Dibrugarh, Assam, October 2019 - Sometimes it takes years to get to an 'a ha' moment in your career and in your life. Thirty years ago, I raided a family photo album created by my grandmother and her two sisters that contained images and newspaper clippings from World War II. My grandmother had four brothers, and the three youngest served in the war. I took photos of servicemen in their barracks, making funny faces, pointing enthusiastically at ships and planes, and basically making the whole ordeal look much better than it actually was.
But I also took one image entitled 'Karachi, India,' and a second entitled "Dijnan, India.' I just liked the images...the one of Karachi depicts a donkey rodeo backed by what I now know is a darwaza (gate) topped by a chhatri (umbrella-like structure). The one of Dinjan shows two servicemen holding a baby leopard.
My Uncle Ed was in the Army and spent a good part of the war scouring the waters off of Montauk for enemy submarines. My Uncle Louis was in the Navy and was on the USS Nevada during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He survived the attack, re-enlisted after the war ended, but was killed in a plane crash en route to Rome from Cairo shortly thereafter. Uncle Francis was a mechanic in the Air Force and served in....you guessed it...India and Burma.
I knew and loved my Uncle Ed, but I never met my Uncle Francis. My grandmother, who was prone to melodrama, said that after the war he 'kept hearing tribal drums in his head' and had to move to California...his doctor told him the mild climate would help him readjust to civilian life. I recently learned that this was only part of the story. He did have PTSD, but he was also offered a good job as an aircraft mechanic in San Diego...and so he left behind his father, his siblings and the cold New England winters of his childhood. He called my grandmother every Christmas, but I don't think he ever came home again.
So back to October 2019...I am at the end of a two-week inspection tour of Assam, driving back to Dibrugarh after an afternoon of tea tasting with the Singpho tribe. We pass Chabua Air Force Station, and our hosts tell us that it was built by Allied Forces in 1939. Dinjan Airfield, seven miles away, was built in 1942. I was passing by the actual location of my uncle's photo. Dinjan, Assam. No leopards in sight.
During the war, Chabua was used as a base from which to send supplies to Chiang Kai-shek's forces in and around Kunming, China. For a period of time, the Japanese occupation of Burma had cut off the only land route by which the Allies could deliver aid to the Chinese government. The only alternative was to fly over the mountains from India's Assam valley to Kunming. This air route - one of the most dangerous in the world - became known as the Himalayan Hump. Dinjan was home to a squadron of fighter planes whose mission was to protect these cargo aircraft. My uncle's mission was to keep these planes flying.
The original photo album kept by my grandmother and her sisters now resides in my mother's house. There are a lot of images in there that will require in depth study...images from Burma, Shillong (Meghalaya) and other locations that are no longer unfamiliar to me. But his image of Dinjan, Assam was the key. How rare and wonderful to close a family loop that spanned decades and such a vast distance. And good thing that this discovery happened at the end of my trip, or I might have missed the remarkable sights along the way.