Retired Major General Arthur Clark is one of those people for whom when he talks, you listen. I’d heard stories of General Clark from my family long before I met him. While my own personal time with the man has been limited to a few breakfasts or lunches every year when I’m back in North Carolina, I take every opportunity to pick his brain on a subject about which we’re both really passionate: China.
General Clark served in China during the last four months of 1944 and the entirety of 1945 as an intelligence officer for the United States Army Air Force, as American forces aided Chinese forces in parts of China defending against the Japanese Imperial Army. His squadron was part of the Fourteenth Air Force, known as “The Flying Tigers.” Their story is one of bravery and camaraderie across languages and cultures a world apart. During his time in China, Arthur, as I know him, had duties including photographic intelligence, occasional aerial photography, censorship, administration, briefing and debriefing, target selection, bomb damage assessment and reporting.
Since his time serving in China, Arthur has lived a life that could easily fill a dozen more books. He earned his graduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He went back on active duty to serve once again in the conflict in Korea. Following this tour of duty, he returned to active reserves where he served in Europe, Asia and Central America as well as in the Pentagon. It was during this time that he earned numerous awards including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Bronze Star. In his civilian life, Arthur has served in a number of community organizations such as the North Carolina Zoological Council and the Triangle Community Foundation. His wanderlust and love of exotic foods have taken him (and his camera) to every continent, with expeditions and adventures at both north and south poles. Most importantly however, Major General Arthur W. Clark has spent the majority of his life dedicated to his family. He currently lives with his wife, Mary, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Together they are the parents of three sons, each of them also highly successful.
To this day, even into his ninth decade on earth, Arthur lives a busy life and is a highly-respected and valued member of several communities. As long as I’ve known him, he has never forgotten a single detail of any of his many, many stories. That’s why I was delighted to learn that last month, Arthur released a book, “Eyes of the Tiger,” detailing his time in China, complete with some of his photographs and other primary sources from that time. The book is not yet for sale in China, but can be purchased through several online retailers. You can find the book easily by searching its ISBN10 number: 0692446206
Major General Clark was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk to us about his time in the Middle Kingdom and send along a few artifacts too. What you’ll read here is a fraction of a fraction of the stories contained in “Eyes of the Tiger.” It’s a must-read for anyone curious about the long, complicated and often violent history of this country we call home. We’re extremely lucky to be able to print, with permission, these rare glimpses into a past that now looks and seems like much more than 70 years prior.
What are the primary experiences outlined in your book?
My book is based on the journal I maintained as circumstances permitted. I avoided including sensitive information, as there was always the risk of a document coming into Japanese hands.
Our experiences during the latter part of 1944 and early 1945 involved operations off a small airfield in western Yunnan province. This was in the successful closing part of the Salween Campaign. It involved Japanese forces in Burma trying to penetrate western China across the Salween River, rather than against Japanese forces in eastern China seeking to extend westward to Kunming. We were a small force, generally of fewer than fifty officers and men and operating three or four photographic reconnaissance P-38 aircraft designated as F-5’s. Co-located on the Beiting Airfield were three B-25 medium bombers.
They were, as we, detached from larger squadrons located elsewhere.
We, and they, lived in clusters of tents, improvised extensively and were fed entirely by the Chinese. This was part of the “reverse lend lease” negotiated by T. V. Soong in Washington.
We depended, for example, to heating our tents in winter on charcoal made available by Lung, the provincial governor or war lord of Yunnan. A mixture of alcohol and gasoline powered our vehicles. Our aviation fuel was flown across the Himalayan “Hump” in 55 gallon drums, landed at the nearby Yunnanyi airfield and manually pumped into our aircraft. At our Beiting Field we had a single runway less than a mile in length.
We were very much on our own. Hump tonnage was at a premium. For the most part our PX rations were a couple of cartons of cigarettes each month. The cigarettes were handy; they were the currency I used to pay skilled carpenters to build furniture I needed for a little intelligence office on the flight line. Cigarettes were an extremely valuable item on the black market. Even a cigarette butt could fuel one of the small pipes.
