My father was a gifted storyteller. He relished sharing experiences and adventures from the fourteen years he and my mother, both physicians, worked as medical missionaries in Chengdu, China. Yet he never mentioned the nail-biting story of our family’s departure from war-torn West China in December 1944.
All I knew, all they ever mentioned, was that we had flown “over the Hump” of the Himalaya Mountains to India. There we waited in Mumbai (Bombay) for passage home to the US. My earliest memories are from Mumbai, where I turned three years old. After months of waiting, we left Mumbai aboard the WWII mercy ship MS Gripsholm bound for New York City.
I did not learn the details of our journey until a decade after my parents had both died. Combing through my father’s papers for material for my memoir, I discovered a thin manila folder overlooked during previous sortings. Inside was a yellowed article from Dad’s hometown newspaper documenting the details.
My father relished telling stories of dangerous encounters like the time he became trapped between two battling warlords for ten days. Or the incident when he accompanied a sick missionary downstream for surgery and his boat was forced to shore under gunfire. There, soldiers of a warlord waited to confiscate the boat. Dad, negotiating in Chinese with the warlord himself, convinced him to let them continue downstream.
This yellowed newspaper scrap told of a more frightening situation, one my father couldn’t use his wits to resolve. I’ve often imagined Dad’s thoughts and how he reacted to the events as they unfolded. And also the utter fear my parents must have endured to remain silent about that day.
From that article and knowledge of my parents, I’ve recreated our departure from Chengdu in late 1944, telling it from my father’s perspective.
A cold damp wind gusts across fallow rice paddies and a landing strip near the ancient walled city of Chengdu. On the airstrip’s hard-packed rock surface, hand-built by thousands of Chinese**, stands a hulking C-47 twin engine cargo plane. In a huddle of missionary families waiting to board, a slight, prematurely balding physician talks quietly to his slim blonde physician wife. As she attempts to restrain their squirming baby boy, their two young daughters stand between them, wide-eyed and holding hands.
From the plane a soldier signals to begin boarding. The father squeezes his wife’s hand, lifts the two-year-old daughter to his shoulder, and grasps the older daughter’s hand. They join the somber parade moving toward the waiting airplane.
As the father climbs the stairs, his younger daughter points to the large white star in a blue circle on the fuselage.
He whispers in her ear, “Yes, Jackie, a star. It’s an American airplane.”
At the top he takes a last glimpse of the rural Sichuan countryside as the aching inside builds again. His wife also turns for a final glance. Together they pass through the yawning door into a cavernous interior that usually holds troops, supplies, and the paraphernalia of war. This is their first time inside an airplane. Scanning the seats lining the interior walls, he chooses a place for his family. As his wife settles with the baby, he sits, places Jackie on his lap, and pats the middle seat for four-year-old Mimi.
He leans over and whispers to his wife, using his pet name for her. “Clinky, looks like we’ll make it out this time.”
She presses her lips together and nods. Her blue eyes glint with tears as she hugs little Donnie close.
A few minutes later the propeller engines roar to life. Soon the cargo plane lifts off for Kunming, a city four hundred miles southwest of Chengdu. The thundering noise and unfamiliar turbulence bring the children to tears. The father comforts Jackie in his lap and consoles Mimi as his wife gently jiggles the baby to calm him. The girls settle down but are subdued.
We’ve been lucky living in Chengdu, he thinks. The mountains to the east have protected us from the main fighting with Japan. His thoughts turn as they have so often lately to the fourteen years of work they are leaving. The war with Japan, the fighting with the Reds—will it be the end of everything we’ve done? What will happen to the medical school and the young doctors we’ve been educating? I’ve dedicated my life to this work.
The aching becomes almost unbearable. He rests his cheek on Jackie’s slumbering head and closes his eyes as sadness washes over him. After a few moments he opens his eyes, gathers himself, and returns to his thoughts. We’ll probably spend Christmas in Kunming. How soon will we find seats on an airlift plane returning to India?
Leaning his head against the wall behind him, he lets his mind roam ahead to the next leg of their journey. Flying over the Hump! Imagine looking down on the Himalaya Mountains! He gives in momentarily to the familiar thrill of adventure before conceding the danger of flying at such elevations. But he trusts the American pilots. They have ferried fuel and supplies over the Himalayas for two years to help Jiang Kaishek’s soldiers battle Japan.
The baby’s fussing brings the father back to the present and he realizes he’d dozed off. He turns to Clinky, who is cooing to the baby while Mimi sleeps quietly against her. He briefly checks Jackie in his lap, softly brushing her blonde hair back from her slumbering face. She looks so much like Clinky, he thinks. Dark-haired Mimi takes after my family more.
An American voice breaks through his reverie. A soldier, part of the crew, stands among the passengers. He speaks loudly to be heard above the engines, causing Jackie to stir. The father caresses her gently to calm her.
“Folks, we’re approaching Kunming but can’t see landing lights,” the soldier says. “It may be ground fog. We’re gonna circle.”
Clinky reaches over and clutches his arm. “Johnny, not again. It can’t be happening again.”
He covers her hand with his, knowing what she’s thinking. They’d had to relinquish seats when U.S. Army officials commandeered a previous flight. When that plane neared Kunming, the landing lights had been dark because of a Japanese air raid. That plane—the very one they were supposed to take—had circled and circled before running out of gas. They’d heard nothing more about it.
A sense of dread threatens to overwhelm him. He manages what he hopes is a comforting smile. “We must trust the pilot—he’s flown this route often, I’m sure.”
The other passengers are talking uneasily and the soldier has to yell to get their attention. “Listen up! We’re gonna hand out parachutes to each adult just in case. If we jump, children must be strapped to their parents. We’ll give instructions about the chutes and what to expect.”
The father, sweating, turns to his wife. She holds the baby tightly with one arm and draws Mimi closer. He notes the determined set of Clinky’s lips but her eyes give away her fear. Before he can speak, the soldier comes by and hands him two squarish packets and a slip of paper with a number.
He points to the number. “What’s this?”
“It’s your jump number.” The soldier moves on.
“Johnny, we can’t allow ourselves to be scared,” his wife says. She speaks in Chinese now to not upset the girls, who are both awake and anxious. “How are we going to do this?”
He squeezes her hand and shows her the slip of paper. “Don’t worry. See, we have a higher jump number so we have time to get ready.” He keeps talking to tamp down his own anxiety. “Surely they’ll help us tie the children securely to our bodies. They must have straps, ropes—”
“But there’s only two of us and three children.”
He cups her cheek with his hand. “We’ll get through this, Clinky.”
He had looked forward to his first airplane flight but not under these conditions. He tries to ignore the tension gripping his stomach. “We’ll tie Marilyn to you—she won’t squirm as much.” Resorting to humor to lighten the situation, he waggles his mustache and says, “I’ll take the two wiggle worms.” He forces out a tight smile.
The soldier calls again for everyone’s attention and begins explaining how to open the parachutes and put them on. The fear in the plane is palpable but the father is determined to stay calm for his family. He starts unbuckling the straps on the parachute cover.
Suddenly the soldier stops midsentence as a crewmember whispers in his ear. The stress drains from the soldier’s face.
“Good news. Nobody jumps today. The landing lights just flashed below us.”
After several interminable minutes, the plane bumps to the ground, bounces several times, then proceeds more smoothly toward several squat buildings.
The father releases the breath he’d been holding and closes his eyes briefly, feeling almost giddy inside. “Thank God.”
He hugs the girls and turns to his wife, who tearfully clutches the baby close.
“We’re safe,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “We made it.”
**For more information about the US military’s wartime efforts in western China: