China Boat

Chapter 11

12 Naval Planes Complete
Flight to Hawaii; Delayed
by Storm on Way From
California

By The Associated Press

HONOLULU, April 13th.-Naval aviators completed today the third "route transfer" of fighting airplanes from the mainland to Honolulu with the arrival of twelve flying boats bearing seventy-eight men on a non-stop flight from San Diego, Calif.

The big airplanes flew over the 2,553-mile all-water route without trouble, arriving in formation officially at 12:15 P.M. Pacific standard time [3:15 P.M. New York standard time] to make the flying time 21 hours 25 minutes … 

* * *

Thursday, April 15th, 1937
7:50 a.m.
S.S. President Hoover
off Diamond Head

"Okay … okay, there, look."

"It's definitely land," I said, sighting along his raised arm. "But is it Maui, or Molokai, or is it Lanai — ?"

Morning, and Tom and I were up on the Sun Deck; on the starboard forward side, leaning on the teak railing, and peering anxiously at the horizon.

Or at least, Tom seemed anxious; or eager. It was his very first sea voyage, after all; his very first landfall.

"Well, we'll find out, when we get closer," I said, reasonably. "I can't really tell, from this."

'This' was my school atlas, again; we'd been studying the pages for the Hawaiian Islands, trying to orient ourselves between all the very different islands of the Hawaiian chain.

The names, alone, were impossibly romantic, impossibly evocative; Hawaii, Molokai, and Kauai; Lanai, Maui, Niihau … 

And Oahu, of course; the most populous island, the site of Honolulu Harbor, and our destination. I looked back up from the fluttering pages of the atlas, at the dark mass of clouds surrounding what seemed to be a looming eminence, more-or-less directly ahead of us. The more-distant land to which he'd been pointing, I thought, was most likely the western edge of Molokai … 

"It looks like rain," from Tom, beside me. He seemed slightly awed.

"It does," I said. "The Purser was telling us at dinner, last night, that the trade winds carry moist air and clouds across the ocean … and when they meet in the mountains in the islands' center, the clouds are carried upwards, and they cool, and there is almost-perpetual rain." I shrugged. "He said that the waterfalls are spectacular … "

"Gosh."

We went on watching, in silence, for a few minutes, as the ship pushed its way through the water.

It was a spectacularly beautiful day; the sun shone strongly, the breeze was enough to barely kick up some whitecaps, and to blow our funnel-smoke away from us … 

And the air. The air was warm, and gentle, and soft on the skin; it was … tropical. It felt to me as though one could bathe, naked, in the open air, gladly and cleanly and freely.

It was also, of course, very moist. I was scandalously-clad in my shirtsleeves, with cuffs rolled up, my collar wide open, and my tie half-undone; Tom was dressed similarly, except he had dispensed with his tie altogether.

The moist air had other consequences, too. My poor school atlas, wind-whipped and exposed to the damp as it was, would never be the same; I could almost feel the pages wrinkling, and turning soggy, in my hands. I'd need to get a new one, for next term … 

If there was a next term for me, at our school.

I pushed the thought aside.

"There," I said, pointing; "You can definitely see, they're mountains. And, — Oh! Did you see that?"

"Yeah, I did!" Tom sounded excited. A brief flash of light had illuminated the dark of the clouds; lightning, of course.

"It must be quite a thunderstorm, up there … but, I can definitely see some peaks, and crags, now."

"Me, too."

Another stretch of silence, as we plowed on; a few of our fellow-passengers began drifting up to the Sun Deck, in an echo of the way they had when we'd sailed from San Francisco. To starboard, now, the bulk of the hills loomed up higher and higher, green where they weren't shadowed by rain clouds — 

We turned more towards the starboard, still, as we weathered a promontory; and in a few minutes, we were close enough to actually see the shore, and the white, breaking surf; and the shape of the rocky hills closest to us resolved themselves, to a world-famous, humped outline. Around us, our fellow-passengers were pointing, with 'oohs' and 'aahs'.

"Well, " I said to Tom, with a smile; "We know where we are, now."

"Yeah!"

We were looking at Diamond Head, of course; one of the most famous, perhaps the most famous and most recognizable landmark, in the Hawaiian Islands.

I distinctly felt a change in the vibration of the engines, beneath our feet; a vibration which had remained constant, for the last five days. Almost immediately, there was a sensation of slowing; of our wake, diminishing. The noise of our passage through the water, through the air, fell perceptibly.

