of War: Based on a True Story of American-Chinese Friendship
By David E. Feldman
Published by Writers Club Press
January 2001; 0-595-14370-9; 300 pages
At Thanksgiving dinner in 1974, my uncle, Howard Hyman, produced a photograph of himself alongside Mao Zedong taken on September 16, 1945. He then told our astonished family the story of his 30-year friendship with a handful of remarkable Chinese citizens, many of them students, whom he had met during his stint in the 14th Army Air Corps, aka the Flying Tigers, in World War II.
He explained that the photo had been hidden away during the McCarthy years, and had been brought out now for two reasons. First, since Nixon's visit in 1972, the doors to China had been thrown open, making possible the second reason: he was hoping to arrange a trip within a year or two back to Kunming, Chongqing and other cities he had visited so long ago.
Initially, the Chinese Government refused his request for a visa and itinerary. Along with his second application, Howard sent along the photo. Instantly, permission was granted and an itinerary arranged to cities not seen by westerners in decades. At that time, American citizens rarely visited China.
I was seventeen in 1974, and immediately began begging to go along. By the time the trip finally took place in the summer of '76, I had been granted permission.
We visited Kunming, Chongqing, Xian, Beijing, Guilin, and Shanghai. Along with us came former GIs who had also been with the Flying Tigers. Amidst the raised glasses and shouts of "Gambei!" were tearful reunions and bittersweet memories of friends long gone. American guests and Chinese hosts alike were moved by the endurance of their friendships despite the world's changes.
Since then, Howard asked me to write his story, but after writing the first draft as reportage, I was asked by one of his Chinese friends to change certain names and details as "a matter of personal safety." I agreed.
Despite these changes, the essential ingredient, the now more than 50year AmericanChinese friendship, a friendship "born of war," remains intact.
Henry Neiberg held open the heavy glass door and followed Frances from the cold, salt-white Queens sidewalk onto the red pile carpeting of the darkened Chinese restaurant. His knees shook slightly, in part from age and the cold, wet February, in part from nervousness. A white-haired Chinese man, tall and straight-backed, wearing a brown corduroy overcoat, waited at the largest of the room's circular banquet tables. Before the maitre d', who had begun to lift a finger in his direction, could utter a word, Henry brushed past him, leaving Frances shaking her head and smiling in her new dress, pearls and red nails. A plain wooden barrette, long and tan and unstained, pinned back her hair on the left side.
"Chong Lingxiu, my old friend!" Henry approached the man at the table, who looked startled for a moment, and then grinned through uneven teeth.
"Henry!" His voice was deep and resonant. The two men embraced for more than a minute. "After thirty years, Corporal Henry Neiberg! And this must be the famous Frances."
Only then did Henry inch around on creaky knees and hold open his arm to his wife. "She certainly is. Sweetheart, this is Mr. Chong Lingxiu, student leader and, more or less, my long lost brother." On the last word, his voice broke and he rubbed the corner of his eye with a sun-roughened knuckle.
Chong stepped toward her, and Frances saw that he walked with a quick, awkward step on one side, as though his knee did not work properly. He bent forward and kissed her. "I have heard so much about you. Let me take your coat. And Henry, we are in America now. Call me Lingxiu Chong, in the American order. Family name last."
Henry bowed slightly. "Thank you for correcting me. Ah, who's this coming?"
Two couples approached the table. Rapid-fire Mandarin flew back and forth between them and Chong.
"Honey," Henry said, his smile spreading, becoming a glow, "this is Mr. and Mrs. Ai Wenti and Neil Ku Nuli and, I don't remember your wife's name. I'm sorry."
"Bing Po," said Neil Ku Nuli, the thinner of the most recently-arrived men. His hair was gray but full. His wife was all smiles. She waved.
"Hello! Hello everyone!"
Ai Wenti, his hair jet black, eyes bright and teeth perfect, took everyone's coats and hung them on a nearby rack. Everyone sat down around the table.
Henry clasped Frances's hand to his chest, head shaking, his smile small now, and turned inward so that it barely coaxed the edges of his mouth upwards. "This is really something," he kept repeating to himself.
Ai Wenti, or Wenti Ai as Chong insisted he be referred to in the American way, signalled to the waiter, who brought a bottle of Mao Tai and tiny glasses.
"How is your son?" Henry asked Chong.
"He is well and working in Shanghai. And I have two grandsons. You have daughters?"
"Two, yes. They are doing very well, thank you. Ah, look who it is."
A short man in his mid-fifties with thick graying hair and a wide, toothy grin was coming towards them, a heavy palm already outstretched. "Well, well!" His booming voice caused heads to turn around the room. "All my old friends are starting without me! I don't understand it. Not like you at all!"
Neil Ku got up from his chair, went around to the other side of the table and embraced Jake Singer. "And where is Blanche?"
Jake's voice dropped and he glanced at the floor. "I'm afraid Blanche passed away last year." His smile returned. "Neil, I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see you. Did you come by bicycle? I didn't notice your black bike parked outside."
Neil laughed and waved him away. He sat down. "This is Bing Po, my wife."
Bing Po waved.
Jake kissed her lightly on the cheek, slapped Henry on the shoulder, and kissed Frances. "Hiya, folks. And Chong Lingxiu..."
