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Shortly after World War II broke out, a group of U.S. military recruiters visited New York City’s Chinatown. They were forming an all-Chinese battalion to serve in the China, Burma, India theater. Dad was among the hundreds of recruits who volunteered (including three other men who would later become his brothers-in-law after the war).

Of course, Dad told us many stories about his early life. One of his stories took place during their advanced training at Camp Crowder, Missouri. Tired of eating the army-supplied mess, he and a few of the soldiers went into the nearby town to buy fresh poultry and groceries to prepare their own meals. Some of the townspeople were taken aback by these Chinese soldiers marching into town – they thought they were being invaded by the Japanese!

Soon they traveled by train to the West Coast for deployment to the Asian front. Dad said that the military was experimenting with a new transportation method. Instead of sending groups of ships in convoys, they were using unescorted liberty ships to stealthily avoid the Japanese navy. Their battalion was placed on one of three liberty ships which would leave Wilmington, CA bound for Calcutta, India a few days apart. Dad was on the second ship, the SS David Gaillard. As it turned out, the first and third ship were torpedoed by Japanese submarines and never made it to India.

As part of the 987th Special Signal Operations Company, they were to travel from Calcutta to Kunming, China to support General Clair Chennault and his Fourteenth Air Force “Flying Tigers”. To reach Kunming they would travel on roads though the Himalayas.

On several occasions Dad would mention the Burma Road on which the soldiers traveled to cross the mountains. He described the roads as being so steep, treacherous and narrow that if one of the vehicles became disabled they would have to push it over the cliffs so that the other vehicles could pass. Dad’s description has remained in my mind for many decades.

Last week I unexpectedly received an email from a friend from my high school days. I remembered that Ann’s father was the the noted photographer Arthur Rothstein who had a long and distinguished career as a photojournalist, editor and director of photography, teacher and mentor. His iconic images of the rural America are well-known. Annie’s email had me browsing through her dad’s collection where I stumbled across a group of photos in which he documented the war effort in the China, Burma, India theater. His photo perfectly captures the image that Dad had verbally drawn in my mind for so many years. Seeing the stark road snaking its way up the mountain was enough of an impetus for me to write this story. Thanks to Annie and many thanks to her father.

Like most other World War II military units, the Fourteenth Air Force has held many reunions for their members. The 55th Anniversary Reunion was held in 1997 and included the veterans that served in the China, Burma, India theater during World War II.

In the reunion program guide, I found this family photo. These four standing men are my father and his three brothers-in-law whom I referred to earlier. They are my uncles having married three of my mother’s sisters. And all four of served as part of the CBI theater.

This short story illustrates the reason that photographs matter to me. These two photos are valued keepsakes.

There’s a wonderful story behind many photographs. It’s not just the image, it’s the memories and emotions that accompany the image that matter.

 

To see Arthur Rothstein’s work, please visit his archives.

 

Written by Arnie Lee