The air squadron mess of the Royal Air Force, Near East Command, was
hot and close. Outside, white sunlight glared down on the steaming
pavement and on the rank vegetation growing against a rock wall. Beyond
that rock wall rose the marble and stone buildings of the city of
Lieutenant O’Malley of the Royal Air Force elevated his feet to the
top of a chair and lay back against a damp cushion. He craned his long
neck and looked out upon the sweltering scene. Little rivers of sweat
trickled down his neck and spread out under his shirt. Sadly, O’Malley
contemplated the large slab of berry pie he held in his hand.
“’Tis a terrible thing to consider,” he muttered.
Lieutenant March Allison, who was sitting near him, opened his eyes and
“What,” he asked listlessly, “is so terrible?”
“I niver thought Mrs. O’Malley’s boy would iver be so hot he couldn’t
eat a slab o’ pie.” O’Malley set the pie on the window ledge and pulled
out a huge handkerchief. “This is as close to Hades as I iver plan to
Leaning back, he elevated his feet a bit higher. Bill O’Malley was a
lank Irishman with a skinny neck and a big Adam’s apple. His uniform
hung on his bony frame in a most unmilitary manner. O’Malley’s most
striking feature was his flaming red hair seldom disturbed by a comb.
He was not a person to inspire fear or confidence.
“Oh, now, I say, old chap,” Allison drawled, “this is not such a bad
spot. His Majesty’s Army has been downright thoughtful, sending us out
here to the glamorous East for a rest cure.”
Allison eased himself upward in his chair. He was a slender young man.
His uniform fitted him neatly. His blond hair was close-clipped. There
was a hint of insolent mockery in his cool, gray eyes. Allison was an
ace who had made a name for himself in the wild days of the Battle for
Britain. He smiled at O’Malley as he went on talking.
“O’Malley, you have not made good use of your time here in Singapore.
You have not seen any of the sights.” There was more than a hint
of mockery in Allison’s voice. He himself had not set foot outside
O’Malley turned and squinted at Allison. “Sure, an’ I know all
about Singapore. Singapore, the Lion City, crossroads o’ the East!”
O’Malley’s voice dropped to a drawl. “Ivery time you open a tin can
or have a blowout you make business for Singapore, for it boasts the
biggest tin smelters in the world and half o’ the rubber in the world
comes through its gates.” He grinned widely. “And it stinks and it’s
hot and it’s dead as a graveyard. Ivery one of us might as well be
buried in County Kerry, Ireland.”
“We’ll get some patrol duty after a while. The Japs want Singapore and
will make a grab for it,” Allison predicted. His mood matched that of
O’Malley but he refused to admit it. They were stuck in the Far East,
thousands of miles from the battle lines. To his way of thinking, they
might well remain there for the rest of the war, making routine flights
over a smelly jungle infested with crocodiles, tigers and leeches.
“Mrs. O’Malley’s boy joined up to fight, not to melt,” O’Malley
growled. “I’m thinkin’ I’ll hire meself out as a deck hand an’ beat me
way back home. I can enlist under another name.”
“You won’t do that,” Allison snapped.
“Why not? I’m doin’ no good here,” O’Malley retorted.
“You won’t desert. I’d turn you in, you redheaded Irisher. As your
superior officer I’d break your neck.” Allison’s gray eyes had lost
their insolent flicker and were cold and hard.
O’Malley grinned broadly and reached for the slab of pie which was
dripping berry juice down the wall. “You mean you’d be after tryin’,”
he said as he opened his big mouth and shoved half of the piece of pie
“How can you eat a whole pie before dinner? Here it is one hundred
twenty in the shade and you eat pie.” Allison shuddered.
“Just a snack,” O’Malley assured him. “I’m really off me feed on
account o’ the heat.”
He had just finished the pie when another flier entered. He was tall
and well-built, typically Yank. Allison waved a hand lazily. O’Malley
Stan Wilson crossed the room and seated himself at the open window,
being careful to avoid the berry stains. Back in the United States Stan
Wilson had been a test pilot, then he had joined the Royal Air Force
and spent savage months battling for Britain.
