The real history of World War II’s most daring fighter squadron is the inspiration for this riveting novel of adventure and romance in the Far East
Three years after the liberation of Singapore, transport pilot Lee Crane is finally ready to leave. The Berlin airlift is on, and there’s decent money to be made if you possess both your own plane and a practiced disregard for safety. One last drink with his Indo-Air fly buddies at the Long Bar in Raffles hotel and Crane is gone. Then he sees her: the tall, beautiful redhead he had every reason to believe was dead. If Elsa is alive—and still angry, judging by the sock to the jaw she greets him with—what else might Crane have gotten wrong about the past?
In 1941, Lee Crane was a Flying Tiger, one of dozens of American pilots recruited to join the Chinese Air Force in the fight against the Japanese. Wild in the air and on the ground, the Tigers broke hearts all over Burma, and Crane was no different—until he fell in love with a stunning Anglo-Indian widow. But in the chaos of war, Crane lost track of the woman of his dreams, and spent the next seven years convincing himself it wasn’t meant to be. Now a chance encounter with another long-lost beauty has him ready to plunge back into the past, praying he will come up with a different answer this time.
The Last Sunrise is the 2nd book in the Post-War Trilogy, which also includes After Midnight and Dying Day.
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The Last Sunrise
By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Robert Ryan
All rights reserved.
Three years after the city's liberation and they still hadn't fixed the holes in Bras Basah Road. The four of us waited until the stream of American cars, bullock-carts and rickshaws thinned, then walked briskly across to Raffles, dodging the water-filled potholes as we went. We skirted the corner onto Beach Road and turned into the familiar palm-lined driveway. As we passed the Sikh jagger he hesitated, looked us up and down like the RSM he probably once was, then gave us the benefit of the doubt and saluted. It was more than I got the last time I was in the place, seven years ago, a boy with a fighter-pilot's swagger I had yet to earn. Then the turbaned doorman had done his best to keep me and my rowdy companions out.
This time I had come to tie one on with Henri Raquil, a fellow pilot and transport officer for Indo-Air, my Australian co-pilot Mosh and Derek Jordan, the local agent for the airline, if you could call it that. I had just announced to them that I was doing the unthinkable: leaving the East. Jordan had insisted on a drink to celebrate and, he claimed, to recover from the shock.
We strode through the lobby and across to the Long Bar. Like the rest of the hotel—like all of Singapore—it was looking tired and scuffed. The place had yet to recover from its time as a transit camp for the dispossessed at the end of the war. Still, I could smell fresh paint in the air and a poster announced the triumphant return of the Ray Macrae Orchestra every Saturday. Maybe things were looking up for the old girl. We parked ourselves by one of the frosted-glass screens, right under a fan which wobbled alarmingly on its thin spindle, as if it might fly off at any moment. I ordered bourbon, the others went for Singapore Slings. I'd never got my tastebuds round that particular cocktail. Now it seemed unlikely I ever would.
'Where to then?' asked Jordan. 'Back to Virginia?'
'Eventually,' I said. I unfolded the telex from my pocket and pushed it across the glass top of the rattan table. It was from Robertson, my skipper from the days of the American Volunteer Group, the AVG, when we flew over China in shark-faced P-40s. His telegram was terse and to the point:
Come Rhein-Main Air Force Base Frankfurt stop we need pilots stop planes stop good money stop great broads stop come soonest stop all forgiven stop bring soap stop
'All forgiven?' queried Jordan.
'Private joke,' I said, ducking the issue.
'Soap?' asked Henri.
The table boy arrived with the drinks and I took a hit of bourbon. 'In very short supply. Like gold dust. I thought if you could get me a consignment en route ...'
'Of course,' said Henri with a grin. I could see his brain working behind those crinkled eyes. Although he wasn't what you might call a handsome guy—he rarely shaved, had crooked teeth and a nose you could open a bottle with—there was something winning about that smile. I guess he had character instead of looks. He had come out East in 1946, after flying with the Free French in the war and then finding himself disgusted at the hypocrisy of his homeland when he got back to discover that every man, it seemed, had been a Resistance hero. He was also the best pilot in the airline, bar none. I'd seen him land C-47s on jungle clearings I swear were no bigger than a decent-sized pair of bloomers.
