Time changes all things, three World War II soldiers learned when they revisited China with their wives last month. [May 2000]
The senior warriors from Charlotte County, Fla. were part of a group of 330 Americans who recently spent a week or more in China as guests of the Beijing Aviators Association.
The reason for the gathering was to honor those who flew “The Burma Hump” — the Himalayan Mountains — more than a half century ago and their support troops. These men brought desperately needed supplies to Gen. Joseph Stilwell, the American commander and his troops. They included “Merrill’s Marauders,” an elite group of American irregulars who gained fame in this campaign.
Thanks to the supply of gas and equipment that were ferried across some of the highest mountains in the world, the Allies launched a successful attack on the Japanese air base at Myitkyina in Burma during the summer of 1944. This campaign broke the enemy’s stranglehold on the area.
The local trio who fought in the China-Burma-India Theater during the war included: Bob Friedmann, a Hump cargo pilot; Lee Chalifour, an air medic who rescued seriously injured soldiers from the battlefield; and Elwood Hudson, who served as an operating room nurse in hospitals on the front line.
After returning from their recent Chinese adventure, the three talked about what they saw and what they did while in the Far East.
The highlight of their trip was the dedication of a monument to Sino-American relations during WWII. It was located at a national park outside Kumning, China, headquarters of the “Flying Tigers” and later the United States 14th Air Force.
It was Gen. Clair Chennault and his Flying Tigers, American mercenary aviators who volunteered their services to the Chinese, who first joined the fight. They fought the Japanese in outdated P-40 fighters that had their noses painted like tiger sharks. They held their ground until the United States officially became involved in the war following the attack on America’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Long-retired American WWII vets flew from California to Beijing and then on to Kumning for the opening services on the first day after their arrival in mid-May.
“Things were very much changed from what I anticipated,” Chalifour said. “Back 55 years ago, this place was all mud brick and tile roofs. Today, they’re putting up 60- and 70-story apartment buildings.
“I could look out the window of my hotel room and see five or six of these buildings. Today Kumning has a 3 million population. I didn’t recognize anything.”
The idea of getting American and Chinese aviators and ground personnel together more than a half-century after the war was the brainchild of Professor Renjie Hua, a Chinese former WWII pilot who flew in the China, Burma,Inia Theater of War. The trip was partially sponsored by the Chinese Aviation Association.
When they arrived at the King World Hotel in Kumning, the throng from America walked down a red carpet between dozens of gaily clad Chinese in ethnic costumes singing, clapping and bowing.
Above an archway was a bright red banner with 2-foot-high white letters that read, “Welcome Home WWII Vets … Beijing Aviators Association.”
The group was bused out to the park just outside Kumning, where the white stone monument to “The Hump Pilots” was located.
“The monument was situated on the side of a hill,” Friedmann said. “You climbed 90 steps in two tiers to get up to the beautiful, white monument.”
An inscription on its back gave the history of the event:
“‘In the international anti-fascist struggle during World War II from 1942-1945, Sino-American soldiers and civilians jointly opened an air route from Assam, India, to Kumning, China. It was through this airborne transport that the Over-the-Hump flight over the Himalayas was accomplished.
“The monument is thereby erected by the Yunna Province Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to commemorate this daring feat in the history of aviation and the friendship between Sino-American soldiers and civilians fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in the anti-fascist battle to cherish the value of world peace, to recall the martyrs, to commend the survivors, and to inspire posterity. Always cherish the memory of the Over-the-Hump flight.”
“The ceremony was held just before noon,” Mary Chalifour said. “They had baskets of flower petals and fruit they used in the ceremony. A Buddhist priest officiated, but we couldn’t see him or hear him because of the people who crowded around him.”
“Above the monument along the top of the hill was a series of ancient tombs built into the face of the mountain that go back thousands of years. These graves were separate from the national park where the monument was located. At the foot of the monument was a little lake with a lot of native rhododendrons blooming around it,” Friedmann said. “It was beautiful.”
The mid-day ceremony was followed by an official dinner that included an hour’s worth of speeches by a dozen Chinese officials and important guests. That was the start of a cultural experience for the group of old pilots and support troops, their wives and relatives.
