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Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers, Who Won Immortality Defending Burma and China from Japanese Invasion

Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers, Who Won Immortality Defending Burma and China from Japanese Invasion

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Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers, Who Won Immortality Defending Burma and China from Japanese Invasion

ratings:
5/5 (2 ratings)
Length:
276 pages
6 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 16, 2014
ISBN:
9781502244765
Format:
Book

Description

When young Eddie Gillespie discovers a World War II airplane in the jungle, with a grinning skeleton at the controls, he sets a story in motion. Two American fighter pilots in the Chinese Air Force, with their English and Burmese girlfriends, and a Japanese suicide pilot whose name happens to mean "tree of the sun"--they clash at Rangoon, while the British empire falls about their ears. Here is a story of the Flying Tigers, immortalized by their exploits in Southeast Asia in the opening months of the Pacific War, as told by a man uniquely qualified to write about those stirring times.


Ford's history of the Flying Tigers won the award of excellence from the Aviation-Space Writers Association, while his novel of the Vietnam war inspired the Burt Lancaster film Go Tell the Spartans, which the Cincinnati Enquirer called "one of the noblest films, ever, about men in crisis." Here he deftly melds fact and fiction in an unforgettable wartime romance. "You can't beat remains, kid," Lieutenant Atherton says in a beautifully limned conclusion. "They'll tell the story every time."

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 16, 2014
ISBN:
9781502244765
Format:
Book

About the author

Daniel Ford has spent a lifetime chronicling the wars of the twentieth century. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire, where he is a recreational pilot and writes for the Wall Street Journal.


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Remains

A Story of the Flying Tigers, Gallant Mercenaries Who Won Immortality Defending Burma and China against Japanese Invasion

Daniel Ford

Warbird Books

Warbird Books 2014

Contents

Foreword: A Plane in the Jungle

1 – Tailman Fitzmartin

2 – I Will Never Look Back

3 – Six Musketeers

4 – Tea at the Love House

5 – And Then There Were Four

6 – $500 in the Bank

7 – Flying Is Not Dangerous

8 – Anyone’s Luck Can Turn

9 – Damned Hard To Kill a Gurkha

10 – A Good Place To Die

11 – A Splendid Line of Defense

12 – Ding Dong, Bell

13 – Payday for Blackie

14 – Get the Heck out of Here

15 – Good Friends in Rangoon

16 – Last Train Out

Afterword: You Can’t Beat Remains

Copyright - Author

More About the Tigers

Foreword: A Plane in the Jungle

HARVARD SENT EDDIE GILLESPIE into the world without the foggiest notion of what to do with his life. Nor was he the only one. Befuddlement was customary for Lowell House seniors, who’d spent half their lives getting into Harvard, then doing the work it required of them. (Reinventing itself in the 1970s, Harvard hit upon an egalitarian way to separate the best from the merely good: give the little bastards more work than they could finish before dawn. To cop an A, Eddie had to read faster than anyone else in a class of fast readers – write more pages, express himself more clearly, and intuit quicker what assignments weren’t worth the bother – then suck up to a teaching assistant who’d learned English as a second language.)

There were two solutions to the malaise that accompanied a Harvard diploma. You applied to graduate school, or you asked your folks for a plane ticket to some outlandish spot.

Eddie went to Thailand, where he trafficked in cotton anoraks with sufficient success to warrant a mention in Harvard Magazine. (Edmund Gillespie is president of Thai Ventures in Phitsanulok, north of Bangkok, where he welcomes visitors from the Class of 2010.) He smoked opium in a pipe, drank rum tonics with the expatriate Hash House Harriers, and tried to persuade his partner Sankai to smuggle him into Burma, to see the country his grandfather had defended during the War – the great and glorious Second World War, not to be confused with those later mishaps in Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

So much the better that Burma was closed to overland travel. The country was so outlandish, indeed, that it had renamed itself Myanmar and equipped its capital (Yangon to the junta, Rangoon to the rest of the world) with pedestrian overpasses, where soldiers could stand and shoot the people if they took to the streets. So Sankai told Eddie.

