China Boat


Sunday, January 11, 2004
Cecil H. Green Library
Stanford University
Stanford, California

We found this manuscript as we were clearing out Uncle Jack's and Uncle Rhys' place on Russian Hill; and as the one who persuaded the Family to publish it, I guess it pretty much falls to me, to briefly tell what came next for the both of them. I know that when I read memoirs, I always want to have at least a general idea of what happened to the people, later on in their lives. They both had long ones.


Uncle Jack and Uncle Rhys were students at Harvard — (there's no need to be discreet about the name of that particular school, anyway) — when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. entered the Second World War.

Uncle Jack was already a licensed pilot, through his membership in the Harvard Aero Club. Like most young American pilots of the day, he immediately joined the Air Force — it was called the Army Air Force, back then — with the idea of becoming a fighter pilot. Like most of those young pilots, he was steered into bombers, instead. The common wisdom was that fighters (they were called 'pursuit' planes, at that time) were defensive weapons, which the Continental U.S. didn't really need, anyway, while heavy bombers were the wonderful new strategic weapons which could win a war, without the need for ground troops. Some bad ideas never die.

Uncle Jack trained at airbases in Oklahoma, and then Texas, and then New Mexico; and then he became an Instructor Pilot, at Kirkland Field, near Albuquerque. He eventually wound up in the 15th Air Force, flying four-engine B-24 Liberator bombers out of southern Italy, over targets in Southern Europe. In November, 1944, on the next to last mission of his tour, his plane (he always called it his 'ship') was shot down by ground-based antiaircraft fire over Linz, Austria; which he said was very heavily defended, given that it was Hitler's birthplace.

He and his crew managed to parachute out, safely. Uncle Jack was taken as a prisoner of war, sent to a Stalag-Luft in a part of Germany that is now Poland, and spent the next six months, as he put it, 'more or less slowly starving to death'. He and his camp-mates were liberated by a Soviet tank column in April, 1945, as they were being marched westward, with almost no food and no warm clothing.

Uncle Jack had a whole collection of war stories. Most of them were funny, and he himself was the butt of most of the jokes. The only time — and I mean, the only time — I ever had a serious talk with him about his wartime experiences, was when I interviewed him for a report I was doing for school. I remember it, really well; he looked at me seriously, and said that there was one, and only one, thing he was genuinely proud of doing, during the entire war, and that was keeping his burning ship in the air long enough for the rest of his crew to get out safely, before he got out, himself.

He was given two pretty important medals, for doing that. We only found out about them, when we were clearing the house, after they were both gone. I think that's pretty typical of his generation.

* * *

Uncle Rhys was recruited — if that's the word for it — by what became known as the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the week that the war broke out.

The OSS was the wartime predecessor to the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, and it had the same set of duties; overseas espionage, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare; and targeted assassinations. And just as with the CIA, OSS officers were sworn to absolute, lifelong secrecy; so to this day, we don't know whether Uncle Rhys served in Europe, or Asia, or the Pacific, or behind a desk in Washington, for that matter. His file is still sealed.

But we do know one thing; that whatever he did, he must have gone through something pretty hellish. For as long as I knew him, growing up, he showed a lot of the classic symptoms of what we now call PTSD. He disliked large crowds, he was spooked by sudden movements, by loud music or loud noises, especially explosions — 

And he hated guns. He hated them, with a passion. He wouldn't look at one, or touch one, or allow one in the house; not even, according to my dad, during the crazy '70's in San Francisco, when the Zodiac and the Zebra killers were running loose in San Francisco, and there was a real fear of race riots because of the tactics the police were using to hunt for them.

There was more, of course. Uncle Rhys was maybe the gentlest man I ever met; and whenever we'd be up at their house, and we'd be watching TV with them — 


I should explain.

You see, there was a whole tribe of us, nephews and nieces, growing up in Woodside and Atherton back then; and we all thought it was the most fun thing in the world to do, to take Caltrain up the Peninsula and crash for the weekend at Uncle Jack's and Uncle Rhys', at least if they were in town. We were shameless. And they were always glad to see us, and they always made us feel welcome, and at home; and how they put up with us, I'll never know. They were really important, in our lives.

And on Friday or Saturday nights, we'd often enough wind up watching something on cable, in their TV room. And if it was anything even remotely violent — especially if it was a war movie — well. Uncle Rhys would watch along with us, quietly, for awhile, while Uncle Jack usually laughed at the inaccuracies, especially if it was a World War II movie, and especially if it had anything to do with flying — 

And Uncle Rhys would find the right moment to quietly, unobtrusively, slip away. He was very good at 'quiet' and 'unobtrusive'.

Uncle Jack would stay, usually still laughing, for a few more minutes — and then, he'd slip away, too.

Whenever it happened, we'd know where to find them. They'd be in the Library, on a sofa, together; and one of them would be reading to the other one, quietly and happily. I don't know how many times they must have read 'Pickwick Papers' to each other, it must have been a lot more than once.

It wasn't until we were older, that they ever let us see them reading, with one's head lying in the other's lap. And that's actually a little bit of a shame, in my opinion; that's a big piece of who they were, that we didn't get to share. And it was beautiful. And it would have helped me come to better terms with my own sexuality, back then.

* * *

I know less about Tom, since we didn't grow up around him. But I've met him, more than once; he and his partner were good friends, and they visited Uncle Jack and Uncle Rhys pretty regularly.

I know that he and his family didn't stay in Shanghai for very long, after Uncle Rhys left.

The Sino-Japanese War started for real in July, 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, even before Uncle Rhys docked in San Francisco; although it wasn't completely clear at the time, as Uncle Rhys said, there were ceasefires and troop pullbacks, for awhile. But by early August there were Japanese and Chinese troops massing in the neighborhood of Shanghai, and it was clear that a real battle was coming. So Tom and his family were evacuated — on the President Hoover, as it turns out — and they went back to Iowa.

Shanghai fell to the Japanese forces later in August. But the International Settlement stayed as it was, neutral, unoccupied, under its own government, guarded by British and American troops. The Japanese didn't take it over until December 1941.

Tom joined the Navy, naturally, and went through Officer training. He ended up as a very young second-in-command of a Destroyer Escort, which he said was a kind of small destroyer, in the Pacific, in 1945. They saw a lot of action, apparently, shelling beaches close-in before amphibious landings, and picking up downed American fliers, under fire from shore batteries.

One of his duties, apparently, was to back-up the Pharmacist's Mate — the closest thing they had, to a ship's doctor — whenever he could, when they weren't actually shooting or getting shot at. He seems to have worked on a number of wounded airmen, over time.

This, he said, is what led to him to going to medical school, after the War, and after finishing college; he eventually became a trauma surgeon, in Omaha, and according to Uncle Rhys, a very good one.

* * *

Uncle Jack and Uncle Rhys had interesting lives, after the war.

The war changed a lot of things, of course, it really turned what uncle Rhys called 'Society' upside down; but it didn't change anti-gay prejudice. At least, not for the better.

During the early post-war years, and into the 1950's during the McCarthy years, the FBI ran active witch hunts for Communists, and for homosexual men; they actually considered them equally menacing. They were particularly interested in ones in the government or the military, but also anyone of any prominence, who could be publicly denounced.

As a former OSS officer, and as someone from a wealthy family, Uncle Rhys was doubly vulnerable, and that meant Uncle Jack was, too. It's shocking to go back and read about those times. Being named as a homosexual was death to any kind of work, any kind of career, any kind of social standing. There were lots of suicides.

So Uncle Jack and Uncle Rhys kept a very low profile at home, and spent a lot of time out of the country, especially after 1950. Uncle Jack finally got his Grand Tour of Europe, although neither one of them wanted to go to Germany or Austria for some years. They based themselves in Paris, in the family flat, and Uncle Rhys did some post-graduate studying at the Sorbonne. They travelled pretty extensively; they saw other parts of the world, too. Still, I think it's a scandal that two people who served their country so well, had to basically flee for their lives.

When they did go back home, Uncle Jack got involved in the commercial airline business, not very surprisingly. He took part in starting (and then shutting down) several new airlines; he never made or lost a lot of money, but he enjoyed himself hugely, he said. He finally had a success with a regional airline running up and down the West Coast, that — in the days before you had to take your shoes off, and flying wasn't miserable — was popular, and was known for its quirky humor, and comfort. People still remember it, fondly; there are websites dedicated to it.

Uncle Jack kept his commercial and private pilot's license for many years; and he never lost his love of flying. Even after he had to give up being a pilot, he still loved being taken up for a 'spin'.

Uncle Rhys was drawn into what he called the Family Business, as he'd foreseen. New taxes put into place during the war, especially inheritance taxes, meant there was less of it to come down to him, when his grandparents finally passed; but there'd been a lot to begin with.

