The most unorthodox branch of the American Legion, the United States’s organization of war veterans, is ‘China Post One, Shanghai – Soldiers of Fortune in Exile’. Founded in 1919, it originally met in the American Club in Shanghai until war and revolution chased it out. Today it is the only American Legion post in exile and nominally headquartered in a Communist country. The membership roster, made up of adventurers, mercenaries, CIA-paramilitary types, spooks, old China hands, and a curious mélange of pilots, includes legendary figures from the Far East.
Some years ago I attended a China Post reunion at the invitation of several of the pilots. Among them were men who had flown supplies for Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in China, others who had resupplied the French at Dien Bien Phu, and a couple who had been shot down by the Vietnamese. There were pilots who had flown spy planes over Soviet Russia, mercenary aviators who had worked for the CIA, and USAF officers who had undertaken covert missions over Laos. A hundred or so paunchy, polyester-clad Asia hands spent a nostalgic weekend together remembering old times and consuming prodigious amounts of booze.
Although literature was not high on the weekend’s agenda, I made a point of asking the pilots to name their favourite book on flying. Again and again, almost without exception, they cited Wind, Sand and Stars (1939) by Antoine de St-Exupéry. Their choice seemed unlikely. These hard-headed men of action had opted for a book that is dreamy and poetic at heart, almost hippy in its philosophy. But then I looked around me and realized that, despite their bravado, I was among incurable romantics.
St-Exupéry writes about flying in the days when aviation was a dangerous and glorious adventure. His descriptions of flight are unequalled and capture its dream-like quality along with its drama. He believed its danger conferred transcendent powers that brought men face to face with themselves
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