Art Imitating Life
Or is it: Life Imitating Art? Full circle actually. Chapter 22 of Project Seven Alpha is about Ding Hoa, a puppy adopted by the pilots flying the hump in WWII. Ding was found living near a DC-3 fuselage converted to a restaurant. I ran across the story in the Hump Pilots Association news letter.
5 January 1942
Bluto had received his nickname honestly. He looked like Popeye’s cartoon nemesis: six foot five; two hundred eighty five pounds; broad shoulders and a barrel chest; and no matter how much he shaved, he had a perpetual five o’clock shadow. His appearance was menacing—men instinctively backed away when he entered a room. Yet, he seemed oblivious to the effect his presence had on strangers. Those who knew him were amused by the phenomenon; to his friends, Bluto Klaus was a docile sweetheart of a man.
An animal lover, Bluto always had a dog in tow, whether it was in Dallas, St. Louis, Cleveland or New York. Every American Airlines operations office seemed equipped with a stray dog that greeted Bluto before he reached the operations building. The other crews thought it was his size that caused him to stand out, but his observant first officers knew the real reason: he goosed the engines on short final to announce his arrival. To the dogs, it was his gentle manner—that and the treats he carried in his pocket.
Bluto and his normal copilot, Hass-Man, were quite a pair. Hass-Man was a full foot shorter than Bluto, and 150 pounds lighter. The big man was gregarious and loud, the small man reserved and stoic. Hass-Man was second generation Prussian; Bluto was a second generation Pole. Even with all that was now going on in Europe, they were very close friends. They had been flying together longer than any of the 7Alpha crews.
Bluto and Hass-Man were on the southern route to Chengtu, and they were being hammered by the weather. Ironically, it was the bad weather that allowed them to fly the southern route; it kept the Zeros on the ground. Even with the bad weather their normal cockpit banter went un-interrupted. Bluto was boisterously telling a story, with hands and arms gesturing wildly, Hass-Man nodding and laughing in amusement. Not that Hass-Man sat like a bump on a log, when the conversation turned more esoteric he would jump right in. Quite obviously they both enjoyed the long hours of discourse, because they had been crewed together for so long.
They were headed due east across the Hump. On their route, they would cross some of the biggest rivers in the world—the Irrawaddy, Salween and the Mekong—but they would see none of them today. They would have to fly a DR (dead reckoning) plot for three hours; the DR plot being little more then an educated guess, depended on accurate wind predictions. They would plot a wind-corrected course, and time their progress, hoping that the forecasted winds would be close. It was all about time, heading, and faith. They took their faith with a healthy dose of covering their bases. They would climb to an altitude that would clear all obstacles, just in case.
Once over the Hump, they had hoped the weather would clear enough that they could navigate via pilotage (visually). But it didn’t clear up, so they flew a DR plot toward Kunming. Upon reaching the Kunming area, they were still in the weather; they turned northeast and tuned in the radio navigation aid at Yangkai, forty miles away. They marked on top at Yangkai: the mark established their position directly over Yangkai, so they reset their clocks and updated the navigational plot. Next, they turned northwest for Chengtu, which was now an hour away.
Bluto started down over the flat plain between Chunking and Chengtu. The barometric pressure was forecast to be stable, so they would descend no lower than five hundred feet above the high plateau. If the forecast had been for unstable pressure, they would go no lower than 750 AGL, as an added safety buffer. After descending to their minimum altitude, if they didn’t break out of the clouds, it would be back to the Assam. This morning, they broke out at a comfortable 1500 feet AGL. They picked up their course visually and landed without incident.
Chengtu was in a relatively secure area, allowing for a more relaxed unloading of the aircraft by Chinese workers. It also allowed the crew an hour on deck, which enabled them to enjoy the one delicacy available to them: eggs—real eggs, fresh eggs, eggs from a chicken, not a box. Cooked any way you wanted them.
Everything in India was powdered or canned, and tasted like it. For many of the crewmen, the powdered food had an unpleasant side effect: it acted as a laxative. For those individuals, it was best to skip the powdered eggs for breakfast before a mission; a gastrointestinal incident while crossing the Hump would be unpleasant for the entire crew. Bluto was one of these unfortunate individuals. Now he was hungry and making a beeline for real food.
The airport restaurant was a crashed DC-3 that had lost an engine while attempting to take off overweight. Returning to earth, the aircraft had bounced hard and veered off the runway, severing the landing gear and coming to rest off the side of the runway—where it still sat. After stripping it of serviceable parts, crews had converted the wrecked hull to a restaurant.
The Chinese cook who inhabited the unusual diner had somehow picked up the nickname Frenchie; no doubt an aviator with a sarcastic sense of humor was the source. No matter—Frenchie seemed to love his nom de guerre. A chef of haute cuisine he was not, but he could make a mean plate of “eggeses”, any way you wanted them.
Bluto banged through the swinging doors like a gunslinger in the Old West. He made his way to the counter, where all ten stools were empty. Behind the counter, the old Chinaman was bent over a crackling, gas-fired stove. The smell of fresh eggs cooking in sesame oil filled the air.
“Frenchie, mona’ mi’,” boomed Bluto, “eggeses for all my men.”
Frenchie looked up, his face lit up. “Big Man, how you?”
“Good, my friend—good and hungry!”
