|The ship’s company tried
to put on programs to help ease the boredom for the passengers. The Scouts
and Raiders were asked to put on some sort of demonstration for the troops.
The six of us that were chosen first demonstrated the various ways to eliminate
an unsuspecting sentry. We demonstrated various techniques of hand to hand
fighting we had mastered. Our grand finale was my attempt to strangle Ernie
Chyz, who proceeded to flip me through the air with no effort. As I flew
through the air for what seemed to be an eternity, I spread my arms and
legs to land flat on my back. I knew I was falling correctly but the noise
of my body hitting the steel deck sounded like some gigantic gong. The
entire audience gasped and stood up to view the broken body. Ernie extended
his hand as was our custom, and I bounded to my feet. Ernie proved that
size is irrelevant and earned the instant respect of the entire ship. Most
of the men avoided or walked around us thereafter. We began to receive
briefings on how to behave in the Orient with booklets given to us on the
behavioral patterns on the peoples of India and China. Our voyage approached
our first port. Rounding the southeastern tip of Australia, we picked up
our pilots to ease us into Melbourne. While no one was allowed to disembark,
some cargo was unloaded and a great deal was loaded aboard. The best thing
was the abundance of fresh water that was available for showers and laundry.
Melbourne looked fine from what we could see of it from the ship.
Our stay was short. Thirty-six hours later we were on our way. Our heading was due west along the bottom of Australia. Rounding Australia, we headed north into the South Indian Ocean, greater speed now and more evident zigzag. The blue Indian Ocean eventually faded off our stern, as our bow entered the Bay of Bengal. The water turned muddy as our pilot came aboard. His job was intricate, for we were entering the Ganges-Brhamaputra Delta Fed by three large rivers and hundreds of other streams; the Delta was one massive seasonal swamp more than 6,500 square miles in the middle, of which, on some high ground, stood the city of Calcutta in the province of Bengal. Calcutta was bordered on the West by the Hooghly River (a branch of the Ganges). It was a massive port with hundreds of ships and boats of every size and shape and design. A constant thin haze with a pungent odor hung over the waterfront. I found later that the haze was smoke from burning cow dung used for cooking fires. India was not going to be a United States, an Africa, or a Europe. It was going to be a different planet. Without sounding like a travel guide, the sights, smells, customs, dress, animals, food, fauna, climate, and stars above were different from anything I could imagine. The people were of another world. A constant source of wonderment and awe.
We disembarked before noon and boarded a train that took us to a golf course like park. The distant suburb of Tollygune. Our quarters were to be temporary and were referred to as Camp Schmidt. Sleeping cots were set up in five-man tents with a warning to empty our shoes before putting them on in the morning. Cobras enjoyed the smell and warmth of leather and would often curl into a snug size eleven. Our uniforms were packed away. We were issued Army khakis with no insignia, some of the men had soft goatskin boots made by the local cobbler and we began to pass ourselves for U.S. Army enlisted men. We were thus, initiated into the intriguing world of secretness. Spies in the pay of the Japanese were everywhere. We were, therefore, told very little and told not to discuss anything regarding our function. The Scouts and Raiders were now part of a new organization called The Sino American Cooperative Organization (SACO), a part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). We received our orders from Commodore Milton Miles, who received his orders from Admiral King, Chief of Naval Operations, and no one else.
Our stay at Camp Schmidt was a short one, two or three weeks at the most. We taught ourselves the use of a bow and arrow and took horseback riding lessons. Our riding master turned out to be a Bengal Lancer with fierce green eyes and black beard. His red turban made him seven feet tall. A stern taskmaster, he was determined to make Lancers out of us. ‘Sahib’ he would say, ‘This stupid beast is your servant. You are his master. You must treat him like a servant and he will obey you.’ We were shortly jumping fences and some of us went hunting for wild pig on horseback with a lance. This was the sport of the English gentry and quite dangerous, for if there were pigs, there would be a tiger. Dozens of tiger pelts were always drying under the hot sun. Our spare time was spent in Calcutta learning the customs and enjoying the signs of far-eastern civilization. Chowrhingee Street, The Grand Hotel, the bazaars and the wandering cattle will always remain with me, not to mention the thousands of crows and scavenging vultures. As unpredictable, as the people were, we grew to like and communicate with them. Three years later, they would hack each other to pieces.
