Remembering Shared Honor: Friendship and Gratitude
We rolled into Bronte, Texas—one odd errant American and two journalists from China—unsure of what to expect. We were all a long way from home, but for Mr. SUN Hong, a reporter from the Liuzhou Daily, and Mr. HUANG Xiling, a videographer from the Liuzhou TV Station, the rolling mesquite-covered earth was a world away from the karst mountain country they knew in southern China’s Guangxi Province. Our location in Texas—north of San Antonio and south of Abilene—was a hot and hard place with thin soil and a shortage of rain, yet beautiful, with a brilliant blue sky brimming with small dazzling white clouds evenly spaced across its great open width.
As we made out way down the smaller road towards the modest stone ranch house, white dust swirling high behind our rental car, I was a little worried—how would the family we had come to meet treat us? Even more importantly, how would they feel about my two Chinese companions? And indeed, the results were not to be quite as I had expected.
Finally, after traveling so far, we pulled up in front of the house. We were welcomed into the home of Bobby Vaughn and his family. Together we talked about Bobby’s older brother, T/Sgt. James Vaughn, a B-24 radio operator in the 14th Air Force (308th Bombardment Group, 425th Squadron). We began to share what we had reconstructed of James Vaughn’s life in China during WWII, and they shared about this young man who had flown on missions in China then disappeared on December 18, 1944 during a sortie over the Taiwan Straits. It was at this time that a comfortable rapport unexpectedly developed, and inexplicably turned into an easy sense of friendship. We shared pictures of places that James had visited in China, and they shared pictures of James in the US—a natural athlete and one of those special few people who are well liked by all, and a young man who entered the US Air Force right out of high school. They told us rich stories of his life, what he had done, and what he could have become. But in all the back-and-forth sharing there was an element that I could not identify. It was the very ease and comfort of our interactions—strangers who had never met before—that made me wonder. It was true that we had previously corresponded, but I believe they had met few Chinese people before, and the language barrier created even more of a gap (I translated much of the time). Ultimately, I was also a stranger. Yet there was a depth of friendship that I could not understand. Then on the second day we met Bobby’s son James Vaughn—one of four younger American men named after the James Vaughn who was lost—and I was surprised all over again.
James was a tall, sturdy, and hard-working Texan rancher. With his Texas rancher’s hat he towered over the Chinese reporters, and the three together were a instant visible contrast in cultures. This James had never known his namesake, yet he had inherited all the hopes and dreams that were lost when his father’s brother had disappeared. He had also inherited the high expectations that the original James had commanded—indeed, even for us three travelers who had never known the earlier James, the little that we had reconstructed about him had in many ways made us view him as a kind of hero. It was an unfair burden for the new James to be loaded down with—from the day of his birth—and he had not had a choice in any of it. Yet as we got to know him it quickly became clear that he could carry the load and was able to do his namesake proud. In a special gesture for the reporters and myself, he had us load into his pickup truck and then he led us around the ranch (reminding us to watch for rattlesnakes), showing us his fine horse, and his herds of sheep, calling them down from the rocky slopes with a series of loud hollers. He was a little unsure what to do with us at first, but he extended true and genuine down-home friendship to the Chinese reporters—there was a warm regard or maybe even a kind of affection in the way he treated them, which they responded to. It was something extra that I could not quite grasp at the time and it relentlessly continued to work at my mind as I tried to place it. However it would take me four weeks and more travel to many other cities and states finally to understand what had happened in that afternoon and the following morning spent with that family.
We left the Vaughn family and headed to other places. Other cities in Texas. Florida. Virginia. Maryland. Missouri. Arkansas. Oregon. Everywhere we went people extended what could only be genuine friendship to the reporters and myself. They shared stories of their experiences in China—sometimes with laughter and sometimes with tears—the shared what they remembered of the place and people, and how their own lives had been changed in the lifetime of years following. For the three of us—younger men than the generation who actually served—their personal histories fascinated us, and gave us a vision of those days and how the Americans and Chinese had worked together. Those people who shared can never understand how much it meant to the three of us that they shared their personal experiences, and the power of the friendship that they offered—a wonderful message of friendship from true Americans that has already been carried back to China. Yet through it all I wondered at the depth of warmth extended to my two Chinese friends. I was gratified, and ever so proud, at these people who were so kind at each stop, but still I wondered. There was some important aspect of almost every interaction that I had not understood.