The effect was electrifying; absurdly so. I felt it deeply, in spite of having traveled by boat, twice before in my life.

Our fellow-passengers crowded the railing; excited.

"Oh, look, Mother, do you see that pink building — ? The one with the sailboats in front … That's the Royal Hawaiian! That's where we'll be staying — !"

"Which one — there?" That sterner, older voice, from a few days back.

"No; the tall one, with the spire, to the right; the one with green gardens on either side. Do you see it? It's the best hotel on Waikiki … "

In truth, the pink building did not look very tall to me. Nothing on shore seemed tall. Apart from two large hotels, Waikiki seemed composed of an equal mix of green jungle, and low bungalows; it was marvelously exotic. I wondered if Tom and I would have a chance to see it. Perhaps, if we took a cab, from downtown — ?

We swung, slowly, more to starboard, following the coast-line; and a little ahead of us, I could see more and taller buildings, and a passage, or inlet of some kind, towards which we appeared to be headed.

I heard a susurration of voices in back of us, from the other side of the ship. Tom turned his head to see what it was; and in a flash, he was gone. I took a last glance at the shore, and followed him.

"Look — !" came a male voice. Then — 

"Wow!"

I found myself gaping.

Off to our left — our port — were three gray ships, in a line, rushing through the water at what seemed like a colossal speed — and they were close.

The first was smaller, with four smokestacks, and large numbers painted on the bow; 139, I could read them, clearly — 

The next two ships were enormous.

They were both perhaps a little lower in the water than we were; with raked, clipper bows, enormous pairs of cannons in four massive turrets, and smaller guns, bristling all over. Most impressively, each had two, tall, towering masts — which appeared to be made of lattice-work; one could see right through them — each of which seemed to be topped by a small, three-story house. Small, white-uniformed figures dotted the decks, here and there; which served to emphasize the sheer mass of the vessels.

"What are they — ?" I wondered, out loud, to Tom. In the few seconds I'd been watching, the smaller ship in the lead had almost passed us, heading bow to stern of us.

"Battleships," he said, simply. His eyes were riveted on the two massive ships. "The Fleet must be visiting Pearl Harbor … That's the West Virginia in front, and the Maryland behind her. Oh, wow … " His voice trailed off, reverently.

"How do you know — ?" I blurted out; astonished.

Tom spared me a quick, impatient glance, before looking back at the gray ships.

"Two guns in each turret," he said. "Sixteen inch guns; the biggest in the world. They can only be the West Virginia and the Maryland, because the Colorado's refitting in Bremerton, right now. The West Virginia is the division leader, so she's in front."

"Oh," I managed.

The lead battleship was closer, now; I could see signal-flags, lines and lines of them, flying from the yardarms that jutted out from the forward mast. Spray kicked up, sparkling, from the sharp bow.

"They're famous," Tom breathed; eyes locked on the two enormous shapes. "The most powerful ships in the Navy … I've got pictures of them. I never thought I'd actually see them."

One of our fellow-passengers, at the rail, began waving wildly, over his head. If any of the white-uniformed sailors noticed, they didn't react.

 

I found that I had very mixed feelings.

 

They were Navy ships, of course, our own Navy; and they looked proud, and powerful, and I couldn't help feeling proud of them, in turn, proud of the Stars and Stripes, flying at the ships' sterns … 

Still.

I suppose I'd gone through a period, when I was younger, of being interested in things martial, war-related; I know I'd played at soldiers, with other little boys in the park in Connecticut. And Grandfather has a collection of fine hunting-guns, and before Father and I went to Switzerland they always fascinated me, with their beauty and wonderful workmanship … 

In summertime, in Europe, Father had made a point of taking me to battlefield cemeteries of the Great War.

Until one goes — to Ypres; the Somme; Verdun — one can't truly imagine the scale, of the killing; of the deaths. Thousands, upon thousands, of white marble crosses and headstones stretching over green fields for what seemed like miles … The enormous Ossuary, at Verdun, filled with the bones of the unidentified, with still more bones being added, year by year, as they surfaced — 

Maimed and wounded war veterans, French poilus, primarily, served as guides in the cemeteries; paid with the coin donations of the tourists. Their injuries were frequently horrific; missing legs — both legs often enough — missing arms, missing faces — 

The ones with mangled faces, were the worst. Bearing themselves with dignity, while people tried not to look.