“How many eggeses for you?” Bluto held up ten big fingers. Frenchie immediately went to work. “How many for Little Man?” Hass-Man held up four fingers, as did Slim, their Air crewman. Frenchie was already in a flurry of activity. “Okay, okay—me make, you sit.”
Bluto, Hass-Man, and Slim sat down for their feast of fresh eggs. Frenchie quickly whipped up the delicacy and slapped down three metal GI plates. The crew leaned over the eggs, inhaling the magic aroma. Bluto waved the precious smells of sesame, eggs and “secret spices” into his nose, then quickly devoured the meal.
After finishing, Bluto wiped his big mug with a rough paper napkin. His five o’clock shadow, already present, pulled fibers from the napkin. As he brushed the fibers from his chin, he saw movement under the swinging doors—something small and furry: a head. He put his hand on his shoulder-holstered .38 caliber Smith and Wesson.
“Rat—I hate rats!”
Frenchie looked up. “No, no! Him dog.”
Bluto relaxed his grip on the .38, and a tiny ball of black fluff waddled in. The puppy sniffed around, scrounging for any morsel of food it could find.
“Well look at that,” Bluto laughed. He got up and walked over to the small dog, sweeping it up in one of his huge hands. It was soft as silk and surprisingly clean. It looked up at Bluto with big, dark eyes.
“This is just what OPs needs at Shangri-La,” said Bluto.
Frenchie shook his head, laughing. The giant American always entertained him.
“You like, you take, Big Man.”
Bluto slipped the pup into his leather flight jacket.
“Time to go, boys—thanks for the dog, Frenchie.” He slapped an extra five-dollar bill on the countertop.
The air crew slogged out to their DC-3 through ankle-deep mud. The aircraft was already fueled and loaded, a process that had gone quickly since the cargo was self-loading: Chinese troops headed to Myitkyina Burma.
The troops sat flat on the cargo bay floor. They were brand new, “green” troops, their fresh denim uniforms stiff and uncomfortable. As the air crew made their way to the cockpit, stepping over the nervous peasant troops, they gave a thumbs-up and let out an enthusiastic, “Ding Hoa!” which translated roughly to, “Everything is okay.” It was the inexperienced soldiers’ fervant wish. Most of these Chinamen had never been in an automobile, let alone an airplane.
In the cockpit, Bluto sat in the left seat, the puppy’s head poking out of his zippered jacket, and looked over at Hass-Man.
“I think,” he said, we have a name for this critter: Ding Hoa.”
Bluto got Ding settled inside his flight jacket, leaving off his shoulder harness to make the pup as comfortable as possible.
Like the Chinese passengers, the little dog had never flown and didn’t appear to be looking forward to the adventure. As the engines ran up for take off, Ding ducked his head inside Bluto’s jacket. When they began their climb to altitude, he showed his fear further. Hass-Man started laughing, then pointed to Bluto’s leg. His khaki trousers had a small dark stain that was growing from under his jacket.
Bluto looked down. “Shit. Give me something, Hass-Man.”
Hass-Man shook his head, still laughing. “Your dog, pal. Not my problem.”
Bluto reached over and grabbed Hass-Man’s chart.
“Hey, that’s mine,” he protested.
“Now it’s both our problem,” responded Bluto as he shaped the chart into a makeshift diaper. It ended up more like an envelope then a diaper but the purpose was the same; he slipped it under his jacket and around Ding’s bottom.
Bluto shared his oxygen with the dog, who trembled all the way to Myitkyina and Shangri-La. He couldn’t tell if Ding was cold or just didn’t enjoy the experience of flight.
Once on the ground again, Ding quickly became a permanent fixture outside the Ops shack. The pilots and crewmen loved him, and he thrived under the attention—and the flow of goodies from the mess hall. His belly was always round and plump, and he began to grow rapidly.
After a few days, Ding was settling in as the happiest dog on earth when a large vulture decided to share in his bliss; the bird of prey just could not resist that plump belly. It had watched from its jungle perch for days, and now it swooped down, sharp talons plunging deeply into the helpless dog’s back. Ding struggled as the winged beast beat its way back into the air, but he was too small.
Fortunately, Bluto had put Ding on a leash so he wouldn’t get run over by taxiing aircraft. After only a short flight, the leash played out and yanked the puppy back to the earth, leaving the disappointed vulture to look for easier prey. The leash had saved Ding, but for how long was uncertain: the poor dog lay motionless on the ground with deep gashes in his back.
Trey had seen the attack from the barracks and ran over to the pup. He found an ammo crate lid and gently slid it under Ding, using it as a stretcher, then rushed him to the medics. They dressed the wounds but were not optimistic about the puppy’s chances; his gashes were deep.
When Bluto returned, he sprang into action, setting up a schedule of volunteers to nurse Ding in his absence. Slowly, in Bluto’s care, the dog got stronger but it became obvious that he would never be quite right.
Date time group: 0051 ZULU 20 JAN 1942
From: COMMANDER AIR TRANSPORT COMMAND
To: COMMANDER SEVEN ALPHA
Subject: WESTPAC INTEL UPDATE
Classification: TOP SECRET SCI/EYES ONLY COM7ALPHA
Text: FULL SCALE INVASION OF BURMA UNDERWAY FROM CENTRAL THAILAND. RANGOON PROJECTED TARGET. WYA.