The Baroness Katharine Harris van Hogendorp sits in the nostalgic light of morning by a handsome Knabe piano, its unique dun-colored finish worn away above the keyboard, a place where she rested her forearm while teaching generations of piano students.
She's a somewhat unlikely baroness, completely without affectation, warm and sympathetic and thoughtful, still light-hearted and venturesome in her mid-80s. She's a spirited Baltimore woman who married an enlightened Dutch nobleman.
She's reflecting this morning on her World War II service as a Red Cross worker at a secret air base in India. She had dash, daring and a strong feeling for adventure.
"I still do," she says. "Most of my adventures have proved to be successful, happy ones. Not all. I've made some mistakes."
But not on the day she she hitchhiked a totally unauthorized ride aboard a B-24 bomber making a reconnaissance run over Japanese-held Rangoon in Burma.
"Very exciting," she says. "I had many qualms before I got on the plane. But once I was on the plane and the guys cheered, I cheered with them."
She had hidden quaking in the grass and scrambled out to the plane taxiing toward its takeoff.
"I had been afraid so often by that time that it was part of living," she says. "You can become accustomed to anything. And I suppose you can become accustomed to being afraid."
Van Hogendorp chronicles this flight and other adventures in her recent book "Survival in the Land of Dysentery," an account of her tour of duty with the American Red Cross in India. Next month, her service will be celebrated at Red Cross headquarters in Washington. She'll sign a few books, too.
She was typical of the thousands of women who volunteered as Red Cross "girls" during World War II, about 50 of whom were killed in action.
Van Hogendorp served at an Army Air Force Base at Chakulia, India, and later in the Indian hill country at Darjeeling, the famed tea capital.
In the steamy lowlands of West Bengal, Chakulia was one of the major bases in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, a vast, dangerous, politically explosive war zone now often neglected by historians of World War II.
But from Chakulia, the Air Force flew vital supply and bombing missions over the "Hump" of the Himalaya Mountains into China. The route was called the Aluminum Trail because it was -- and still is -- littered with the wreckage of nearly 450 plane crashes. Chakulia airmen supported the building of the Burma Road and the campaigns of Gen. "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell. The first B-29 raids on Japan flew from Chakulia.
Friends from the sky
"I was very close to this particular crew," she says of the guys on her B-24 flight over Rangoon. They named their B-29 "Katie" after her. B-29s flew long-range supply and bombing runs, but the smaller B-24 "Liberators" flew scouting missions ahead of the bombers. "Katie" would fly 42 bombing missions, cross the Hump six times and drop rations to American POWs in a prison camp in Japan.
But van Hogendorp's joy in making the recon flight was tempered by her concern about the people who would be bombed the next day.
"It's a horrible thought to see that beauty and see people going their own way and all of that kind of thing and to think that all of that is going to disappear tomorrow and lives would be taken and innocent citizens killed."
But she says: "I don't regret having done that. Or any of the things I did. ... I was a pretty good girl, most of the time."
She was in her late 20s and had given up a promising career as a concert artist when she volunteered for work with the Office of Civilian Mobilization late in 1942.
She was the youngest of the four children of Katharine and Carlton Danner Harris, a clergyman who edited the Baltimore Southern Methodist, a monthly church journal. He became pastor of Wilson Memorial Methodist Church, a splendid classical edifice at Charles Street and University Parkway now used by the Johns Hopkins University as an interfaith community center. A stained glass window dedicated to him depicted the Ascension with an angel on either side.
"My sister and I posed for those two angels," van Hogendorp says. "Actually, I can't recognize myself at all. I can't tell which one is I."
She studied piano and voice at the Peabody Conservatory. A soprano, she often sang with her brother, Charles, who also studied voice at the Peabody. They once sang in Druid Hill Park before an audience of 40,000.
After the war, Charles, who became a Baltimore judge, frequently was a guest singer on her WFBR radio show "Songs at Seven."
End of her singing
"I had some good followers in Baltimore," she says. "I had a six-piece orchestra and I sang and I would always have a guest artist. Usually men. I would sing a solo or so and the guest would sing a solo and we would end up doing a duet. I did that for over a year until I met my husband. Then I gave it up."
After that her musical life was mostly teaching piano.
But she had studied voice with Elisabeth Schumann, one of the great sopranos of the 20th century, summered at Tanglewood in Massachusetts and graduated from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute in May 1942.