'I can give you that machine-parts lift to Calcutta, rice and tea from there to Athens, and a good chance of picking up soap in Greece.'
He lowered his voice. 'And if you don't mind using that little customs-avoidance bay we put in ...'
'No,' I said firmly. Like every outfit in the Far East, Indo-Air thought the import and export rules were flexible enough to be bent double if possible. 'Legit only, Henri.'
Jordan, pretending not to hear, frowned and pointed at the piece of paper before him. 'It doesn't say what you'll be doing.'
I tapped my pocket where the second half of the telex was sitting. 'Does here. Flying into Berlin. The airlift.'
They all nodded. They knew there was trouble with Uncle Joe over there, that decent pilots with their own plane—and I almost owned a C-47—could make good money.
'Kan bei,' said Henri.
It means 'empty glass' or 'cheers', and I replied with the expected toast: 'May all your landings be happy.'
'How do you feel?' asked Jordan.
'About leaving?' I asked and he nodded. 'I had to, some time or other.'
'Yes, I thought that once. I only lasted six months back in London. Not the same.'
'You get changed. And spoiled,' said Henri. 'You forget what it is like not to be an overclass.'
Jordan laughed. 'I'd keep your voice down, old boy. Communists everywhere these days. I think they are beheading the overclass up the road.' He inclined his head north towards the jungles of Malaya, where a Communist insurrection was brewing nicely. I scanned the bar for reds, but there were only two old guys at the bar in sweat-stained cream suits, a man and his wife sitting in frosty silence and a quartet of tipsy tin miners from up-country. None looked like rabid socialists to me.
'I shall miss you,' said Henri, raising his glass. 'Kan bei. Good flying. You, too, Mosh.'
'I ain't goin' to Berlin,' he said quietly. I'd offered for him to come along for the ride. Mosh was my second best-ever co-pilot; I sometimes wondered what had happened to Cowboy, who still held onto the top spot, despite everything. Anyway, Mosh had said he'd think about it. I guess he had.
'Sorry, Mosh,' I began.
'Nah, no worries. Time for me to bale out, too. I'll ride with you as far as Dum-Dum.'
'I hear Berlin is a bit rough,' added Jordan. 'In terms of living conditions.'
'So was Rangoon when I got there,' I remembered. 'The rooms were just bug parties. They had this hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-whorehouse, where you could get a good meal in the booth, ask for a girl, have the screens pulled across ...'
I let the words drift away and the trio looked at me, waiting for the punchline. There was no punchline. When sober, I'd been too scared, too indoctrinated by US Army Air Force doctors on the various ways my dick could drop off, to avail myself of the services at the Silver Grill. And when drunk ... well, I hadn't learned to take my drink back then.
Yet that wasn't the reason why I had shut up. I was staring at the bar, at the woman in the black pencil skirt and white blouse, her head a cascade of red curls, her mouth as big and scarlet as I remembered it.
When I had first arrived in China, someone had told me that Elsa, who was married to one of the AVG admin officers, was the kind of woman who would make a dog strain at the leash. It was still true, and I found myself standing and taking a step forward, even though a more sensible reaction would have been to run screaming from the place. She had just collected a martini from the bar when she turned and saw me, no doubt gaping at her. But then, so was every other guy in the bar.
'Elsa?' my mouth said without being told.
As she came over, I realised I'd forgotten just how tall she was, nearly at eye-level with me. I felt a crackle of envy from my companions. That was when the martini hit me in the face, the spirit stinging my eyes, the vodka fumes filling my nose and causing me to splutter.
She was just turning on her heels when I licked my lips and said: 'You know, Elsa, I always had you down as a gin kind of girl.'
It was then she hit me. Not a girlie kind of slap, but a full-bore fist that sent me sprawling over a rattan chair. I bet it hurt her hand, because it sure as hell made my chin smart.
Without a word she went back to the bar for a refill, and I was aware of the stares as I pulled myself up. Henri had a bemused grin on his face; Jordan had the decency to look embarrassed and furiously stirred his Singapore Sling. Mosh just furrowed his brow, unsure of what he had just witnessed.
I pulled my damp shirt away from my body. 'That's a first.'
'And a fist.' Henri winked at me. 'Maybe it is just as well you are leaving the East, eh?'
I looked over but Elsa had gone. I wondered if she was staying at the hotel, if I could make some kind of peace, but I decided she had put her side of the story more eloquently than I ever could.
'What on earth did you do to deserve that?' asked Jordan, overcoming his chagrin at being party to a brawl, no matter how short lived.
'I chose badly,' I replied.
'When? And what was on the menu?' asked Mosh.
I ignored him. 'I've got to change.'
'We can get a drink at the Swimming Club afterwards,' said Jordan eagerly. He was a member and so could sign drink chits for the likes of us. 'If you wish.'
I called for the tab. 'I'm done,' I said firmly. 'I'll catch up with you tomorrow.'
'But tell me this now,' said Henri impatiently. 'Is that the woman you are always asking around about?'
'No,' I replied. 'That's Kitten. She did hit me once, but she never tried to blow me up, far as I can recall.'
'Who tried to blow you up?' asked Mosh, baffled.
I thought that would have been obvious, but I still said: 'Elsa.'CHAPTER 2
Following my ignominious slugging in the Long Bar, I spent the next day putting my affairs in order, getting ready to ship out of Singapore one last time. I also spent a lot of it trying not to think about what it meant that Elsa was alive. I honestly thought I had signed her particular death-warrant four years earlier. And if she was still walking this earth in one piece, maybe Cowboy, my old co-pilot, was too. I suppose I should have been glad rather than sad that I wasn't guilty of murder—no, make that manslaughter, Y'Honour—after all, but, given they might have a score to settle, it was a close-run thing.
I paid my bill and gave away my Zenith radio to the desk clerk of Dexter House, the favoured Indo-Air hostel that I called home when in Singapore. Raffles it wasn't, but I got a decent-sized room, two electric rings if ever I decided that cooking was a good idea—which hadn't happened yet—and somewhere to hang my meagre collection of clothes.
Indo-Air was the usual postwar South-East Asian hotchpotch. There were former Air Transport Command—ATC—flyers like me, a couple of ex-Marine boys, a few RAF and RAAF graduates, Mosh, who was an outback flyer originally, and Henri, the best natural aeronaut among us, all piloting a collection of demobilised transports such as the C-46 and my C-47, which the Brits called the Dakota and we Americans the Gooney Bird. I had scraped up the deposit to buy my plane at Calcutta's Dum-Dum airport in 1945. Now I leased it to Indo-Air, and paid off as much of the loan as I could each month.
We flew stuff around for the Chinese Nationalists for a while, mostly peasants going back to the provinces they had fled when the Japanese had invaded, and the odd missionary, dropping them into some steamy backwater where they would try to plant the Good Lord's seed.
The previous year, we'd done a roaring, if fraught, trade during the Indian partition, getting Muslims out of Hindu areas and vice versa. For those four or five months I always made my repayments for the Gooney on time. It also gained a couple of rifle-fire holes as well as a cramped smuggling compartment in the rear for really hot items—usually humans.
Meanwhile, my six months had become three years. Some day, real governments and proper airlines would come in and blow us all away, but for the moment it was a living. And there was always the chance I would find the woman I'd been looking for, for nigh on six years. Dead or alive, I just wanted to know what had happened to Kitten.
That reminded me. My room also boasted a loose floorboard where I could stash my old service .45. It was something else I had had trouble consigning to history, along with, it now appeared, dear old Elsa. For the first time in an age I took out the Colt and checked the action. It was still sweet.
Henri, scenting a juicy tale like sharks smell blood, came to circle me at around seven in the evening, still hoping to get the skinny on Elsa. I agreed to a beer and we walked through the streets in silence, our passage lit by the sulphurous glow of Singapore's aged streetlamps, to Lower Orchard Road. We crossed into the quieter side roads, where children played and adults gambled under the covered five foot ways. Every city has its characteristic smell, and that of Singapore wafted around us—a mixture of hot coconut oil, fried meat, incense and sweat, sometimes cut by the scent of frangipani. I knew where Henri was taking me. The Tashi, at the edge of Emerald Hill.
The Tashi-Delat, to give it its full name, was a long, low, single-storey house in a neglected garden, surrounded by ill-kempt palm trees with more than their fair share of brown, sagging fronds. It was colonised by those who had been blackballed from the likes of the Swimming or the Island clubs, with a large smattering of Australians, Kiwis and Rhodesians who didn't want to belong to such places to begin with. There was even the odd Yank: me.
The main room was divided into two by a waist-high carved teak screen; one half was a restaurant, which served a mixture of Malay and South Indian dishes and the kind of food the British liked—lots of duffs, puddings and watery curried soups. There was no polite term for it. The other half of the Tashi was a clubby bar, with secondhand padded chairs and sofas that gave it a sense of shabbiness and history that a three-year-old club didn't really deserve.
We sat ourselves on a button-backed leather couch, opposite a wall which was covered with racks of week-old British newspapers and dog-eared magazines such as Horse & Hound, Punch and the Illustrated London News.
A dozen people were at the bar, their conversation punctuated by over-raucous laughter at familiar jokes.
'I hear,' said one plummy voice, 'that there are entire islands in the Canaries where people are abnormal.'
'Abnormal?' asked his colleague.
'Do you mean deformed in some way?' piped up a third.
'Good God, you know what I mean. Abnormal.'
'Queer, yes. Abnormal. Whole bloody island,' insisted the first speaker. 'Lanzarote, I think it is called.'
'Maybe we should send Boo out there.'
Boo, the Peranakan barman—half-Malay, half-Chinese—managed a thin-lipped smile which suggested he had fantasies about mass murder. There was a pause as two strapping Western girls came in, looked around, and left. Dancers, in all probability, at the Chinese clubs that paid top Straits dollars for well-boned 'big noses'.
'You want drink?' Boo shouted after them, but it was too late. Those girls could get a chit signed in any club in town, or at least any that welcomed women. Why would they bother with the Tashi?
I ordered an Anchor from the table boy and when our drinks arrived, Henri raised the subject that had been stuck in his throat ever since Raffles: 'Want to tell me about the girl last night?'
I rubbed my chin. 'Don't get on the wrong side of her.'
'I figured that much out for myself, my friend. Old lover? Wife? Someone else's wife perhaps.'
'You French. It has to be sex, doesn't it?'
'It is always about sex, Lee. You know that.'
No, sometimes it was about money, I thought, but I just nodded. 'I was—'
'Henri!' a voice barked and we both turned to look at the stooped figure hovering over us. 'How are you?'
'Fine. Bill Clarke, Lee Crane.'
We shook hands. He was in his fifties, wiry with muscular, knotted arms and sad, rheumy eyes. He sat without asking and indicated the bar. 'Those damn fools are driving me mad. Lanza-bloody-rote indeed. I'm going to move back to the Corrie.' He meant the Foreign Correspondents' Club on Orchard Road.
'Bill's a newsman. Straits Times. Been here since 1925,' explained Henri.
'The whole time?'
He nodded. Now I knew why his eyes looked like that. 'Right through Syonanto.' It meant Light of the South: it was what the Japanese had renamed the city when they had captured it.
'Changi?' I asked tentatively.
There, the invaders had held 30,000 people in a prison designed for about 6000. I took a hit of my drink, hoping I wasn't in for a long prison memoir. I'd heard a lot of them from men, women, priests, doctors, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis. None put you in a party mood.
'What about you?' he asked.
'The Hump,' I said.
'Lee,' spluttered Henri at my reticence. 'Not just The Hump. He was with the American Volunteer Group at first.'
Bill's reaction summed up why I didn't mention the AVG too often: legend had overtaken truth. He smiled and I thought his tightened skin was going to split. 'The Flying Tigers? I see. Regular John Wayne, eh?'
Excerpted from The Last Sunrise by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2006 Robert Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an outstanding novel...romantic locales, romantic time period, wars and perfidity, romance and intrigue. It's hard to find Robert Ryan novels in the US, but if you get your hands on one, read it!