We were finally transferred to Camp Knox, which was 95% complete. Our stay there was unspectacular. Indian Gurkhas tightly guarded the base itself. These fierce little men with their curved knives were not truly initiated into their corps until they could sever the head of a water buffalo in one stroke. The Japanese had reason to fear them in Burma, as did the Germans in Monte Casino and North Africa. They often used their knife when a rifle would be preferable.
Our new base was built in the suburb of Barrackpore, tightly guarded, heavily fenced. It contained only two barracks, one pharmacy, one mess hall, one small office building and a motor pool of trucks and jeeps. These would be used later to supply our forces in China once the Burma Road was opened. Small groups of us began to disappear. Word would be sent to draw certain equipment and supplies, board a truck and be gone. The entire process would take an hour or so. One could have breakfast with a friend and find him absent by lunch. It seemed my time would never come. Again, that infernal waiting that steals so much time during any tour of duty. Our small office building on our base served only as a liaison with the organization of other offices, which were scattered throughout the city in private office buildings. Guy Purvis was temporarily assigned the use of a motorcycle and sidecar to deliver dispatches between our offices. Purvis must have been born on a motorcycle and he drove it like a demon. I often went along with him as additional guard, in the sidecar. Guy had a unique talent with his voice. He would make a noise like a siren and we would have endless fun scattering the rickshaws, water buffalo, and foot traffic before us.
One day I received a summons to report to one of our office buildings. I was told that I would not leave for a mission for a few weeks. In the meantime, they had a little detail for me, if I wanted to take it. Anything to ease the boredom, I said yes! It seems that our organization (SACO) had a hidden base in Northern Assam in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. On the long and high flights over the ‘hump’ as the flights were called, oxygen was often necessary. The shortage of this vital gas forced the navy to build this remote base and manufacture its own oxygen for its own personnel. The base also served as an advance supply depot for our groups in China. Close to the border of Burma, near the town of Jorhart, deep in the jungle, the small base, like a beehive, was the center of activity. The Japanese were only twenty miles away and often sent patrols very close. Some of these patrols never returned, thanks to the dark skinned, bearded Sikhs that appeared magically from behind a bush or tree. These were a dedicated breed with the word ‘retreat’ not a part of their vocabulary, as the British found a century earlier. They guarded the base as if it was their last mission on earth. They were majestic people and extremely courteous but somewhat distant and aloof.
With sidearm and rations drawn, another Roger and I were briefed. We were to escort four boxcars of material to the Jorhart base. Our orders stressed that they must not be allowed to become separated. Fifth columnists often would disconnect and reroute supplies so they would be found months later on a siding on the opposite side of the country. Often they were emptied of their contents in the black market pipeline.
The trip to Jorhart was one that I can never forget. Our speed was not great but the scenery from the top of the train was breathtaking. We rode through narrow jungle tunnels with tree? brushing us, through narrow mountain passes, over bridges, across streams1 through countless villages. Our most memorable event was when we had to cross the river on a ferry. The engine switched to become a ‘pusher’. The entire train was pushed over an incline one car at a time. Each car rolled down the hill freely onto a barge. The barge was pushed across the river and another engine reassembled the entire train. If we were to loose a car, it would be here. My partner and I split the railroad cars between us; each of us took two, never losing sight of each other. All went well, however.
We could never understand why the many stops would occur without any apparent reason. The abrupt halts of our journey always alerted us to the possibility of some mischief about to occur. Once, while our train was stopped in the middle of a swamp, I walked on top of the train and dropped to the ground behind the engine. As I approached the engineers, they appeared to be letting the steam out of the engine through a half-inch pipe. The end of the pipe was immersed into a small bucket of water. The super heated steam escaping from the pipe heated the water in the bucket, and morning or afternoon, tea was ready. The Indians had adopted the British tradition. Come hell or high water, they were going to have their tea, war or no war!
A jeep met us at the Jorhart rail yards and our mission was complete. A short tour of the base, a good night's rest and the next morning we arrived at a small army air base. We boarded a C47 (probably one that my sisters worked on) and we were back in Calcutta in a few hours. What took four days and nights of rail transportation took only a few hours by plane.