Her recording of a Handel cantata was acclaimed as the No. 1 classical vocal in 1941, just ahead of a singer named Paul Robeson. She was artist-in-residence at Duke University when Texas' Baylor University asked her to consider becoming head of its music department.
In the summer of 1942, the war was escalating. Her two brothers were of draft age. She pictured them fighting in Europe.
"Somehow," she says, "I thought of myself being back in the hills of Texas and their being over there and I would just be very unhappy. So one night after walking back and forth over the campus with a good friend I decided to send a telegram in the morning and [say] I couldn't accept the position because I wanted to do something in the war effort."
But ironically, she says, "they both got medical deferments."
At the Red Cross, she was literally tapped for duty in India toward the end of 1943. In those days of high secrecy, when posters warned "loose lips sink ships," the signal for an overseas assignment was a tap on the shoulder. You were to keep your bags packed for duty anywhere from the Arctic to the equator. And tell no one.
"Within 24 hours, you'd be out of the country," she recalls. "I started to turn around and say, 'It's a mistake, I haven't been here long enough.' "
She'd been on official duty with the Red Cross less than two weeks and she'd had virtually no training. "But the war had escalated, so they just forgot about all that stuff," she says.
She sailed from Newport News, Va., aboard a troop ship, destination unknown. "Not the slightest idea," she says. "I guess I sort of assumed we would go to Europe. But after 28 days at sea I figured they must have lost their way."
The days, though, kept getting warmer, so they figured they were going south. They swung around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa en route to Bombay. She arrived at Chakulia just as the long runways needed for the B-29s were being finished.
She moved into a basha, a sort of thatched-roof concrete hut that came equipped with rats, giant cockroaches, huge anthills built overnight by industrious insects and an outhouse, where on her first night she was greeted by a venomous scorpion -- "which I thought was a little lobster," she says.
The heat often reached 130 degrees, too hot even for the early B-29s, which were rated only to 115 degrees.
She served the traditional coffee and doughnuts to crews on the flight lines and to security forces in isolated outposts. In turn, they introduced her to "bamboo juice" -- "which made all kinds of things possible," she says.
She entertained the airmen in a wooden amphitheater on the base and at tiny outposts, singing the songs the men liked, "all the popular songs of the day." And she sang at funerals for those who died. She also created a 40-voice male chorus much-praised by Andre Kostelanetz, who passed through on a tour with his wife, the coloratura Lily Pons.
Pons bunked with a dazzled van Hogendorp.
"So many times I had paid 50 cents for standing room to hear her sing, and to think she was going to sleep in my little basha hut."
Van Hogendorp took R & R trips to Kashmir and the foot of the Himalayas and found them wonderfully beautiful and blessedly cool. She also found romance with a dashing British pilot named John Saunders, a genuine hero who had liberated a Rangoon prison camp single-handedly.
A dashing pilot
"He was very handsome," she says. "And, of course, at that moment the greatest hero anywhere around. Accompanying him into those English clubs you could see the ladies would swoon practically. I loved it."
One day he gave her a lovely citron-colored topaz set in a rich Indian gold setting. The next morning he flew away and simply disappeared. Neither he nor his plane was ever found, lost forever on the Aluminum Trail.
Did she love him?
"Sort of," she replies. "I must confess I was sort of in love more or less all the time with somebody."
Soon after the war she married the Baron Frederik van Hogendorp, the scion of a distinguished Dutch family. He died in 1982.
"I loved him very, very much," she says. "We had a wonderful life together."
She began writing her Red Cross memoirs about eight years ago when she enrolled in a creative writing course at the Johns Hopkins University. None of the young journalists and aspiring writers in her class knew there had been a China-Burma-India Theater.
"They were so excited," she recalls. "They couldn't believe it. 'Write everything down that you can think of because it's history,' they said. I did have some unusual experiences."
And so she did. And what she remembered interested the Sergeant Kirkland's Press, a small publisher in Fredericksburg, Va., that specializes in offbeat military and social history.
She's still writing, essays now for a course offered by the Renaissance program at the College of Notre Dame. She also joins the water aerobics program twice a week. The Renaissance program, she notes is for "senior citizens 55 and above."
"I think of 55 as being pretty young, you know," she says, with a smile that would grace a 22-year-old.
Pub Date: 2/02/99