Much to Celebrate and Mourn

The following is an excerpt from River of January: Figure Eight

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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

Beloved #392

 

“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

Montgomery Chumbley

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.

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River of January: Figure Eight is available on Amazon.com and at www.river-of-january.com

Preview: ROJ;The Figure Eight

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Feeling Alone

New York

1943-44

“Put that thing down, Helen. You’re not listening!” Eileen reached over, and snatched the pencil from her hand. “Let’s go to the show.”

“Hmm? What? A movie? Well, I don’t know. I need to finish this . . . “

“How many letters have you written this week? Honestly, Helen, you can take some time to go to see a film.”

Helen leaned back and stretched; glancing around toward her mother who was busy feeding the baby wiggling in her highchair. “What do you think, B?”

“Go. Go. We’re fine here. I’ll finish this, give her a bath and put her down.”

She turned back to her sister. “Okay, Eileen. What did you have in mind? What’s playing at Loew’s?”

Eileen smiled satisfied, spreading out a newspaper over Helen’s stationary. “Let’s see . . . Journey into Fear? I suppose not. Oh, here, Sahara. Your pal Bogart stars in that one.”

“Aren’t they both war pictures? I don’t know. I need to think about something else, actually anything else, but the war.”

Song of Bernadette? Jennifer Jones pulls off a couple of slick miracles. That one ring your chimes?”

“Aren’t there any musicals or comedies? I really could use a giggle or two.” Eileen sighed and hunkered down on her elbows, and the sisters scanned the theater section, side by side.

“Here—it’s your lucky day—we have two selections. Girl Crazy with Mickey Rooney, and Star Spangled Rhythm, starring Crosby, Hope, and Betty Hutton.” The older sister turned her face to Helen.

“I like Bing Crosby.”

“Then kiss your baby and grab your purse. In that order,” Eileen smiled, delighted that she convinced her sister to get out of the apartment.

They dashed into the movie house just as the overhead lights dimmed and the red satin curtains opened. A white light flickered and beamed from above the balcony, and the audience applauded. Distinct images filled the screen and the auditorium resounded in rich sound—a Disney cartoon flashed on the screen, “The Three Little Pigs.” Helen had to chuckle when a hand reached from the house of bricks, offering the huffing wolf a bottle of Listerine.

Quickly following, another clip opened in a solemn choral arrangement of Silent Night. Actress Bette Davis, seated before a Christmas tree, presented her children with war bonds as gifts. She kindly reminded them of the American fighting men, sacrificing their lives overseas while the family enjoyed the holiday in safety. Turning directly to the camera, Miss Davis encouraged those in the tiers to buy bonds as a way to win the war. Helen silently vowed to make a purchase in the morning.

United Newsreels boldly lettered the width of the screen, featuring a talon-bearing eagle, and a forceful marching tune. Hungry for actual footage of battlefronts, patrons waited eagerly for news updates. When the subtitle, War News from the Pacific projected, Helen nearly bolted from her seat, Eileen quickly grasping her sister’s arm—a gentle gesture telling her to stay. Reluctantly she viewed thick disarrayed hammocks of destroyed island palms, battle cruisers spinning turret guns toward exotic beaches, and endless rows of stretchers loading onto hospital ships. She felt slightly nauseous. Only her sister’s hand, and a reluctance to make a scene kept Helen seated. Finally, in what felt like forever an upbeat melody commenced and Star Spangled Rhythm splashed before her eyes. Relieved she literally exhaled her pent up anxiety.

“Holy mackerel sis! I thought I would have to tackle you to keep you in your seat.” The two girls hurried through the wet and chilly evening. “You know Chum is just fine, honey. We would be notified right away if anything had happened to him.”

“I’m awfully sorry Tommy. And I do appreciate you taking me out. But I need to get away from the war, not a firsthand eyeful of the Pacific front.” She frowned for a moment, then managed a grateful smile. “I did like the picture, though. Hope and Crosby were a good choice.”

“Good. Stop worrying. You’ll go gray.” The two continued down the sidewalk silently emitting small clouds of breath. Eileen spoke again, “You know we’ve had similar conversations before. Just like this. Walking home from somewhere.”

“I guess we have. But in those days you quizzed me about boys, passing flirtations. I’m honestly concerned about Chum . . . he is my husband. We have a baby.”

“Oh, I understand that, Helen. And I like Chum, too. Unlike Mother, I think you found yourself a good man. But do you ever wonder about the others? About Grant Garrett or Elie? I mean what they’re doing now.”

“Oh, well, yes. Sometimes. I think Grant is his third marriage, and still in Hollywood. He’s done some film work for Paramount, you know, adding jokes to dialog.” She smiled, remembering. “I don’t recall the movie but you could tell the jokes were Grant’s. Something like, ‘did you shoot the victim through anger—no, I shot him through the heart.’” She chuckled. “I think Grant is doing well, for Grant. As for Elie? I simply don’t know what became of him, and that bothers me. The last I heard he lived in Japan, and now the Japanese are fighting us. He might be back in Belgium, but the Germans have taken over. And considering how Hitler feels about Jews—yellow stars, camps, poor Elie has it coming at him either place.”

“Oh Helen. You’re right! That hadn’t occurred to me. Either place, he is in a mighty dangerous situation. Gosh, I hope he makes it through the war . . . if this war ever ends.”

“I worry, too. And I feel pretty guilty about how things ended with him. Not that I think lousing things up with Elie put him in danger. But we ended on bad terms, I had met Chum, and we were engaged. Still I hope he and his family are safe.”

 

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and sequel, River of January; The Figure Eight..