Friday, July 31, 2015

Reprise: Recalling Another Missing Airliner

Today’s headlines and TV news are again filled with speculation about Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. The Boeing 777 vanished from radar without a trace last year. Discovery of a 777 wing part on Reunion Island off the coast of Africa this week has spawned new theories of the fate of the plane and the 239 souls aboard. While reading and watching this new evidence, I was again struck by how eerily similar the MH 370 mystery is to one I uncovered while doing research for my second novel, Hold Back the Sun. I am therefore reprising the blog post I wrote when MH370 disappeared.

Hold Back the Sun begins with a Pan American Clipper flying boat flight across the Pacific from San Francisco to Manila in the Philippines. When this service was begun in the 1930s, the Pacific was a vast stretch of open water with few aids to navigation, as we understand them today. Fuel capacity limited the flights to daylight island-hopping. Nights were spent in posh hotels ashore. The four-engine aircraft rode radio beacons from island to island.  The price of a passenger ticket was the equivalent of about $5,000 in today’s currency.  Only airmail contracts with the U.S. government made the flights profitable. For businessmen, cutting the trans-Pacific travel time from 30 days on a ship to five days flying made the flights attractive.

The last stop before Manila was on the U.S. controlled island of Guam. About 136 miles to the north, the Japanese-owned island of Saipan was home to a major base of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

At about 12:15 p.m. Manila time on July 29, 1938, The Pan Am flying boat, Hawaii Clipper, reported its noon position by radio to airline stations in Guam and the Philippines. At that time, the plane was about 582 nautical miles east-southeast of Manila and on schedule for arrival in the Philippines. No contact with the aircraft ever occurred after that transmission. The Martin 130 aircraft and its passengers and crew simply vanished. A widespread air and surface search of the projected course found no wreckage, but an oil slick was encountered. Samples of the oil were taken and tested, but proved not to be oil from the aircraft.  With war raging in China and about to begin in Europe, the fate of Hawaii Clipper and the people aboard soon faded from the news. It remained a total mystery until the end of the Pacific War.

At about 12:15 p.m. Manila time on July 29, 1938, The Pan Am flying boat, Hawaii Clipper, reported its noon position by radio to airline stations in Guam and the Philippines. At that time, the plane was about 582 nautical miles east-southeast of Manila and on schedule for arrival in the Philippines. No contact with the aircraft ever occurred after that transmission. The Martin 130 aircraft and its passengers and crew simply vanished. A widespread air and surface search of the projected course found no wreckage, but an oil slick was encountered. Samples of the oil were taken and tested, but proved not to be oil from the aircraft.  With war raging in China and about to begin in Europe, the fate of Hawaii Clipper and the people aboard soon faded from the news. It remained a total mystery until the end of the Pacific War.

The similarities of Hawaii Clipper’s loss to that of Amelia Earhart barely a year before soon spawned a number of theories and enthusiasts.  In 2000, after many years of research, Charles N. Hill published a book entitled, FIX ON THE RISING SUN: The Clipper Hijacking of 1938 –and the Ultimate M.I.A’s. Mr. Hill’s thesis was that two Saipan IJN officers hid in the plane’s baggage compartment, emerged soon after liftoff from Guam, and commandeered control of the flight. He believes that they then diverted the plane to Truk. While enroute, the Japanese officers supposedly forced the Pan Am navigator, George M. Davis, to file false position reports to make Pan Am believe that the plane remained on its planned course. Mr. Hill presents a fairly convincing case that the false position reports contained clues to point investigators to the actual destination—Truk Lagoon. Mr. Hill also documented conversations with native people on Truk in which they told of helping to bury a number of Caucasians in the foundations of an IJN hospital being built at the time.  He was unable to get government permission to dig under the foundations to test the veracity of the stories.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Poison Fruits of Hatred

Today’s world appears awash in hatred. From lone-wolf shooters to suicide bombers, the results of hatred fill our newspaper headlines and television news broadcasts. Hatred takes many forms, and all of them are evil: racial hatred, religious hatred, tribal hatred, regional hatred, class hatred, and, of course, personal hatred.

