The weather was gray and overcast with a light 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 nights. The remainder of our tour would be on land; and Chongqing, a mega Chinese city with a population of more than 31,000,000 people, was our first overnight stop.
Our schedule for the day included visits to two World War II museums, followed by a two-hour bus ride to the Dazu Rock Carvings, and a two-hour ride back to Chongqing. I wished for a warm room and a good book. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized if that wish had been granted, I would have missed experiences I will long remember and unexpected moments when I felt humility, gratitude, awe, wonder, and a genuine pride in America. So often it’s those unforeseen times that give us new knowledge and insights, and our lives are never the same.
The war museums offered a step back in time and a glimpse into America’s role in the China, Burma, India (CBI) Theater of World War II (WW II). Our first stop was the former headquarters of General Joseph Stillwell, who, at the outbreak of the war, initially served as chief of staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and later became Commanding General of the US forces in the CBI Theater. As we entered the courtyard, we saw a larger-than-life stone-carved likeness of the General’s head mounted on a tall pedestal inscribed simply with Joseph W. Stillwell (1883-1946). Somehow the unpretentious nature of the entry seemed fitting, even though this man had been the commanding general.
Inside the building we saw his simple living-working quarters. His bedroom had a single cot-like bed covered by an army green blanket, a bare nightstand, and a lone chair. The dining room was furnished with an oriental table and chairs. His office told the story of a long-ago wartime: a desk and chair, a typewriter, and radios. It seemed to speak silently of the austere loneliness of the person at the top, the one in charge, the one who has to make decisions that affect so many and have lasting consequences—for better or worse. There were several conferences rooms, and many of the walls were lined with framed eight-by-ten group photographs of servicemen.
Our guide mentioned that some of the men in the pictures were hump pilots, and the day was changed forever for my traveling companion, Gena Smith. Gena’s dad had been a hump pilot and had flown missions during WW II, delivering supplies to American and Chinese troops in Western China. Without knowing the true meaning of hump pilot, it might seem that Gena’s father performed a heroic and honorable role; but, in truth, his contributions were so much more. They were sacrificial.
Hump pilots came into existence after the Japanese seized the Burma Road, which was the only remaining land route for delivering supplies to Nationalist China. American pilots accepted the deadly challenge of opening another supply line by flying from India into China over the eastern end of the Himalayas, a route that became known as The Hump. Their mission was to deliver supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist soldiers and United States Army Air Force troops in China. They flew without reliable charts, radios, navigation aids, or weather information. Their planes were heavily loaded. Cabin pressurization was a problem; and they flew in unbearable, unpredictable weather conditions.
Gena’s dad flew the hump as a member of the Fireball Run, based in Miami. His route began with a flight to Paterson Field, Ohio, to load the plane with supplies, then back to Miami before going to Brazil, Tenerife, Central Africa, and India. From Assam, India, he flew over the hump and landed in western China, a flight path that was completed numerous times by him and other brave pilots. Many crashed and died in what became known as the Himalayan graveyard. Gena didn’t find her dad’s photo, but I believe she connected with his memories and found the essence of his heroic spirit in that historic place.
One of my photos from the Stillwell Museum shows a book opened to 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 displayed PREFACE page spoke about General Stillwell’s contributions to China’s efforts in fighting Japan and noted, “Many other American friends also made their ways to China and fought side by side with the Chinese people against Japanese invaders in the battlefields of northern Burma, India, and China theater.” The ending paragraph seemed to capture the spirit of it all.
Those 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 to the American friends for their contributions to the Chinese people’s course of national liberation. The valuable friendship will live forever in the hearts of the Chinese people.
The former headquarters of General Claire Chennault, another World War II museum, was located across the street from the Stillwell 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 Commanding General of the Fourteenth Air Force in China during the CBI Theater.
Upon entering the Chennault Museum, I noticed a flag on the wall embroidered with these words: “The exploit of The Flying Tigers will be engraved on Chinese people’s heart forever.”
I was touched by the fact that in both museums I read words of gratitude from the Chinese people to Americans, words that reflected the mutual goodwill of a time so long ago—before COVID, before today’s geopolitical threats.
One of the Chennault rooms was devoted to maps of the Burma Road, the Himalayas, and the surrounding countries. The walls were filled with wartime aerial views, and a very large rectangular table occupying most of the floor space was covered with a relief map which left no doubt about the relative heights of the Himalayas and the dangerous missions experienced by the hump pilots.
At the end of our museums’ tours, we boarded the bus for a two-hour trip to a World Heritage Site called the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are found in several locations in the Dazu district. The place we visited was Baodingshan Mountain where some estimate there are nearly 10,000 carvings of Buddha statues depicting stories from Buddhist scriptures.
The slow rain continued as we began the walk to the mountain. Our 30-minute hike passed through a huge Tori-shaped concrete entrance, followed by three flights of stairs that led to a pagoda-covered landing. From there we walked along a large open space with concrete columns supported by bases shaped like elephants. We passed through another pagoda and saw rocks with Chinese inscriptions before entering the area of the carvings. It was a long and grand entrance.
Once we entered the area, we were in the midst of continuous carvings covering the mountainside—some life-size and others much larger than life. Often, the carvings were grouped together to portray a story. There were a few grottoes that appeared to be a natural part of the mountain; they, too, were filled with Buddhist statues. Chinese inscriptions were mixed in with some of the scenes, no doubt telling a story or quoting Buddhist scripture.
Many of the carvings were in colors of blue and terra cotta, some more vivid than others. Restoration was ongoing with scaffolding present. An unforgettable carving was the Thousand Guanyin: a brightly shining gold Buddha sitting in front of a wall covered with a thousand gold hands reaching skyward.
At the end of the day, the 100 mile drive back to Chongqing was a time for remembering. I had wanted a warm room and a book. Instead, I had a rainy, cold day filled with blessings of unforgettable sites and learning experiences that included a farewell to the Yangtze River; a journey back in time to World War II’s China, Burma, and India Theater with priceless memories for Gena and more than a few new facts and insights for me; and, finally, an artistic mountainside covered in carved Buddhist figures dating back to the 1100s. I felt gratitude for everything I had experienced, even the cleansing, nourishing rain. The day was a gift from God’s Holy Hand.
The spirit of goodness, of right versus wrong — the spirit that binds and brings mankind together for the common good regardless of race, language, or religion and regardless of the danger or the cost in human sacrifice — that spirit’s footprint pervaded 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.