Father had served in the American Expeditionary Force in the Great War, under General Pershing, in France; although he did not see action; he was an artillery officer, attending school at the French Military Academy, when the war ended. But he knew what war was like; and he'd wanted me to understand.

I'm deeply grateful to him, for that; among so many others reasons. I truly am.

I glanced sideways at Tom; briefly.

And then, back in America, I'd fallen in love with Jack … 

Falling in love changes everything.

I'd understood, finally, that it was the beautiful, loving, gentle boys, like him, who were shunted to the fronts, to be grotesquely maimed, to die in the mud … 

Jack and I had read Erich Maria Remarque's novel 'All Quiet On The Western Front' together — 

Well, I'd re-read it, with him. I'd made him read through it, with me; I'd wanted him to understand, about those battlefield cemeteries; about the face-less, maimed poilus.

We'd read other books about the War, since.

"Look!" from Tom. He pointed. "See that 'E' on the top turret — ? That's for 'Excellence', in Gunnery. The West Virginia always wins it!"

The warm, wet wind of our passage flowed over me, past me, like a river, exotic and alive and sensual.

"Yes," I said. Helplessly. Not knowing what else to say, or do … 

* * *

" … Yes, sir. I'd like these sent by Airmail, please."

The post-office clerk behind the worn, wooden counter, was male, plump, cheerful, and of Japanese or Chinese descent. Overhead, ceiling fans rotated slowly, stirring the warm, moist air.

"Well, you've made that clear enough," he said, taking my two packets; then, "Goodness!" as he hefted them. I tried to keep my face impassive, aware of Tom looking on.

It was true, that we were on a mission, to buy track shoes and a swimsuit. But my real mission in Honolulu was this; mailing my letters to Jack. Seeing them put into the 'Airmail' pouch with my own eyes … Airmail was new, after all; and I very much did not want my packets of letters put on a slow boat to Los Angeles or Seattle or San Francisco, by mistake.

The post-office clerk used his scale.

"Well, you seem to have the correct postage," he said, at length. He turned the packets over in his hands, looking at each one, curiously. "And you've marked them all correctly … You know, I don't remember seeing so many high-denomination stamps ever being used at one time, before."

I may have gone a little far, labeling the envelopes 'AIRMAIL' in bold, underlined black letters, front and back … And they were heavy, and thick. I felt increasingly embarrassed, in front of Tom, and the clerk.

"I'm sending quite a few photographs," I said, and I shrugged, a little. "Can you tell me, when the next Clipper leaves for the States — ?"

"Ah," from the clerk, cheerfully. "Yes. That would be the 'Philippine Clipper'; and you're in luck, she heads out tomorrow. That means, your letters should get to your final address … " He peered down at the superscription on the first envelope. " … by Tuesday. Wednesday, at the latest." He shook his head. "It's a wonder, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

I felt a rush of sudden emotion. Four days! Jack would be handling these envelopes, in only four days! Well, four and a half, if one counted the rest of today … Still. For a brief moment, he seemed very close — 

If all went well. The clerk had stacked the envelopes together, and was looking at me. "Is there anything else I can help you with? Do you need any more stamps — ?"

"No, sir," I started; then I hesitated. "Umm … would it be possible — ?" I hesitated again; deliberately.

"Yes?"

I went on, with what I hoped was an innocent look; a look, younger than my years.

"Well … you see, my friend is going to be collecting these stamps … Airmail is special, after all. So, I was wondering — could I possibly watch you postmark them, now — ? If I could tell him I watched them being cancelled, myself, it would mean so much more to him … ?"

Jack is not a philatelist; he does not collect stamps. In truth, I just wanted to see the letter-packets properly handled, and put into the air-mail bag, now. If possible.

The clerk seemed to see nothing unusual about the request; in fact, he beamed down at me.

"Of course! Happy to oblige." He reached to one side of the window, and took a big, wooden-handled stamp; he examined it carefully, adjusting a ring around the edge of the stamp-face very slightly, then he pressed it down on the ink- pad.

"Nothing fragile in these — ?" he asked suddenly, looking up at me.

"No, sir."

"Okay … " I watched as he pressed the hand-stamp down carefully on each envelope, more than once, re-inking it several times; then, he examined the results, critically. "There!" he said finally. "Date and time very clear; no smudging. And I think I did a good job of avoiding the airplanes … " He passed the envelopes to me, to see. "With a little luck," he went on, "these covers might be worth something, someday."