Religious hatred fuels many of the conflicts in the world. The Moslem world is split between Sunnis and Shia, and these groups have been in conflict since the Dark Ages. The fall of Haddam Hussein in Iraq let loose a torrent of bloodletting between the branches of Islam that continues to this day. Mass suicide bombings and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which practices “Shia cleansing” by massacring “enemy” forces, goes on daily. Women are frequently kidnapped into sexual slavery.  No end to this conflict is in sight.

Racial hatred still haunts the world, and not only in the American South. Much racial hatred harks back to the concept of “white supremacy” that pervaded Europe and the Americas during previous centuries. Less evolved civilizations and their inhabitants were deemed to be “inferior.” Lopsided military victories by the better- armed Europeans reinforced that view. And when Spanish priests seeking to save Native Americans from extinction began preaching that African’s black skins were a punishment from God that marked their ancestors’ evilness, generations became doomed to chattel slavery. The concept of world racial equality only began to receive acceptance in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Racial hatred still pervades many parts of this planet.  Racial hatred is a two-edged sword. Any race hating any other race(s) is racial hatred. Any race or nationality that feels itself superior to any other is, by definition, racist.

Hatred for people of Jewish extraction is a combination of religious and racial hatred. During the Middle Ages, Jews were condemned as “Christ killers” by the European churches. During the Crusades, large massacres of Jewish populations occurred all over Europe. These attitudes continued into the Twentieth Century. Anti-Semitists began to decry the “undue influence” of Jews on European history. But it remained for the Nazis of Germany to dub the Jews a “race” that needed to be exterminated. The Holocaust was the result. Creation of the State of Israel in Palestine was the United Nations’ attempt to compensate Jewish survivors for the atrocities they had suffered. Many Arabs viewed the event as the reestablishment of the crusaders’ Outremer kingdom. The attempt by surrounding Arab nations to snuff out Israel in its infancy led to the first of a series of wars that solidified a lasting hatred between the parties.

History is replete with other “holocausts” around the world. Many consider the subjugation of Native Americans by European settlers and their descendants to qualify in this category. The massacre of Armenians during World War One and the inter-tribal warfare in Rwanda clearly meet the standard. Massacres in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the so-called “ethnic cleansing,” are another example.

Hatred on a personal level results in much of the violence in the world. Many cultures include the concept of vendettas, warfare between families over some wrong or perceived slight done to one of the parties. The cartoonist for Doonesbury captured the absurdity of some vendettas during the Iraq war. A mixed American/Iraqi team is about to go on a raid. The American tells the Iraqi that they must capture the target of the raid alive. The Iraqi replies that he must kill the target because of a family feud. One of the target’s kinsmen had killed one of the Iraqi’s family. The American asked when the killing occurred. The Iraqi replied, “in the Fourteenth Century.”

Hatred is corrosive to the human spirit. No good can ever come of it. Hatred makes a person bitter, paranoid, and spiteful. It consumes valuable mental energy that is better focused on bettering the human condition. It can also destroy the holder as well as the target. Author Jack Higgins likes to quote the old European proverb, “Before beginning a journey of revenge, it is necessary to dig TWO graves.” That sums up the fruits of hatred concisely.

I don’t have enough time left in my life to waste it on hatred. Humans all need to stop hating each other!

Domestic terrorists have a high-placed mole in the Pentagon! During the turmoil of the late 1960s, former student radicals organized and established the Phoenix Guards Brigade (PGB). In 1975, the mole electrifies the PGB high command with details of weaknesses in the storage of Navy nuclear weapons. The terrorists immediately start preparations for a commando raid to steal some of the warheads.
Snowflakes in July has exciting aerial combat scenes, assassinations, bombings, high-stakes commando operations, and thrilling romance. Read Chapter 1 of Snowflakes in July, releasing soon!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Musings About My Father

My father, Jewell Bell (25) with my mother Olive Tatum

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my father. Perhaps it is because I am approaching the age at which Dad left us. As I look at myself and think back on him, I am struck by how much harder his life was than mine has been to this point. I realize that much of that was because he worked so hard to see that his children had better lives than he did.

Jewell Thomas Bell was born at home in Milner, Columbia County, Arkansas on September 22, 1904. His mother suffered a hard labor, and she never had another child. Being a “one young’un,” as they were called in those days, was not an experience he enjoyed.

Dad’s childhood was shaped by tragedy. When he was still an infant, his mother went blind. We learned later that the blindness was a result of a childhood head injury, which sparked a benign brain tumor.  But when he was growing up, his mother’s sisters drummed into Dad’s head that the strain of giving birth to him caused his mother to go blind. This guilt trip plagued him all his life.

My grandfather, whom we called, “Pappy’” never recovered from his wife going blind. For years, he spent every dollar he could get his hands on taking her to doctors all over the region seeking a cure. Unfortunately, the state of medicine in South Arkansas in the early Twentieth Century rendered his efforts fruitless. In the process, he ended up losing his farm and having to work as a logger in the lumber industry.  Relatives from a fairly large extended family helped care for my grandmother. After losing her sight, she had become a complete invalid.  When Pappy had to cook, their meals were usually dried beans and cornbread.

Dad was apparently an avid student. Years later, he could still conjugate Latin verbs and quote many passages of poetry. Given a decent education, he could have had a bright future. But as World War One erupted in Europe, family economics trumped such considerations. Dad grew to man-sized by the time he was in the eighth grade. Big enough to do a man’s work, Pappy pulled him out of school to work full time in the woods as a logger. He would support his parents for the rest of their lives.

Despite his circumstances, Dad managed to become something of a musician, although he couldn’t read a note of music. He played a mean honky-tonk piano and also played the fiddle in the manner of Charlie Daniels. He could hear a tune once and then play it on either instrument. This ability to play “by ear” was not passed on to his children or grandchildren, but two of my grandsons, Thomas Bell and Evan Williams, inherited it. Being a member of the band at the country dances of the era was a apparently a good way to attract girls. At close to six feet tall with black hair and a wiry build, Dad was devilishly handsome.

At some point in the late 1910s or 1920s, Dad and several other young men from Columbia County decided to go up to work the Kansas winter wheat harvest to earn extra money. Winter wheat is harvested in July, when the crops in Arkansas are still immature. Dad told me of this adventure late in his life. Piling into an old Ford pickup, they drove north on the dirt roads of that time, often camping in the woods on the way. Once in Kansas, they had no trouble getting work. The mechanized equipment the Kansas farmers employed fascinated Dad. They had huge steam-driven tractors and combine machines. Dad learned how the machines operated and how to keep them repaired. He would work with machinery for the rest of his life.

After returning to Arkansas, Dad learned to set up and operate the complicated planing machines that smoothed the good Southern Pine lumber of the region. There were no computers in those days. The sophisticated machines were set up  manually, continually making adjustments until the boards produced exactly matched the industry-issued templates. The precise quality of boards from Dad’s machines became legend in the pine lumber industry.

Dad spent the rest of his working life in the lumber industry. Still the primary support for his parents, he did not marry my mother until he was past 25. From that point on, his primary focus was on supporting his family. Times were hard in those first years of the Great Depression, but Dad always managed to find work of some sort. He told me later that he was completely out of work only one day during the Depression.

Our family was definitely what was called “working class” in those days. Some politicians called us “little people,” but that always rankled. Dad routinely worked 50 or 60 hours a week. Because he was a foreman, he didn’t get overtime pay. But we had a roof over our heads, good food on the table, and decent clothes on our backs. My brother, Tom, and I were encouraged to do well in school and to look beyond our circumstances for the future. We were both given formal music training and played in the high school band. Our parents helped as much as they could, but we also had to work for our education (I worked an average of 30 hours a week at Safeway during my high school years).

The inherent danger of working with heavy machinery finally caught up with Dad. While in his forties, his left hand was caught in a machine cylinder, and he lost the middle finger of his left hand. Besides losing the digit, that accident robbed him of his ability to play music. Then, in his early sixties, he caught the same hand in a powered roller, breaking almost all the bones. With only one working hand, he could no longer work.

In his retirement, Dad was a voracious reader. But like so many people of his generation, he became inactive in his retirement and his health slowly faded. Having smoked heavily all his adult years, he developed severe emphysema, which robbed him of breath.  I didn’t get to be with him in his last days. I was on Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in October 1983 when he fell and quickly succumbed to his injuries. On the way home, I thought of what I might say at his funeral. I conjured up images of him playing piano in God’s jazz band. But Dad had asked for a simple graveside service, so there was to be no eulogy. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this now. He was a good, hard-working man who loved his family. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why I Love Old Airplanes

Those of you who have read my novels must have realized by now that I just love old airplanes, especially those of World War II vintage. I come by this affinity quite honestly. I grew up with the aviation industry.

I was born in 1936, less than ten years after Charles Lindberg made the first New York-Paris flight across the Atlantic and less than 35 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. When I was a child, the sight of a plane in the sky was an infrequent occurrence. The biggest aircraft which most people in my hometown had seen was a Piper Cub. The Douglas DC-2 transport, the first really modern airliner, was less than 2 years old in 1936 and the immortal DC-3 was just coming into service. The U.S. Army Air Corps had less than 1,000 operable aircraft.

A frequent pastime of my early childhood was to watch small airplanes take off and land at the local airport. As the U.S. began gearing up for WWII, an Army Air Corps Reserve unit was established there. The reservists spent Sunday afternoons in flight exercises. Parents would park at the airport and everyone would watch the action. To us at this time, manned flight still had the aura of magic. On December 7, 1941, our pleasant daydreams came to an end. Our family was actually at the airport for our after-church entertainment when we received the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

The WWII years brought a bewildering explosion in the aircraft industry. Franklin Roosevelt, our world-wise President, had seen what was coming and began the shift to a wartime economy early. The U.S. media of the time unabashedly enlisted in the war effort. As children, we read of our new air arsenal in school as well as seeing encouraging newsreels with every movie. All the kids knew about the Flying Tigers’ success with the early P-40s (fighters were designated “pursuit planes” at the time). We became experts on the B-25 after the thrilling Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Shots of the 8th Air Force B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and larger B-24s pounding “Fortress Europe” became a mainstay of movie newsreels. Sharing the screen were dazzling shots of Navy Wildcats, Hellcats, Corsairs, and Avengers taking off and landing on the carriers in the Pacific. We also were treated to actual gun camera footage showing enemy aircraft being blasted from the sky. As kids, we never doubted that the Allies were going to win this war. The only question was when.

The appearance of jet fighters in Germany’s arsenal would have shocked us had we known about them. Censors kept that knowledge from the general public until very late in the war. Only as an adult did I learn that Hitler had delayed introduction of the Messerschmitt 262 jet for a full year by insisting that it be redesigned to carry bombs. A fleet of jets in 1943 could have disrupted all of the Allies’ plans. Talk about divine intervention? Instead, The 8th Air Force Fighter Command broke the back of Germany’s fighter forces in the winter of 1943-1944. By June 6th, Germany could only muster two Me-109s to attack the landing beaches.

In 1943-44, my hometown got a new airfield. None of us had any idea why until huge, cylindrical bombers started landing there to refuel on cross-country flights.  These new B-29s would soon rain devastation on Japan’s wooden cities.  The use of two atomic bombs brought a climax to that campaign.

The years following the war brought a large falloff in the numbers and types of military aircraft. Most of the wartime mainstays disappeared, leaving only a few bomber and fighter types. But the civilian airline business literally exploded in size.  Over 10,000 C-47s, the military version of the DC-3, suddenly came available, along with several hundred 4-engine C-54s (DC-4s). The war had covered the world with long runways that were perfect for use as civilian airports. Air travel, once the realm of the very rich, soon became available to all. 

I never lost my fascination with the aircraft of my childhood. Over the years, I have collected aviation books and visited aviation museums at every opportunity. The original Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was always a treat to be savored. The addition of the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, was a quantum leap forward for aviation enthusiasts. I have also visited the British RAF museum at Duxford, England, where operable versions of WWII planes still conduct mock dogfights. Also at Duxford is the Museum of the American Airmen, Britain’s tribute to the thousands of U.S. airmen who have flown from those islands. Twelve O’clock High is my favorite movie of all time.

During last month’s cruise to Alaska, I toured the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage. Alaska has a rich heritage of flight, and its famous “bush pilots” made possible the settlement of its vast areas. The photo with this article is of a Grumman G-21 Goose amphibian (it can operate from either water or a runway). Designed as an eight-seat commuter aircraft about the time of my birth, the plane had a long history of use in Alaska. It also figured prominently in my second novel, Hold Back the Sun. Just after the vast oil complex at Balikpapan, Borneo, falls to Japan, the Royal Dutch Shell officials in Java sent their G-21s back to Borneo to rescue their stranded employees there. Lighted by blazing refineries ashore, the planes land on the long, mine-studded Balikpapan Bay. Overloaded with over 20 refugees, the planes manage to take off and fly some 500 miles back to Soerabaya, Java. Although I fictionalized my account of the rescue, real Dutchmen actually flew this harrowing flight and made it home unscathed.

Anyone know of any new aviation museums?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fourteen Days at Sea

Last month, I informed my Twitter and Facebook followers that I would have limited Internet access for an unspecified period. I did not spell out my plans in detail because of concerns for the security of my home.  Now that I have returned, I can clear up my little “mystery.” For fourteen days in June, my wife, Annette, and I were on a cruise to Alaska aboard the Holland-America MS Statendam. The trip was both a vacation and a pilgrimage.  We chose the particular cruise because it included a day in Kodiak, where we lived over 50 years ago and where we rode out the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.

Annette and I had only taken one cruise before, a voyage around the Hawaiian Islands to mark our fortieth wedding anniversary. We had a ball on that trip and were looking forward to a repeat of many enjoyable experiences. Armed with seasick patches to stick behind our ears, we braved the seas with confidence. Our greatest fear was that we would gain the average of eight extra pounds that most cruisers put on during a voyage. The entire first day out of Seattle was spent on the open sea. We spent the time exploring the ship and getting used to shipboard routine.

Our first day of shore excursions was at Ketchikan, Alaska. After a tour of the town, we visited a museum with many spectacular totem poles. Resident artists demonstrated their techniques. Then we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of Dungeness crabs! Other passengers took floatplane flights over a glacier.  Our next excursions were at Juneau, the Capitol of Alaska. We took a water borne wildlife and whale watching tour, seeing seals, sea lions and a total of seventeen whales. Some were a school of juvenile whales that seemed to be playing games with each other.  We also had a good look at the city and the Alaska government buildings.

After a day cruising near the glaciers in Icy Strait Point, the ship headed for Anchorage. Having visited here in the 1960s, we enjoyed an Anchorage highlights tour. It was interesting seeing how things had changed in the interim. I especially enjoyed a long visit to the Alaska Aviation Museum, where the history of the famous “bush pilots” was documented. I just love old airplanes.

Of course, as all cruisers know, a constant factor of every day of the journey was the almost constant availability of just about any sort of food one can imagine. From formal dinners in the dining room to the hamburger/hot dog stand at the pool, there was no excuse for anyone going hungry. To fill days at sea, there was also a casino, several cocktail lounges with live music, bingo games, a well-stocked library, puzzle tables, and nightly shows. Not to mention the duty free shopping mall with all sorts of luxury items.

Our next port of call was Homer, the first place we landed in Alaska in 1964. After flying 13 hours from Seattle in a Super Constellation, we had to bypass Kodiak because of a blizzard. We spent the night in a log cabin hotel and ate like lumberjacks in a local restaurant.  During the cruise line’s Homer Highlights tour, I was amazed to see both the hotel and restaurant still operating after half a century.

Then came the apex of the trip—Kodiak. We awoke docked next to the emerald green slopes of a mountain. The busy fishing port we remembered was to our right, and beyond it, the town spread over the flats and up the slopes of a hill. The onion dome of the Russian Orthodox Church still stood out against the blue-collar town.  We had to cancel a driving tour of the city because it was postponed. We had more important plans. I had called the former Naval Station, now a Coast Guard Station, earlier and arranged to drive around and look at it. We took a cab from the pier and set out for the base. As we drove along, the scenery appeared just as we remembered it. The crisp lines of Pyramid Mountain marked the middle of the island. Then the slopes of Old Woman Mountain came into view.

The Coast Guard Station occupies the coastal plain at the head of Old Woman Bay.  Originally built as a seaplane base for Navy PBY flying boats, the runways were later lengthened to handle Army B-17s for raids of Japanese occupied Kiska and Attu. As we drove in the gate, I was at once struck by how small everything looked. But the biggest surprise was how little everything had changed in the years since we left. All the family housing was still there, including the little two-bedroom duplex where we lived for over two years. It looks much better now, with vinyl siding instead of the old asbestos shingles we knew. The aircraft hangers and shops appear the same, except that the bright blue and white Coast Guard color scheme is much more cheerful than our old battleship gray. The seaplane parking apron next to the bay was a beehive of activity involving both helicopters and C-130 transports.  Kodiak handles the search and rescue mission for a large swath of the North Pacific and is the largest Coast Guard base in the world.

There were a few depressing moments. The old steam power plant that we labored so hard to restore after the earthquake is now shuttered. Most power for Kodiak now comes from three massive wind turbines atop the central mountain ridge. The shop building from which our Public Works crews toiled to repair broken pipes and power lines appears abandoned, a gray old lady amidst the bright buildings in use.  But overall, our visit was comforting, an affirmation that some things in this world can remain the same for long periods.  Too soon, we had to get back to the ship and steal some time to walk the streets of the city.  As those who watch the television shows, Coast Guard Alaska and The Deadliest Catch, are well aware, Kodiak is still a frontier town.  The people here are a hardy, self-sufficient race.  We did have one more disappointment. We were unable to find the bakery at which we bought many mouth-watering loaves of delicious Russian Rye bread back in the 1960s.

After leaving Kodiak, we witnessed the calving of the blue ice Hubbard Glacier and toured the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in North America at Sitka..  Our final stop was in Victoria, British Columbia. We had planned to attend High Tea at the government headquarters, but that excursion was cancelled because too few signed up. We did tour a lovely private garden constructed by a Georgian royal couple that had survived internment by the Axis in World War Two. Now owned by the British Columbia Land Conservancy, the garden is beautiful and well tended. I gained a bonus when I bought a copy of the princess’s journal of enduring internment in Shanghai from 1941-1945. Is there another novel there?

Our odyssey came to an end abruptly. In a single day, we were transported from the luxury of the ship to our everyday life back in Williamsburg. Arriving home just before midnight of a day that began in British Columbia, it has taken us several days to get our bodies back in Virginia rhythm. But we now have memories that we shall treasure as long as our minds continue to function.