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The Lady and the Tigers: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China, 1941-1942

The Lady and the Tigers: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China, 1941-1942

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The Lady and the Tigers: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China, 1941-1942

324 pages
4 hours
Jul 5, 2020


         Olga Greenlaw kept the War Diary of the American Volunteer Group--the Flying Tigers--while those gallant mercenaries defended Burma and China from the Imperial Japanese Army during the opening months of the Pacific War. Returning to the United States in 1942, she wrote The Lady and the Tigers, which Leland Stowe hailed as "an authoritative, gutsy and true to life story of the AVG." Out of print for more than half a century, the book has now been brought up to date by Daniel Ford, author of the prize-winning history of the American Volunteer Group. What's more, Ford explains for the first time where Olga and Harvey Greenlaw came from, how they became caught up in the saga of the Flying Tigers, and what happened to them after their tumultuous year in Burma and China. Updated 2020 with a bonus chapter from Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers.

Jul 5, 2020

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The Lady and the Tigers - Olga Greenlaw

The Lady and the Tigers

The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Served With the American Volunteer Group in Burma and China, 1941-1942

Olga Greenlaw

Edited by Daniel Ford

Chinese ideogram

Warbird Books 2020

With a bonus chapter from Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers


When Olga met Harvey

1 – ‘We do not always see eye to eye’

2 – ‘It’s a young man’s war’

3 – ‘Three of them gone already’

4 – ‘The United States was at war’

5 – ‘We kicked hell out of them’

6 – ‘Dear, silly Sandy’

7 – ‘If we only had more planes’

8 – ‘Angels with or without wings’

9 – ‘Black isn’t good luck’

10 – ‘We’ve got bad news, Babe’

11 – ‘Do we have to wear those things?’

12 – ‘I’ve got to make up for lost time’

13 – ‘A woman, by gosh’

14 – ‘We had a little insurrection here’

15 – ‘Shoot at his tires’

16 – ‘Plenty liquor here’

17 – ‘I’ll take Olga with me’

18 – ‘Whose funeral are you talking about?

Parting of the ways

Copyright - Other books of interest

Bonus: Damned hard to kill a Gurkha

Olga's wedding portrait

Olga Greenlaw in her wedding portrait, Shanghai 1934

Olga's First Communion

Alicia, Beatriz, and Olga in their First Communion dresses, about 1916

When Olga met Harvey

THE LADY AND THE TIGERS was published in September 1943, a year after Olga Greenlaw returned from her adventures in Burma and China. Hers 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-eight 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 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 Culiacan, 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, a quarter Serb, and a 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 Culiacan 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 émigrés 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 Culiacan, then Olga too must have had an enchanting mixture of tongues in her voice.

Those were years of revolution in Mexico. Sofia and the girls had to be evacuated by the U.S. Navy on two occasions, and the mother was wounded by a stray bullet; she would bear the scar on her left shin for the rest of her life. The parents soon decided to get the girls out of Mexico. For a time they went to a convent school in Nogales, Arizona; then Sowers settled his wife and daughters in Los Angeles. Given their uncertain schooling, each girl was placed two years behind her age group in the Los Angeles schools—a gap their father neatly finessed by declaring each to be two years younger than her actual age. This was easily done in the 1920s, with its relaxed attitude toward vital statistics.

Olga enrolled in Polytech High School in North Hollywood, not far from her home at North New Hampshire, on Hollywood’s eastern edge. Fluent in Spanish and her prettily accented English, Olga also studied French and starred in plays put on by the French club. She had a literary bent, Alicia recalled. And she was a stunning young woman, with eyes so green that they tended to emerald—well, not that bright, but more green than blue. Her natural hair color was light brown, but she was always doing something with it, as Alicia explained. Often enough, this involved the application of henna, so that it came out dark brown or reddish. She was a bit above medium height, but held herself so proudly that people took her for several inches taller. (Olga’s Mexican passport says she stood 1.74 meters tall, or five-foot-eight and a half inches; her American passport says that she was five-foot-six.)

Olga probably graduated in 1929—nineteen years old, according to Polytech records, but actually a mature twenty-one. In high school or soon after, she worked as a model at Bergdoff-Goodman and other Los Angeles department stores. She was friendly, attractive, and knowledgeable, her sister said, then corrected herself: "She was beautiful. Whenever she entered a room, everybody looked. She demanded it."

When I visited Alicia Schweizer in Camarillo, California, in January 2002, I understood that this is a family trait. At ninety-two, Alicia was still beautiful, and she still attracted attention when she enters a room. (She celebrated her 105th birthday this year.)

As so often happens when families set up separate households, Sofia Sowers fell in love with another man, an Angeleno businessman named Hugh Fillmore. They married in 1930 and had two daughters of their own: Sofia and Florence Ann, the first with Alicia’s coloring, the second with Olga’s.

Hugh Fillmore had a friend who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and who one evening brought one of his classmates to the house on North New Hampshire. Born in Superior, Wisconsin, on November 14, 1897, Harvey Greenlaw was well into his thirties when he was introduced to Olga Sowers. He was a big man, five-foot-ten with blond hair and blue eyes, and the life of any party he attended or was able to stir up, though he himself didn’t drink very heavily. He would come into the room, put on a baby hat, sit down at the piano, and play honky-tonk, recalled Olga’s half-sister Sofia, who was a baby at this time but who knew and adored Harvey after the Greenlaws returned from China in 1942. "He loved honky-tonk."

When Olga made her First Communion in 1916, Harvey might well have been training for service in World War I, which was consuming a generation of European young men and was about to involve the United States. He missed the war by getting an appointment to West Point. According to a classmate, John Goff, Harvey was a popular, cheerful and active cadet who led the bugle corps, played saxophone in the orchestra, and excelled in basketball and on the undefeated hockey team. His photo in the Howitzer yearbook shows him as an extremely serious young man with a long face, direct gaze, Prussian crew cut, and a surfeit of nicknames: Greenie, Runt, and Maggie. For a time he sported the stripes of a cadet lieutenant, so the faculty must have seen leadership potential in him, but he was not the most ambitious of young men. As the yearbook editors wrote, in the awful prose of the time and genre: Like his Great Countryman (Harvey swears the hospital gave him that nasal parabaloid he wears), Gustavus Adolphus, our Maggie is a master of strategy. For whom other than he is H.R.H. Drum Major of the bugle corps? What Kaydet could better deadbeat a soiree than Harvey? As oft quoted, ‘What is more rare than a day in June?’—verily one erg of work out of Harvey. He wore chevrons — until he demonstrated that there wasn’t room for a Kaydet and an S.O. to pass on diagonal. Our Maggie, always a cheerful lad (thought a bit noisy at times on his saxophonesoiree), will go out into the Service with more friends to his credit than files.

Harvey graduated 246 out of 273 newly minted second lieutenants, a position that guaranteed he would never reach high rank. Furthermore, even for a cheerful young man with lots of friends, 1920 was a poor time to start a career in the U.S. Army, which was shrinking as it always did in time of peace. Lieutenant Greenlaw served successively with the infantry, the cavalry, and the Army Air Corps. As Colonel Goff tells the story, he was trained as a fighter pilot and assigned to Chanute Field in Illinois, where he became friends with Claire Chennault. More likely they met at Brooks Field near San Antonio, Texas, where by Olga’s account Harvey was a flight instructor, and where Chennault was stationed from 1926 to 1930.

Harvey served eleven years as a lieutenant, which wasn’t unusual in the stagnant peacetime army. Chennault (who likewise missed overseas duty in World War I) was a talented if contentious officer, and it took him twelve years to earn the twin silver bars of a captain.

But it is also true that Lieutenant Greenlaw blotted his copybook, as the British say. He married a young woman with a proclivity for running up debts, and in time they were divorced. (They may have had a son, though no one in Olga’s family seems to know of him.) For one of those reasons—the debts or the divorce—Harvey was given to understand that he had no future in the U.S. Army. Olga, who likes to put a pleasant gloss on events, wants us to believe that he resigned his commission in order to join Colonel John Jouett’s aviation training mission to China. But the chronology is wrong: Harvey quit the army in 1931, a year before Jouett went to China, and in any event wasn’t among the original group of flight instructors; he replaced a pilot who was killed in an accident.

However that may be, Harvey Greenlaw was divorced and out of uniform when he courted Olga Sowers. They were married in a civil ceremony in Los Angeles on February 23, 1933. Three months later, Harvey set out for China to take up his job with the Chinese Air Force flight school. Olga was to follow him in July, but didn’t want to travel by herself, so she coaxed Alicia to come along. Harvey was very generous, very thoughtful, Alicia told me, and showed me a booklet he’d made for his bride, with all the information she’d need on the trip, and assuring her that there was money enough for both sisters, if you economize. The two young women boarded the passenger freighter Muncaster Castle on July 2, arrived at the teeming port city of Shanghai one month later, and took the train ninety-five miles south to Hangchow.

Alicia soon fell in love with one of the original instructors, John Schweizer, who as the story is told was the model for the comic-strip hero Smilin’ Jack. By November, Alicia and John were married, too. At about the same time, Olga and Harvey had their wedding blessed at the Catholic mission nearby, but even that did not calm the tumult in their marriage. Harvey adored his wife but was forever criticizing her in such matters as how she fixed her hair, while she was a strong-willed woman who hadn’t invested as much of herself in the marriage. She didn’t love Harvey, Alicia told me. She married him to go to China.

