Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

The pull of memory

It's ridiculous how I'm slowing down," 86-year-old Fletcher Hanks Jr. matter-of-factly declares. And he can cite the evidence of his decline. Ten-mile runs replaced by three-mile walks. Triathlons ditched in favor of workouts that last a mere hour. Swimming the width of the Chesapeake Bay? Not anymore. Now he's lucky to finish two miles in the local river. Why,he has even resigned himself to sticking to a modest pace when he climbs the Himalayas this autumn. Hanks, a member of Lehigh's class of 1941, may have slowed, but he still isn't the retiring type. The Maryland Eastern Shore resident is planning his third trip in the past seven years to those treacherous Asian mountains,where he and other civilian daredevils piloted unarmed cargo planes into Japanese-controlled territory during World War II for the China National Aviation Corporation.

CNAC (pronounced "see knack") pio-neered a route from India to China that became known as The Hump, a route on which winds were so fierce they shook wings from planes. The Hump eventually acquired another name, The Aluminum Trail, because of the hundreds of U.S. military planes that crashed there after the Army joined CNAC in supplying the Chinese army and China-based American troops.

"It’s the graveyard of the Himalayas," Hanks says.

He figures he will hike 50 miles over uninvitingly steep terrain to accomplish the mission he has set for himself: the recovery of a CNAC plane that crashed in a blizzard in 1943 in a remote, little-inhabited corner of India, near the borders of China and Myanmar. As far as he knows, no human has seen the aircraft since the accident’s survivors limped away from the wreckage.

For Hanks, a master of improbable accomplishments, finding the plane wouldn’t be his first triumph of that kind. In 1997, he located remains of a CNAC plane in a dense forest in Myanmar. Those scraps became the focal point of a permanent outdoor exhibit in Kunming, China.

This time, he aims to emerge with an entire plane, or at least with parts that can be reassembled into one, that will be transported to the United States.

On a Sunday afternoon in Oxford, Maryland, the out-of-the-way waterfront town where he was born and has spent most of his life, he explains, "My goal is to get to a CNAC airplane, with wings and fuselage if possible, because there’s none in any museum in the world."

But, a visitor wonders, isn’t there an easier way to obtain such a plane? Is a trek through forbidding country - by anyone, much less an 86-year-old, even a relatively fit 86-year-old - absolutely necessary?

Maybe not, Hanks concedes. There is a former CNAC plane rumored to be flying today, hauling freight in California. So why not go to California and investigate?

"It would be more romantic," Hanks says with an impish, defiant grin, "if I got one off a mountain."

Hanks, all 5 feet 8 inches and 130 pounds of him, displays that grin often as he recounts his life. It has been a life of climbing, and occasionally tumbling down, one sort of mountain after another.

Rich in ambition

By the time he showed up at Lehigh in 1937, Hanks had outlasted poverty, near-fatal disease, a brutal father, and a five-year period in which he was, by his definition, "autistic."

An invalid had become a track star and a wrestler. A kid raised partly by an uncle "who thought all the education you needed was to hook a horse up without him kicking you" had a prep-school diploma. And a product of poverty was rich in ambition.

He made so much money in entrepreneurial schemes at Lehigh that he was invited back, after the war, to help raise funds to build quarters on campus for the college’s fraternities, then located in Bethlehem neighborhoods. With that project well under way, he returned to Maryland, invented a clam-digging device, and prospered in the seafood business. Along the way, he fathered five children and married twice, the second time to his wife of 40 years, the former Jane "Red" Foster, a World War II nurse with the famed Flying Tigers aviation unit.

Hanks sold the clam-processing business when he was 60 years old and devoted himself full time to athletics. He soon succeeded as a competitor - he set a national record for 65-to-69-year-olds in the 10-mile run - and as an organizer of endurance events in running, swimming, and bicycling.

A couple of nasty bike spills and a hip replacement forced him from athletic competition, though not from exercising. As briskly as his bad back will allow, he tours Oxford streets three times daily. In warm weather before the jellyfish arrive, he braves the currents of the nearby Tred Avon River. And to stave off boredom around the house, he augments his daily 60-minute workout by hurrying up and down the staircase of his two-story home, 25 round-trips at a time.