Sankai was a small-boned man with aviator sunglasses and a red Kawasaki motorbike. He arranged the sewing of the colorful cotton garments that Eddie exported to his sister at Dartmouth and his mother in Connecticut. To keep peace in their partnership, Sankai finally agreed to drive Eddie to Mae Sot, near the Burma border, to meet a holy man who traveled back and forth. It was not clear to Eddie what religion the holy man espoused, save that he was neither Buddhist nor Christian.

They set out from Phitsanulok at five o’clock in the morning, riding through the misty dark in the company of bullock carts and a few buses, trucks, and automobiles, their headlamps dark in the Southeast Asian fashion. Eddie supposed that the drivers hoped to economize on gasoline or, more mysteriously, electricity. In any event, huge vehicles kept looming out of the darkness, often on the same side of the road as the Kawasaki. Eddie was relieved when daylight appeared, like a curtain thrown back. For an hour the morning would be cool, the mist beautiful and fragrant, and oncoming trucks visible in time for Sankai to steer around them.

Sankai did not speak on the three-hour ride to Mae Sot, except when they stopped for breakfast – fried dough and successive cups of coffee, tea, and hot water – at an open-front village restaurant. Like most Asians, he was a solipsist. If you weren’t in Sankai’s field of vision, you ceased to exist for him. It was a disconcerting trait, especially when you asked yourself what he would do if you tumbled off the back of the motorbike. Would he come back for you? Would he even notice you were gone?

What sort of holy man, Sankai? Eddie asked as they washed down the coffee with tea, and the tea with hot water. Between pots, the waiter wiped the table with a filthy rag.

Very holy. As the waiter brought each pot, Sankai poured the liquid into his chipped cup, and from the cup into the saucer. Then he blew on it. When the coffee or tea or water was tepid enough to suit him, he brought the saucer to his mouth with both hands and slurped delicately. Him ancestor called Tiger. Singh make pagoda for him.

A Flying Tiger? An American pilot? Eddie wasn’t sure how much Sankai knew about military history.

All same shark.

Tiger shark?

Sankai shrugged.

And his name is Singh?

Singh Kin. Burman, Sankai explained with the serene illogic of his race. Very holy. We go now. Reluctantly Eddie straddled the Kawasaki’s black banana seat. His butt was sore already, and they were only halfway to Mae Sot, after which they’d have to turn about and drive back to Phitsanulok, if Sankai didn’t lose him on the way.

Singh Kin was thirty or so. Smoking a green cigar, the size and shape of an ice cream cone, he explained that his ancestor had indeed been an American, stationed in Burma during the Time of the Japanese. He’d met and married an Anglo Burman woman named Ils Bet – Singh’s grandmother, now dead.

This is amazing, Eddie said. How did you come to live in Thailand, Singh?

The grandmother is walking.

From Burma?

Just so.

Who built the pagoda, Singh?

The father is building. This was Agweel Fitts Kin, whom Ils Bet had smuggled into Thailand for fear the Japanese would bayonet him for his taint of American blood. At Mae Sot, the headman sheltered Ils Bet and in time took her for his number-two wife, and the mostly white child as his foster son.

Your father, Singh?

Just so.

And his father was a Flying Tiger?

Just so.

I’ll be darned. My grandfather told me about them.

In time, young Agweel Fitts Kin was pledged to another mixed-blood resident of the village, the daughter of a Thai woman and an Indian soldier, evidently a deserter from the British army. Singh was the son of this marriage, making him (as he demonstrated with a stick in the sand) one part Burman, one part British, two parts Thai, two parts Indian, and two parts American. That’s cool, Singh, Eddie said. You could be a United Nations peace-keeping force, all by yourself.

Agweel Fitts Kin had built the pagoda in honor of the American pilots who had protected Burma from the Japanese. Then he died, leaving his son to maintain it. Will you show it to us, Singh? Eddie asked. He’d lost all interest in crossing the border into Burma.

Sankai was skeptical but allowed himself to be persuaded, and the three of them set out on a track through the rain forest, hotter and darker with each kilometer they marched. Sankai suffered the most. Mosquitoes feasted through his white cotton shirt, translucent with sweat, and often he slipped and fell, betrayed by his leather-soled city shoes. Singh, by contrast, trotted tirelessly in thong sandals. For Eddie, wearing a tennis hat, his Thai Ventures T-shirt, jeans, and Reeboks, it was mostly a problem of the heat, like having his head in a box that was oven and steam-bath in one hellish compartment.

They took an hour to reach the pagoda, which proved to be an open-sided teak hut with a bamboo roof, built around the wreckage of a Second World War fighter plane with (Sankai had been correct on this point) a shark’s gaping jaw and baleful eye painted on its cowling. All that remained of the aircraft was the fuselage, upside down, with the nose buried in the black humus of the forest floor. Only stumps remained of the propeller blades. The same was true of the wings, whose roots were attached to the fuselage above (or beneath, if you preferred to think of the fighter in its normal attitude) the cockpit. Eddie supposed that the wings tore off when the plane careered through the trees – their trunks as thick as California redwoods – and that the tail was lost when the plane hit the ground and flipped over. Son of a bitch, he said. Curtiss P-40. As a boy, Eddie had assembled kit replicas of World War II fighter planes – Spitfire, Messerschmitt 109, Zero, Curtiss P-40 – Christmas presents from his grandfather, the sad old veteran who smelled of gin and pipe tobacco. They’d painted the P-40, which Gramps had called a Tomahawk, with just such a shark mouth. It still hung from the ceiling of Eddie’s bedroom in Guilford, Connecticut.

Singh Kin prostrated himself by the pilot’s compartment and banged his head against its Plexiglas panels. Eddie hunkered beside him and peered through the cloudy plastic. Holy shit! The cockpit was occupied by a huge grinning skull in a leather flight helmet, upside down, hanging from a skeletal torso in a leather jacket nearly white with mildew. The torso was harnessed into the seat, but its arms and legs had fallen away, like the wings and tail of the Tomahawk.

All of which – the helmeted skull, the march through the rain forest, and his loss of blood – made Sankai exceedingly nervous. We go now, he said.

Ask Singh if this is his grandfather.

They held a spirited conversation, which Sankai in his irritating fashion translated as: All same Flying Tiger.

Not the grandfather?

Somebody.

A friend of the grandfather?

We go now.

Riding back to Phitsanulok, stopping only to buy gasoline from a vendor with a hand-cranked pump, Sankai ignored his passenger even more thoroughly than on the outward journey. His shirt was bloody, and beneath it his shoulders – narrow at the best of times – seemed to have shrunk further, as if Eddie had betrayed him by taking him to that haunted place in the rain forest. It was not until after a dinner of rice and prawns, and a bath and the gift of one of Eddie’s shirts, that Sankai would speak to him, and then only about the fax machine he hoped Eddie would buy for their office on Bumphol Street.

1 – Tailman Fitzmartin

SINCE BURMA WAS so clearly the backside of the world, Uncle Wiggly liked to say, then Toungoo must be its asshole.

"The anus mundi," Blackie agreed.

But Fitz loved Burma. Hell, he even liked Toungoo. The aerodrome was bordered by trees with flowers as purple as the lilacs of New Hampshire, and the women were small-boned and lovely. As for the Karen Hills, which Blackie was studying through field glasses, they were a mystery revealed each morning at half past six, rising from the mist, separating the British colony of Burma from the independent Kingdom of Thailand.

Blackie dropped the glasses to the limit of their leather strap. They were U.S. Army issue, bought in the native town for fifteen rupees. "And the dawn comes up like thunder, he recited, out of China ’cross the bay."

So it does, Fitz said. Except for one little thing.

Blackie laughed. No bay?

Fitz hawked up a gob of last night’s revelry, and fired it at the ground, twelve feet below the toes of his flying boots. No China, either, he pointed out.

Is that right? Blackie blocked them out with his hands: India on the west, Thailand on the east, and China far to the north of them. Well, Kipling was a poet, he said. Didn’t they tell you about poetic license, back there in Robinson School for Wayward Boys? And don’t forget he lived in India. That’s five hundred miles from here, as the Mitsubishi bomber flies.

So is China five hundred miles, Fitz said.

Oh, Christ! How was it possible to have so much fun, hung over as he was, without so much as a cup of coffee in his belly?

