During WWII, my father flew The Hump, the moniker given to the air lift operation that carried gasoline and other supplies from the Assam Valley of India to Kunming, China over the Himalayas. It was a challenging and dangerous operation with many planes and crew members lost because of weather and mechanical failures. Three years ago, I followed his WWII footsteps, starting in India and ending in China. An unusual task I had given myself on the trip was to seek out and thank the Nagaland people for their help in saving downed pilots during the war. They were a small but important connection to the Hump operation. Stories were told of pilots appearing at American bases in the Assam Valley weeks after they had been assumed dead, accompanied by native warriors. Tribes were paid one hundred silver rupees by the Allies for each airman returned.
Fortunately, my father never needed their services, yet it was comforting to know that help would have been there had his plane gone down. These former headhunters had a fierce reputation a century and a half ago; today they are mostly Baptists — an unexpected transformation. Their conversion began in 1872 with the arrival of Baptist missionaries. It took many years for all the Naga tribes to convert, a process that continued during the World War II years. Every village now has a Southern Baptist-style church with an adjoining pastor’s home.
Nagaland is its own separate Indian state, barely accessible by one of the worst roads of my traveling career. We arrived in Mon in the Naga Hills at night after eight hours on a pothole-filled road, making the final third of the drive in a dense fog. There were neither street signs nor streetlights in the town of twenty-six thousand. The next morning was to be our excursion to Longa, a nearby village of the Konyak tribe.
The birds awakened us at 5:30 a.m., not long before a nearby radio began blasting a country and western song with English lyrics: “I got you. You got me. We got love.” A solitary church bell rang, and soon a pig began rooting. With all that noise, it was easy to be up early and ready for the trip to Longa. At breakfast, we visited with a couple from England who were also in Nagaland to retrace a father’s footsteps in World War II, a surprising coincidence that led to comparing stories over several cups of coffee.
The ride to Longa was much easier than our trek to Mon had been. The day before we had stopped at a liquor store for bottles of wine for the village chief. In exchange we would be given private time with him and his six elderly warriors, primarily to photograph a disappearing generation. We arrived in thirty minutes and were taken to the village chief’s home, where a group of elderly men sat in a semicircle around an open fire, their reddish smiles revealing longtime use of the betel nut. Except for his gray synthetic polo shirt, the chief was dressed royally, wearing eight strands of large orange beads with four brass heads, each supposedly representing the head of a person killed by the warrior. The ends of small animal tusks disappeared into his elongated earlobes. He also wore large bone bracelets. The chief spelled his name in English for us: King Tuwing. Kota, the oldest of the men, was one hundred, while the king was the youngest at eighty-five. All were heavily tattooed on their faces and bodies with blood and vegetable dyes, a method that is no longer practiced.
Four wives joined the men and sat on a side bench, smiling readily. I noted their confidence and ease in wanting to be a part of the gathering. They wore coral bead necklaces with turquoise beads scattered in between. The chief’s wife gently pulled up her skirt to reveal a tattoo just below her knee, a lace-looking ring around her leg. All the tattoos were fading as is the tradition. A young woman served us three pineapples.
I had brought small pins with me of our Eiffel tower topped with a red cowboy hat. When I travel, I often give them to people I meet, making me a kind of roving ambassador for Paris, Texas — the small town with the great name. As I slowly pinned one on each of the men’s shirts, they laughed heartily. I wasn’t sure whether they understood the humor of the Texas cowboy hat atop the French Eiffel Tower or just thought it a funny thing to give them, or both. It all contributed to a cheerful ambiance.
With the aid of our interpreter, I told the king of my father’s job as a Hump pilot and thanked his people for their help in saving some of our pilots and crew during World War II. Because of the advanced age of the men around the fire, they all would have been alive during the war years. The king nodded. He made no reply, not exactly the engaged response I had been hoping for, where we would admire each other’s people and I would hear stories of pilots found. My offer of thanks was barely acknowledged, maybe because he had not been a part of that operation or because that is their way of receiving gratitude. It was still a special moment.
As we left, our guide was excited that we got to see the chief and elders, as they were not always available. Their generation is dying out and soon none will remain with the tribe’s headhunter history. I felt the same about my father’s history; few remain to tell the story that was rapidly sinking until my journey began.
This story is an excerpt from Mary Clark’s book, “Landing in My Present,” about the premature loss of her flying father and details her trip to follow his WWII footsteps in India and China. It is now available through Hellgate Press, Amazon, and other book outlets. She may be contacted at email@example.com.