O’Malley let his feet slide to the floor with a thud. “I’ve been
tellin’ Allison what a rotten hole this is. We’ll be seein’ no action
“I aim to, and right away,” Stan Wilson announced excitedly. “Of course
you two bums will want to rest and enjoy the charming atmosphere of
Singapore. But I’m on my way to a war.”
“See here, old fellow,” Allison began, “just because you’re a Yank
and can get a release, you don’t have to sneak off and leave us to
dehydrate. You have to stick around until we all get called back to
“You’ll get action when the Japs cut loose, plenty of it. I think
they’re about ready to grab Singapore while it’s still asleep. But I
don’t want to wait that long,” Stan said.
“Wherever you’re goin’ I’m comin’ along,” O’Malley said. He had lost
all of his laziness.
Stan grinned widely. “It might be arranged.”
“Now see here, let me in on this plot,” Allison cut in.
“It seems the United States is lending fliers to China. A hundred or so
pilots, ships and ground men. Their job is to protect the Burma Road
and help the Chinese build up an air force of their own.” His grin
widened. “Of course there will be a few odds in favor of the Japs,
probably twenty to one or something like that.”
“They’d never release O’Malley and me,” Allison said sourly.
“I did a bit of snooping and wire-pulling. The Wing Commander is a
mighty reasonable man. He feels that the Chinese should be encouraged a
bit.” Stan got to his feet.
O’Malley and Allison were at his side at once. “When do we pull out?”
O’Malley asked eagerly.
“You boys have to get your releases and then you have to sign up with
the Chinese. Me, I’m one of Chiang Kai-shek’s majors.”
“You spalpeen! Salute one of Chiang’s generals!” O’Malley pulled
himself up as straight as he could. “I’ll most certainly get a
“The pay is all the same,” Stan said with a smile.
“Whom do we have to see?” Allison asked.
“You see Wing Commander Beakin for your release. He’ll put you on the
right track,” Stan said.
“I said, when do we leave?” O’Malley demanded.
“Right away. We are to ferry a Hudson bomber up to Rangoon.” Stan
laughed at the impatient O’Malley. “I have already listed you two as
probable members of the crew. Majors O’Malley and Wilson; Major Allison
commanding,” Stan explained.
“I say, old fellow,” Allison protested, “you rate the commander’s
“Nothing doing. This is still Red Flight of the old Channel days. There
won’t be any changes in personnel, except that we have to take along
another flier, a fellow by the name of Nick Munson.”
“Is he Royal Air Force?” Allison asked.
Stan shook his head. “No combat training, I guess. He’s an American and
is supposed to have flown test jobs over in the States. He’s signed up
and we’ll take him along.”
“What are we waitin’ for?” O’Malley cut in impatiently.
“One other thing I ought to tell you,” Stan said. “The Japs will
consider us outlaws and spies. If they catch us, they’ll shoot us. This
won’t be the Royal Air Force, this is wildcat work and mighty tough.”
“The Chinese Air Force needs a helping hand,” Allison drawled in his
most ironical manner.
Stan grinned. He had known all along that his pals would go with him.
“We may as well step across into the gardens and meet Nick Munson,” he
The three fliers stepped out of the mess and walked across a broad
plaza. Outside the iron fence crowds hurried along a narrow street.
There was a babel of races and colors and castes which the wealth of
rubber and tin had drawn to Singapore from every part of the teeming
East. People hurried past, some of them half-naked, jinrikisha coolies
trotted along, their bodies gleaming with moisture, pulling carts in
which perspiring passengers sat fanning themselves.
“’Tis no white man’s country,” O’Malley muttered as they crossed the
street and shoved their way through the throng.
They entered a palm garden and Stan led the way across a lush lawn
to where a heavy-set man stood talking to a laughing group of native
girls. The girls seemed to be enjoying the white man’s jokes and well
able to understand him. Allison scowled but O’Malley grinned.
“Nick, meet your future buddies,” Stan greeted the stranger.
Nick Munson turned around and looked at O’Malley and Allison. He was a
dark-faced man with close-set eyes and a tightly cropped mustache. His
eyes darted over the slacks and white shirts of the fliers. Stan made
the introduction brief.
“This is Bill O’Malley and March Allison; Nick Munson.”
