Memorial Day Reflections
Remembering the courage and complexity that secured peace in WWII
This is a somber Memorial Day, in the wake of multiple horrific mass shootings, when America seems to be fighting an undeclared civil war and Russia seems intent on declaring WWIII. In this moment, I would like to suggest we pause and consider what it takes to actually win a war. The human sacrifices. The heroic courage and honorable values. And the incalculable complexity of motives, skills, and strategies that go into successful missions on, off, and around the battlefield.
While no historian, I’ve spent years studying the untold personal stories of real life WWII heroes as part of the research for my novels. I’ve also written essays about these stories, which never cease to fascinate me. So, in tribute to these heroes, I thought I’d share three of their stories with you here.
If these excerpts pique your curiosity, please click the button after each piece to read the whole story.
How My Chinese Uncle Became an All-American Hero
Fighting to be an American in World War II
My uncle Herb was an American war hero. Except, he was Chinese. The explanation for this seeming contradiction will sound familiar to many immigrants, but it came as a shock to me. Born and raised an American, I took my family’s right to U.S. citizenship for granted until I grew up and learned just how varied and fraught that “right” actually can be. For Herb, it was life-threatening.
Now, I realize that my uncle’s story is far from unique. But that’s all the more reason, it deserves to be told and shared, especially among Americans who believe that patriotism and heroism are in any way dependent on race.
I only learned my uncle’s full World War II story after my father died in 2007, when I inherited Dad’s trove of wartime correspondence. This included letters from family all over the world to my parents, then living in Washington, D.C.
Dad’s little brother Herb, like my father, was born and raised in China and moved to California in his teens. But unlike Dad, who was too old at 30 to be much use to any military force, Herb was just 20 when America joined World War II. That made him a prime target for combat duty. Though still a Chinese citizen, in 1943 my uncle was given the “choice” of securing an American passport by fighting for Uncle Sam, or of being deported to China to fight for Chiang Kai-shek.
The Mysterious WWII Hero Whose Daring Escape From an Occupied Island Was Dwarfed by His Return as a Spy
Denis McCarthy and the incredible story of Operation Baldhead
Major A. Denis McCarthy was a complicated hero. Before World War II (WWII), as Superintendent of Police for India’s Andaman Islands, he led a brutal attack on the remote archipelago’s indigenous Jarawa tribe. And just days before Japan seized the islands in March 1942, McCarthy and 11 others fled across the Bay of Bengal by motor launch. He managed to navigate 850 miles of shark-and submarine-infested waters rather than face the enemy alongside British officials and Indian troops who remained in the Andaman capital of Port Blair.
But McCarthy had a secret agenda. In the two months after Japanese reconnaissance planes were first spotted over Port Blair, the police commandant had tapped a number of local informants deep in the Andaman forest. After he safely reached the Indian mainland, he presented this information to the British authorities. By October, McCarthy had been placed in charge of a Special Operations mission, code-named “Operation Baldhead,” and his role in WWII history was sealed.
The Most Magical Father I Never Met
An accidental correspondence revealed how one doting father’s life ended in a tragic crime that took decades to uncover
In my experience, fathers tend to fall into two general camps. There are the dads so preoccupied with their own interests and careers and financially supporting their families that they rarely interact with their kids. Then there are the dads who strive for an active role in their children’s lives: They change their diapers and teach them sports, counsel them as they grow up, and worry about their futures.
But then again, imagine a father who would write an operetta for his children, with parts for each to sing to fend off homesickness when they’re far from home. In the 1930s, British civilian officer Alfred G. Bird was just such an extraordinary dad. Tragically, as I learned through an accidental pen pal, this creative and doting father’s life ended in a wartime crime that took decades to uncover.
I was researching India’s remote Andaman Islands for my novel Glorious Boy when I first encountered Maj. Alfred G. Bird’s name. A civilian officer who served as an aide to the British colonial commissioner, he at first seemed little more than a bureaucratic footnote in this strange outpost’s history.
Port Blair, the Andaman Islands’ only town, was founded by the British in the late 1880s as a penal colony for Indian independence fighters. Carved out of dense primeval forest, with more than 400 miles of ocean to the coast of Burma and nothing but trees, swamp, and hostile tribes in the rest of the archipelago, the colony more than earned its nickname “Black Water.”
Bird was posted to this grim place as a supply officer in the 1920s, and he lived there for more than 20 years. The only reason he caught my attention was that the Japanese, who occupied Port Blair in World War II, executed him.
As a civilian, Bird should have been safe in Calcutta on May 5, 1942. But he’d stayed in Port Blair to assist with the final evacuation of British Indian military personnel — an evacuation that never happened. The expected ship was torpedoed, and before another could reach the islands, the Japanese landed.
Bird was among the first to be rounded up and imprisoned. Then the Japanese commandant executed him as an example to the local population.
Aimee Liu is the author of four novels, six nonfiction titles, and too many ghostwritten bestsellers to reveal. Her latest novel is Glorious Boy.