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|December 7, 2003
I was a U.S. Army Signal Corps civilian employee in 1944 when I heard the American Red Cross call for overseas service on the radio. I called, applied, and they grabbed me.
At age 85, my memory is deteriorating, and I may have assignments out of order, but I'll try to recall the highlights of my two years of Red Cross service to the armed forces in the China-Burma-India Theater.
I remember being crowded into old railroad cars for the long trip to California, where we boarded ship in Los Angeles. We arrived in Calcutta, India, in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Indians were dying by the hundreds in the streets. We had extensive orientation about India, its culture, and the jobs we would be doing.
I was sent to Gaya in the state of Bihar. The airstrip we served was not too far from the small city of Gaya near the famed Ganges River. It was used for refueling planes flying "The Hump" to Kunming, China. Our club, a barren, barn-like structure, needed decorating. So when we Red Cross girls heard that Gen. Joseph Stilwell had made it to China and abandoned his Indian headquarters, we wheedled the military, obtained a flatbed truck with drivers, and found sofas, easy chairs, sunflower drapes, cushions and even Stilwell's galvanized bathtub, which I was able to filch and loan to others in our barracks.
I remember the beat-up, old British station wagon we used to go to town for supplies, passing growling leopards or sunbathing black panthers at the side of the road to Calcutta. We would get ice cream mix at the Red Cross warehouse, which we traded for snacks for our servicemen, personal supplies and whiskey.
I remember hearing on an armed forces radio broadcast that the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember begging a ride to the Taj Mahal by moonlight as well as the rough trip over "The Hump" in a non-pressurized military aircraft.
Another assignment was at an airport outside Calcutta, running a canteen for transient military. While there, we lived in true luxury, seven women and eight servants in a lovely apartment. We also served soldiers returning from the horror of the fight for the Burma Road. I had the wonderful experience of hearing a speech by Mahatma Gandhi, which I couldn't understand but could "feel."
My last assignment was at Malir, a desert airstrip outside Karachi. I will never forget Christmas 1945. Our GIs made a tree from palm fronds and decorated it with painted ping-pong balls, cotton and rolls of bandage, courtesy of the medics. Best of all, we had a renowned concert pianist on base. Imagine the joy of our American boys to participate in a sing-along of carols played by Leonard Pennario on a beat-up piano while munching on roasted turkey necks, cake and ice cream. I'll bet they all remember that Christmas.
It took us 31 days to return to San Francisco. Our captain was retiring and wanted to say goodbye to all his friends in the Pacific. I don't think we missed an atoll from Bikini to Hawaii. From San Francisco, we were decommissioned and sent home.
Herz lives in Indianapolis.