Notice: China III – Chongqing
The weather was gray and overcast with a light and persistent rain, and a chill filled the air in Chongqing, China, when we disembarked from the boat that had been our home on the Yangtze River for six days and six nights. The rest of our tour would be on land; and Chongqing, a Chinese mega city with a population of over 31,000,000, was our first overnight stop.
Our program for the day included visits to two WWII museums, followed by a two-hour bus ride to Dazu rock carvings and a two-hour return trip to Chongqing. I wanted a warm room and a good book. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that if this wish had been granted, I would have missed experiences that I will long remember and unexpected times when I felt humility, gratitude, awe, wonder and genuine pride in America. It is often these unforeseen moments that give us new knowledge and new perspectives, and our lives are never the same.
The War Museums offered a step back in time and a glimpse of America’s role in the theater of WWII in China, Burma and India (CBI). Our first stop was the former headquarters of General Joseph Stillwell, who at the start of the war first served as Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and later became the commanding general of the forces Americans in the CBI theater. As we entered the courtyard, we saw a larger-than-life stone carved image of the general’s head mounted on a high pedestal simply inscribed with Joseph W. Stillwell (1883-1946). Somehow, the unassuming nature of the entrance seemed appropriate, even though this man had been the commanding general.
Inside the building, we saw its simple living and working quarters. Her bedroom had a single cot-like bed covered with an army green blanket, a bare bedside table, and a lonely chair. The dining room was furnished with an oriental table and chairs. His desk told the story of a distant war: a desk and a chair, a typewriter and radios. He seemed to speak in silence about the austere loneliness of the person at the top, the one in charge, the one who has to make decisions that affect so many people and have lasting consequences, for better or for worse. There were several conference rooms, and many walls were lined with eight-by-ten framed group photographs of the military.
Our guide mentioned that some of the men in the photos were humpback pilots and the day was forever changed for my traveling companion, Gena Smith. Gena’s father had been a bump pilot and had flown missions during World War II, delivering supplies to American and Chinese troops in western China. Without knowing the true meaning of pilot hump, it might seem that Gena’s father played a heroic and honorable role; but, in truth, his contributions were so much more. They were sacrificial.
Humpback pilots emerged after the Japanese seized the Burma route, which was the only overland route remaining to deliver supplies to nationalist China. American pilots accepted the deadly challenge to open another supply line by flying from India to China over the eastern end of the Himalayas, a route known as The Hump. Their mission was to deliver supplies to nationalist soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek and United States Air Force troops in China. They flew without reliable maps, radios, navigation aids or weather information. Their planes were heavily loaded. Cabin pressurization was a problem; and they flew in unbearable and unpredictable weather conditions.
Gena’s dad stole the bump as a member of the Miami-based Fireball Run. His route began with a flight to Paterson Field, Ohio to load the plane with supplies, then back to Miami before heading to Brazil, Tenerife, Central Africa and India. From Assam, India, he flew over the hump and landed in western China, a flight path that has been completed repeatedly by him and other brave pilots. Many crashed and died in what has become the Himalayan cemetery. Gena couldn’t find her father’s photo, but I think she connected with her memories and found the essence of her heroic spirit in this historic location.
One of my photos from the Stillwell Museum shows an open book on a page titled PREFACE. The book was enclosed in a glass box and no title was visible. I tried in vain to find someone who could tell me about the book. The PREFACE page posted spoke of General Stillwell’s contributions to China’s anti-Japan efforts and noted, “Many other American friends have also visited China and fought alongside the Chinese people against the Japanese invaders on the United States. battlefields of northern Burma, India, and the Chinese theater. The end paragraph seemed to capture the spirit of it all.
These days are unforgettable and the friendship between the peoples of the two countries is precious. The Chinese people, especially the people of Chongqing, have great respect for the American friends for their contributions during the national liberation of the Chinese people. This precious friendship will live on in the hearts of the Chinese people forever.
The former headquarters of General Claire Chennault, another WWII museum, was located across from Stillwell’s grounds. General Chennault will be remembered by many for his leadership with a group of volunteer American pilots known as the Flying Tigers, but he also served heroically as the Commanding General of the Fourteenth Air Force in China during the CBI Theater.
As I entered the Chennault Museum, I noticed a flag on the wall embroidered with these words: “The feat of the Flying Tigers will forever remain etched in the hearts of the Chinese people.
I was touched that in both museums I read words of gratitude from the Chinese people to the Americans, words that reflected the mutual goodwill of so long ago – before COVID, before the threats geopolitics of today.
One of the Chennault rooms was devoted to maps of the Burma route, the Himalayas and the surrounding countries. The walls were filled with aerial views of war, and a very large rectangular table taking up most of the floor space was covered with a relief map that left no doubt about the relative heights of the Himalayas and the missions. dangerous experiences experienced by humpback pilots.
At the end of our museum tours, we took the bus for a two hour trip to a World Heritage Site called the Dazu Rock Carvings, which can be found in several places in Dazu District. The place we visited was Baodingshan Mountain where some estimate there are nearly 10,000 Buddha statues carvings depicting stories from Buddhist scriptures.
The slow rain continued as we started the walk up the mountain. Our 30 minute hike passed through a huge concrete entrance in the shape of a Tori, followed by three flights of stairs that led to a landing covered with pagodas. From there, we walked along a large open space with concrete columns supported by elephant-shaped bases. We walked through another pagoda and saw some rocks with Chinese inscriptions before entering the sculpture area. It was a long and grandiose entry.
Once we entered the area we were in the midst of continuous sculptures spanning the side of the mountain, some life-size and others much larger than life. Often the sculptures were grouped together to represent a story. There were a few caves which appeared to be a natural part of the mountain; they too were filled with Buddhist statues. Chinese inscriptions were mixed with some scenes, no doubt telling a story or citing Buddhist scriptures.
Most of the carvings were blue and terracotta, some more vivid than others. The restoration was underway with scaffolding present. An unforgettable sculpture was the Thousand Guanyin: a shining golden Buddha seated in front of a wall covered with a thousand golden hands rising to the sky.
At the end of the day, the 160 km drive to Chongqing was a moment to remember. I had wanted a warm room and a book. Instead, I had a rainy and cold day filled with blessings of unforgettable sights and learning experiences that included a farewell to the Yangtze River; a trip back in time to the theater of WWII China, Burma and India with priceless memories for Gena and more than a few new facts and ideas for me; and, finally, an artistic mountainside covered with sculpted Buddhist figures dating back to the 1100s. I felt gratitude for everything I had experienced, even the cleansing and nourishing rain. The day was a gift from the Holy Hand of God.
The spirit of kindness, of good versus evil – the spirit that binds and brings together humanity for the common good regardless of race, language or religion and regardless of the danger or cost of human sacrifice – the imprint of this spirit has permeated most of our day, guided many of our steps, and filled our hearts with gratitude for the American spirit and this country we call home.