Eighty-two years ago, atop another stairway in Oxford, he said something - he doesn’t remember what - that enraged the volatile man for whom he was named. Fletcher Hanks Sr. responded, his son recalls, with the mindless fury of a drunken, paranoid bully, throwing a four-year-old down those steps and into a world in which the words inside the child couldn't escape. The son could think, but he could not articulate his thoughts. The voice that had ignited his father's demons had been effectively silenced.

"Something slipped in the computer upstairs," Hanks says, his casual diagnosis belied by an edge in his voice all these decades
later. "I couldn't talk. Well, I could talk, but nobody could understand me."

The condition, he says, persisted for five years. His loathing of his father has lasted much longer. "My father was the most no-good drunken bum you can find," he says, declining to elaborate.

But many details of the life of Fletcher Hanks Sr. may appear soon in print. The elder Hanks, an early comic-book artist, is the subject of a biography under way by a contemporary author and cartoonist, Paul Karasik.

Karasik says Fletcher Sr.-known as "Christy" because his pitching drew comparisons to base-ball great Christy Mathewson-favored an older, healthier son over Fletcher Jr., who suffered from rickets and nearly died of diphtheria. But the father's cruelty may have been a blessing of sorts.

"As a result of his father's abusive behavior, Fletcher really took it upon himself to be the best person he could be," Karasik says. "Here we have a man who was really debilitated when he was young, who went on to tremendous achievements. He took all that abuse and turned it around."

While the malevolence of one alcoholic may have driven Hanks to prove he was no weakling, the kindness of another helped channel his determination.

When Hanks' parents separated, he went to live and work on an uncle's farm while continuing in school and in sports. His mother, meanwhile, took in boarders to make ends meet. Some of her guests were hard-drinking city men who retreated to rural Oxford to dry out. One such visitor was so impressed by Hanks' intelligence and industriousness that he arranged for him to attend Mercersburg Academy in south-central Pennsylvania.

The country boy made the most of the opportunity. To pay his tuition he waited tables in the prep school's dining hall and sold stationery. (He sold so much that Mercersburg's registrar sternly suggested that he cease undermining the profitability of the school bookstore.) An aspiring mechanical engineer, he qualified for a variety of prestigious colleges. Unsure which to choose, he relied on the advice of an English teacher: "If you want a really good education, go to Lehigh. You probably can play around more at Duke, but you can learn more at Lehigh."

At Lehigh, he learned he had a genius for business. One lucrative idea led to another. He sold more stationery. He was the agent for 13 newspapers. He peddled shirts, socks, Union suits, and other men's attire bearing the Real Silk label. He bought used textbooks at the end of each semester and resold them at the beginning of the next. He contracted with a florist in Easton and supplied fraternity men with corsages at lower prices than they'd been paying in Bethlehem. He enlisted Bethlehem kids to help him outhustle the athletes who sold programs at Lehigh football games; his crew arrived earlier, staking out the best positions.

Two years after Hanks graduated, Samuel J. Davy, in an article in The Brown and White, reported that Hanks' salesmanship already was legendary. He recalled Hanks' ability to "come into your room and convince you of a need for personalized stationery that demanded instant action in spite of the full box that lay in your desk."

On one occasion, though, Hanks talked his way into more than he could handle. He suspects Lehigh alumni still may be chortling, or fuming, over the time he got the concession to check hats and coats at a Reserve Officers Training Corps ball. It was a formal affair that featured a full-dress parade. Long before all the participants arrived, Hanks realized he hadn't considered how much space was needed to store the belongings being thrust at him and his helpers.

"We didn't have enough racks," he says. "You know, those ROTC hats are big. We piled them all over the place. When the damn military parade came around, the cadets all came back for their hats. I never saw such a mad-house. We didn't know whose hat was whose. You'd have a little guy with one falling right down over his ears. It was one of the best comedies I've ever seen, but I was almost crying, they were giving me so much hell.

"They didn't give me that concession the next time," he notes.

While the ROTC cadets prepared for war, Hanks plotted to avoid the conflict. Taking advantage of a federal program offered to local college students, he trained to be a commercial airline pilot, a job that could keep him in the Americas. Pan American Airlines
assigned him to Central and South America, then to the Pacific Northwest. He was as safe as he'd hoped to be.

But his uncharacteristic caution was no match for the anger he felt as he viewed newsreels depicting Japanese devastation of Chinese cities.

"Once the war got going and you were a young man with confidence, you wanted to do something more challenging," he says. "The cocky ones like me wanted to go where it was hardest."

