Chuck Baisden’s Story
In 1937 while in high school I was also a member of Company B, 109th Infantry Regiment, Pennsylvania National Guard, a buck private rifleman. We had 03 Springfield rifles and wrap leggings and the 8 man squad. The locals called us “Dollar Dummies” as this was our pay per Monday drill night. I was around 17 years of age. I joined the Army Air Corps after high school and at 19 was stationed at Langley Field, VA still a Private but now an aircraft armorer after completing the course at Lowry Field, CO. Working on Curtis P-36 and P-40s plus crew duty on tow target Martin B-10s.
After moving to Mitchell Field, L.I, NY in the fall of 1940 and with several promotions due to the Air Corps rapid expansion, I was now a S/Sgt and in the spring of 1941 the opportunity to go to China came up and the offer to do the same type work with a pay raise from $72.00 a month to the sum of $350.00 was too much of a temptation to turn down and on May 24,1941 I received a Convenience of the Government Honorable Discharge , reporting to the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (CAMCO) Corporate Headquarters in NY City Headed up by a Mr. Pawley. Also now had a passport that said my occupation was a Metal Worker.
Leaving my home in Scranton, PA, traveled by train to Los Angeles. There were now 27 young men armorers, aircraft mechanics, radio operators, camera men and operation specialists who had made the trip in various ways. There were no pilots. One armorer had appendicitis and was hospitalized to follow on a later ship. Mr. Pawley arranged for us to be lodged at the rather exclusive Jonathan Club, a rather stuffy place with big leather chairs, retired executives and dim lights.
Paul Frillman, a former China missionary was appointed as our leader for the trip to the Orient. Paul spoke excellent Chinese Mandarin, which he tried to teach us. With our new found freedom from military discipline, learning Chinese was not exactly on our minds and Paul got a rather rough time. Some of the fellows ran up some rather large bills and we did liven up the Jonathan Club. Leaving LA by chartered bus we headed for San Francisco. Of course our bus had a wash tub of cold beer and we had a great time stopping only to pee off some used beer and grab a hamburger.
I don’t remember where we stayed in Frisco but we had enough time to see a bit of the town. Remember going to the Top of the Mark before boarding the American President Line Ship President Pearce. The ship was a combination freighter/passenger and was also carrying Army personnel. We were put in the 1st Class Lounge with Army cots and informed there would be no bar available. We sailed in late June or early August, stopping overnight in Hawaii. A hundred dollars had been given to each of us as expense money for the voyage. Several fellows bought gallon jugs of liquor, others a case or two of beer. We played knock poker and spent a lot of time lounging on deck chairs on the after deck or watching flying fish burst from the bow wave of the ship.
By the time we reached Manila most of us were pretty close to being out of money. The ship remained in port for almost a week having its tanks steamed cleaned before taking on a cargo of edible oil (palm oil) ?. One night at the Manila Great Eastern Hotel and the remainder of my stay was aboard ship, venturing out to see the sights during the day. Including the Infamous Bilibid Prison. Learned to drink Zarsparilla. One of our group had put in a hitch here and took us to several bars and dance halls where the beer was cheap and the pretty Philippine girls very friendly but being almost out of money I was glad when we left Manila for Hong Kong.
Docking in Kowloon we stayed overnight in the Peninsula Hotel on the mainland. Before we were allowed off the ship we had to turn in all firearms to the port police who would store them until we departed. I turned in a little .25 Colt automatic, a Colt .38 Police Special and a heavy barrel 22 target rifle. It turned out there was quite an arsenal in our gang. After dark several us walked the streets around the hotel and I was glad not to be venturing out on my own. The sidewalks were crowed with people sleeping on the concrete without cover, many beggars and prostitutes were peddling their wares. Back at the hotel we all got acquainted with Singapore Gin slings. The rate of exchange was 4 Straight Settlement Dollars for 1 US Dollar and the drink cost 20 cents or a nickel US.
The next day we boarded a Dutch Packet ship headed for Singapore. The ship was crewed by Dutch Officers and a mixed crew of various Orientals. The food and service was excellent and I noted there were barred shutters that could be shut in case of pirates. I leaned to play Dutch checkers with the ship’s radio operator and he introduced me to Dutch Gin. We hit some foul weather with waves higher than the ship when we got down in a trough.. Some of the fellows got real sick and I had no appetite for a day or two. We also got our first pay checks but Pawley ? was short of blank checks and my pay check was made out to Leo Schramm from New Cumberland , PA and myself but we could not cash it until Singapore and I never got to visit Hong Kong.
Singapore is almost on the equator, hot and humid. We were lodged at the Raffles Hotel and with money to spend had quite a time. I purchased a tailor made sharkskin shorts and pants, shirt, a pair of white tennis type shoes and a jungle Jim hat along with a tennis racket although I had no idea how to play the game. The tailor came to my room to measure me and my outfit was made and returned within 24 hours. I think the cost was under 20 dollars. Learned to sleep with a Dutch Widow, for the unlearned a Dutch Widow is a long cloth bolister , one wraps around his legs when he is sleeping to take up your perspiration. There was big fans but no air conditioning and sleeping under a mosquito net was a must.
The lounge at the Raffles was a great place to hang out and it did not take me long to realize that there was a real pecking order established by the resident Brits and a class distinction was very evident. There were a lot of Aussies present and we were soon enjoying their company. One of our amorous armorers decided to bring a rather dark Indian lady adorned with nose and toe rings, and caste mark on her forehead, into the lounge and it did cause a stir. Visited the TigerBalm display, taxied to Penang to see a snake infested temple and enjoyed jitterbugging with very lovely Malayan girls at the Happy World Dance Cabaret in downtown Singapore. We evidently wore out our welcome in Singapore as when the next ship arrived there that had AVG volunteers aboard, they were not received with open arms.
We now were transferred to another ship. A German packet, now run by Brit merchant marine officers with an Indian crew. A British prize from WWI. Poor food and service was the name of the game and the trip to Rangoon not to anyone’s liking . We got our personal weapons returned and found they had evidently been deliberately allowed to get wet and all had a film of rust on them. Arriving in Rangoon we were put up in a rather old hotel called The Minto Mansions, and a Chinese banquet was put on by the Chinese Embassy. It was my first real taste of Chinese food and although delicious a bit different ; I had never seen chicken feet sticking out of a serving pot nor eaten what I was told was Bird Nest soup and shark fin soup. Each course required a toast and here I acquired my taste for Scotch Whiskey.
Here General Chennault greeted us and shook us each by the hand, I will never forget those dark eyes sizing me up. I had immediate respect and a liking for him. I must have made a little impression to him also as after the banquet, I was informed that he wanted me to take the hold baggage to our base near Toungoo called Keydaw Airfield. I would have a Burmese driver and station wagon for the trip some 150 miles up the Burma Road. The trip to Keydaw was uneventful, stopping at the Toungoo railway station to get something to eat. We were met at the airfield gate by a little guy armed with a stout stick. He turned out to be a Gurka. I did not realize he also packed a wicked looking curved knife. We were taken to the base C.O. who was a Brit RAF Lt who had been expecting us.
What a let down the Keydaw barracks presented to me, long thatched buildings with many wooden cots with rope springs, a dubious mattress and a mosquito net. Lighting consisted of bare hanging bulbs spaced at odd intervals in the center of the long room. Our latrines were outside johns as were the cold water showers. There were scorpions, centipedes and snakes. Luckily most of us had foot lockers as there were no closets . I spent my first night alone in that big empty barracks with my .38 under my pillow, listening to many strange sounds and things dropping off the wires that held the netting.
Was a very relieved and happy 21 year old to greet the train bringing in the rest of our group and listening to the bitching when they saw our new home. Keydaw was not a nice place to live and work in and I think it did separate the men from the boys as a number soon left to return to the US. Most of us stuck it out. Several other ships arrived in Rangoon bringing the remainder of the AVG; the last of the personnel arrived in November. I did not keep dates and do not remember exactly when the first group arrived but it was probably in August. I was here until December 10th 1941 before leaving Mingaladon at Rangoon and my real war was on.