Today is the anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines that brought the United States into World War II as a combatant. In Manila, reporters Melville Jacoby, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby, and Carl Mydans sprung into action to cover the conflict. Here's an excerpt from the book Eve of a Hundred Midnights, by Bill Lascher and published by William Morrow, describing their experience of that harrowing first day.
Beyond the fireworks, you hear Chongqing in honking horns, sizzling streetside frying pans and screams of Schezuanese from every direction. At night, before your eyes, Chongqing's bright lights dance up skyscrapers, the same towers that shoot from fields of strewn rubble and half-buried buildings, far past the smog-smudged apartment blocks they're replacing. Chongqing's scent wafts from grilling meats and fetid alleys.
Chongqing was hot. It was loud. It was squalid. It was crowded.
It was home. Chongqing was home.
"You get to like it,” Mel wrote.
Will I like it? Five weeks from today I will wake to my first morning in Beijing on the first leg of a trip through China and the Philippines. In the weeks to follow I hope to visit Guangzhou and Manila, to see Shanghai and Cebu, to ride trains through Guangxi, and to sail through the Visayas. Most importantly, perhaps, I hope to climb from the Yangtze through the exploding megalopolis of Chongqing and, I hope, to find this place Mel and Annalee and so many others once called home.
A new year looms. As it has since I began unfurling this story, New Year's Eve carries a special meaning. As much as I'm thinking about Mel and Annalee, I'm also thinking about the people who left similar impressions upon them, and upon whom they left their own impressions. They are on my mind as I consider how, 73 years ago tonight, Mel and Annalee made the heartbreaking decision to leave their friends at a Manila hotel, run to the city's burning docks and leap aboard the last boat sailing into a dark, mine-strewn harbor before the Japanese entered the Philippines' capital. It was not an easy decision; the people they left behind were their colleagues, their friends, their fellow "soldiers of the press." They were, as I've addressed before, their tribe.
I've been reading a lot of letters. It seems all I do these days is read letters.
But here's a letter for you. I wish I could send it to you on the onion-skin I so often find myself reading, the translucent sheets etched with the black ink of a an old Hermes's or Corona Portable's hammer-strikes, the sheet carefully folded into an envelope covered with bright stamps and decorated with a picture of a DC-3 and bold capitals reading "VIA AIR MAIL."
Of course, I can't, but I still want to say hello, because it's been a while (probably) and I miss you (certainly) and connecting beyond the superficial digital zones where we encounter one another. You may know where I've been, but perhaps something will settle on this screen. Letters, whatever their substrate, allow thoughts to steep better than ever-flowing streams of information we feel we must address and process now. Right now. Always now.
So feel free to read this and whatever letters follow at your leisure.
By the time I had the confidential State Department documents in my hands, I was five days into my research trip to Washington, D.C., I'd flipped through hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of dusty, sometimes crumbling government documents, private letters from publishing luminaries, and even water-stained diaries from hungry, stranded soldiers unaware of a coming death march through mosquito-infested, sweltering jungles.
Now I need your help to keep looking.
For a brief moment after the wedding, the world fell away from Mel and Annalee. That they didn't have the traditional wedding their friends in the Chinese government wanted to throw for them back in Chungking didn't matter. That all their things — including most of Annalee's clothes — were on a ship that would end up diverted from Manila when the war started didn't matter. They were two young reporters in love.