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Flying Tiger memories

By Melvin Woodward (© 2012 Pamela Woodward Happe)

[Melvin Woodward was one of the large U.S. Navy contingent who joined the American Volunteer Group in the spring and summer of 1941, traveling to Asia on the Dutch liner Jagersfontein. When the AVG was disbanded in July 1942, he went to work for CNAC, the Chinese national airline that flew cargo and personnel over the Hump of the Himalayas to India. On the first of these trips, he would meet his future wife Audrey. He wrote this memoir toward the end of his life. It is published here by the kindness of his daughter, Pamela Happe, and it is copyright by her. -- Dan Ford]

It was in Norfolk Virginia, towards the end of my fifth year in the Navy in June 1941, that I found my feet upon my lunch-time desk when Wayne [Ricks] came in. "Woody" he said, "There is some bastard over in Hangar 4 who promises good people a chance to get out of the Navy, see the world, fight the Japs and get paid for it. Think we should have a word with him?"

My Asian destiny come alive!

By this time I had already attended the wedding of Butch and Mary, and their departure for Pensacola where Butch was to take pilot training. Janie and I must already have discovered that her desire for a tranquil life and my destiny for "Destiny" were pleasantly, nostalgically, incompatible. Even romantically incompatible.

Melvin Woodward AVG phto Now here I am, age 23, about to be a "Soldier of Fortune" and feeling every bit of romance and bravadura that a young man may. Across the corridor from my office was a notably beautiful young lady who was pleasant to be with. Elegant, languid in the Southern fashion, nearly as tall as I. She was not a professional steno-typist. Her shorthand had gaps in it and the typewriter sometimes did funny spelling things. But she was sweet and genuine and very innocent. And 18 years old.

A few weeks earlier we had tentatively made a date. But between its fixing and its time she told me her aunt had forbidden her to go out with a man in uniform. At that time (pre-American war entry) I had never worn a uniform in taking out a girl I respected. Upon this occasion I was hurt and I hit back with cancellation.

But now I must be off to San Francisco to join my destiny. I am to meet Wayne in Baltimore in two days time. There is a ferry-steamer overnight to Baltimore. Will she join me?- I'm not even in the Navy! There, for all my boldness, for all my 23 years, for my professionalism as a "soldier of fortune," I learnt that I was still a boy. She said no.

In his confidence that I would fail with her, Wayne delayed his departure, and we finally drove through the flagging night and the next day to his family home in Indiana. Wayne proposed to stop there of a couple of days and I was disposed to visit my family in California. It was decided I should fly on and he would follow in two days' time, by air.

By this time flying was old hat. But luxury flying in this mode was up to my expections of "destiny". I quickly recover from being a rejected "boy," when my 15-hour junket from Chicago to San Francisco includes bar-service and a "Pullman" berth by air. I was so exurberant that I must have presented myself as an absolute ass to my family and friends. When Wayne arrived, I'm sure he brought some degree of tranquillity - earthiness.

The Bellvue Hotel in San Francisco must never before have had 150 to 200 persons age 20 to 30 (a few exceptions). I shall never forget our entry to the place-through the bar, according to my custom. At the far end the bar drifted into the lounge, separated only by an almost non-apparent, and very short, barrier of plate glass. Jo, my Ever-Love, I think you were seated at the bar-side of this almost-barrier, I hasten to say I'm glad we found you.

Wayne and I wandered through the bar. Perhaps we had a drink, though Wayne takes little. Then towards the lounge. Wayne has divinations. We saw this beautiful lady, seated alone at a table and Wayne said, "Good evening. " I'm sure that we each developed the recognitaion that the three of us were friends in no more than 15 minutes.

It was Jo Stewart (nee Buckner, later Shurette) whom we met, and we shortly later learned was Chief Nurse to our endeavor. In so many ways.

After being with this charming lady for 15 minutes, leaving her with her Coke and passport already acquired, we went to "join-up" the China National Airforce. It was well organised. In no more that two hours we had been sworn into the CNAC (China National Air Corporation), commissioned as "Captains" so that in the event of capture we could claim belligerent status under the Convention of Geneva. We had been issued civilian passports for clearance from San Francisco and entry to Burma - (though we thought we were going to China, the South Coast of which the Japanese had not yet permeated). We were advanced money. We assigned the major part of our future salaries to be saved in U.S. Banks. We were told to keep the whole operation absolutely secret, and to meet Bloemfontein at the Embarcadero three days hence.

They were good days in San Francisco. Half idle, half in equiping ourselves with the right side-arms, cartridges, cans of tooth-powder, razor-blades; and each purchase was rewarded with the sense of "going out to the wars".

The ship was beautiful. A standard colonial Dutch liner which normally plied the Amsterdam- Jakarta route. She was officered by Dutchmen and crewed by Indonesians. Both the seamen and the passenger staff wore traditional Indonesian, colourful clothing. The service was impeccable. I can imagine, now, how reduced the passenger staff must have found themselves when they prepared our evening kit for dinner - I doubt there was a dinner jacket in the lot! At least, not one ever appeared. (We saw Bloemfontein again in Amsterdam in 1964)

continued in part 2