Military Traditions

February 15, 2018 By Cletus Nelson

An Inflight History Lesson

Several years ago, I was flying to Washington, DC from San Francisco for a few days of meetings. Because it was an early flight, I stayed in a nearby hotel in San Mateo where they would park my car at no extra charge. This was a great convenience, and I was in a pleasant mood as I boarded my flight.

I greeted my seatmates with a cheery, “Good morning.” As I put my bag in the overhead compartment, I thought: “I’ll talk to this couple later and learn where they are going.” It was well into the flight when conversation with my seatmates seemed convenient. I noticed that these young folks were brown-skinned and the tone and inflection of their speech made me think that they were probably from the Far East. I inquired where the young couple was going, and they told me they were going to Washington, DC to see a former college classmate and then the three of them would go on to Georgia to a class reunion. I asked if perhaps they were from the Far East and the girl answered, “Yes, we are from southern India.”

Quickly I asked, “Near Madras or Bangalore?” and she answered, “Near Bangalore.” They had both attended the University of Georgia and that is where they met. After graduation, they married and went to work in Silicon Valley. They were curious about my knowledge of India and wanted to know my connection to India. Willingly, I told them about our base near Calcutta, why we were in India, our China activities, and the thousands of Americans in General Stillwell’s armies. The two of them looked at me in a puzzled way and then hesitantly said, “We never heard of Americans being in India.”

“You did know about World War II and the bitter fighting in Burma all the way to Singapore, didn’t you?” I asked. “Yes, but that was the British,” she answered. “We didn’t know there were any Americans there.”

“Did you know about the potential invasion of Ceylon by the Japanese?”

“Just a little because that is Sri Lanka and we didn’t really study that.”

I pressed on. “Did you ever study about the B-29s and the historic longest mission from Ceylon to Java?” “Did you know about the Burma Road?” “How about the Flying Tigers?” “Chinese armies defending India?” “American bases in Karachi, Agra, Deli or the upper Assam Valley?”

All of their answers were negative. It became clear to me that their knowledge of history had essentially started with the liberation of India from the British. India gained its freedom in 1947, more than 50 years ago, and these two young people were only half that age. Perhaps it is understandable that they were unaware of earlier events. But the girl was very firm in her determination to read about the American presence in India as soon as she could get to the library.


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