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Introducing Olga and Harvey Greenlaw

[Here's the foreword to The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II. The photos have been watermarked and much reduced in resolution, but they'll give you an idea of the illustrations in the book. Enjoy! -- Dan Ford]

Olga's ID card at Toungoo

The Lady and the Tigers was published in September 1943, a year after Olga Greenlaw returned from her adventures in Burma and China. It wasn’t the first account of the American Volunteer Group—already famous as the Flying Tigers—but it was the first to be written by someone who was present at the creation. It was widely reviewed, though seldom with high praise, and it didn’t sell particularly well. After a brief flurry, it sank from sight.

       Only later did we realize what a very useful book Olga had written. When I was researching the American Volunteer Group in the 1980s, I annotated my copy of her book and referred to it often, as a framework for the events I was writing about. It was one of the most useful references I had—far better, in fact, than most histories of the AVG, their authors content with piling new myths upon the wartime ones.

       Like most people who delve into this footnote to American military history, I became fascinated with Olga and Harvey Greenlaw. Who were these people, and where had they come from? Were they central to the AVG’s success, as Olga assures us, or were they “Asiatic bums of the first order,” as Greg (Pappy) Boyington wrote of them? And, most intriguing of all, what happened to them after their defining year with the AVG?

       In the end, I decided to create a new edition of The Lady and the Tigers, adding my answers to the Greenlaw mysteries.

* * * *

       Reading her book sixty years after it was written, you might be put off by Olga’s femme fatal moments—her insistence on what in the 1940s we called “sex appeal.” Like most women of the time, she defines herself by the men she meets, and her most treasured possessions are her lapdog and her Elizabeth Arden makeup kit. “I still can look fairly snappy when I make an effort,” she writes in a typical passage, “and I get on swimmingly with men I like.”

       But behind that kittenish façade is a steely character, at least as strong-minded as any man in her story. Olga describes her husband as “a man who occasionally must be screamed at,” and the reader senses that she fulfilled this obligation at regular intervals. (It would seem, however, that Harvey gave as good as he got.) It’s less likely that she screamed at Claire Chennault, the craggy-faced leader of the Flying Tigers, but neither did she snap to attention when he spoke, for all her pretended meekness when faced with “the Old Man,” as she and others called him. “I knew him as intimately as a woman knows, say, her uncle or father-in-law with whom she resides,” she writes of him, with the clear implication that, like any reasonably clever niece or daughter-in-law, she knew how to manipulate the Old Man.

       In our politically correct time, another aspect of The Lady and the Tigers might trouble the reader. Olga often refers to the Japanese as Japs, if not goggle-eyed monkeys, but of course this was standard fare in a country that was being beaten on all fronts by an enemy that until December 1941 had been scorned in the west. I haven’t softened these references, because they are true to the times—we all spoke that way. Nor have I softened Olga’s cheery disdain for the AVG’s Anglo-Burman and Anglo-Indian camp followers, some of whom she finds “a bit on the suntan side.” Olga notices the complexions, and she doesn’t approve—but that too is true of her generation. What ought to be remarked is her genuine friendship toward and admiration of the Chinese, especially those of the professional class. When it comes to the servants, she goes a bit heavy on the “pidgin” dialect, but as a rule she’s more goodhearted and less bigoted than most Americans who served in China during World War II.

       Indeed, Olga Greenlaw isn’t a racist but a xenophobe, as she betrays with her remarks about the British in Southeast Asia. Here, too, she’s typical of her generation. I was taken aback, reading Chennault’s correspondence as commander of the American Volunteer Group, to come upon a radiogram in which he exulted: “Broke Limey code!” That the British codes were kept secret from the Americans, that the Americans took pains to break them, and that the AVG commander used an epithet to express his pleasure in doing so, may surprise those who glory in the Anglo-American alliance of World War II. After all, who’s the enemy here, the British or the Japanese? But that’s ever the way in joint operations. Two nations fighting a common enemy are seldom generous when it comes to assessing each other’s contributions, especially when they happen to be losing. “When everything goes ill,” as Samuel Eliot Morison wrote of that terrible winter of 1941-1942, “it is a national as well as a human trait to see the mote in your neighbor’s eye rather than the beam in your own.” When AVG pilots come back from Burma telling how British Commonwealth troops pulled out of Martaban without a fight, and how British pilots regularly left the combat to the Americans, they’re engaging in the scapegoating that always goes on between allies, and even between branches of the same country’s military services. Olga says nothing about the Royal Air Force that British infantrymen weren’t saying: the joke in Burma, during the retreat from Rangoon, was that “RAF” stood for Runaway Air Force. People in the 1940s were much more clannish than they are today, and they were every bit as anxious to avoid blame for a debacle.

