"I just can't possibly write now. Perhaps a little later after bombing season." Three quarters of a century ago, today, Melville Jacoby took a brief break from his radio broadcasts for NBC, his writing and photography for Time and Life magazines, and his chaotic search for a panda -- yes, a panda -- to write to his mother and stepfather about life in wartime Chungking, or Chongqing, then the capital of China.
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.
“Whether I'll ever arrive at a point where this letter can be mailed is still a matter of fate. So far we've been scared plenty but very lucky — and I'm knocking on wood. We slid out of one island hideout just a bare two hours ahead of one of Mr. Tojo's destroyers and have been seeing dim outlines on the horizon ever since. But all that will be a story later, I guess.”
-Melville Jacoby, March 18, 1942, Somewhere at Sea
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.
"Manila has not yet digested the fact of war. Balloon and toy salesmen and vendors on the streets with extra editions are just appearing as fully equipped soldiers are appearing," After news reached Manila that U.S. forces had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, Melville Jacoby cabled news to his Time Magazine editors about how the Philippines capital digested news of the Japanese raids.
For the first time ever, I'm able to share a movie of Melville Jacoby himself. These snippets of 16mm movies were shot in the 1930s and are accompanied by excerpts from a moving letter he wrote his mother in early 1941 about why he pursued his dangerous careert.Mel was on a boat from China bound for Manila and, eventually, to the United States. He had just finished a year's work as a stringer in China and the region of Southeast Asia then known as Indochina. There, in the city of Haiphong (a part of modern-day Vietnam), Mel had been arrested and briefly detained by the Japanese, who'd accused him of being a spy. As he traveled back to the United States, he wrote a moving letter to his Mother in which he attempted to reassure her about the risks he'd taken in the previous year. Check out the full post to see the video.
This morning marks one of the most exciting moments for me as I continue to pick up where Mel was silenced. In a few hours I'll be in an apartment in Alhambra, California, meeting with George T.M. Ching, his wife, and their daughter. George was one of Mel's dear friends during his time as an exchange student at Lingnan University. At ninety-seven-years-old, it's uncertain how able George will be to really deeply reflect on Mel's life, but I'm hopeful that just the chance to share some time with someone who Mel cared strongly about, and who cared strongly about him will be valuable.
By now, anyone closely following Melville Jacoby's story knows a little bit about Chan Ka Yik. Last week, a few members of my family and I met Chan's daughters for something of a reunion between our two families. As I've already described, that was itself was a lovely experience. But Chan was not Mel's only friend in China, nor was he the only Chinese man Mel met who later moved to the United States. My visit to Palo Alto also stirred up a fantastic coincidence. This is the sort of thing that can provide a completely different glimpse three quarters of a century in the past. Click the link to read about that coincidence, and to hear the fantastic discovery I made as a result of that visit.
"I recognize our father immediately," Susie Poon says as she stares at a weathered black and white image of a young Chinese man. is Chan Ka Yik, Melville Jacoby's roommate while the latter was an exchange student at Lingan University in Canton during the 1936-37 academic year.
Poon and her sisters, Emmy Ma and Eva Cheung, their husbands, and three generations of my own family pass ancient photos around the room. The pictures show a prized water buffalo and grinning friends on balconies, boys jumping into swimming holes and old men steering sampans, classes arranged for group photos and candid snapshots. They contrast an elaborate family compound in Guangxi with peasants toiling in the countryside. And they feature handsome young men in three-piece suits, their smiles filled with excitement, adventure and friendship crossing two cultures, two continents, and two countries.
"Mel looked like a movie star," Emmy says, echoing a sentiment many express when they see pictures of Melville Jacoby. But the star today is my grandmother, Peggy Cole, who holds court with a folder full of letters, a pile of photos, and a sheet of notes to which she refers while recounting the adventures Mel, Chan and their classmates took together. Many of the tales she shares she heard from Mel's own mouth when he returned home from his first trip to China and visited his adoring cousins. The others she pieced together from letters and memorabilia she inherited from Mel's mom, Elza. For the first time in half a century our two families connected. As we exchanged memories, new stories took shape.