The CBI From A to Z- July 2010

By Robb Edmonds

From a Letter Home

February 5, 1944

Dear Folks,

The other night I was over to the native's compound to deliver my laundry to be done and was invited into the house where his wife concocted a ghastly brew entitled "Char", which means "tea". You shoulda seen the way the old man watched me to see how I liked it. I did my best to look pleased. With a green face it's hard to do and I told him it was "bohot e char", "Excellent tea". But I took my time finishing it so momma and poppa would drink the rest.


What some guys won't do to promote good will.

July 14, 1944   (Our 3rd day in India on a train out of Bombay on our way to Calcutta)

Dear Folks,

The monsoon season is just starting and all we've had is rain. An officer told us in some districts it rains over 300 inches during the four month season.

I don't think I've ever seen so many kids in my life. All of them want "baksheesh", bread, or anything you'll give them. Some pretend to be crippled for sympathy to get more baksheesh. I saw one example yesterday when the train stopped. On one side of the train a kid feigned a clubfoot, scooting along on both hands and one foot with the "bad" one elevated a few inches. When he went between cars under the coupling, I went to the other side and looked out the window.

He was walking perfectly normally along the next car with his hand out for coins.

Kids and cattle and many adults are skinny and undernourished.

Speaking of cattle, this morning we ate breakfast near a bone pile at a slaughter house, or something. Oh, such a lovely odor.

Every time we go up a grade more then 3%, this so-called train slows to a walk.

July 22, 1944

Dear Folks,

Elmer Tuck and I went to Calcutta on pass yesterday...permit me to digress for a moment. Our C.O. was our mail censor and must have been in a hurry that day. He didn't cut out "Calcutta". It happened a couple more times and, finally, in my letter of July 22, he caught it and took a razor blade to it. Back to the letter of July 22:

We rode rikshas part of the time. (They have cute horses that look like men pulling them). And I hope to go again after payday.

The natives try to sell us everything from monkeys (live) to silk saris (lady's garment) and the prices they ask are higher than my voice.

The town isn't exactly the cleanest place I've seen, but it isn't as bad as I thought it would be. One of the easiest ways to get killed or injured is to keep thinking they drive on the right when you step off a curb. It's very confusing at first.

Sikhs (from Northern India) have a reputation for being fierce fighting men. They drive the taxis with one arm hanging out the window. That's so if they miss running you over they can slap you as they pass.

August 5, 1944

Dear Folks,

Took the Red Cross tour yesterday. We saw the Black Hole- or, at least where it had been. They have a marble floor surrounded by an iron fence and a plaque on the wall that tells the story.

We also went into a mosque (after removing our shoes) and went up three floors where we could see men sitting on the white marble floor reading the Koran. Then we hiked up 140 steps (I counted them) in one of the towers or minarets overlooking the city.

Next we went to a Jain (pronounced "jyne") temple, which was the most beautiful building I've seen, with hundreds of thousands of brilliantly colored pieces of glass and tile embedded in the exterior concrete.

Inside the walls are covered with gold leaf and more cut glass. Narrow windows with dark red glass give a ruby glow to the interior.

Paintings on the walls depict various phases of Indian history, mythology and fairy tales.

Lastly, there was an oil lamp that has been burning since the temple was built 76 years ago and, if it smokes, then something will happen to the temple.

An interesting, educational day.

A prophetic statement from long, long ago:

September 7, 1944

Dear Folks,

Your clipping from the Sat Eve Post received and very informative. Someday I'll write an article like it about the trials and tribulations of a non-combatant "soldier" overseas.

Why I put "soldier" in quotes, I don't know. Unless I considered my job and activities more those of a civilian in an army suit. Close.

Little did I know- or did I? (Twilight Zone them music here), that I'd write a monthly feature for the Ex-CBI Roundup magazine, and when it ceased publication, would continue on something called a website.

Not far from farfetched.

October 8, 1944

Dear Folks,

I guess everyone had a mind-picture of In-jah, but it's sure different from what I expected. I've only seen one snake charmer and he wasn't conventional. He was dressed in European style (almost) clothes, non-turbaned, and had the snakes (cobras) (two) on a gunnysack on the sidewalk.

He was making a long-winded speech, which sounded like he was sitting on a hot stove and trying to detail the plot of "Gone With the Monsoon" in Urdu before the heat soaked through the protective covering of his sarong.

The snakes looked bored stiff. In fact, they might have been dead for all the activity they were showing. Or not showing.

I haven't seen any spike bed sitters nor rope trick climbers, either.

January 2, 1945

Dear Folks,

The only way I knew 1944 was gone for sure was when Bales stuck his hand in the tent and muttered something about "Happy New Year". I was already in bed so I just rolled over, intending to go back to sleep, when I heard a familiar voice asking, "Where's Lofty?", and in staggered my Brit friend, Blondie Ashford, who had been sent to another base but was now back.

He insisted on trying to pound my wishbone loose from its mooring while telling me how glad he was to be back with %**!#%! Yanks.


I finally got to sleep about 1:30 a.m.