Pan Am, which owned the Chinese National Aviation Corp. jointly with the government of China, approved his request to join CNAC in Dinjan, India. Nearly all CNAC pilots were Americans from commercial airlines; many of the crew members were Chinese. CNAC was part of an Allied effort to bolster the beleaguered Chinese military and establish China as the base of an eventual invasion of Japan. The Allies didn’t fully succeed-the invasion plan was scrapped in favor of dropping atomic bombs-but they loosened Japan’s hold on China.

"Flying The Hump was one of the most important contributions to the Allied war effort in the region," says M.G. Sheftall, a specialist in Japanese military history. "The U.S.-Chinese airlift capacity was absolutely crucial. Without it, (the Allies) would have had a much tougher time than they did. The area could very well have remained under firm Japanese control until V-J Day."

Hanks’ usual cargo was gasoline bound for Flying Tigers planes in
Kunming. A single Japanese bullet could mean disaster.

"You’d have 1,400 gallons, all of it 100 octane," he says. "You had nothing to shoot back with. All you had was a slow airplane, overloaded and underpowered, and (Japanese fighter pilots) had plenty of power and went twice as fast as you. They’d come up behind and with one burst they’d blow the tail right out of the airplane, blow you out of the cockpit, blow you right out of the world."

But, like a boxer who slips the punches of a more powerful opponent, CNAC pilots could elude attackers in plain sight. Hanks says they employed sudden changes in speed and altitude to duck enemy fire. They "stalled" while an enemy zoomed past: "He’s going 300 miles an hour, which takes him so far he’ll lose sight of you."

Another defensive maneuver was to coil toward earth while staying to the inside of the aggressor "because he can’t shoot out the end of his wings"-and he can’t continue downward long in his fast plane without risking a crash.

Hanks made 347 thousand-mile round-trips on The Hump, earning $2,000 a month-which, he enjoys pointing out, is more than generals made. "When we were over there, they called us professionals, mercenaries. But mercenaries can be just as patriotic as the other guy, especially to keep their jobs."

He is finishing a book about CNAC in which he tells of colorful characters such as the colleague who flew The Hump with his pet bear in the copilot’s seat, of flyers’ flings with prostitutes, of his own eight-day detention as a suspected smuggler. (He was innocent and no charges were filed, he writes.) But he writes, too, of his guilt: of seeing a U.S. Army C-87 pursued by two Japanese fighters, of worrying that he would reveal his own presence if he radioed a warning to his countrymen, of putting his and his crew’s safety first.

I watched as the fighters blew the C-87 away in flames. No chutes opened. I made my get-away. The memory of the incident haunts me and I still dream about it. Now I think I could have saved that crew and still escaped. I was a coward. I didn’t give them a fighting chance.

"It’s a disgraceful thing," he says. "I never did find out who was on the airplane or anything else. I said, ‘Do I really want to know
who those guys are?’ It was a big black spot. I guess I was trying to forget it."

But he says he was compelled to write about it. "This is a war story. This is what happened. I say it as best I know how. It’s as
accurate as I remember it."

With similar frankness, he discusses his most recent Himalayan search, last fall. "I spent $13,000 on that trip and I didn’t get very far," he says. Truth is, he couldn’t keep up with his 49-year-old American companion in the venture or the local bearers and translators who accompanied them. They located three U.S. planes (though no CNACs), but Hanks wasn’t in on the discoveries. He turned back early, rather than impede progress.

He says he learned a lesson. He will organize his next trip himself, lead it at his own pace, and focus solely on finding a plane piloted by his buddy Joe Rosbert. It is believed to be one of the few CNAC planes to crash and yet remain largely intact.

Rosbert, copilot Ridge Hammel, and Chinese radio operator Li Wong crashed in India en route to Kunming 61 years ago. Li died, but the Americans survived, wandering-Rosbert on a broken ankle; Hammel on a sprained ankle-until they came upon a hamlet occupied by members of the Mishmi tribe two weeks later. Word of their presence eventually reached the British Army, which dispatched a rescue team.

Rosbert, who lives in Katy, Texas, wonders whether Hanks isn’t "a little old" to conquer The Hump yet again. But he marvels at his friend’s resoluteness.

"He’s very tenacious," Rosbert says. "If he’s physically able, he’ll do it."

--Bruce Pringle

Posted on Thursday, August 12, 2004

share this story: