Poet François Villon asked, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”—“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Last week I mentioned some snows of yesteryear, diverse in their actuality yet alike in their vanishment: A path sledded down with joy sixty-five years ago in Illinois, the megalomaniac Ozymandias mentioned in a poem by Shelley, the ubiquitous basement dwelling of aspiring Middle Americans, and a sprawling historical curiosity known as the Great Hedge of India.
Today, a few more examples.
Juan Trippe’s new Pan American Airways sought a flying boat with unprecedented range and payload—an aircraft to carry scores of passengers across whole oceans. Trippe took Boeing’s bid and ordered six copies of their B-314—a plane that, when built, would have a range of more than two thousand miles and carry 68 day passengers (or 40 overnight in convertible bunks) plus eleven crew members. Later, Trippe added six upgraded B-314As to the order.
He dubbed his oceanic planes “Clippers,” to recall the fastest ships from the heyday of sail. The Boeing 314s entered operational service across the Pacific March 29, 1939, carrying passengers and mail. They flew from San Francisco to Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, and ultimately, to Hong Kong. A transatlantic route premiered June 24 of the same year, flying from Southampton to Port Washington, New York, via Foynes in Ireland, Botwood in Newfoundland, and Shediac, New Brunswick.
My late uncle, Edward F. Sommers, was copilot on the Anzac Clipper westbound to Hawaii on December 7, 1941. An hour out of Honolulu, the crew received a warning from headquarters that Pearl Harbor was under aerial attack—which explained the many Japanese voice transmissions their radio operator had been hearing. Per sealed war contingency orders, Captain Lanier Turner diverted the craft, landing safely in the harbor of Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. Passengers were given the option of returning to California with the plane or making their own way onward from Hilo in the suddenly uncertain Pacific. The plane, some of the passengers, and my uncle flew back to California a day or two later.
Other Clippers were not so lucky. The Japanese attack was multi-pronged. The Philippine Clipper, on the ground at Wake Island, sustained 96 bullet holes but remained sound enough to evacuate Pan Am station personnel, the island’s only residents. The Hong Kong Clipper, at rest in its namesake port, was struck by incendiary bullets and destroyed by fire. The Pacific Clipper, aloft at the time of the attack, reached its destination of New Zealand. It “was ordered back to the U.S. mainland–but not via the Pacific. It flew westward, three-fourths of the way around the world, under radio silence and lacking navigation charts. It arrived in New York three weeks later, thereby completing the longest trip a commercial airliner had ever flown.” (National Air and Space Museum website.)
The previous year, with dimmed prospects of opening additional routes to war-torn Europe, Trippe had sold three of his twelve B-314s to the United Kingdom. Now, as America joined the fight, the Navy and War Departments purchased the other nine. They were operated as military assets for the duration of the war, manned by the existing, specially skilled Pan Am crews—many of whom were already in the Naval Reserve. The most advanced long-distance airliners in the world, they were used for high-priority missions. B-314s carried both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.K Prime Minister Winston Churchill to international conferences.
By war’s end, however, the big Clippers had become obsolete. Besides outstanding range, their most salient feature had been the ability to land on water; a flying boat converted any marine harbor into an airport. By the end of the war there were bomber-capable airfields all around the world. Land-based aircraft were safer and easier to operate than seaplanes, which were subject to the whims of wind and waves. The last of Trippe’s B-314 flying boats was broken down for scrap in 1951. It was the Anzac Clipper, in which Uncle Ed narrowly missed the Pearl Harbor attack.
The only B-314 in existence today is a full-sized replica constructed for, and housed at, the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum in Foynes, Ireland.
As François Villon would say, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father was a sergeant stationed at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, with the 132nd Infantry Regiment. In January, five weeks after the Day of Infamy, the regiment was removed from the 33rd Infantry Division and added to something called Task Force 6814. The troops left Tennessee on a train guarded by FBI agents.
The 132nd arrived in New York and, with other units, boarded the Swedish luxury liner M.S. Kungsholm, now being refitted as a troopship by the U.S. Navy under the new name M.S. John Ericsson. Designed for 1,400 cruise passengers, she was now crammed with more than twice that many soldiers. She sailed from New York on January 22, in a convoy of seven ships. Dad said that as the Kungsholm/Ericsson left harbor, workers were still busy replacing the spacious luxury cabins with plywood bulkheads and rows of pipe bunks.
