Was It a Mirage from Home? Or an Angel?
In the middle of a dense jungle, help from familiar but mysterious strangers helps bring a soldier closer to home.
The only place I’d seen military aircrafts, tanks or jungles in my small hometown of Oelwein, Iowa, was at the local movie theater. Iowa was more a place for ice cream vendors in the summer, hay rides in the fall and Salvation Army bell-ringers at Christmas.
But as I headed over to the mess hut for my morning coffee that day in 1945, I barely noticed the jungle. My months in Burma airlifting supplies through China to the other Allied forces had gotten me used to airplanes and tropical birds. But still I missed the little things. Like a donut to go with my morning coffee. “Morning, Hank,” I said to my copilot, lifting my tin cup in a friendly toast. “Hope we only have one mission to run today.”
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Burma was a jungle in many places. What roads it had were made for carts pulled by water buffalo, dirt trails that became long ribbons of mud when it rained. A two-and-a-half ton truck loaded with supplies could easily become stuck and disabled, resulting in hundreds of soldiers being denied necessary supplies.
Hank and I, and the other pilots in the 3rd Combat Cargo Squadron, could resupply our allies with food, ammo, spare parts, medicine and fuel in our C-47’s. We sometimes had to land our Douglas C-47 Skytrain, nicknamed Dottie, in rutty, captured Japanese air bases, or even on a straight stretch of road. If we couldn’t land, we dropped the supplies by parachute. More than once we returned from a flight to find bullet holes in the cockpit.
I finished my coffee and headed over to the briefing tent with Hank. The push to take Rangoon changed daily, and we were never sure where we would fly next.
“Resupplying a newly captured airfield way down on the Irrawaddy River,” Hank read from our orders when we came out of the tent.
One never knew what could happen here in the jungle. It made me long for the safety of Iowa. Imagining the familiar sights of my hometown I’d once taken for granted was now my greatest source of comfort.
We climbed aboard Dottie as the crew loaded up machine gun and mortar ammunition, along with some spare parts for jeeps. Swarms of insects buzzed outside our canopy. It was just before dawn by the time we finally got off the ground. We got to our destination without any trouble and watched some of the other cargo planes land from the sky. “Bring her down,” I said to Hank when we were cleared to land.
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After a bumpy touchdown we followed a jeep to a spot where 20 soldiers waited to unload the supplies. We deplaned and I watched the guys unload the cargo. Iowa felt a million miles away as I swatted at a bug the size of a small fist. I closed my eyes and tried to picture Oelwein’s main street. I couldn’t do it.
I opened my eyes instead to Army uniforms from England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Hank wandered up. “Hi there,” he said, with a cup of coffee and something else clutched in his hand.
“Hank,” I asked incredulously, “is that a real live donut?”
He took an exaggerated bite. “Where’d you get that?” I asked.
He nodded in the general direction of the tents. “Over there.”
“Over where?” I demanded.
He pointed with his half-eaten donut. “Over at that truck.”
I followed the direction of his arm. There in the middle of the Burmese jungle was a Salvation Army truck. The big red shield was unmistakable. It looked just like the sign over the Christmas red kettles in Oelwein. Only it was just about 12,000 miles from anything resembling Iowa. I blinked my eyes to make sure it wasn’t a mirage.
How did a Salvation Army truck get into the jungle? Where did it come from? Who were the people inside who were handing out free coffee and donuts to the Aussies, Brits and Yanks?