“The food and the serving was unique,” Friedmann said. “You started out with appetizers on a big Lazy Susan. You’d eat whatever it was very cautiously, because you weren’t sure exactly what it was.
“Then the main course would be brought out. It was recognizable, but again we would eat cautiously because we weren’t sure about everything in front of us.”
Eventually Friedmann figured out a way of coping with food he wasn’t too sure about.
“The last thing to arrive was the rice and the soup,” he said. “Once I learned how it worked, I wouldn’t eat anything until I got my rice on my plate. Then I’d take the rest of the stuff and dump it on top my rice. Then I’d take my chopsticks and have at it.”
Because of the size of the group — nine tour buses filled to capacity — there was a bit of chaos at times, according to the local participants.
Members of the group would get lost, get on the wrong bus or totally miss connections. This became a perplexing problem when the touring Americans broke into smaller groups and saw different sites in their tour around the country.
Taking a walk on your own in the cities was pretty much out of the question. When Chinese street people spotted a group of “rich Americans,” they descended upon them, Friedmann said.
Mary Chalifour tells the story of walking across the street from their hotel in Kumning to take a picture of a Chinese sailboat.
“There were all these vendors on the street in front of our hotel selling apples and pears and giving shoe shines,” she said. “This woman with a baby on her back came up to me. She was motioning to me that the baby was hungry and needed food. She held out her hand for me to give her some money.
“I told her, ‘No money, no money. Just my camera.’ I held it up. She followed me and kept pestering me. I finally got away from her,” Chalifour said.
When she got back on the bus with the rest of the Americans a short while later, she was telling her tale about the woman and her baby she met on the street to some of her fellow travelers.
“‘No, no. She wasn’t trying to get money from you to buy food for the baby,'” an American on the trip who also spoke some Chinese told her. “‘What she was trying to do,’ he said, ‘is sell you her baby so she can buy food for the rest of her family.'”
“What would I have done with a 6- or 8-month-old baby?” Chalifour asked.
During the tour of Kumning, the group went to see the old U.S. 14th Army Air Force building — a decaying three-story yellow and white relic from colonial days a century ago. The building is used as an apartment complex today.
A short distance away, in a residential neighborhood, was Chennault’s brick home with a corrugated tin roof. The home of the commander of the Flying Tigers had also been turned into apartments. Each room in the house was home to an entire family.
Friedmann had hoped to see the Stone Forest during his tour of the country. The “forest” is actually an outcropping of limestone natural monuments that cover an area roughly the size of the Florida Everglades about 50 miles from Kumning, he said. They arrived late in the day at the entrance to the park where the natural formations were located.
“I took my hiking shoes,” he said. “I was expecting to walk around, but we never got farther than the front entrance.”
During their meanderings they came across a Wal-Mart Superstore. It was like any other Wal-Mart one might find in the states.
However, what made it different was the display in a courtyard outside. On display were peaces of a WWII C-47 American transport plane that crashed while trying to make it across The Hump with cargo for waiting Allied forces more than half a century ago.
“A large piece of the wing was on display,” Lee Chalifour said. “The plane was found atop an almost inaccessible mountain that was only reached by going through an almost impenetrable jungle. When they found the plane, the pilot’s skeleton was still in place inside. They found his watch. It was still working.”
“The one big disappointment for most of us was that toward the end of the first week we were supposed to have the dedication of the brick wall at the school dedicated to the China Hump pilots,” Mary Chalifour said. “That never came about because the national and the provincial governments couldn’t figure out a good day for the dedication. This was the main reason most of us came. They hope to hold the dedication later this year.”
During their travels, the Chalifours spent an additional 10 days touring the country. They were taken to a branch of the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. Above the door was a sign in big gold letters reading: “No Drugs And Nuclear Weapons Allowed.”
This was apparently a Chinese attempt at a spoof.
“The trip wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be,” Friedmann said. “We’re not criticizing anything. It was well worth it. There were just two different cultures trying to work together the best they could.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 4, 2000 and is republished with permission.
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