History of What the Hell Flag


Reprinted from the August 2002 SACO News with permission


“We had too little equipment to keep us all busy sixteen hours a day. We had no recreation facilities except our walking shoes, and we were eight difficult miles from town. We had no movies. We did not have the power we needed even to generate enough electricity for a good reading light, though reading lights would have been put to little use for we had very little to read. There was no airplane space to waste on such canteen supplies as toothpaste, soap, cigarettes, or candy. Chinese cigarettes contained little real tobacco, of course, but they had to do. And no personal belongings except what each man had been able to carry personally had yet come over the Hump though, judging from what the boys had to say, every possible good and useful thing was packed in their missing trunks and foot lockers.

” … Under the circumstances, our inability to perform the tasks for which we were being prepared was trying on temper and nerves. And so, to keep some sort of mental balance, I encouraged foolishness.

“The weather had changed to wet and rainy and the crop of mosquitoes was bountiful. The result was that our boys were soon topping any New Jersey mosquito story ever told. Our mosquitoes, for example, were so big that they had circulatory systems of their own. That explained why, if you killed a thousand of them, they all had blood in them. Some of the boys worried, too, about a huge plate glass mirror in Fairy Cave (the English translation for Miles’ residence provided by Gen. Tai Li). It would cost, they said, something like $3500 U.S. to replace it if some myopic mosquito happened to shatter it by flying into it by mistake. And, too, that would be an awful lot of bad luck!

“While we were still waiting for our first guns we heard that the Army had flown in a load of hardwood tent pegs, but the boys were thoughtfully magnanimous. The Army, they agreed, really needed those pegs to keep the mosquitoes from flying away with their tents.

“We decided on a mascot and drew a big mosquito as our first emblem. We called him “Socko,” in honor of SACO (Sino-American Cooperative Organization).

“One day when several of us had gone to Chungking and were at work at Fairy Cave, we caught Webb Heagy standing on the terrace studying the unusual number of planes that were lined up beside the river airstrip far below our hilltop.

“What’s on your mind, Webb?'” I asked.

“Some of those planes,'” he began, ”’have Army numbers. Some have C.N.A.C. [China National Airways Corporation] insignia. And some aren’t marked at all. Now you may not believe it, but the ones without any numbers or insignia are mosquitoes that have managed to get into that formation.'”

“We admitted that the idea was plausible but we felt sure that no proper Fairy Cave or Happy Valley mosquito would be caught dead without its own special insignia. “How about a ‘What-the-Hell? Pennant?'” I asked, whereupon we solemnly formed the “What-the Hell?” Association, and hoisted a pennant I had brought with me that already had a little personal history of its own.

“For once my “What-the-Hell” pennant had managed to serve a useful purpose.

It should be added, however, that the incident troubled that Japanese admiral enough to have him set in motion a request for information that actually reached Washington and even penetrated to certain inner offices of the State and Navy Departments. In fact, when I was transferred to Washington a few months later, that Japanese inquiry had been passed down again by easy stages until it actually landed on my desk, together with a print of the picture the admiral had shown me.

“What,”’ its accompanying memo asked, ”’is the meaning of the pennant you flew on the John D. Edwards?'”

“That had been in August 1939, and I promptly started a reply back up the chain of command. The Japanese admiral, however, never received any direct answer to his query. Somewhere along the way, I have been told, my explanation aroused the risibility of some of my seniors and, as a result, what I had to say was “filed.” But now that the war had come and we members of Navy Group China were looking about for an acceptable bit of insignia, the “What-the-Hell” pennant seemed made to order for our purpose. Consequently, it was then and there adopted, partly, perhaps, in the hope that because of what we hoped to accomplish, the Japanese would somehow come to understand that, in addition to its nonsense, that pennant had its share of serious meaning after all.”