Within a few days after our return to Camp Knox, I again received orders to pack. A canvas-covered truck took us, not to an airport, but to a two story private home in the heart of an upper class neighborhood in Calcutta. The high walled home was called Hostel #6. I learned that there were many such places throughout Calcutta, each containing ten to fifteen SACO men waiting to be slipped into China. Our days, with time on our hands, began again. Most of us wandered about Calcutta, visiting the many places of historical interest. The burning ghatz was most memorable; a sloping concrete pad about a half mile long by 100 yards wide where the Hindu burned his dead and swept the ashes into the Hooghly River which flowed into the ‘Holy Ganges.’ On any given day, we could see at least twenty or more pyres being burned. Everywhere, the wandering cattle were accompanied by those huge black crows. Every few blocks, there would be a rectangular pond of a brilliant green color that served as each neighborhoods washing machine and bathtub. All day long its banks were crowded with people taking care of their personal needs. It was not unusual for people to be drinking water from taps attached to fire hydrants, squatting, brushing their teeth along the curb with short bamboo sticks while rinsing their mouths from little brass urns. Some of the most cosmopolitan appearing citizens would cause one to recoil as they smiled or spoke. Their teeth and entire mouth would be stained blood red from chewing beetle nut, an Indian delicacy used like our chewing gum. Everywhere was the smell of burning cow dung. Our household needs were taken care of for us by a household staff, which included a dozen or more Hindu servants, each doing the work of his caste. The dishwasher could not touch the stove and the sweeper could not cast a shadow on anyone or else he would be beaten. Everybody had their own work to do and did not wander into someone else's territory.
The time to move again was drawing close. We had drawn additional uniforms, web belts, side arms, knives, new, heavy G.I. shoes and a lot of warm clothing. A day or two later, we were awakened a few hours before dawn with the familiar words, ‘we ' re moving out’. As always, never time for farewells. In a half-hour, there was not a sign that we ever existed. The sun was just edging over the horizon, catching us boarding a camouflaged D.C.3. The sound of the radial engines was very comforting as we roared down the short runway and headed northeast. We began a long slow climb immediately for the long run ahead. The Himalayan Mountains, white with snow started to appear ahead. Out came the heavy winter gear and the air became thinner and colder. Our pilot made frequent checks on our well being as we droned on two or three thousand feet above the mountain tops. Flying this eastern route enabled us to fly without oxygen; however, we had to be on the lookout for Jap fighter planes. These rose from Burma on our right and China dead ahead.
Our plane touched down at an army air base in the city of Kunming, China. While the aircraft was gassed and serviced, we managed to steal a meal from the Army, the first of many. Since we wore Army clothing, no one ever questioned us0 Later we would learn our techniques were just as effective in the Officer's Mess where the food was much better, especially when I wore the stolen Army sheepskin jacket with the maple leaves on the shoulders. We left Kinming and flew northwest to the capital of China, Chungking. It was evident that Chungking was not our final destination. Three or four days passed until further transportation was arranged. In the meantime, we attended briefings on Chinese customs. One warning comes to mind concerning dead or injured bodies. Touch or try to help and you will be responsible for that person's burial or recovery. A crowd may gather and not permit one to leave until the obligation is completed. On my first wanderings in the city, I saw one corpse and a half dozen ill people. The refugees crowded into the city from as far away as Shanghai to escape the Japanese. Many became ill or simply starved to death. Children and old people were especially vulnerable.
Of the dozen or so that left Calcutta, six of us were transported to a small army airfield. The six that were left behind would soon be sent to their points of compass. This was one of the airfields of the Flying Tigers and some of the shark nosed P4Os were still around. Not a standard fighter base but one that included P475, P5ls, B2Ss, B24s, and an occasional ‘Black Widow,’ a night fighter that gave the Japanese nightmares. The Japanese had recently switched to night bombing as daylight increased their losses. Now this ‘Black Devil’ appeared. The Japanese had large squadrons all over China. Their Air Force was desperately trying to protect their fleet and hom6 islands at the same time. Our flight took us deep into Northern China to the ancient city of Sian (Xian). Ancient meant that it was built and occupied more than 4,000 years before Christ walked on earth. It was a civilized city even before the pyramids were built. Marco Polo stayed here. Kubla Kahn conquered it and made a gift of it to his third son Kubla Later, it was the home of the T'ang Emperors. Caucasians with their round eyes and faces would draw a crowd of children and the people would stop and gawk. We heard that some Germans stayed in the city but that was in the early 30s. Captain James Hanley (USMC) met us at the airfield. He drove up in a pre-war, beat up old Chevy one ton truck that was gasping its last. Hanley was dressed in his khakis without any insignia. When asked how far the enemy happened to be, he replied that they had just advanced to only about 20 miles outside the city and that they had been stalled for a few months consolidating their losses.