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

Splendid Little War

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Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).

The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.

Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.

Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began.

In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.

Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.

The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets. 

The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal predicament. In a series of Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s authority over island people, they could expect no civil protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t Follow the Flag.” 

In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.

In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.

In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.

Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.

In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to Africa.

By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.

Beginnings and ends work in placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.

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 and on Kindle.

Why We Remember

Roosevelt Field Aviators,1933: Elvey Kalep, sitting right, Betty Gillies, on her stomach, Frances Marsalis, standing center, Amelia Earhart, at left looking down. “The Ninety Nines.”

This week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”

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

New York 1933

Excerpt from “River of January.”

    “You Chumbley?”  

     Chum glanced up from Ailor’s desk, where he was adding up airtime in his logbook. A well-dressed gentleman, clearly from the city, faced him. The caller had quietly stepped through the door, surprising the pilot, intent on his figures. 

     “You found him, sir,” Chum smiled warmly. 

     “My name’s Rosenbaum, Richard Rosenbaum, but I go by Ross. The man extended his hand, as Chum hopped up. “Say, I need a reliable passenger plane for hire, with a good pilot at the helm. Your name was given to me over at the AP office.”

     “Uh huh,” Chum answered casually, privately pleased at the referral. “Where exactly would you need me to fly, Mr. Ross?”  

     But Ross answered something else. “I have a chair on the stock exchange, but don’t hold that against me,” he volunteered—Chum gawked, and Ross laughed, “I know. You’re surprised I have the guts to state my occupation. We Wall Street types aren’t exactly popular with the public these days, are we?” 

     The flyer chuckled at the businessman’s blunt honesty. 

     “Well, I won’t crash the plane, if that’s what worries you. The market crashing is enough for now,” Chum joked back. 

     With the ice broken, Chum and Ross got down to business, discussing rates and various destinations. Sensing Ross could become a first-rate client, he offered, “Would you like to go up for a spin, Mr. Ross or Rosenbaum?”  

     The client laughed again. “Love to— love flying.”

     Twenty minutes later, the plane eased down, trundling to a gentle stop on the airstrip. As he released his safety straps the broker remarked, “Thanks for the test ride. You know, you’re quite the pilot—may I call you Mont?”  

     “Nooo, sir. My friends call me Chum,” the pilot answered. 

     “Well, Chum, I’d like you to plan on a pleasure trip next weekend. The boys and I need to get to Havre de Grace in Maryland. And I will stay in touch.”  

     The two men shook hands again, and Ross, whistling, walked over to his Chrysler Imperial, and motored away. 

     Promptly a week later, while jiggling his office key into the door, Chum heard Ailor’s phone ringing. He burst in, leaving the keys hanging in the lock, and seized the receiver. 

     “Hello, Chumbley here—hello?”  

     “Morning Chum,” flashed an urgent voice. “This is Richard Ross, and I am awfully glad I caught you at the office! We have a horse posted in the third race and need to get to Baltimore, fast.”  

     “Havre de Grace Race Track?”  

     “A horse in the third.”  

     “Wait, where are you calling from?” the young man asked. 

     “Newark. We’ll be waiting at the airfield for you to arrive.”  

     “Horse track, huh?  Roger that. I’ll gas up the Waco and be over soon.”  Jogging to the hangar Chum reflected, “This trip sounds like fun, especially if I make a couple of bucks.”  

     Taxiing down the runway, the flyer lifted off—his trip was just a short hop west—and Chum presently approached the New Jersey landing strip. From his windshield he could see three figures moving outside an office building near the tarmac. 

     “Must be Ross,” Chum mumbled. Touching down, the pilot slowed and turned the plane toward his passengers. But he noticed they were running toward the Waco. Ross was shouting something and waving his arms. 

     “We need to go, now, Chum!” the pilot finally heard above his roaring engine. Chuckling, as they clambered aboard, the flyer again turned and taxied down the same airstrip, quickly lifting off toward the southeast. His three passengers breathlessly discussed the upcoming race card. Thoroughly entertained by their excitement, Chum listened.

     “That number six will be tough to beat,” and “I paid a call to those stables and I wasn’t that impressed.”

     This flight wasn’t long either, but apparently too lengthy for the impatient stockbrokers. As Chum circled the county airfield, Ross reached up and patted his shoulder. “Not here, Chum. It’s too far from Havre de Grace. Land the plane at the track, put it down on the infield!”  

     Stunned, the pilot clarified, “At the horse track?”  

     “Yes sir! There’s no one better than you to pull off a landing like this one!”

     As he doubtfully turned his plane around, dangerous images passed through Chum’s mind—in particular, the incident in Elmira. He understood, as every pilot understood, that potential disaster rode along with him on every flight. 

     Chum worried:  What are the chances of cart-wheeling the plane? Can I regain lift if I come too close to the viewer stands? Will I be arrested?  

     Ross read Chum’s alarm and assured the pilot, “I trust you. The field is long enough for a good flyboy like you to manage. And we’ll pay for any mishap or damage.”

     “How ’bout my broken neck?” the pilot half-joked. 

     The broker snickered. 

     Chum shrugged, lowered the nose of his Waco, and touched down firmly, bouncing on the grass, and smoothing out as the plane slowed. By the end of the infield, the Waco stopped, facing the viewing stands. Safe. No snags. Leaning over the yoke, he inhaled deeply realizing he’d held his breath through the approach, the landing, and the braking. 

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

Free is Good

From the advent of aviation to the stages of Vaudeville–spanning continents by air and sea, comes “River of January.” Enjoy this true, epic story.

“River of January,” part one of a two-part memoir is available, free on Kindle, from Sunday, March 31, through Tuesday April 2.

Click the link below.

River of Januaryhttps://www.amazon.com/River-January-Gail-Chumbley-ebook/dp/B00N1ZLWZI/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=river+of+January&qid=1553962925&s=digital-text&sr=1-2

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” http://www.river-of-january.com

gailchumbley@gmail.com

For Your Reading Enjoyment

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Attention Kindle readers! “River of January,” part one of the two-part memoir is going on sale. For only 99 cents relive the thrilling, true adventures of the aviator and the show girl. The offer begins on Saturday, December 29th at 8:00am MDT, ending on Wednesday, January 2, 2019 at midnight MDT.

Check for “River of January: Figure Eight,” part two of the saga, going on sale at the end of January. Stay tuned for details.

Amazon.com

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Amazon.com