“Out here for the rest cure?” Nick’s lips curled just a trifle.
“Jerries got a bit too hot, eh?”
O’Malley’s grin faded and his chin stuck out. “’Tis not so good I am at
hearin’,” he said. “Would you be after repeatin’ that remark?”
“No offense meant,” Nick Munson answered quickly. “I hear you are both
“We have been lucky at times,” Allison said, his voice very soft.
“They are two of the best,” Stan cut in. “You can learn a lot from
“I might and I might be able to teach them something. I’m signed
up as an instructor to show the boys some of the new wrinkles we
have developed over in the States.” Nick Munson smiled a little
Stan looked at him thoughtfully. “I have had a bit of experience in the
United States,” he said.
Nick Munson did not meet Stan’s steady gaze. “That must have been a
while back,” he said.
“Not so long ago,” Stan answered, then added, “but we must be toddling
along. I just wanted you to meet the men you’ll be working with. See
They turned away, leaving Nick to amuse the native girls. When they had
crossed the street, O’Malley growled:
“That spalpeen better not try teachin’ me any new tricks.”
“He’ll bear watching,” Allison remarked.
“If he makes any more wisecracks I’ll sock him,” O’Malley threatened.
“He made me mad first, so I get first whack.”
Allison laughed. “Don’t be a nut, Irish. He’ll make a good man once
he’s been up the glory trail and has had some hot lead smacked through
his ship. He may even learn a few new wrinkles the Americans have not
worked out.” He gave Stan a knowing leer. “Yanks are all a bit cocky at
“Nick isn’t a fair sample,” Stan said quickly. “Before you get out of
China, you’ll meet a lot of fellows who are right good men.”
They walked across the grounds to headquarters and turned in. Wing
Commander Beakin was seated at his desk. In spite of the heat, he was
dressed in full uniform. He frowned heavily as he looked at them.
“Deserters?” he asked in clipped tones.
“No, sir, just recruits,” Allison answered.
“China, eh?” The commander did not wait for an answer. “Well, boys, you
can serve up there better than down here right now. We all know trouble
is on the way. Japan is about ready to strike. The stronger China is,
the safer we are down here. We have to keep supplies moving in over the
Burma Road just as long as it can be kept open.”
“Yes, sor,” O’Malley broke in. “That’s just the way we had it figured
out. Once we get up there that road _will_ be safe.”
Commander Beakin’s leathery face cracked into a smile. “Aren’t you the
pilot who brought in a new model German gun and laid it on the desk of
my friend, Wing Commander Farrell?”
O’Malley squirmed uncomfortably. Allison spoke up. “The same man, sir.
He herded a Jerry right down on our landing field.”
Stan laughed. “We shall try to uphold the traditions of the service,
sir,” he said.
Commander Beakin cleared his throat. He pulled a sheaf of papers toward
him and glanced at them. Then he shoved them across the desk.
“Lieutenant Wilson can take you to the Chinese general who will give
you your credentials. These papers will release you and they will
entitle you to return to this service without prejudice. I understand
you are to report at once.” His face had returned to its flinty
hardness, but his eyes showed the pride he had in his men.
The three fliers gathered up their papers and about-faced. O’Malley
seemed to have forgotten the heat. He set a brisk pace. Allison slowed
“What’s your rush? China will be still there when we get to Rangoon,”
They walked across town to the waterfront where the harbor was crowded
with craft from every nation of the world. A mass of frail vessels
marked the Chinese boat colony where several thousand Chinese, some of
whom had never set foot on land, used boats for homes and as a means of
livelihood. The waterfront was swarming with a motley crowd of races
and colors, all jabbering and shouting and talking. Few white men were
to be seen.
“Our man lives in a little shack down a few blocks,” Stan explained.
“He has his office in one half of a single room and he lives in the
other half. But he has plenty of authority and Uncle Sam is backing
They hurried on through the colorful throng, hardly paying any
attention to what went on around them. They were eager to be on their
way to China and the skies over the Burma Road.