The Greenlaws and the Schweizers each had one of the two-story homes that were provided for the married faculty. It was an elegant life, with obsequious servants and respectful students, who saluted the wives as snappily as they did the husbands. But it only lasted two years. Then the Italian government came up with a package deal on Breda trainers, Fiat fighter planes, locally built Savoia bombers, and a flying school headed by a general, no less, on terms too generous for the Chinese to refuse. The Jouett mission closed its doors in 1935, and the Americans returned to a country still mired in the Great Depression. John Schweizer was lucky enough to find a job as a pilot for Humble Oil (later Exxon) in Texas. As for Harvey, he toyed with the idea of going to Mexico and managing the Durango mine for his father-in-law. Edward Sowers had been devastated by the breakup of his marriage; his health was failing; and he had an additional worry in the form of his eldest daughter. In a letter to Alicia, he pondered the mystery of the Greenlaws’ marriage and vowed to find a way to stop their bickering. He’s always picking on Olga, Sowers grumbled. But he never solved the problem, for he died in 1937 at the age of fifty-nine.

Instead of going south of the border, Harvey found a job with North American Aviation, a small conglomerate that built superlative training planes—low-wing, single-engine aircraft that could also be equipped with machine guns and bomb racks for combat duty. The factory was in San Diego, but the Greenlaws apparently divided their time between there and Los Angeles: when Olga applied for a Social Security card, she gave her address as 2443 Sichel Street, not far from the present site of Dodger Stadium. She put down her birth year as 1912—four years off the mark—and signed the application with a lovely, Palmer Method signature of the sort that has now almost vanished from the world.

When Japan invaded China in the fall of 1937, North American decided that it needed a sales representative in China. Who better than Harvey Greenlaw? So they sailed west again, settling this time in Hengyang, on the southern edge of the populous and comparatively prosperous Yangtze Valley. Because the Japanese had already occupied Shanghai, Harvey had his planes shipped to the British colony of Hong Kong, then overland by rail to his assembly plant in Hengyang. And he renewed his acquaintance there with Claire Chennault, who’d come to China as a flight instructor but ended as aviation adviser to the dictator Chiang Kai-shek. In the spring of 1938, Chennault was fighting a losing battle on two fronts—against the Japanese air forces and against the Russian advisory group and combat squadrons that were becoming increasingly important to China’s defense. (The Italians had been evicted like the Jouett mission before them.) To pacify the Russians, the Chinese sent the craggy-faced American to Kunming in the western highlands, there to set up a new flight-training program for the Chinese Air Force.

As the Japanese moved up the Yangtze, Hengyang became increasingly vulnerable to attack, so Harvey moved his operation to Haiphong in French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). From Hanoi, a narrow-gauge railroad carried airplanes and other war materiel over the mountains to Kunming. The climate disagreed with Olga, and there wasn’t much for either of them to do. She was sick and bored, she wrote her mother in July 1939. (Olga would write one letter to her mother in Spanish, the next in English, and then again change languages in the middle of a paragraph.) She and Harvey were waiting for something to happen—something that will change our lives again.

The Japanese changed it for them, by occupying northern Vietnam in the summer of 1940 and closing the railroad to Kunming. The Greenlaws then went to Rangoon, from which another route to China had been opened, north along the river valleys to Toungoo and Mandalay, thence northeast to Lashio and across the mountains and gorges to Kunming. This was the Burma Road—China’s last hope for importing war materiel from Europe and the United States. But the British were reluctant to annoy the Japanese in the Pacific while fighting for their lives at home, and for a time they closed the road in response to Japanese demands. The Greenlaws had a nice tour of Burma, but Harvey couldn’t move his North American training planes. So he left them on the Rangoon docks and went to the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in hopes of selling bombers to the colonial government there. The effort was apparently unsuccessful, for the Dutch owned no North American aircraft when Japan attacked, and no recently built bombers of any manufacture.

With all options closed out, Olga and Harvey washed up in Hong Kong. Here Claire Chennault found them on July 17, 1941, as he was returning to Kunming to prepare a training base for the newly authorized 1st American Volunteer Group of fighter planes and pilots. Chennault had spent the winter and spring in the United States, organizing a volunteer air force to defend China from Japanese aggression, and eventually carry the war to the wood and paper cities of Japan. With a coterie of Chinese and American lobbyists, he persuaded the Roosevelt administration to finance, equip, and provide pilots and ground crews for a bomber group and two fighter groups, totaling 250 airplanes and 1,000 men. In the end, however, only the 1st AVG would see combat; the others were aborted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December.

As one of his admirers told me years later, Claire Chennault was a man who could accomplish miracles with sticks and chewing gum. Harvey Greenlaw

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