I tried to keep negative stuff out of my letters home, so I didn't mention that I had a fever and every bone in my body ached. I was glad I wasn't a fish. I finally had to grab a hold of Blondie's wrist to keep him from emphasizing points in his palaver by slapping my chest with the flat of his hand- after I had asked him several times to "take it easy, for Chrysler Six!"

February 5, 1945

Dear Folks,

The showers we have are quite unique. They have a wooden bucket on a rope that goes through a pulley on a ceiling beam. Hot water from a rope on the stove is poured into a bucket, which is raised and hot water comes through a shower head. We assumed the builder sent home for it.

A leather flap inside covers the hole in the bottom and, to get more water, you pull a wooden handle that raises the flap. The weight of the water holds it closed.

And, from the same communiqué:

I was out fixing a phone line near the farm house and all of the kids came out to watch me. The only word I understood was "candy", and I had a heckuva time trying to convince them I had none. The said, "Ding hao" so often I felt like denting their little skulls with my steel nerves (not really). But I kept smiling and tried to ignore them

When I climbed back up the pole to secure the line, they all went into the house. Probably had no desire to see blood in case I fell off.

That's the trouble with this younger generation. Weak stomachs.

February 15, 1945

Dear Folks:

The Chinese just celebrated their new year and shot off fireworks to ward off evil spirits or something. I had a headache and every time a cracker went off I had to wait a few minutes for the top of my head to come back.

They decorated all the graves with yellow paper. The graves are above ground. They encase the wooden casket with cement and then cover the whole thing with dirt, leaving mounds, which resemble clay ovens with grass growing on top.

That day, I went out to fix a phone line and borrowed a bicycle to save time. The way the coolies stopped working to watch me go by, you'd think they never saw a bike before. Or, of course, it may have been the spectacle I created by carrying a field telephone, my carbine, lineman's safety belt and climbing hooks (properly, "climbers") and a coil of spare wire.

No, I think it was because they never saw a bike before.

My Dad was a commercial artist and cartoonist and, when he read that, he drew a cartoon but added a telephone pole over my shoulder, my accordion, a Gurkha knife, and a Chinese phone book. I still have it. The cartoon, that is.

March 20, 1945

Dear Folks,

A few days ago I went over to the village with camera in hand to see what was what. I saw a Chinese-type Punch and Judy show that I would have liked to have gotten (?) a picture of but space was lacking and I had to pass it up.

The place isn't very large and it's definitely not clean.

The variety of unusual sights is limited after the first trip and, confidentially, "It steenks", but it breaks the routine of camp life.

I bought some chop sticks and asked a boy to show me how to use them, much to the amusement of onlookers on the street and I think I'll stick to fork and spoon. If I had to rely on chopsticks to eat, I'd probably go hungry for the first dozen or so meals- or burn my fingers in the hot rice.

Here's a riddle for a close to this note:

What has six legs and flies?

Three pairs of pants.

May 10, 1945

Dear Folks,

I took a picture a few minutes ago of a coolie carrying a big cabinet (on the road past our camp). It was about 7 feet by 2 ½ feet by 3 feet and had 8 stools and a small table tied to it.

I saw another man carrying a big wood and woven bamboo screen about 6 feet square and, tied to it was a bathtub! Not a porcelain one but of wood.

We got the official proclamation from Delhi's radio (British radio) about the end of the European war broadcasted in five languages, English, Japanese, Malay, Mandarin, and French. Everyone proceeded to celebrate but I went to bed because I had to be at work early next morning.

There were so many rumors about the surrender that, when it was finally officially announced, I failed to be the least bit excited. When Japan quits I might consider being thrilled about the whole thing.

May 28, 1945

Dear Folks,

I wish I could be there to help you with your gardening. I'm sure it would be more pleasant than doing it here 'cause the farmers take buckets of "night soil" and fertilize the fields with it. (I lost my appetite for vegetables for a few weeks when I realized what they were doing but I guess you can get used to anything, I guess). Some of the odors early in the morning and in the evening are highly potent.

A few weeks ago an army truck clipped one of the two buckets a coolie or farmer was carrying on a jin pole across his shoulders and spun him around. He wasn't hurt but the air got awfully thick for a few seconds there.

I was stationed at an air base 35 miles from Chengtu, so I traded locations for a week to work the switchboard at detachment HQ and was able to tour the city during my off hours.

Satan's Outhouse, June 20, 1945

Dear Folks,

The Chinese currency is steadily going up, the value is going down. When we arrived in this country last January, the rate of exchange was 500 CN (Chinese) to $1 American. Yesterday it was 1300 to 1 and, the day before, 1250 to 1. That's really inflation on a gigantic scale. The word was that when the Chinese army began to get the upper hand (with our help, of course), the rate would go down again. It hasn't.

It appears the Chinese are trying to get hold of all the American currency they can because it's so much more stable than their own.

(Later) I just heard the black market rate is 1500 to 1. When I change my "Merican cash for Chinese I'm going to make sure I get just enough for one day. I'd be losing money, otherwise. I've got a grand total of $11.75 to squander while I'm here.

