Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Arnold Shamblin writes home

[In addition to 99 combat pilots, CAMCO hired 10 U.S. Army flight instructors in the summer of 1941 to teach Chinese cadets how to fly. Several of these men joined the AVG combat squadrons in the spring of 1942. Among them was Arnold Shamblin, shot down on the same mission in which John Petach was killed. Unlike Petach, Shamblin was captured alive, according to a report in the Japan Times & Advertiser. He was either executed on the spot or died in prison camp, for he was never heard from again. Recently I heard from the son of Shamblin's former sweetheart, who sent her this letter from Yunnan-yi before he moved over to a combat squadron. I've omitted the opening sentences, which are too tender for the internet. -- Daniel Ford]

March 16, 1942
Yunnan-yi, Yunnan, China

Dearest Darling Alice,

.... Well, we arrived here in Yunnan-yi on December 3rd [1941]. This is a very small village located about 130 miles west of Kunming, the capital of this province. The only white people in town are [Butch] Carney, our boss; [Ernest] Bonham, the AVG radio operator; Seavy, the weatherman [Edward Seavey?]; and we three: Van Shappard, Buster Loane, and I. Everyone else is Chinese and a dirtier, unhealthier, bunch of people you've never seen. I have seen some sights in China that you won't believe when I tell you. Literally millions of people all striving for a bare existence and most of them don't even get that. The surrounding hills are literally covered with thousands of unmarked graves. They have every disease known to man from a bad cold to leprosy. And still they multiply.

Chinese money is very unstable. We get our salary in rupees which is Burmese money and exchange it for Chinese money on the "Black Market". We receive about forty to fifty Chinese dollars to every American dollar that way. So we usually carry around eight or ten thousand [Chinese] dollars all the time. Of course the price of things is comparatively high. Almost anything you buy, no matter how small, costs you from 50 to 100 dollars. For instance we give $100 a gallon for kerosene to burn in our Coleman lamp which cost us $1000 itself. I am saving a lot of money mainly because there is no place to spend it except to buy food and supplies for the house where we live. This only amounts to about $50 [US] so you can see how I easily save $500 a month.

We signed our new contracts which call for us to work two years beginning the first of January last. We don't intend to stay that long, however. I expect about next Christmas you can look for me home because I can't stand this any longer than that.

As I was saying, we three live together in a house formerly built by Skipper Adair, the fellow who signed me up for this job in the States. It is located on the side of a hill and the town is in the valley. The surrounding country is very pretty especially now as Spring is beginning and everything is green. The surrounding mountains are snow covered the year around. The melted snow [line missing] ... lakes are the favorite feeding grounds for literally millions of ducks and geese. We have guns and a few shells and so we have duck on the table practically every day. About once a week we have Chinese food prepared in the best Chinese fashion and its really good. Our No. 1 boy is a Chinese who was formerly on a British gunboat on the Yangtze River. He speaks very good English and is an excellent cook. We call him Jimmy. Of course we have several servants. Labor being the cheapest thing in China. We pay our No. 1 the equivalent of $10 in American money every month and he is about the highest paid man in this part of the country.

The Chinese women in this part of the country all bind their feet from birth. Would I believe it if I told you I have seen lots of Chinese women with feet not over four inches long? They walk like you walk when you walk on your heels.

Machinery as we know it is unheard of in this country. The only work animal they have is the water buffalo. A few of them have rather small and odd looking cows which they also work. Milk cows are non existent. We have several pets, namely two pups, several chickens, four pigeons, a pheasant, and a cat. The dogs are named "Boohow" and "Dinghow" which is Chinese for "no good" and "Very good". Don't get the idea that I have learned the language because it would be impossible for me. We have plenty of interpreters so it isn't necessary, Thank God.

Occasionally one or two of us go to Kunming to buy supplies etc. Kunming is the typical Chinese city. About a million people mostly beggars and the filthiest, smelliest place you can imagine. There are practically no cars except the ones the AVG has so the people walk down the middle of the street as they have for thousands of years. So naturally you spend about four-fifths of your time blowing your horn and trying to keep from killing about a hundred people. They seem to have no fear of a car and a lot of them have gotten killed.

The AVG has made a pretty good name for itself over here and I suppose it has back there too. They have shot down about 160 Japanese airplanes and have lost only about eight men. [Sentence lined out] ... however, due to ground accidents. They are hoping to get more [planes] before long. We could take 300 airplanes and whip the whole Japanese air force.

The Japanese, as you know, have taken Singapore and probably before you read this letter, they will have taken Rangoon. That will mean that the Burma Road, our only source of supplies, has been cut off. That's going to make it very tough around here. We may move any time, and it will probably be to Tibet. Meanwhile, we are working pretty hard here in the training center. We have about 150 students and 30 [Chinese] instructors which we have to check all the time. A bunch of students are going to the US to continue training shortly and will be accompanied by a Chinese American named Harry Woo who has promised to mail this letter to you when he gets to the States. [Handwritten note, presumably by Harry: "mailing it from Calcutta instead"]

I have quite a collection of Silver, Silks, marble, etc. which I would like to send back but I shall keep it and take it back myself. I have some nice presents for you Darling which I know you will like a great deal.... Tell everyone hello for me and be sweet.

Lovingly, Arnold

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

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revised and updated

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