Helen,” he said, as he pulled out a chair for her. She gave him a puzzled glance as she sat down. “What I mean is,” he clarified, “how does a girl pick beach sand out of her ears in the afternoon and transform into a dreamboat by eight?”

She smiled. “It’s all in the face powder—covers up sand, salt, sunburn, bird droppings . . . the works. You know, Chum, with all this flattery, I think you ought to stick around more . . . maybe reconsider this employment idea.”

Chum disagreed by a shake of his head. “Helen, there are two things in this world I love. One is escorting you to nightspots like this one. And two—”

“Flying,” she finished.

“Right-o. And now that we have cleared up that little matter, would you like to dance with your husband? You see, dancing with you is the other benefit I get from nightclubbing. And I promise I will flatter you more. That’s one of the reasons I married you.”

Chum circled the table and drew back her chair. The bandleader gently snapped his fingers in a leisurely four count, the orchestra striking up “Moonlight Serenade” on the downbeat. A rich trombone solo beckoned the couple toward the floor, quickly accompanied by a melodic blend of clarinets and saxophones.

Chum clasped Helen around the waist, holding her close, her left hand in his right.

“Now this is a box step, honey,” Helen murmured. “Just do what I showed you and keep your eyes up. Don’t look at your feet. Feel the rhythm,” she coached.

“I’ll give it my best.” His eyebrows cinched together as he concentrated. After a few steps he grumbled, “I’d like to see you fly an airplane.”

When dinner ended, Helen leaned closer to Chum, and they quietly spun idyllic visions of their future. Out of the corner of her eye, Helen noticed a well-dressed gentleman making his way toward their table. She sat up.

“Chum?” inquired a tall, dark-haired, opened-faced man.

“Russell!” exclaimed a genuinely pleased and surprised Mont Chumbley. He hopped up, stretching out his right hand. “What do you say, Russell? What brings you to Los Angeles?”

Chum’s words rushed in his surprise. “Helen, this is Russell Thaw, an old friend from my air rac- ing days. Russ, this is my wife, Helen.”

Politely shaking his hand, her mind worked to place his familiar name. Thaw . . . Thaw. Why do I know that name?

“Please join us, Russell.” Chum gestured to an empty chair. “Would you like a drink?”

“Sure, but just for a moment, buddy. I don’t want to intrude on your evening.” Thaw smiled sheepishly toward Helen. “What is it you’re doing with yourself, Chum? Last I heard you were working for Lindbergh at TWA.”

“Quit,” he declared, chuckling. “Teeny Weenie Airlines wasn’t for me.”

Thaw smiled at his friend’s candid reply. But his expression quickly shifted, growing seri- ous. “You need to get back to New York, Chum. The sooner the better. Eastern Airlines is hiring. They’ve got a lock on airmail routes from the government, and Captain Eddie’s hurting for pi- lots. You would do well for yourself. That is, if you want to live back in New York.”

Chum’s relaxed expression sharpened at once. He sat up straighter. He took a long look at Helen, trying to read her expression. Turning back toward Thaw, he replied, “I heard something about that. So Rickenbacker’s honestly hiring? I’d heard he had his choice of pilots.”

“Eastern is still throwing out their nets, and you two”—his gesture included Helen—“should get going and visit the Eastern office. See, time matters. Once you make that seniority list, you’re vested—you are in. The clock is vital, here. Take my advice, Chum—it’s time to get on board, literally.”

Chum sat still for a moment, rolling his cigar in his fingers. He remembered the twelve-hour seniority difference that sent him to San Francisco when he worked at TWA. “You going to ap- ply, Russ? You sound like a pitchman for the company.”

“Naw.” Thaw laughed. I just came from New York, and it is the talk all over Long Island. I fly Harry and the rest of the family around now. We’re heading back day after tomorrow. It’s a good job for me.”

The old friends talked over drinks. Thaw caught Chum up on his life, and the two remi- nisced about long-gone days at Roosevelt Field. Their visitor finally looked apologetically to- ward Helen as he stood up to leave. “Sorry to have interrupted your evening, but it was lovely meeting you. Chum’s a lucky fellow.”

“No, no,” she assured him. “It was my pleasure. I’ve come to realize that my husband has made some awfully nice friends along his way.”

Chum smiled, pleased with her compliment. He stood and shook his friend’s hand in farewell. “Thanks, Russell. First, for coming over to say hello, and secondly, for the job advice. Tell Harry hello.”

“Sure will. It was swell seeing you again, Chum. Helen.” Thaw nodded her way.

The couple watched Thaw as he disappeared into the crowd, swirling around the dance floor. Chum spoke first. “Well, what do you make of that?”

“Make of which that? Running into Russell Thaw or the Eastern Airlines news? And honey, who is Captain Eddie? I’m a little in the dark.”

“Eddie is Eddie Rickenbacker. He’s a pilot and he bought Eastern Airlines a couple years ago.”

“Oh, right. I know who he is. The World War One ace. And I also know who Russell Thaw is,” Helen announced coolly.

“Okay, Helen.” Chum folded his hands, amused. “I’m listening. What’s the dope?”

“Well, it’s legendary. The rumors made the rounds backstage of almost every theater I played in New York.” She moved closer, lowering her voice. “Your friend’s mother”—Helen gestured the direction Thaw left—“was a dancer named Evelyn Nesbitt. And she was quite a no- torious girl—carried a real checkered reputation.”

Chum, surprised, leaned in to hear her better as the orchestra struck up new number. Helen continued. “So this Evelyn met and married a wealthy New Yorker, Harry Thaw.” Chum auto- matically glanced around looking for Russell, intrigued.

“Unknown to Thaw, though everyone else in New York knew, Evelyn had had this torrid af- fair with the architect who designed Madison Square Garden.”

“Jiminy Crickets! Russell’s mother, you say?”

“Uh-huh. True story, cross my heart,” she declared. “So, Thaw Senior finds out his wife’s not-so-secret past of catting around, and shoots the architect, dead as a doornail. Later, at his murder trial, the jury acquitted Thaw of murder,” Helen finished, looking at her husband.

“Holy mackerel, I’d never heard any of that before. Poor Russell. I sure can’t blame him for wanting to keep that story quiet. Wonder if the Guggenheims know?”

“The Guggenheims? You mean the New York Guggenheims? You’ve lost me, Chum, how do they figure?”

“Harry Guggenheim is the guy Russell flew out here. He’s the family’s private pilot.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you know Harry Guggenheim?” Helen sat back, astounded.

“He flies too, honeybunch.” Chum patted her arm. “Harry was another regular out at the field.”

Helen paused for a moment, then asked, “Do you know President Roosevelt?” She was only half teasing.

Chum threw back his head and laughed out loud. “He is a navy man—that much is true. But he likes boats. FDR doesn’t fly airplanes, as far as I know.”

“That’s a relief.” Helen smiled. “Don’t know what Eleanor and I would talk about.”

The couple then fell into a contemplative silence, busily weighing the evening’s tidings. Af- ter a few moments, Chum dispelled the mood. “Ready to head home?”

“Sure, honey. I’m ready,” she replied, reaching for her bag.

Chum rolled down the windows in the Chrysler, the night breeze flowing smoothly inside the car. It was a quiet drive. He eased the sedan into their parking spot and hopped out, circling the car to open Helen’s door.

At their apartment, Helen could no longer contain herself. “Did your friend convince you? Are you going to try and work for Eastern? Are we going home?”

Chum sighed. His shoulders slumped slightly, understanding what she was truly asking. “I’m going to place a call to New York in the morning.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available on Kindle, and in hard copy at http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com