When back in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, towards the end of our journeys, I took Sun and Huang to meet a reporter with the local paper. He turned the tables and interviewed them.
One question was, “What has left the strongest impression during your travels working on this project?”
Sun thought for a while. “Over and over, both in the interviews in China we did with Chinese who remembered the Americans, and with the Americans on this trip, two words have come up constantly. ‘Friendship’ and ‘gratitude.’ Both sides use these words.”
I thought about it myself. He was right, these special words had accompanied us the whole time.Finally, at that time I started to understand. The extra warmth. The easy interaction. Like old friends. The way the younger James Vaughn, who had inherited so many expectations and hopes from the uncle he had never met, so also had he inherited a bond between his family and the people of China. These two men who visited James’ family, and who interviewed so many people across the US during our travels, had inherited a deep bond of friendship from the generation of Americans and Chinese who stood together against a common enemy during WWII. Friendship passed on to people who were not even alive during the war, without being earned, without reservation, and without condition. An inheritance. Stretching almost 60 years now, reaching across an ocean. A bond bought at a precious price—all the energies and young lives that both the Americans and Chinese gave up during that hard time.
Yet not forgotten and certainly not lost.
I am astonished by it.
In Arkansas someone showed us a paper flyer that had been distributed to the Chinese. The picture showed Chinese people helping an American serviceman. The caption in Chinese instantly jumped out at me: “Help the Americans. They will never forget it.”
It was a kind of propaganda at the time. But in the end it was proved true: The Americans had never forgotten. Neither had the Chinese, as I discovered while investigating around Liuzhou.
This project, “Remembering Shared Honor,” started almost by chance. Living in China, I had heard that once there had been an American airbase in Liuzhou, in Guangxi. I asked a Chinese friend to call someone in the city government there to see if they could tell me where the airbase had been when I came through on a trip a few weeks later. When I got there on March 7, 2002, not only did they tell me where the base had been, but they dropped what they were doing and went with me to show me the location. They explained what they knew, and showed me locations in the area around Liuzhou where American planes had fallen, where crews had been saved, or died. They arranged for me to meet Chinese people who worked with the Americans. They shared what they knew. They encouraged, what was for me, rediscovery. Eventually two reporters, Sun and Huang, tracked me down. They were interested in the story of a American coming back to learn this history, but we found something else in common over time—a belief that this history of cooperation and friendship between the Chinese and Americans should mean something today, that it could be one part of friendship between these two great peoples now. It needed to be remembered even more, and our generation, both in China and in the US, needed to know more about it. A special bond of friendship started between the three of us, to be welded during weeks of travel and research together.
And all along during my research around Liuzhou people extended warm friendship to me. Just like these two Chinese men who were to travel to America just a few months later, as an American I was the inheritor of friendship today because of the sacrifice of my father’s generation.
To all those who helped us set up this journey across the US this summer—people like Lou Glist, David Dale, Douglas Runk, and others who wrote invitation letters, and people like Mr. WANG Anzhi, a businessman in China (Kinmet Group), who covered some of the expenses, thank you! For all those Americans who shared in every state and city we visited, and the veterans and their spouses who shared with us at the CBI Veterans Association Reunion in St. Louis, thank you! The open and warm friendship you extended surpassed anything we had even dreamed about. For the three of us, I thank you for this friendship which we all treasure.
And to all the Chinese people who served during the war or helped the Americans, I know you are now elderly gentlemen and gentlewoman, and what you did during those few years was just a small part of a long life of experience. But it changed a generation of young American men who met you, and created those memories which they honor even now. Thank you for the precious friendship you extended to them during a bitter war—Sun, Huang, and I can testify that it is still treasured in America today.
See, there it is again. Friendship and gratitude.
What a good inheritance you’ve created for us.
October 14, 2002