* * * *

Olga's First Communion photo Olga Clementina Sowers was a marvel of New World genetics. Her grandfather Dr. George Sowers answered the call during the Spanish-American War of 1898, and in time became an army surgeon at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he caught gold fever. He prospected first in Texas, then with his son Edward went to Mexico. They worked in the states of Durango and Sinaloa, between the Gulf of California and the Sierra Madres, the wild mountains beloved of gold miners and filmmakers. Here, in time, the younger Sowers became the owner of a gold and silver mine—the two ores often are found together—as well as a plant manufacturing dyes for the textile trade. He also found a wife, whose story is even more remarkable.

The Ramos brothers emigrated from Spain to Mexico with their wives, but took such pride in their European bloodline that they didn’t want their children to marry into the local families with their Indian ancestry. So, with the blessing of the church, the daughter of one married the son of the other. In the next generation, their daughter solved the spousal problem by marrying a Serb named Jovan Radovich, who’d left his own country (then part of Austro-Hungary, later Yugoslavia) for the New World. A handsome man with a huge mustache, Radovich found his way to Culiacản, the pretty, Old World capital of Sinaloa, where he bought and operated the Hotel Rosales. Accordingly to family legend, he was introduced to Carlota Ramos y Ramos by the bishop (a Serb was all very well, but he wasn’t Spanish). They married and had a daughter named Sofia, who at the age of sixteen met and married the American miner and factory owner, Edward Sowers.

Their daughter was therefore one-half Yankee, one-quarter Serb, one-quarter Spanish, and a citizen of Mexico and the United States. Olga was born on March 20, 1908, in Chacala, the mountain settlement in Durango where Edward Sowers had his mine. It’s tempting to associate her name with her Yugoslav grandfather, but in fact Olga is a fairly common name for Latin American women. In her case, it honored Olga Monsanto Queeny, who was also the namesake of the Monsanto Chemical Company. The Queeny family owned a bismuth mine in Mexico, and Sowers was a friend and business associate.

Olga was followed in little more than a year by Alicia, and another two years by Beatriz. (Three sons were also born to Sofia Radovich de Sowers, but they were buried in the mountains after a few weeks of life.) All the girls were pretty, but Olga was more than that—an astonishingly beautiful child. In a photograph taken the day she and Alicia made their First Communion, she already boasts the thick, arched eyebrows that will make her such a striking woman, along with the long eyelashes and fine-boned face. In the words of the song, her hair hangs down in ringlets, and she gazes at the camera with an assurance that an adult would envy. Since seven is the “age of reason” for Catholic children, and since Alicia was a year younger, I reckon that the photograph was taken in 1916, when Olga was eight years old.

Her eyes, which in monochrome seem to be the melting black of a Spanish child, are in fact green. Alicia’s are gray-blue, while Beatriz’s are brown. The effect of these girls on the boys of Culiacản must have been something to behold—not that they had much opportunity to interact. From an early age, the girls were boarded and schooled at a convent, so their parents could more easily divide their time between the city and the mountains.

       In The Lady and the Tigers, Olga says nothing about her early life, and indeed seems to relish the mystery that attended the subject. On two occasions, she notes that people believe her to be a White Russian—one of the emigres who settled in European and Asian cities as refugees from the Bolshevik revolution—and she quotes pilot Moose Moss as saying that she speaks with an accent.

       In December 2001, a friend gave me Alicia’s married name—Mrs. John M. Schweizer Jr.—and telephone number. She was staying with her son, a retired navy officer, in Chesapeake City, Maryland. Unsure about her age and state of mind, I explained myself first to Captain Schweizer, who answered my questions for a time, then said: “My mother is standing right here.” So I put the questions to Alicia instead. As it happens, my own parents were foreign-born. When I was eighteen and a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, I called home and heard my mother’s voice, unencumbered with the familiar face and furniture of our apartment on Lake Street in Wolfeboro, and for the first time I realized that she spoke with a brogue.

       So it is with Alicia Schweizer. On the phone, she has a distinct but indefinable accent, neither Latino nor any American dialect I ever heard. Like many such accents, it’s very fetching. If Alicia speaks like this, eighty years after leaving Culiacản, then Olga too must have had an enchanting mixture of tongues in her voice.

continued in part 2