“I’m sure Johnathan will be along shortly.” Gwen fanned herself while the maid poured tea. “It’s been another hot summer.” She turned to Ann. “I am pleased that you and he spend so much time together. Has he mentioned his intentions?”
Ann’s hand trembled as she accepted the cup from the maid. Her mind raced as she searched for ways to answer. True, Johnathan had invited her to events each week. When they arrived, he parked her with one of his “chum’s” female companions, while he spent his time with the boys and ignored her until the event ended. She had no clue about what he truly wanted.
Unable to afford the passage to China, her only hope rested with this woman’s permission to join the mission trip. Since their first tea in May, Mrs. Morgan made it clear through hints and innuendo that the fare would be the understanding that the two would eventually wed.
Anne smiled and took a sip from the china cup. After dabbing her lips with a napkin, she turned to Mrs. Morgan. “We enjoy each other’s company, but it’s only been two months since we met. I’m sure your son is too much of a gentleman to press me at this point.”
Gwen sat up straight, and her eyes narrowed as she studied Ann. “I’m sure you miss your father a great deal, and he must long to see you. How long has it been?”
“Seven years, and you’re right, I miss him. My aunt was good to me, but it was not the same.”
Mr. Morgan entered and gave his wife a peck on the cheek. He nodded to Ann and poured himself a cup before grabbing a cookie from the tray. “Gwen, don’t badger the poor girl. The boy will do the proper thing when it’s time.” He peered at the cookie then took a bite. “You sail in a month, rushing things might appear unseemly.”
Mrs. Morgan turned to her husband. “But there are accommodations to think of. It’s so awkward. The missionaries all have to share cabins.”
Mr. Morgan sneered. “You have a stateroom. Jonathan can share with you. It has two bedrooms.”
“But what about Ann?”
“Have her share with the Delano woman. Remember her husband died last month, so now she won’t have anyone to share with.” He cocked an eyebrow and grinned. “Unless she intends to get lucky on the trip over with some international playboy.”
Mrs. Morgan gasped, her face flushed. “Stanley, what an awful thing to say.”
After setting his teacup aside, Mr. Morgan strolled to the sidebar, where he poured himself a drink from a crystal decanter and tossed it back. “Might do her a world of good. As for Johnathan and Ann, they can wed anytime.” He glanced at his pocket watch. “Well, if the lad ever shows give him my regards, I’m off to Fenway.”
The insect’s buzz filled the room as Russ tossed and turned in his sweat-soaked bunk. The mosquito nets arrived this morning. Relieved, he and the other men strung them over their cots. At least now, the bites and stings won’t keep me up, he thought.
Most drank alcohol to help them sleep, but Russ avoided this. Not for fear of the next day hangovers. Instead, he feared becoming an alcoholic like his father. Instead of alcohol, Russ used his mind and imagination.
His thoughts drifted back to before joining the Air Corps. Then he worked for a John Deere Dealer as a mechanic. This work required travel on the Iowa country roads year-round servicing the farmers’ equipment in the fields or at their farms.
In winter, ferocious blizzards struck without warning. Gale force winds driving tons of snow made roads impassable. Worse, still, the blowing snow reduced visibility to zero even during the day. These storms stranded many unsuspecting motorists, often with fatal consequences and could last for hours and sometimes days. Afterward, it took days to clear the roads and make them passable.
In winter, he carried blankets and food in his truck. Russ also took along a small camp stove, plus made sure the gas tank remained at least half full, hoping he could generate enough heat to prevent hypothermia.
Once, stranded in his truck, Russ huddled in blankets shivering from the cold for three days before a farmer spotted his vehicle and dug him out.
Now he recalled that storm. He imagined the cold and visualized the snow blowing past the vehicle’s windows as the wind howled around him. Soon he drifted off to sleep grateful for the surrounding warmth.
The next morning the air felt cooler. A slight breeze stirred, carrying the aroma of fish cooking in the mess tent. Russ enjoyed fish, but that was the only thing the cooks fixed besides rice. After skipping the breakfast line, he went to an empty table. As Russ seated himself, he grabbed a biscuit from a covered bowl in the table’s center. After dunking the hardened roll in his coffee, he planned his day.
Their contingent had been mechanics. Initially, they assembled planes at the CAMCO factory, but a few pilots arrived last week, so they returned to the airfield for maintenance. But with no flight schedule for the pilots, they had nothing to do.
He would attend Frillman’s class this morning, covering both local and Chinese customs and the Chinese language. Dry, but a way to escape the boredom.
Later he would go to the hangar and clean his tools. The dampness here rusted metal quickly. The shade in the sheds provided relief from the heat, plus someone rigged up fans there. As he munched on the biscuit, he composed a letter to his wife, Marie. As he wrote, a twin-engine plane roared low over the base. It banked in a circle before landing.
Everyone usually arrived on the narrow-gauge train. Only the occasional P-40 flew in from the CAMCO factory. Obviously, a big shot had come. Hopefully, mail, he thought, as he struggled to think of something new to write about besides the mosquito netting. After giving up, he tossed the biscuit in a garbage can then gathered up his writing materials before making his way to the main building where Frillman taught his classes.