Stan Wilson led his pals to a small shack on the waterfront and halted
before a flimsy door of matting. Over the door and along the wall were
Chinese characters painted in red. Below the characters was a faded
poster showing a slender American girl in a riding habit and wearing a
cocky little hat. The girl was holding high a glass of Coca Cola. Stan
pointed to the familiar advertisement.
“Looks like home,” he said.
“It sure does,” Allison agreed. “Those confounded soft drink ads are
plastered all over the world.”
“Here is where you sign up. I was down yesterday,” Stan said. “Still
want to head for China?”
O’Malley eyed the dilapidated building, then his eyes moved up and down
the street crowded with similar shacks.
“Sure, an’ I’m struck dumb with admiration by the elegance o’ their
headquarters, but if they have planes and petrol I’m joinin’ up.”
“They have both,” Stan assured him.
“Suppose we have a look inside,” Allison suggested.
Stan tapped on the wall beside the door. After a brief wait the matting
swung aside and a brown face appeared. Two glittering, black eyes
regarded them. The doorman was a Malay, smaller than the average. His
lips were stained red from chewing betel nut and his skin was a rich
“Come,” he beckoned softly.
Stan shoved O’Malley forward and Allison dropped in behind. They
entered a small room lighted by yellow rays which filtered in through a
screen covering a high window. The room was divided into two parts by a
long grass curtain decorated with painted cherry trees and mountains.
Against this backdrop sat a gaunt Chinese at a small desk. He wore a
white jacket and a pair of billowing pants. His deep-set eyes peered
out at the three fliers from unmoving lids. Slowly he lifted a bony
hand to his chin and fingered its carved outline.
“Welcome,” he said in a soft voice. “Welcome and please sit down.”
The only place to sit was on a bench before the desk or upon one of the
many cushions scattered about on the floor. The boys seated themselves
on the bench.
“General, I have brought two men who hope to join the China Air Force.
They are the men Commander Beakin reported upon, and the same men I
told you about,” Stan explained.
“I am grateful. China is grateful. To have three aces from the Royal
Air Corps is indeed a great gift.” The general’s voice was smooth and
controlled, but his eyes were searching and watchful.
“There was to be another man. He should be here,” Stan said.
The thin, yellow lips parted in a smile. “Mr. Munson asked to come one
hour later. He informed me he had an engagement.”
“Sure, an’ I’m thinkin’ this Nick Munson is a bad one,” O’Malley broke
The general beamed upon O’Malley. “It is good to be of a suspicious
nature. However, we have checked the credentials Mr. Munson presented
and find them eminently satisfactory. He boasts overmuch, perhaps, but
China has great need of instructors and pilots.”
“We’ll handle the spalpeen, General. We’ll break his neck if he gets
funny,” O’Malley assured the officer.
“He may well break his own neck if he does the things he tells us are
easy for him,” the general said without smiling.
“We are prepared to be watchful, that is what Lieutenant O’Malley
means,” Allison explained.
“I believe as much, and so we will get on with the few details which
must be settled. First, I must warn you that efforts are being made to
prevent recruited pilots from reaching China.” He smiled and went on
with hardly a pause. “You will be paid one thousand dollars a month in
American money for your services. You will be under the orders of our
renowned general, Chiang Kai-shek, as regular officers of the China Air
Force. I have made out the papers you will need to present at the air
base from which you will fly. Once you have reported you will not carry
these papers on your person. Should you be forced down behind enemy
lines or be in danger of capture, you will divest yourself of your
uniform under which you will wear Chinese clothing. This is for your
“So the Japs won’t shoot us on sight?” O’Malley asked.
“They seldom shoot prisoners. They use them for bayonet drill, lashed
to a post.” The general’s eyes were hard and clear.
O’Malley straightened aggressively and started to say something
uncomplimentary about the Japs. Stan broke in.
O’Malley got to his feet and thrust out a huge hand. The general took
it and gripped it.
“Don’t you worry, sor. ’Tis no Japs will be botherin’ yer supplies once
we get up north,” O’Malley said gravely.
The general laughed. “You are most wonderful boys. I wish you good
luck, and, as they say, happy landings.”
Stan hesitated, then faced the general. “Where did you learn to speak
English, sir? Many of your phrases sound very familiar.”