June 29, 1945

A riksha is a Chinese jeep with one horsepower "engine". These rikshas are quite the thing. You've seen a cocktail shaker? Heard the ice cubes rattling around inside? Rikshas. Same thing- without the ice and booze. The coolies that pull them trot at a steady pace. They'd make good cross-country runners.

By the time you've gone a couple of miles over bumpy streets, your back feels like you've gone a couple of miles over bumpy streets.

The scenery involved during such a ride is rather hazy but, if you look between jolts you see many strange things.

One thing I don't understand, some days every kid will hold up his thumb as we pass and shout "Ding hao!" But you can go back several hours later and the kids are quiet- sometimes even throw things.

Maybe they're allowed just so many "Ding haos" in a 24 hour period.

July 2, 1945

Dear Folks,

The "profuse secrecy" you mentioned as to my whereabouts is due, they tell us, to revealing the locations of APO (Army Post Office) numbers, which would tell the enemy where we are and how many of us, etc. Undoubtedly the Japs already know all that information and the guys coming home will tell where they were, anyway.

But I'm not going to argue with the "big wheels" in Washington DC over the matter.

Dad, a former veterinarian, asked "Do the Chinese have doctors and veterinarians?

The first, yes. The latter, I don't know. I guess if an animal gets sick, they sell it to us for food. I don't know, either, what the poor people do about doctors. I guess there's nothing they can do, especially in the case of appendicitis, or some such. The death rate seems to be pretty high, judging from the number of funerals I've seen.

August 15, 1945

Dear Folks,


We got the official announcement of the surrender at 7 a.m. this morning and now we're waiting to see what they will do to us next.

Please don't expect me home right away. We're comparatively low on the priority list because there are a lot of units and men that have been over here longer. It's hard to know what we'll do or where we'll go- maybe back to India, maybe to the Pacific. I'm not going to let it worry me and I'll just wait and see.

August 18, 1945

Dear Folks,

Mom, since you asked, the Chinese kids don't expect gifts when they say "Ding hao". And I can remember seeing very few beggars since we've been in China. These people aren't at all like the Indians, who "baksheesh" you everywhere you go. "Ding hao" (Ding How) means "Very good", but I've heard it translated, loosely, as "We're with you" or "Thanks for helping with the war".

One day in the villages a man came up to me and thanked me, in broken English, for coming over and fighting the Japs. I didn't have the heart to tell him I haven't even seen one of them. He probably wouldn't have understood even if I had told him.

He made me feel good, nonetheless.

August 26, 1945

Dear Folks,

I didn't fire my rifle on VJ Day. In fact, as I said before, I didn't weep for joy, shout, turn somersaults in the mud, nor shower natives with kisses (and, for sure, not visy versy). It was just the same as every other day.

It's strange how everyone in the US goes mad with joy, while everyone here just yawns and says, "That's nice". I guess the rumors built us up and let us down again too often when they proved to be false.

We didn't even have, as back home, any War Bond booths to trash and burn. That was the news we got.

One of our lads shot a huge rat this evening. We have a little pup about the size and color of Chinese-type rodents and every time he runs out from behind something, Tegen reaches for his carbine. I think that if we don't tie a bell around his neck (the dog's, not Tegen's), he will have a very short career as our mascot.

August 30, 1945

Dear Folks,

On my last visit to the aromatic village of H'sinching I was standing in front of a shop while a friend was inside transacting business.

In the street, a "convoy" of 8 or 10 wheelbarrows, with loads of hogs going to market in Cheng tu, were parked along the side of the road while one of the coolies, with help, removed his prize, then he packed his barrow with clean straw for padding.

When they finished about four of the men led the hog to the conveyance, grabbed him (or her) by the legs and tail and hoisted him onto the thing on his back.

Naturally the porker protested with loud squeals and continued to do so. The man took something (from where I was standing it looked like a 6-inch wooden peg with sharp point) and he appeared to poke it in the hog's ear. Blood dripped for a short time and the animal grew quiet. I doubt he killed the beast but it sure shut him up in a hurry.

Still waiting to be assigned to a boat bound for home.

Shanghai, November 30, 1945

Dear Folks,

Have you been reading about the price war we're having over here? The restaurant's prices in town were going up so fast that the Army and Navy started cracking down on them by putting the establishments "Out of Bounds" for American Servicemen. On some things prices actually doubled in two or three days and everyone began complaining. The fellow that handles "Here's Me" on the Shanghai ARFS radio, same as I did at A5, is making cracks about prices too, which hurts the café owners since almost every establishment that serves Americans has a radio tuned to the station.

The DJ told how "The Jeep café owner starved to death because he couldn't afford his own prices." And, "At the Rainbow Terrace, you pay $5,000 Chinese and get five dishes. All of them empty."

Some places are cutting down their prices but I haven't been in town since the trouble started and I haven't patronized any restaurant, anyway. I get good eats where I'm "living". For free.

This was the last letter home from CBI.