"They didn't even get to try..."
Wedding day tragedies, first-time skydiving accidents, straight-off-the-lot car crashes—these are the "worst" of stories, don't you think? There's nothing so horrible as seeing hope and opportunity ripped from a person; injustice and unfairness inflame anyone with a conscience.
Well, have look at "030" because she represents just such a story. But right now, a little background is in order.
The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre remains the least-remembered major Theatre of WW2. Of course, the shark-mouthed P-40s of the American Volunteer Group are a permanent part of WW2 lore. However, the Theatre itself, with its Chinese duplicity, Japanese conquest, British defeat and American frustration, remains a mere paragraph in the "book" of WW2.
This oversight is not for lack of action or drama. In fact, the typical history nut, upon discovering the Theatre, is inevitably astounded at the depth and breadth of all-things-warfare. And if it's "personality" you're looking for, the CBI's starring characters rival Hollywood's Patton, Rat Patrol or Colonel Kurtz. Don't believe me? Look up the names Wingate, Stillwell and Chennault.
"Why don't we learn more about the CBI?"
The fact is, I don't know. Maybe the CBI's forgotten status is due to the wretched climate. After Guadalcanal, what reporter would want to continue on? Maybe the awful insects and disease had something to do with it; would you like some dysentery with your malaria? Maybe the Japanese victories didn't help the war effort back home or maybe Chiang Kai Shek's Chicago-style corruption would have utterly offended a generation coming off the Depression... who knows?
But the fact remains—WW2 was fought in the CBI in typically bloody, icky, gruesome fashion and American aviators were there in force.
Ok. Getting back to those tales of woe.
Being a Prisoner of War (PoW) has to flat-out suck. But like everything, there are degrees and on the WW2 PoW Treatment Scale for allied prisoners, the Japanese were the suckiest. How sucky? Well, 40x worse than the Germans!
Let's roll the numbers. According to a U.S. Navy study, 90-some thousand U.S. military prisoners were interred by Germany in WW2. Just over 1,000 died in captivity, resulting in a 1% death rate. But. The Japanese held 27,000-some U.S. prisoners and of those, 11,000 died. That's over 40%. This time, read the number with feeling: FOUR. TEE. PERCENT.
Fast forward a few years and I'm talking to Bill Creech of the 528th FS at a bar in Washington D.C. He is explaining both times he was shot down—once over Burma, the other over China—and he shuddered when I asked him what he would have done had he been captured.
"Rumor was they would eat us." EAT?! Really?! (deep breath, swallow hard) Really.*
So I asked Bill if he knew any ex-POWs of the Japanese that I could talk to. After a scrunched face and a little hesitation, he gave me a name. And a number. And I called. And the resulting conversation was as if I poked a chained bobcat with a hot wire. The pilot slammed the phone on me after hissing that he had spent all of his life trying to forget and what right did I have calling him up...
Later, Bill apologized to the effect of "Sorry John. I knew he never really got well but was hoping he would talk to you and get it out." Two weeks later, I got an eloquent apology from the pilot with the firm request to never contact him again.
Fast forward a few more years and I, like so many, read Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken." Of course, my mind went back to that ex-POW I'd talked to and wondered if I could ever find any surviving POWs of the Japanese to interview. Not for the gory details—after a while, that stuff becomes like pornography and does the soul no good— but to learn how they survived...
Ok. Take one more look at the sketch above. "030" was one of 40 A-36's sent to the CBI and soon, I will clothe her with the simple livery she wore on October 16, 1943. It was a red letter day of sorts, the first combat mission of the 311th Fighter Bomber Group and the first combat mission of her pilot, Lt. Chris Morgan.
Chris didn't come back from that mission. He was downed due to a regrettably poor decision on the part of his Flight Leader and became a PoW of the worst captors a man could imagine.
*Empty stomach? Click here.