“I come from San Francisco, where I was born. Like yourselves I am
a foreigner helping a great people resist an aggressor. When the
liberty of China is secure I shall return to San Francisco and my law
practice.” There was a twinkle in the eyes of the general.
March Allison laughed his old, cynical laugh. “A Yank,” he said and
snapped a smart salute which the general returned.
Out on the street a minute later he turned to Stan. “What is his name?”
“Tom Miller,” Stan replied.
O’Malley stopped and looked at Stan. “What sort of a country have you
got over there?” he demanded. “By the shades o’ St. Patrick, if that
general is Tom Miller, I’m Chiang himself.”
“We have Irish policemen, Chinese lawyers and Hindu doctors,” Stan
said without a smile.
“I’m going over there after the war,” O’Malley declared. “Just to have
a good look.”
At that moment the Malay boy who had admitted them to the presence of
General Miller appeared.
“Come, please,” he said.
They followed him toward the waterfront. At a small fruit stand they
met a short Chinese youth dressed in white duck pants and wearing a
flat, straw hat. Their Malay guide bobbed his head and spoke in Chinese
to the youth. The youth smiled at the three fliers, revealing two rows
of even white teeth.
“Welcome to the China Air Arm. I am Tom Koo, flight officer.”
“I am Stan Wilson. This is Bill O’Malley and March Allison,” Stan said.
“Allison will command our flight.”
O’Malley was looking closely at the soldier. Tom Koo was dressed the
same as a thousand other Chinese they had passed on the waterfront.
Suddenly he asked, “You come from San Francisco?”
“Yes,” Tom Koo answered, “but how did you know?”
“I’m an expert,” O’Malley answered. “Anyway, no man could fail to
recognize a Yank.” O’Malley grinned broadly and Tom Koo looked greatly
pleased. He turned to Stan.
“You, too, are an American?”
“I sure am, and we’ll show up the Irish and the British, Tom,” Stan
said very seriously.
The Chinese flier laughed softly. “That will be a very difficult thing
to do. You see, I am informed of the records of Majors Allison and
“It’s action we crave, Spitfires and Japs,” O’Malley broke in.
“Japs you shall have in large numbers,” Tom said. “And spies and crooks
and saboteurs to add to the excitement.” The smile faded from his face
and he looked grim. “But first you have a boat ride which will take you
to an island where we have a flying field. It is best that you do not
return to your barracks. Your bags will be forwarded to you.”
The three walked beside Tom Koo. About them milled shouting and
laughing Tamil and Hindu traders, expounding the value of their wares.
In the midst of such a group stood a fat Chinese. His shrill voice rose
above the tumult and the shouting. Tom shoved his way toward the fat
The boatman did not seem to see them, but others turned to look. The
fliers wore street clothing and were taken for tourists who would have
money to spend.
“I will go on. You will speak to the boatman. Say you wish to take a
boat ride.” Tom Koo moved away after giving these instructions in a low
Stan was closest to the burly Chinese. “We want to see things. Have you
a boat for hire?”
The boatman turned and his black eyes fixed upon the three fliers. His
round, fat stomach bulged above the sash he had knotted around it. His
head was shaven and smooth and his face was wrinkled into a mass of
genial furrows. He was almost an exact copy of the little statues of
the god of happiness they had seen displayed in the shop windows. He
bowed stiffly and placed a huge straw hat on his head.
“You payee–big?” he asked.
“Sure,” Allison said. “American silver dollars.”
The fat man looked around, then headed toward a junk moored at the
wharf. The boat was high-pooped, square-sterned, made of carved wood,
and staring popeyes were painted on the bows. On its deck was mounted a
gun of a model which had been in use a hundred years before. Stepping
on board, the three fliers found deck chairs under a canvass awning.
Seating themselves, they watched the Chinese boatman maneuver his craft
into the bay by using a long pole. The junk slowly proceeded away from
the wharf, clearing the hundreds of odd-looking craft moored there.
A breeze fanned lazily over them and the boatman hoisted a huge sail.
The junk lumbered slowly out across the oily waters. Stan noticed that
the man kept watching the shore. He wondered what the fat boatman was
looking for. Junks and other craft were coming in or putting out, and a
motorboat darted out from among the moored vessels. The boatman grunted
and shrugged his shoulders as he gave his attention to his sail.
