One of the few: the remarkable life and times of a former Flying Tiger
95-year-old Ho Weng Toh, one of the few surviving members of the famed wartime air squadron, tells how he fled Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion, survived 18 bombing missions over China and is now writing his memoirs
After two hours chatting with war hero Captain Ho Weng Toh, it's a surprise to hear the nonagenarian describe himself as a freak.
"How many 95-year-olds do you know? I'm still able to go around independently at my age. I'm still relatively healthy and active. My mind is still sound, my memory is still good. To me, that's a freak," he insists.
The energetic senior citizen is halfway through writing a memoir of his "long and complicated" life, he says, which is an understatement.
One of the few surviving members of the Flying Tigers Sino-US allied squadron, Ho served as a bomber pilot during the second world war. In peacetime he became a pilot for the fledgling Malayan Airways and later Singapore Airlines, where he flew sultans and ministers, and trained scores of pilots.
Earlier this year, Ho received medals in both Beijing and Taipei for his wartime service at events to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. The packed schedule of parades, gala dinners and reunions has kept him so busy that he has fallen behind with writing his book, to be published by World Scientific.
No release date has been set, but Ho hopes that his story "can be a contribution to Singapore and society".
"People want me to write a book," he explains. "They say it's a waste if I don't record it. They wonder what kind of life I'm leading and they keep on asking me how I maintain my longevity. There's a lot of curiosity."
Ho was born in the city of Ipoh on the Malaysian peninsula, the first of six sons (there were five daughters, too). He was a playful child: "Instead of focusing on studies, I focused on catching fish, looking for butterflies and spiders and rubber seeds. We boys went to the caves, climbed mountains; different places."
This disappointed his parents, he says, especially his father, a shoe store owner who believed in the traditional Chinese virtues of discipline and hard work.
Still, the young Ho advanced in school and studied engineering at Lingnan University before going to the University of Hong Kong in 1940 to pursue science.
When war broke out, he volunteered as an air raid warden but Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day 1941. "We kept evacuating as the Japanese advanced," he recalls. "Life was very, very tough."
The regime was increasingly brutal and, in August 1942, Ho fled with some fellow students on a sampan to China.
Before long, he had signed up as pilot in the Chinese Air Force in response to a recruitment ad: "I was thinking that's my chance to do something." He was 22.
After completing a year's air force training in the US, he returned to China and was assigned to the 1st Bomb Squadron of the Chinese-American Composite Wing in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province. He even became engaged to a young American during his stint in Colorado but she died suddenly of acute asthma: "It was a big blow to me," he recalls.
The composite wing, which included American and Chinese pilots and crew, was credited with destroying about 500 Japanese aircraft, as well as many vehicles and ships, during the war.
Their formation was "a bit of propaganda" to show the world that the Americans had joined the anti-Japanese war in China, Ho says. Still, "we lived together in the same compound - about 25 pilots and another 50 supporting crew - so it was unique. I made a lot of American friends during the war."
(The Americans, who found his name difficult to pronounce, called him Winky: "I hated it. It sounds like a child's name," Ho says, "but I'm OK with it now.")
Until seven years ago, Ho would attend the composite wing's annual convention in the US and catch up with old friends; dwindling members and their limited mobility with age, however, has made such gatherings rarer. The wartime buddies still stay in touch by email and phone but "out of hundreds, there are about 10 left", Ho says. "Life is like that."
Fear was a constant presence on the 18 combat missions that he flew. The bombers were sent in to destroy facilities such as arms depots and warehouses, and disrupt troop movements, but the intelligence was inconsistent. Whether it was high-altitude shelling or if the planes went in low on precision attacks, they faced plenty of ground fire even if the Japanese air force was preoccupied with the war in the Pacific. Many of his comrades lost their lives.
"Fear is always there. And the anxiety and possibility of being hurt and killed is always there. You're flying, you'll get shot at. Every mission calls for maximum attention, focus, to be able to accomplish the target."
But because they were flying bombers, "our survival was a little better than the fighters", Ho adds. "Fighters are more adventurous, more active. They are much more exposed but they are more glamorous. Bomber pilots are very quiet, very sedate; we have to be very cool."
A photo album of his younger days offers glimpses of the young captain's life then: posing with fellow pilots beside their Mitchell B-25 bombers (the aircraft he flew was named Hey Mabel) and going out with elegant, cheongsam-clad ladies.
Captain Ho continued on an upward trajectory in peacetime.
"I came back from the war thinking that maybe there was something for me back home," he recalls. "Malaya was still the same. The shoe shop was still there, waiting for me. At that time I was 26, it was a little bit late to go back to studies."
Instead, he became a commercial pilot for the Central Air Transport Corporation in Shanghai, where he met a Portuguese-Chinese beauty named Augusta Rodrigues. They married in 1949, just two weeks before the Communist army seized control of the city.
In 1951 the couple found a haven in Singapore, where Ho began flying DC-3 planes for Malayan Airways. But everyone in their young family held different status: "I was only a British-protected person. My wife had a Portuguese passport. My eldest son Freddy was born in Guangzhou, and my daughter was born in Hong Kong. Five of us, different places."
So when the Lion City assumed self-government from the British in 1959, they decided to become Singapore citizens.
A few years later Ho was made a training captain, a role he continued to hold in Singapore Airlines, which was formed after Malayan Airways was broken up into two carriers in 1972 (the other being Malaysia Airline System).
By the time he retired as chief pilot in 1980, Ho had trained scores of pilots.
The widower - he lost his wife to lung cancer in 1977 - remained active travelling around the world (especially to watch sporting events such as Wimbledon and the soccer World Cup) and meeting up with friends old and new (he's also a keen bridge player and has been known to test his stamina at marathon sessions).
A gregarious man, he has friends aged from 40 to 80, and does not lack female company, mainly caring former colleagues.
"They keep giving me things a walking stick and a trolley bag. They want me to be able to walk properly. Those things are not cheap, you know," says Ho, who still has a soldier's erect bearing.
The secret to his good health, he says, is "common sense".
"I don't follow a fitness regime, I eat any old thing, I drink. Everything in moderation. If you like something, do more of it. People think I have a formula. I don't. I wish I did, then I might be richer."
His eldest son Fred, 65, a retired administrator, describes his father as a social being: "He cannot sit still, his mind is always wandering; his body moving. His whole concept of life revolves around his friends."
Growing up, Fred Ho adds, he and his two siblings, Catherine and David, loved going through their father's old photos.
"They were like my cartoons. We knew that he did a lot, that he was a hero, but just that," says the younger Ho, who now helps keep track of his father's appointments and manages interview requests.
These days are the captain's busiest since retirement: "In the [past] seven to eight years, my life has evolved again," he says. "Before that, it was just routine. But suddenly people started taking an interest, wanting to know more about me."
He used to write his memoirs at home, but now dictates to a friend to speed up the process.
"I am trying to cut this short. I don't have the time left. We have to hurry a little bit," he says matter-of-factly.
Of the many interviews he has given, there's one question he wishes he was asked but never was: what satisfies him in life?
"My satisfaction is that my legs carry me, my mind is still clear," he says in reply to his own question. "I would say I'm about 75 per cent happy. And that's not an easy thing to say. My family is important, my education is important, my travel, my money. But to each his own."