As members of the Bloom Gang – late arrivals – Fitz and Blackie had not yet checked out in a Tomahawk, which was why they’d pulled the duty this morning in what Colonel Chennault grandly called the control tower. A bamboo box on stilts, it overlooked the asphalt of Toungoo Aerodrome, 175 miles north of Rangoon on the road to Mandalay – not the road Kipling had rhapsodized, for instead of paddlewheel steamers it carried fleets of six-wheeled General Motors trucks. Fitz could see a dust plume even now, marking a convoy bound from Rangoon to Mandalay, thence to Lashio, and finally to Kunming in the western mountains of China, where Fitz and Blackie would soon be stationed, fighter pilots in the Chinese Air Force.

The control tower had an especially good view to the east. The Old Man suspected that the Japanese had an air force based in Thailand, beyond the sawtooth mountains that seemed so soft in the dawn. Any morning now, he worried, bombers and fighters would scream across the Karen Hills with tracer, ball, and high explosive, with the one great goal of destroying the men and planes of the American Volunteer Group before they went to the defense of China. Thus the vigil from five to eight every morning, from black night to searing day.

They had a ship’s bell to ring if the raiders came. Oh, what a temptation it was: grab that leather thong, swing that clapper against the blackened bowl, and awaken all the hangovers in all the airy barracks at Toungoo Aerodrome!

Every week or two, a lone silver aircraft flew over Toungoo, high and fast. The duty pilots ran to their planes, fired up the engines, and rolled down the asphalt in a race that was lost before their tires broke free of the runway. The Curtiss P-40 was a formidable beast: long-nosed and throbbing with the power of 1,040 horses – two fifty caliber machine guns in the nose, four thirty calibers in the wings – self-sealing fuel tanks, bulletproof windshield, armor plate for your back – but oh, the weight of it! Up the corkscrew of sky the Tomahawks climbed, grinding and grinding, and by the time they reached Angels Fifteen the stranger had long since vanished to the westward.

Karigane scout plane, said Chennault with his air of perfect authority. Two-man crew, fixed landing gear, fifteen-hundred-mile range, meaning it could be based at Bangkok or even Hanoi. Then he gave them the lecture on Japanese tactics: Karigane scout this afternoon, and tomorrow morning the heavy bombers in diamond formation, escorted by Zero fighters with cannon in their wings. So far, thank God, the Old Man had been wrong.

After breakfast and a chalk-talk by Rusty Hunter on navigating to Kunming, they piled into Studebaker sedans and drove out to the flight line. Lyle Crommett drove the Charlie Squadron newcomers. I hear those Kunming whores have diseases like you wouldn’t believe, he said. Wha’d’you think, Mr. Blackstone?

It’s true, Lyle, Blackie told him. The Chinese invented the clap. Then they’ve got syphilis, crabs, and blue balls. And those are the virgins!

Jesus, Lyle said. Guess I’ll just have to pull the old pud, then.

Pud? Blackie said to Fitz, rolling his eyes. That would be his dinky, I suppose.

Dinky? Fitz said.

Well, I went to Phillips Exeter.

The checked-out pilots took off for a bit of squadron flying, while the newcomers took turns broiling in the cockpit of a sidelined Tomahawk, its wheel struts broken and its propeller bent. They studied the instruments, worked the controls, and recited the starting procedure for the Allison V-1710 until they could have done it blindfolded.

The first man to get the nod was chubby Gus Amato, who’d captained a Catalina flying boat for the Navy. His takeoff wasn’t bad – Fitz helping him, the whole Bloom Gang helping, easing back on imaginary control sticks – but after taking a turn around the airfield he flared out for his landing while twenty feet in the air. The Tomahawk dropped onto the runway, burst a tire, caught a wingtip with a screech like a cordwood saw cutting through nails, and careered into the trees with their flowers like purple lilacs.

Another tire, Uncle Wiggly groaned. Another prop. Jesus Christ. You assholes wreck ’em faster than the erks can fix ’em.

Blackie had lost his tan. Fitz, he said, giving his lips a good tongue-wash. This isn’t fun any more. I’m gonna take the next boat back to San Francisco.

No, Fitz said. Gus thought he was still in the cabin of that Catalina; he was trying to float her onto San Diego Bay. What you want to do, Blackie, is put yourself back at Randolph Field. Just think of that Tomahawk as a BT-9 with a pointy nose.

Yeah. Pointy nose and one thousand horsepower.