"Yes, sir," I said. I looked up at him, in honest gratitude; each postmark was very clear … 

"And, don't worry, young man." He winked at me. "I'll see to it that these get into the mail bag for the Clipper; I promise."

I found myself blushing; exposed.

"Thank you, very much, sir," I managed … 

*

We exited the Post Office building, and stood looking up at the cloud-ridden sky, and the environs of King Street, around us.

I felt awkward in front of Tom, just then; for a variety of reasons.

First, of course, because he'd witnessed the little act I'd just put on … Jack would have been laughing, by now; but Tom didn't know anything of my devious methods — 

And then, there'd been the size of the letter-packets I'd just mailed. By the most expensive method, possible. The cost had been tremendous. And, telling.

"Um," I started; looking at the park across the street, then back at the colonnade of the Post Office, behind us. "I'm sorry I dragged you into all that; it must have have boring. Thank you for being patient."

"That's okay," he said; looking down, not at me. He paused, for just a moment. "Those letters were to your friend — ?"

"Jack," I said, simply. "Yes."

Another, longer pause; then — "You sure wrote a lot."

I started to say, that I'd also included the photographs, and little touches, like two of the ship's one-page, morning newsletters, and more — and I stopped myself.

"I did," I found myself saying, instead. I blinked, and took a breath. "We promised to write each other, every day."

Another pause; a longer one, still.

"Oh."

An awkward silence, for a moment.

"Well," I said at last; looking around us, again. I pointed in front of us, across the street. "That's got to be the Iolani Palace, right there; the seat of the Territorial Government. What does your guidebook have to say about it — ?"

Tom's guidebook came snapping up.

* * *

Hawaii, or downtown Honolulu at any rate, was not what I'd expected.

Well, I admit, my expectations had been hazy, at best; to an East Coast boy, who'd lived much of his life overseas in Europe, Hawaii was a vague set of images, a dream, really. Postcard-pictures of outrigger canoes on sandy beaches, blowing palm trees, and of course, Diamond Head in the distance.

The old Hawaii hands who'd warned us not to expect too much, from downtown Honolulu, had been right. But they'd also been wrong.

Honolulu was — different.

Iolani Palace was an excellent example.

On the outside, it was a stone, Victorian pile; garishly ornate, in a thoroughly European style — and the seat, as I'd said, of the Territorial Government. It seemed, to my eyes, a little run-down, and neglected … 

But the Palace itself was set in the midst of an impossibly-green, verdant lawn; sprinkled throughout with palm trees, blowing in the winds, with exotic — to my eyes — flowering plants and bushes, and even more exotic flowering, tropical trees, with colorful bark and odd, twisting branches … It was very different; it was not the States.

More exotic, more impressive still, were the green hills in back of the Palace, in back of the city. Green hills, that gradually turned into mountains; sharp, jagged, low mountains, whose upper slopes were crowned with towering,wet, gray-white rain-clouds, brilliantly sunlit. They must have been miles away; but in the strong breeze, I could still feel stray drops, from time to time, from what must have been the perpetual rain … 

It was all beautiful beyond comparison, and I gaped at everything. And as I did, I heard some familiar bird-noises; and I blinked, and looked closely at a noisy flock, arguing in a nearby tree — 

"Look!" I said, to Tom and I pointed. "Are those — ?"

He stood stock-still, for a moment, his guidebook in his hand.

"Parrots," he said, eventually. "They're parrots." His voice was full of wonder.

"They can't be native," I said; doubtfully.

"I guess, if they get loose here, they can just live in the wild … or the city." Tom looked around us, at the parkland, the low buildings, and the mountains and towering, sunlit cumulus clouds, in the distance. "It's not going to freeze, here, ever … "

 

Our whole experience of Honolulu, ran the same way; the familiar, mixed with the exotic.

In so many ways, Honolulu resembled a small, or mid-sized East Coast, Mid-Atlantic town. The modest, low-rise commercial buildings, almost incongruously ordinary; sprinkled with wooden, one- or two-story structures, with deep porches and wide-open shutters, which would have looked at home, beach-side, in North Carolina … 

The automobiles, too, made a homey statement. I don't know what I was expecting, horse-drawn carriages, perhaps; but the city was filled with automobiles, in a completely ordinary mix, of boxy, a-few-years-old Fords and Chevrolets and Packards, leavened with a few of the more modern, streamlined models one saw everywhere, these days … 

Their drivers, and passers-by on the streets, were equally ordinary — with one noteworthy difference. Many, if not most, were of Asian descent; Japanese, primarily, I guessed.