With so many troops aboard, water was strictly rationed; showers were verboten. The ship’s galley could only manage to feed everybody two meals a day. You finished breakfast and got in line for supper.
They made it down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific to Melbourne in just over a month. After a brief debarkation and cleanup, they re-boarded and sailed to New Caledonia, where Task Force 6814 became the Americal Division (AMERIcans in New CALedonia)—the first U.S. force to confront the Japanese in the Pacific.
What became of the ship, the Kungsholm/Ericsson? She continued to serve as a troopship until the end of the war and was then sold back to the Swedish American Line, who in turn sold her to a lower-profile cruise operator. In 1964 she became a 500-room floating hotel in Freeport, Bahamas. The following year she was scrapped at Bilbao, Spain.
Where are the snows of yesteryear? A monarch of the seas went out not with a bang but a whimper.
In 1967-68, I had the good fortune to spend a year on the island of Taiwan, sent there as a U.S. airman for the purpose of eavesdropping on Chinese Communist Air Force operations across the Strait of Taiwan.
The one thing that Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists agreed upon was that Taiwan—a large island shaped like a tobacco leaf a hundred miles off China’s southeast coast—was a province of China. They disagreed on the identity of China’s government. From the Nationalists’ point of view, Taiwan was the only part of China currently under legitimate authority. The whole of mainland China was in an illegal and temporary state of rebellion.
That the Red occupation of the mainland was temporary was not in doubt. Wherever one went, there were billboards in large Chinese characters urging, “Fight to recover the Mainland!” Just how this could be accomplished was problematic. The Republic of China (Chiang’s Nationalist regime) had more than a million men under arms and three wings of Lockheed F-104 fighters provided by the United States. This was enough to prevent a Communist invasion of Taiwan, but far from enough to reconquer the mainland. And Chiang Kai-shek’s chief backer, Uncle Sam, did not wish to encourage or provision any such adventure.
Besides, the dashing military hero Chiang had grown old, bald, and feeble. His mustache was all white. The only time people saw him was doddering about in a brief film clip that accompanied the national anthem before films shown in the Ximending movie houses. People no longer believed the reconquest propaganda.
Despite all militarism and bellicose talk, Taiwan was a quaint and peaceful place. My base of operations, Shulinkou Air Station, was a small outpost of GIs on a bucolic mountaintop, amid plantations of green tea.
We had a five-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. A few skinny boys tending a water buffalo stood outside the chainlink fence and watched us hack away. When we chipped a ball over the fence into the Republic of China, the boys would fetch the ball and sell it back to us for a U.S. nickel.
Our chow hall, the Dragon Inn, was the best in the Air Force. The meals bore no resemblance to military food. There was a goldfish pond in the middle of the floor.
When we rode a bus or taxi into, or from, downtown Taipei, we traveled a steep road laced with hairpin curves and fringes with lush jungle. Inside one curve, a somber stone had been erected in memory of dozens of workers who had died building the road. Most of the deaths had been from snakebite.
During harvest season you saw farmers walking beside frail bicycles, pushing them up the road, each bike laden with three or four 100-pound bags of rice.
When we went downtown, local children followed us, gaping and pointing. They had never seen Caucasian people before, especially blond ones, as I was at the time.
Houses and apartments had wood-fired water heaters. If you wanted to take a bath, you built a fire in the water heater and waited twenty minutes.
These memories from half a century ago came flooding back the other day as I thought about the four Taiwanese students we had invited to share our Thanksgiving meal. I went online and looked up the area where Shulinkou Air Station once stood—before these students’ parents had been born. The U.S. Air Force presence, of course, has long been gone.
Shulinkou Air Station closed in 1977, a victim of America’s really-two-chinas-but-officially-one-china policy. Where our base stood, the tea fields are gone, sacrificed to creeping urbanism. The area seems about to be swallowed up by something called New Taipei City.
The snows of yesteryear. Not that there was ever any snow on Taiwan. It’s a semi-tropical island.
I do wonder what became of the boys with the water buffalo. And their children. And their grandchildren.
Larry F. Sommers
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