Henry interrupted. "He wants us to reverse the names. We're in America now, he says. So call him Lingxiu Chong."
"How about I call him Anton. That was what we called you, right? Your anglicized name?" Jake looked at Frances. "They used their anglicized names to stay out of trouble with the American brass, who put a lot of effort into finding out just who these young Chinese with all the information were."
"I know," Frances nodded. "I've been hearing these stories for thirty years."
Mr. Ai poured a bit of the clear liquor into a glass, indicating to everyone else to follow suit. He then rose and cleared his throat. His English was barely altered by any accent.
"Permit me," he bowed slightly, "to dominate." A neat waiter in white shirt, red vest and black pants brought a tray of appetizers. With a barely noticeable gesture, Mr. Ai signalled for him to wait.
"To old friends and a Chinese and American friendship unbroken by time or distance. Gambei!" He took a quick drink, held his glass upside down and took his seat.
Jake Singer stood up, raising his glass. "From Kunming 1944, to Chongqing 1945, to Flushing 1977! Gambei!"
"Do you remember," Neil Ku said in his typically soft voice, and everyone quieted at once, "our picnics at Grandview Park? And the forums at the Army base?"
Jake picked up a smooth, red napkin and spread it on his lap. "What I remember is how you pedalled onto the base, Neil, and told us the Japanese Army was advancing towards the base. I remember how you fellows arranged to provide us with an escape into the countryside."
"Not just an escape," said Neil Ku. "A life, as English teachers somewhere in the countryside."
"They would have been AWOL," Frances exclaimed, her palm to her cheek.
Henry grinned and shook his head. "They sure had it all worked out. We'd be taken away in the middle of the night. The Army wouldn't have liked it very much, and we certainly would never have gone AWOL, but these fellas were something. They really cared about us." He stood up.
"I'd like to make a toast."
Jake pointed to his glass. "You should have something to make it with."
"It doesn't matter. First of all, I'd like to introduce our Chinese friends to my bride of thirty one years, Mrs. Frances Neiberg." He waited while everyone applauded. "As you can see, she is wearing the famous barrette. I'm sure you'll all agree that it looks much better on her lovely head than it did in the dusty pocket of my service uniform or in my locker."
There were murmurs of agreement all around.
He took a deep breath. "And I want to thank you all for coming. A serious note: I know there have been some difficult times since we were last together. I for one haven't agreed with everything our respective governments have done since 1945 not by a long shot. But our friendship is not based on governments or politics. It is based on our growing to love each other, despite being in the middle of a war and our being as different from one another as different can be. So thank you for remembering the nights Jacob and I slept on the floor of Mr. Ai's dumpling shop, and our wonderful discussions about American and Chinese life. When I arrived in China, I didn't know where to turn. I was scared and lonely and, to be honest, I missed my own wonderful mother terribly. But you gentlemen..." His voice tailed off and he paused. The rest of the sentence rushed too quickly from his mouth.
"You gave me a new family, on the other side of the world. Thank you!"
Chong patted Henry on the back.
"You're welcome," said Mr. Ai.
Mrs. Ai, tiny and birdlike, shook a finger. "You remember our advice? We did a very nice job."
Henry nodded. "I'm glad I listened. Frances and I wouldn't be here otherwise."
"I'd like to say something." Frances remained seated but lifted her glass. "I must thank you all. Though until today, I never met any of you and our homes are many thousands of miles apart, we truly are family, as sure as my parents and sister and I are family. I thank you because, without you, I would never have agreed to marry my husband." She clasped Henry's hand, smiled into his eyes, and kissed him.(back to top)
Born of War is ... based on a true story of lifelong friendship between American GIs and their new Chinese friends who live in Kunming, near the 14th Army Air Corps base, a.k.a. The Flying Tigers.
Born of War is ... a love story: a Jewish-American boy from Brooklyn leaves the woman he loves to go off to war. Frances insists he lacks the social conscience to be the kind of man she would marry. Just when he has given up hope, Henry finds support in the last place he expects.
Born of War is ... a socio-political commentary. Despite the Army's stern warnings to the contrary, Henry and Jake find themselves involved in internal Chinese politics and, ultimately, at Mao Zedong's dinner table. The friendship that springs up between Henry, his friend Jake Singer, and Neil Ku Nuli, Mr. and Mrs. Ai, Chong Lingxiu and others changes all their lives, and ultimately, joyfully reunites them all 30 years later.
Written from many hours of taped interviews with veterans and Chinese citizens, the main plotline of Born of War is based on actual events. In 1999, Born of War was serialized in Points East, the publication of The Sino-Judaic Institute.
"Anyone who values cross-cultural understanding should read 'Born Of War.' We owe author David E. Feldman our thanks for resurrecting a family tale about American-Jewish GIs and Chinese students who formed a most unusual and compelling friendship during World War II a friendship that culminated at a dinner meeting with a very approachable Mao Zedong. Now Feldman's story takes its rightful place in the public domain, reminding us that we can learn so much more about politics and history when we look at the human bonds that develop in the midst of major events. High school teachers take note: This book shows what real people did during the war."
Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews(back to top)
David E. Feldman lives in Long Beach, NY, with his wife and sons. Born Of War is his first book. He has recently completed his second, Bad Blood, and is working on a third, The Universe Principle.