I grew up, for part of my childhood at least, in and around New York City; I'd visited New York's Chinatown many times. Just last summer, while exploring the city with Jack, we'd spend hours and hours there, touring streets and alleyways … 

I'd never seen such a concentration of Asian people as this, however; all smartly dressed, exotic faces with perfectly ordinary suits and hats, neckties and silk stockings. In this warm, moist tropical air, tinged with a faintly sweet perfume … 

Well, the perfume, at least, was not a mystery.

"Oh," one of the passengers — an older woman — had exclaimed, earlier, as we were docking in Honolulu Harbor, beneath the Aloha Tower. "Can you smell that — ? It's the Fragrance of the Islands! I didn't know it really existed — !"

"Umm," started her companion; clearly reluctant to speak. "Umm … actually, Muriel, that's the Dole pineapple cannery you smell; it's very close to the docks … But depending on the winds, it can scent the whole city, sometimes. And it is wonderfully sweet, isn't it — ?"

It was. And if the explanation for it was prosaic, the phenomenon was still — exotic … 

 

Tom and I barely looked inside the Iolani Palace; the interior, one could see, had once been grand — Royal, in fact — but was now depressingly bureaucratic. The exotic, meeting the everyday, again. We spent more time, ultimately, in the Palace grounds; admiring the trees, and the plants, and the birds, — with me taking many photographs, of course — and then, we set off on our quest.

Not without a small detour, first, however.

Across the street from the Palace, not far from the Post Office, was a statue; of King Kamehameha the Great, in full Hawaiian ceremonial regalia. It was an enormous thing, glittering with gold; the King standing, holding a long spear whose butt rested on the ground, in one hand; the other hand outstretched, palm-upwards, in welcome. According to Tom's borrowed guide-book, it was a famous local landmark, and a popular meeting-place.

 

We were not the only ones to find it so.

 

"All right, everybody stand still … Nick, stop fidgeting! Okay — ? Now, smile — !"

As we came up closer, we saw that the statue was virtually draped with sailors; at least a dozen of them. U.S. Navy sailors, in white caps, and bright, white uniforms, and shoes shined to a brilliant polish.

Up on top of the plinth, at Kamehameha's feet, three sailors sat; beaming, pressed together, arms draped over one another's shoulders, as a friend below took photo after photo … 

I waited, politely, for them to finish; not wanting to invade their privacy by taking their photograph myself, although I would have liked to have done so; Jack would have loved the shot — 

"All right! Now, Howie, get down here, and take one of me with Nick and Bill — "

While we waited — I confess, I studied them.

They were young, clearly; not much older than Jack, or myself, I thought. The ones up on the plinth, arms around each other, were particularly young; slender, fresh-faced, smiling — 

Their dress-white uniforms were obviously made of light cotton; loose in some areas, snug-looking in others … Their white caps were set far back on their heads, or in one case, low on the young sailor's forehead; all emphasizing their youthfulness, as they clung to to one another, and joked, and jostled — 

The uniforms could hardly have been designed, to be more revealing. More sensual.

It was a scene with undeniable, powerful, erotic appeal; I felt the pull of it, quite strongly.

I was not the only one.

When I looked away from the posing young sailors, — for good manners' sake, — I noticed several other civilian spectators … Men; in suits and hats, loitering close by. To my eyes, there were trying not to be too obvious, in their admiration of the scene … 

But at the same time, I thought, after a few moments' observation — the men were trying not to be too discreet, as well. They stayed closer to the statue, than they might have done — 

Oh.

"C'mon, Howie, hurry it up," from one of the sailors. "Let's go to the Black Cat!"

"That dive, again — ? What's the hurry — ?" The speaker — who was not the photographer — was tall, and very slender; and I watched as he cast a contemptuous look, almost a scowl, actually, at one of the suited male admirers — 

I could see the young sailor's face, quite clearly. Along with the contempt, I thought I could sense — calculation.

It was time for us to go.

"Let's … go see about your shoes, and my swimsuit," I said, to Tom. "I can get a photo of this, on the way back to the ship."

He was standing, riveted; taking in the scene. Of course; real sailors, real Navy sailors … His fascination with all things naval — 

"Come on," I said, gently; tugging his sleeve. "We should go."

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