The Lindberghs’ Summer Excursion Part 2

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Charles Lindbergh flew the seaplane Sirius through the Arctic fog, while Anne Lindbergh sat behind him with her head down listening on her earphones for good weather news from Point Barrow. All she heard was static. Suddenly, her head snapped up –“Darr-dit-darr; dit-dit-dit-dit.” Anne’s pencil moved slowly over the pad: “Fog—lifting—fast…don’t–think—u—have—any—trouble—find—lagoon.” Anne happily passed the message forward to her husband. Soon the fog dissipated; the gray coast became visible, then a dozen red roofs, a church steeple, and a radio mast — Point Barrow!

After landing the Sirius Charles and Anne were invited to a “Thanksgiving diner” at the home of Point Barrow’s lone doctor. Entering the house, Anne noticed “the flavor of an American home — chintz curtains drawn aside, pictures of ‘woodland scenes’ on the walls, bright pillows on the sofa, and there, in the window, a box of climbing nasturtiums.” Anne walked up to another window and inspected a tomato plant; a single green tomato hung unripend. The doctor’s wife said, “That tomato won’t ever ripen, you know — it hasn’t enough sun — but the leaves grow and we can smell it. Even the smell of growing vegetables is good to us.”

Besides the Lindberghs, the other diner guests included: the little hospital’s nurse, the school teacher and his wife, the radio operator and his wife and their nine-year-old daughter and six-month-old son. Also present was an old scottish whaler, a 40-year resident of Point Barrow, who had never seen a telephone or an automobile. A goose someone had shot provided the main course and a few cans of vegetables and fruit complemented the unlucky fowl — a sumptuous repast at the top of the world.

The Lindberghs waited at Barrow for the weather to clear before starting the next leg of their journey: the long flight to Nome. On the day the Lindberghs departed, Charles was pulling on his flying suit when he felt a lump in the pocket — an orange given to him earlier in the trip. He offered it to the doctor’s wife. Anne said the woman looked like a girl receiving a birthday coin. “She held it in her palms for a moment as though warming her hands by its glow.” Smiling, she said, “We’ll give it to the baby!”

As the Sirius flew south, darkness returned to the calculations. “Dark — that curfew hour in a flier’s mind,” Anne wrote, “when the gates are closed, the portcullis dropped down, and there is no way to go around or squezze under the bars if one is late.” The gates were dropping on Nome. A message from that city warned the Lindberghs of overcast and approaching darkness. When Charles saw fog ahead he decided to put the plane down immediately before all light was gone. The Sirius descended toward the frigid water. “How can he see anything!” thought Anne. “Spank, spank, spank. There we go — I guess we’re all right! We were down — we were safe. Somewhere out on the wild coast of Seward Peninsula.” The Lindberghs made a bed in the baggage compartment and went to sleep. The next day they flew on to Nome.

From Nome the Lindberghs flew southwest toward the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, where gasoline awaited them at the small island of Karaginski. Mechanical problems and a typhon kept them grounded for a few days. Finally, one month after the Sirius lifted off the waters of Long Island Sound, the Lindberghs arrived at Nemuro on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island.

The flyers arrival in the capital, the next day, became a national event. Thousands of cheering people lined Tokyo’s streets as the Lindberghs drove through the city to visit the Prime Minister. Lindbergh biographer F. Scott Berg described the stop in Japan as more than just an aviation event and goodwill tour. “For many Japanese, Lindberghs arrival was tantamount to a religious experience, thus furthering his cult following.”

Prior to departing for Fukuoka, the last stop in Japan, Charles went to inspect the plane’s baggage compartment. Straightaway, he knew something was wrong; his precise arrangement of every item had been disturbed. Further observation revealed a “closely cropped dark head, face down.” A Stowaway! Japanese officials pulled a teenage schoolboy from the the baggage compartment. Anne discovered later that the boy’s home life was unhappy. “Here was his chance to escape. He would go to America.” The boy had a few gumdrops and 13 yen in his pocket.

Two days later, when the Sirius approached the Chinese coast, the Lindberghs found China coming out to meet them: the blue waters beneath the plane suddenly turned brown as the flooding Yangtze reached miles into the ocean. “What a river this must be,” thought Anne, “to make itself felt so far out from land, to impress its personality on its overlord, the sea.” The mighty Yangtze River had reached its worst flood stage in years, and there was only one plane in China capable of surveying the damage — the newly arrived seaplane Sirius.

While working on this survey Charles brought China’s Director of the Department of Hygiene and Sanitation, Dr. J. Heng Liu, and and American doctor, J.B. Grant to Hinghwa. As they landed on the water just outside the walled city, a sampan pulled up next to the Sirius and Dr. Liu handed the occupants a package of medical supplies. This kind act proved a dangerous mistake. Suddenly, 10 to 20 sampans appeared from nowhere and they headed straight for the seaplane. These starving people thought the package contained food. Lindbergh and the two doctors shouted warnings to stay back, but more and more sampans crowded against the plane. Lindbergh pulled out his revolver and fired once in the air. When the Chinese pulled back Lindbergh started the engine. “They took off dead ahead,” wrote Anne, “over flooded fields, between fences, collapsed roofs, and grave-mounds, regardless of wind direction — anything to get off, to shake that trailing wake of hundreds of sampans, those arms paddling as fast as they could in a vain attempt to follow.”

After this near tragedy the Lindberghs moved on to Hankow to continue their survey. Because the river currents were too strong to moor the Sirius, the captain of the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes offered to hoist the seaplane onto the ships flight deck and invited the the Lindberghs to live aboard.

On the morning of the last survey flight, as the aircraft carrier’s crane lowered the Sirius into the water, the Yangtze displayed its power. When the Sirius touched the water, before the crane’s cable could be detached, the strong current began to sweep the plane away. The taut cable forced one of the plane’s wings into the water. “Jump!” yelled Charles. Anne followed her husband into the muddy waters at the same moment the plane flipped upside down. A Hermes life boat plucked the flyers from the river.

The captain of the Hermes offered to take the Lindberghs and their plane to Shanghai for repairs. The Lindberghs accepted, but while in route a message arrived from Maine: Anne’s father, Senator Dwight Morrow, had died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 5. The Lindberghs went home on the first steamship heading east.

Charles and Anne Lindbergh would fly together again in 1933, so would the Sirius. But that trip through Europe, Africa, and South America, made at the request of Pam American Airways, would serve the Lindberghs as less of a lark and more of a catharsis for the terrible personal tragedy that, in the autumn of 1931, was less than five months away.

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