Uncle Rhys proceeded to give most of it away, over the rest of his own life; endowing hospitals and schools, setting up foundations like The R. L. Williams and J. J. Van Doern Foundation, and other foundations that were more anonymous. He was very generous to institutions in San Francisco — they had houses and flats in other places, but they always considered San Francisco home — and Uncle Rhys was given the Key to the City twice, by two different mayors, the last one forgetting or not knowing that he'd already been given it. That always made Uncle Jack and Uncle Rhys laugh.


Nobody lives forever, of course.

Uncle Jack passed first, of a massive stroke, in late 2002. He was in the ICU for three days and nights, and Uncle Rhys sat with him, holding his hand, and calmly reading to him, until the end.

After Uncle Jack went, Uncle Rhys — seemed to fade. Slowly. He didn't eat enough, he didn't drink enough, and he just, faded; he grew more and more frail, and his heart condition (he had a pacemaker) got worse. We all tried to support him, and care for him, and get him to eat and get out more, and he was always far more concerned for us, for our comfort and our feelings, than he was for himself. In the end his heart gave out one day in early Spring, 2003, in the backyard garden of their place on Russian Hill. His hospice nurse said she'd seen it happen often enough, before, in cases involving very long-term couples.

Uncle Rhys mentioned in his manuscript, that he and Uncle Jack privately wondered if they'd been together before, in some past life or other. I hope it's true. I'm not particularly religious, myself, either; but I hope that they were right. I hope that they've gone through the bardo or whatever it is again, and I hope that their souls will meet up, again, and they'll be together, again, in some new life. I really do.

* * *

I should say a few things about the way this manuscript was written; and add a few last notes.

First, it's a real manuscript; it was written in longhand, on heavy paper, in three big bound books, with what was clearly a fountain pen. From the look of it, and the look of Uncle Rhys' handwriting, I think it was all written out sometime in the 1960's or the 1970's; it's old.

Second, is that the letters Uncle Rhys refers to, and quotes from, are all pasted in. And so are the postcards, and photos, and the other enclosures that Uncle Rhys talks about. And those are, of course, even older. And they give the whole thing a poignancy and power that I wish I could convey, online, without making it into The World's Largest PDF. (Which wouldn't work, because of the handwriting. Uncle Rhys' handwriting was neat; but it takes some getting used to.)

Third, is that it was clearly written for Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack wrote comments in the margins, in red ink, and he wrote a lot of them; they are deeply personal, and typically for him, they are mostly funny, and loving, and many of them are highly erotic. (It is a little bit shocking, even to me, to see this side of the two of them, I have to admit.)

If I could find a way to properly display the whole thing, and if I could talk the Family into it, I would love to post the truly complete version of this, as a companion piece. It would be a huge tribute to their lives.

We all miss them both, still. Very much.


I can't resist ending this, on a personal note.

Uncle Rhys wasn't a blood uncle to us, of course; he had no brothers or sisters. Not that that makes any difference; Uncle Rhys was a cherished part of the family, in every way that really counts.

But Uncle Jack was, in reality, my Great Uncle Jack; he was my dad's uncle. And his brother Elliott was my Grandfather Elliott; and Elliott's girlfriend Grace is my Grandmother Grace, and she's still with us. And the glimpse in this manuscript of Grandfather and Grandmother as teenagers, when they were courting, is just wonderful.

Grandmother still likes to tell the story of when Grandfather showed up at her door in Woodside that first day, with a rumpled (from the flight) suit, and a ridiculously huge bunch of flowers, and a woebegone expression on his face — that was her word for it, woebegone — and how, when she first saw him, she actually laughed — 

But she also says that her heart just melted for him, on the spot; and she decided, right then and there, that he was the one she would marry. And, she always says, that five children and thirteen grandchildren and a lot of fun later, she has never regretted it.

Which sort of proves a point, to me. Uncle Rhys and I always shared a deep interest in history; it was our special bond. And he told me once, that in the end, all history is essentially personal; and that most of it is about love.

And I guess I'm the living proof. And that's why, and how, after all, this record came to be presented, here.

I think he's right.


Anthony John Bradford Van Doern

Comments are always welcome, at dlgrantsf (at) yahoo (dot) com.

And, please consider donating to Awesomedude, by clicking on the yellow button on the main page? Even the smallest contributions are very welcome, and will help keep this priceless resource online.