Few attended, as most nursed hangovers during the early morning hours. Today, men trooped from all over the field. As he made his way inside, the room buzzed with excited conversation. He seated himself beside a pilot with a black eye — one of the many who broke the boredom with drunken fistfights in the evening.
The man nudged Russ. “Chennault’s here and is he pissed! He’s in the office now meeting with a bunch of guys who want to resign. Word’s out we were supposed to have all 100 planes here. He just found out we only have 22.”
Russ nodded. “A lot of guys are mad about things, and, sure as shit, we’re all bored, but they want to quit already?”
“Yeah, a bunch just signed up to dodge the service and get with the airlines. But shit, who could blame anyone! You’ve seen it yourself. The airfield is a pit. The food is so bad I don’t know how I’ve put on weight. Yesterday I heard these planes we got, are ones the Brits turned down as junk. I mean, it all sounded so good when they pitched it to us, but except for the money, nothin’s right.”
Russ shrugged. “Well, I’m just a peasant, so I have no say, but when has anything gone as promised by the military? This private outfit doesn’t seem to be much different. Must be because these ex-military clowns run it. When I enlisted, they blew all kinds of smoke up my rear end about the sweet life in the Air Corps. Hell, outside of having some nice machines to work on, everything else was a bunch of crap, and it’s the same here.”
A hush fell over the room and, as if commanded, all snapped to attention. Russ glanced over his shoulder as, grim-faced, Claire Chennault strode down the aisle trailed by Frillman and Harvey Greenlaw, the group’s adjutant. After hopping onto the platform at the front of the room, Chennault nodded his head to the standing men. Again, without a word, all sat down. Almost like a conditioned reflex, Russ thought, but Chennault projected a dominant force.
Silent, Chennault surveyed the room. A scowl creased his leathery face. After taking a deep breath, he began, “First, I want to remind you that your contracts contain provisions allowing me to fine for misconduct and dishonorably discharge you if required. I intend to enforce these immediately. You will be punctual and arrive on time for your scheduled activities, including daily calisthenics and meals.
“Effective tomorrow morning at 0600 hours, you will begin combat training. This will include sixty hours of flight training and seventy-two hours of classroom instruction. Some of you might think you are hot-shot pilots that know it all. Well, you are not. Many have little or no experience with the P-40 or any other single-engine airplane. I don’t know what kind of bullshit they told you, but the Japanese are well trained and formidable opponents. I have studied them, their equipment, and their methods over the last three years. I intend to share this knowledge with you, so the Japanese do not eat your sorry asses alive. Consider yourselves in Kindergarten, and if you don’t accept and learn, I will kick your ass out before I let you disgrace our outfit by getting killed.”
Silent, Chennault scowled as he glowered from the platform. Most met his eye while some looked down and shuffled their feet. He then marched from the room, leaving Greenlaw and Frillman behind.
As soon as Chennault exited, the silence broke. A few complained, then others added their comments or agreements. Soon the air filled with a cacophony of dissatisfaction.
Frillman stepped to the front, and as he did, the noise diminished. “I will lead the calisthenics starting tomorrow. There will be several group sessions, so each man can attend and not miss their flight or classroom times. Are there questions or anything I can help with?”
One man stood, his hand in the air. “Sir, can anything be done about the chow? I like fish, but that and rice is all we have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Others shouted agreement.
Frillman nodded after making a note on his clipboard. “I will share this with the Boss. He’ll do his best to straighten this out. Also, let me know of any other concerns or questions you have. I am always available. For those who want to attend, today’s Chinese classes will begin in five minutes.”
Most filed out, leaving Russ and the pilot with the black eye behind.
“Shit, did you hear the Boss? Maybe things will turn around. If the Padre can get him to straighten out the chow, he’s got my vote.”
Russ nodded. “The Boss is impressive in person. He met us when we landed in Rangoon. I liked him right off. He’s not like Pawley and the other CAMCO slick boys. I trust him.” Russ extended his hand. “I’m Russ Lamison.”
“Ed Burton. So you’re one of the old-timers.”
Russ nodded. “Yeah, been here a month. You guys just got in last week, right?”
“Yeah, what a shit hole. Met up with some Brits on the way here. Told me they couldn’t use the base cause of all the rain and mud. Seemed surprised we’re here.”
Russ nodded to the gold wings pinned on Ed’s plain khaki shirt. “I see you’re Navy.”
“Yeah, even though we don’t have uniforms, we all agreed to wear our service wings. Looks like we’re about even between Army and Navy. Guess we got some Jarheads comin’ too.
“What did you fly?”
“Dive bombers last, but before that, fighters. Never had one where the wheels retracted. Those P-40’s look hot, but the Brits claim their Brewsters are better. But I’m dyin’ to try `em out.”
“Sounds like you’ll get your chance startin’ tomorrow.”
“Yeah, tired of fightin’ with each other. I want to go after Japs. Nothin’ brings folks together like a common enemy.”
As the lesson in Chinese began, Russ nodded.