After that nothing happened in the bay, so Stan gave his attention to
the shore line falling away astern and to wondering if the American
instructor would get out to the island.
A number of small islands loomed ahead. The junk skirted the green
patches so closely that they could see the natives going about their
daily lives. The details of their tiny, palm-leaf shacks, standing on
stilts over the water, could be seen clearly.
The day was hot and steamy and the tide was running low. The receding
waters left vast, flat banks of slimy, stinking mud, alive with
crawling creatures chased by long-legged birds. Along the bank myriad
mangrove trees hugged the shore, their naked, crooked roots exposed.
“Reminds me of a basket o’ slimy, wrigglin’ snakes,” O’Malley observed
“It all smells very rare,” Allison said with a grin.
Stan was not watching the shore ahead, he was looking at a motorboat
which had appeared off one of the small islands. It was the same boat
that had put out into the bay at Singapore. It was cutting toward them,
sending a white wedge of water foaming back from its prow. The Chinese
boatman saw it and burst into a high-pitched chatter.
“Looks like we might have our first taste of the stuff Tom Koo spoke
about,” Stan said.
O’Malley watched the oncoming boat with interest. “Sure, an’ we might
have a bit of excitement,” he said eagerly.
“We may have to make a detour to Rangoon,” Allison said softly.
“Our boatman is scared stiff,” Stan observed.
“If we had our service pistols we might have some fun,” Allison said.
“But all we have are our fists.”
O’Malley grinned wolfishly. He had gotten up and was leaning over the
rail. The motorboat circled the junk and came alongside. It was filled
with little brown men armed with long poles. A chunky fellow stood in
the prow. He shouted up to the boatman.
“Yer delayin’ the parade!” O’Malley shouted down at the man in the
prow. “Get that raft out of our way!”
The leader of the crew looked up at O’Malley, then turned and began
chattering to his crew. At that moment a white man appeared from a
little cabin in the rear of the motorboat. Stan and Allison got up
quickly. The man was Nick Munson. He stood looking up at O’Malley.
“I missed the junk and set out to overtake you. I’ll be aboard in a
minute,” he called to them. Ducking back into the cabin he came out
with a bag.
“Well, jest imagine that,” O’Malley drawled.
Stan looked over at O’Malley and suddenly his eyes narrowed. O’Malley
was sliding a service pistol into the ample pocket of his trousers. He
moved close to the Irishman.
“How come you filched a gun?” he asked. “We were to turn them in before
we left London.”
“I’m that absent-minded,” O’Malley said with a grin. “I got so used to
the feel o’ Nora snugglin’ in me pocket that I jest couldn’t part with
Allison looked at Stan and there was a glint in his eyes. “Sometimes
that Irisher shows a glimmer of brilliance,” he said.
Nick Munson clambered aboard the junk. Dropping his bag, he wiped his
forehead and sank into a chair. He spoke two words to the boatman in
“I reckon you learned to speak Chinese in a United States plane
factory,” Stan said, and his eyes locked with Munson’s.
“I picked up a few words along the waterfront in Frisco,” Nick answered.
The motorboat roared away and the junk moved on its slow course around
a small island beyond which they could see a larger expanse of land.
Stan sat back and watched Nick Munson who was giving O’Malley a big
line about dive bombers. O’Malley was taking it all in and grinning
amiably at Munson.
Presently they sighted low buildings on the island, then the gray and
silver forms of several transport and bomber planes rose into view.
As the junk moved closer they saw that the island was humming with
activity. Malays and Chinese ran about and many white men mingled with
“Hudsons and P–40’s,” Stan said.
“Fine stuff,” O’Malley chimed in. “They got full armament.”
“China, here we come!” Stan shouted.
Allison leaned back and there was a sardonic look on his face. He
puffed out his cheeks as he watched.
“Not bad, old man, not bad at all.”
Nick Munson stood up, his eyes moving swiftly over the scene, taking in
all the details. His lips curved into a smile.
“Ideal spot for an attack, no cover, nothing.” He spoke slowly as
though pleased with the idea.