We drilled a well for drinking water and built a shower out of an aircraft drop tank raised on a scaffolding. It was used when weather warmed up and the Chinese heated some water for it in order to render it tolerable. Our squadron flight surgeon visited us periodically and, need be, we could fly to squadron headquarters or to Kunming for medical attention. I do remember having a visiting dentist fill a tooth using a Chinese man on a bicycle device to power the drill outside on the flight line. We were threatened by “Tokyo Rose” with the warning of a paratroop attack which of course never materialized. Their bombings were few and far between as they had a hard time getting fuel.
I know that you’ve been back to China since you were first here during the war. What was different? What was the same?
My son Claiborne and I had set foot in the New Territories and visited via Macao on a couple of occasions during his years as a TV newsman in Hong Kong. My only real visit was with him in 1991 and that was my first time in Beijing.
The contrast between the war years and 1991 was starkly illustrated in Hsian. In 1944 the air was crystal clear, no motor vehicles, no coal smoke, no haze – and no clay warriors! In 1991, the visibility was very poor and there were tourist crowds from all kinds of places and lots of vehicles.
The least changed place was along the Bund in Shanghai. Same buildings appearance but of course with motor vehicles instead of rickshaw and power boats on the Huangpu instead of man or wind powered.
We occupied what was the Broadway Mansions; it had been used by Japanese brass. In 1991 it was the Shanghai Mansions and now I her it is the Shanghai Hilton. It is where Suzhou Creek runs into the Huangpu and has a concave curved front. Across the creek was the Briitish embassy building.
Some rural areas I visited were much the same except for roads. When you flew over some areas during the war years there were simply paths or trails radiating out from the villages to the paddies and fields. The Burma Road from our area back to Kunming was challenging in places and then there could be bandits along the way. There were often human convoys, men with loads on their backs traveling together, stopping periodically to rest. One might see a lady in a sedan chair being carried along the road.
One of the most striking things during the war was seeing airfield construction with nothing but manpower, or people power, one hundred or more men and women harnessed to large stone or concrete rollers which they pulled to tamp down runways or taxiways. Stones were broken and hammered into the base which was, in the Chengdu area, intended to withstand the landing impact of B-29 aircraft of “Operation Matterhorn” destined to attack the Japanese islands from the Chinese mainland.
If we went west from our base to Dali, on the way to Baoshan, the Salween and the border, we came to the long Erhai Lake, north of the Burma Road. Dali was at the southwest corner of the long lake, an isolated town of stone streets, stone houses, men wearing fur hats and similarities to Tibet and the tribal areas in adjacent mountains.
In 2007 I talked with a tour guide who was to lead a group to Yunnan. “Do you know of Dali” I asked? I assumed one could drive from Kunming on a paved road.
“Arthur”, he replied, “We land at the jetport and stay in a four star hotel.”
And then there are places such as Chengong south of Kunming on the Dian Lake shore. We were based there before moving on to Nanning in Guangxi Province near what was then then French Indo-China border. Chengong was a small town where I watched fishermen carrying cormorants with rings around their necks so the men could get the fish the birds caught but could not swallow. That town is now another of the big changes – a ghost city with large empty buildings.
What were the most important things you learned through your experiences in China?
I learned that you need to concentrate on playing the cards you have been dealt. Focus on what best you can accomplish next. Forget about “if only we had. . . ”. For those of us in the early 20’s, this was post graduate education in real life. It was meaningful and beneficial during the years ahead.
Our small detached unit provided for a close relation with the Chinese on whom we depended for various forms of support, including all our food. One of the most significant elements of our operations in China was the Chinese American Composite Wing (CACW) in which Chinese and American aviators shared aircraft crew responsibilities.
I developed a great admiration for the Chinese people with their resiliency in the face of adversity. They lived in the present and knew how to make the best of it. They were characterized by strong family loyalty and affection for children. They exhibited active senses of humor that served them well even during those times of hardship.