I wrote this story a number of years ago and decided to post it on my “Postcards” site in honor of Veterans Day, Friday, November 11. Here it is in it’s original form.
The 14th Air Force Lunch Bunch
I’m transported to great events of the past every fourth Thursday of the month. I have a long lunch with Army Air Force veterans of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II. They call themselves the 14th Air Force “Lunch Bunch.” And what a bunch they are. We always meet at a Chinese restaurant (all of the Vets served in China) in Aurora, Colorado. The number of the lunch bunch veterans varies month to month but there are always enough present to have lively conversation. I’ve come to know these fascinating men through the 14th Air Force Association. Since my father served with the 14th Army Air Force 1088th Signal Corp in China during 1944 and 1945, I’ve joined the group as an associate member. I also have a more recent connection to these men. I cycled the Burma Road with three friends in 1996.
While I was growing up I was enthralled with the Flying Tigers (officially known as the American Volunteer Group which later became part of the 14th Army Air Force in 1942), the history of the 14th Army Air Force and the war in China. As a young boy I first became aware of the Flying Tigers and the war in China from my father. My fascination grew from his photographs of some of the most famous aircraft of WWII; P-40s, P-51s and B-24s. A number of these aircraft had the iconic and menacing shark faces painted on their noses. Wow! I also remember his 14th Army Air Force insignia which was modeled after an original Flying Tigers drawing created by Henry Porter, an artist at Walt Disney studios.
Like many men of his generation, my father rarely spoke of his wartime experience. I only recall a couple of his stories (he passed away in 1982). Now every month I’m fortunate enough to hear similar stories that I thought I would never hear again. As the group has lunch I listen intently and move from chair to chair to immerse myself into another amazing conversation. At first their experiences seem similar. Most of these men departed California on a troop ship spending weeks trapped on-board with no where to go but their final destination in southern India. If that wasn’t bad enough then came the days-long train trip to northeastern India. The last leg was flying over “The Hump,” the southern Himalayan Mountains of India and China to Kunming, China. As I listen, I quickly find out each veteran has a unique story.
I first saw these men as senior citizens: gray hair, eyeglasses and the occasional cane. But that didn’t last long. I quickly saw them in a new light: young men fighting for their country in a faraway land. Two of these men actually fought for their homeland, China, and later immigrated to the United States before the communists under Mao took control of their country.
Over the months I learn a little bit more about each member of the Lunch Bunch.
Erich, with his slight German accent, tells me of his escape from Nazi Germany in 1939 only to live under Japanese occupation of Shanghai, China. Shanghai was only one of two “open” places at that time that a person could enter without a visa. That’s why Erich and his family wound up in Shanghai. This is a stunning revelation for me because I’ve never heard of the Shanghai Ghetto. No one I know has. He suggests a book to read about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai which I find at the library. His story is one of the most uplifting stories of perseverance and survival I’ve ever heard. In the aftermath of the war Erich served with the Army military police in China and Japan.
Lamar, a big man who always wears his 14th Army Air Force ball cap, recounts the time he bailed out of his B-24 with seven crew members over the mountains of western China. Twelve days later they walked out to the Burma Road with help from the local Chinese. Returning to Kunming they were able to fly and bomb again as members of the 375th Bomber Squadron. He shows me on a map of western China where he and his buddies reached the Burma Road. I recall cycling by there on my own trip in 1996. He also proudly shares unforgettable photos with scantily clad women with suggestive names painted on the fuselage of B-24 bombers like his. But he quickly skips over a couple of other photos – his two girlfriends back in the states.
And Ed, a man of short stature but fiery spirit. I’m sure anyone who tangled with him came to regret it. Ed was an ordinance technician, responsible for loading bombs onto a variety of aircraft. He tells me they used to paint names and messages on some of those bombs. I guess you could say it was his personal greeting to the enemy. My father had photos of bombs with messages painted on them.
My friend Gerald, a machinist at the time, shares his life in Chengdu where 14th Army Air Force bomber squadrons were stationed. B-29 bombers were also stationed at Chengdu to bomb Japan. He describes the scene of thousands of Chinese laborers building the giant runways, all by hand. A quiet man, he shows me a number of photographs of normal Chinese life at the local university near his lodging. I comment on the western dress of the Chinese staff at the school. Its counter to what I think of China during wartime in 1944. Those B-29s only flew one mission to Japan. They eventually moved to the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean which were closer to the Japanese homeland.
One member of the group John, who was born in China, started his military career with the AVG as a translator. He was stationed on the newly established radio network that tracked Japanese aircraft. I first met John in 1996 when I was planning my bicycle trip to the Burma Road. John grew up around Kunming, China and fought there during China’s war with Japan. Kunming just so happened to be Denver’s sister city. John helped us plan our bicycle trip and provided contacts for us in Kunming just in case we got into trouble. At that time the country was just beginning to open up so we didn’t know what to expect.
Then there’s Bob. He flew P-40 Warhawks and P-38 Lightnings. Bob is a talker and has an endless well of stories. I listen as he recounts how he first flew with the British Royal Air Force in India and later made it to China. His missions from India attacked Japanese bases in southern Burma. After transferring to the 23rd Fighter Group in China, he continued to attack Japanese bases and protect Chinese cities from Japanese bombers.
The youngest of the Bunch, Earl, drove his U.S. Army 10-wheel truck for 30 days with one of the first convoys over the Ledo-Burma Road. That supply road stretched 1000 miles from Assam, India to Kunming, China and was an engineering marvel. The photo of him as a nineteen year old proudly standing by his truck with Denver painted on the door stays with me today. We trade stories about the demanding route of the Burma Road; his by truck and mine by bicycle.
Each week at least one person brings in photographs to share and I enjoy seeing them all. My father’s photographs are of similar scenes. In fact, some are nearly identical to the photographs I see each month. Even though I shouldn’t be, I’m amazed at the youth of the men in these old black and white photographs. I see them in their teens and twenties. As I look around the table I now see them in their 70s and 80s. Their memory of their service over 60 years ago is as fresh as ever.
As I visit with the 14th Air Force Lunch Bunch each month I know in the back of my mind that their generation is growing fewer in number. I’m honored to share lunch with these men who fought for their country and to call them my friends.
Every day hundreds of WWII veterans pass and several of the Lunch Bunch Veterans have passed over the last several years.
On the Burma Road, 1996