One thousand and forty, Fitz said.

Then Tommy Kirkbride looked in their direction. Okay, Fitzmartin, the squadron leader said. Take up Number Seventy Seven.

Fitz nodded, swallowed, and wiped his palms on the seat of his khakis. Roger, he said. Seventy Seven.

He climbed the Tomahawk’s port wing. The crew chief was Jack Glover. She’s a real fine airplane, Mr. Fitzmartin, Jack said, leaving the cockpit by the starboard side. Try not to hurt her too bad, okay?

He couldn’t see over the Tomahawk’s nose, of course. Taxiing out to the runway, he used the rudder pedals, left and right, weaving from side to side like a pigeon swiveling its head. Then he shoved the throttle forward. Jesus! The manifold pressure gauge jumped to forty eight inches of mercury and the tachometer to 3,000 rpm, and there was so much left torque that he had to stand on the right rudder pedal. He popped the stick forward – the tail came up – he could see!

Number Seventy Seven flew herself off the runway at a hundred miles an hour. Fitz made a careful turn around the ’drome with the wheels down. Not bad! He made another circuit – then another – before chopping the power and gentling the Tomahawk onto the asphalt. Yes! A perfect three-point landing, like the thousands he’d made in a BT-9 at Randolph Field.

Except that the rudder washed out. Number Seventy Seven swerved to the right, teetered on her starboard tire, and did her damnedest to swap ends, while Fitz swore and kicked left rudder – left, right, left – and nearly pissed his pants. Thank God, she rolled to a stop with nothing broken. Tommy Kirkbride trotted up to the Tomahawk, with a grinning Tex Murdock at his heels. Do it again, the squadron leader said.

And this time, young Fitzmartin, Tex suggested, don’t be in such a hurry to get your tail wheel on the ground.

So that was how it was done! With that hint from Tex – better than an hour of studying the manual – Fitz decided to fly the Tomahawk onto the asphalt as he had flown her off, tail in the air and a bone in her teeth. The runway was four thousand feet long – four times what he really needed. Even at 100 mph, without touching the brakes, he had plenty of room to settle her down. He taxied back to where the squadron leader was standing, trying not to let the grin split his face.

Not bad, said Kirkbride this time. She’s yours. A. R. Fitzmartin: double sevens. He made the notation on his clipboard, while Fitz patted the cowling, smelling the hot oil and the Prestone coolant and the high-test gasoline, hearing the engine block tick-ticking as it cooled down. Double sevens, yes. Lucky Sevens!

Blackie checked out too, on Number Sixty One. That afternoon, they painted the cowlings as the other checked-out pilots had done, with a shark’s white teeth, red tongue, and baleful eye.

After dinner at the pilots’ mess, of water buffalo and rice, Fitz signed out a Studebaker and drove into Toungoo. On the street dividing the European quarter from the native town, he presented himself at the door of the Mackenzie basha. Elsbeth home? he said to the man of the house, meanwhile offering a bottle of whiskey from the pilots’ mess. Mac Mackenzie was one of Kipling’s Legion of the Lost, gone native with the help of a pension from the British merchant navy. He was a fat man with skin the color and texture of bread dough, from his habit of sleeping through the hot hours and boozing through the cool ones. He wore a sleeveless undershirt over tropical shorts, showing white dough, a few hairs, and a blue anchor tattooed on his left shoulder.

Fitz put his palms together and made a shiko to Mrs. Mackenzie, whom Elsbeth called Mater. A stick-like Burmese with dark skin and a squashed nose, she dressed from the same mail order catalog as the British wives, and her house was as neat as theirs and as crowded with bric-a-brac, though she had no servant. No doubt Mater played the pani wallah while her husband slept.

How had Elsbeth sprung from the loins of drunken Mac and skinny Mater? She was a small woman with an oval face, glossy black hair, high cheekbones, a slow smile, and a genius for making love. Who’d taught her? The entire officers’ mess of 1st Burma Division, for all he knew. She wouldn’t say – wouldn’t admit to knowing any man before Fitz. Her nose was as squashed as her mother’s, but on Elsbeth the result was charming, or so Fitz believed. Unlike Blackie, he had few to compare her with.

They went to the Gymkhana Club, perched on a hill outside Toungoo.

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