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

That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but still seemed absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur was evacuated from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his ordeal. And that was the ordinary older man who spoke quietly with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors everywhere are frequently disguised as harmless old men. Listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor. For many years he pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Sporting two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded a mop that was wider that he was tall. All told, George looked like a gentle and harmless grandfather.

I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that that mild mannered 80-year-old had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats motoring toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

“So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?”

“It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the US Army.

“What do you remember most about D-Day, Roy?”

“I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these new boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy begins laughing.

“I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled.

Colonel Clark, George, and Roy. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky. They returned home.

That’s All.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a two-part memoir. Also available on Kindle.

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

Fighting Joe

Gail Chumbley

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His name was Joseph Andrew Tucker, and he was my grandpa–my mom’s biological father. We didn’t see him very often growing up in Spokane, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to this grandparent. Yet, purely by instinct, I found that I did respect him. There seemed to be an aura of dignity surrounding Grandpa Joe, along with an abiding cloud of cherry pipe tobacco, that also swirled around him. Yet, other than my youthful impression, I knew very little about Joe.

The following is what I’ve pieced together from my family.

Joe Tucker arrived in Spokane, Washington in 1937. He came west from Arkansas following his five-year-old daughter, when his ex-wife settled in the Pacific Northwest. A short time later, Joe found work with the Great Northern Railroad, as Spokane was, and still is, ribboned across the middle with busy, screeching rail lines. At about the…

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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

September 1, 1939

Seventy-eight 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.”

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Los Angeles

1939

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.

 

 

Thanks for Noticing

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Award winning history instructor, Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January and Figure Eight.