The C-46 skidded on the red dirt runway from the moment it touched down. It stopped in front of a small metal building with a slanting banana-leaf roof. I hoisted myself out of the bucket seat to disembark.
This was Christ-mas Day 50 years ago, 1957. Major Barnum of the American Military Assistance Group (MAAG) welcomed me to the island of Kinmen (sometimes called Quemoy). At the time the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan were still at war with the Chinese Communist on the mainland. (They are still at war but no longer violent.)
The China mainland was less than five miles away and surrounded the island on three sides. (Some years later the two sides took turns shelling each other’s beaches. China on odd days and Taiwan on even days. The only causality were some American officers who went fishing on the wrong day.)
In those days, Kinmen was lauded as the last bastion of freedom. I had been invited to this front-line battle station by the Chief of Chaplains, Lt. Col. Loszewski in Taipei. We took off before dawn from Sung Shan Air Force Base on the east side of Taipei.
We flew due southwest to the Penghu Islands (The Pescadores, named by early Portuguese sailors in the 16th century.) From there we flew north-west, skimming the top of the water, under the Communist Chinese radar, to Kinmen. Flying that low over the Taiwan Straits caused me to wonder if I had made a bad choice for Christmas. Adding to my anxiety, my seat did not have a seatbelt.
The Nationalist Chinese (Taiwan) Air Force made three or four trips a week to the off-shore islands to bring mail and supplies to the 90,000 Taiwan troops. I had with me three movies and a huge bag of mail.
Majors Barnum and Bull took me in a jeep on what they called the “scenic route.” From the highest point on the island we could see the China mainland, and, with field glasses, buildings on the campus of the University of Amoy. Kinmen was a garden fortress.
All the gun emplacements were underground. Around them were newly planted flowers and trees, even vegetable gardens to conceal the cannons.
Major Bull, who was handling the Christmas service arrangements, said “There is more here than you could ever imagine.” I think he meant fire-power.
I was to speak at 12:30, half-way between the Chinese troops mess and the Christmas dinner. Col. and Mrs. Tong arrived in their own car. She dressed like Madam Chiang Kai-shek in a lovely formal qi-pao. Major Bull confided in me before the Tongs arrived that Col. Tong was said to be the only military man allowed to have his wife with him on the island.
I was looking forward to the feast that had all the best of an American holiday and a Chinese festival. After words by the majors and the colonel, I was introduced to speak. Only then did I realize I would be leaving before the dinner as the C-46 was warming up. A thoughtful Madam Tong suggested to Major Bull that they prepare a turkey sandwich for my return flight.
I could see why Colonel Tong had his wife there. She brought a lot more of Christmas spirit than all the officers. I gave the benediction and immediately Major Bull was showing me the door. (The very thing a lot of laymen would like to do to preachers.)
Jody and I had gone to Taiwan as Southern Baptist missionaries because, as Americans, we could not go to the China mainland. So my Christmas flight was very meaningful to be able to get so close to the land we wanted to serve.
Thirty years later, 1987, I saw the island of Kinmen again. This time from the China mainland, on the outskirts of the city of Amoy (Xiamen). Jody and I stood as near the beach as we could, the Taiwan flags could be seen on the nearest islands. We marveled at all that had happened among the Chinese on both sides.
With Chairman Mao’s death and more open leadership, even Christian churches were given back their property. President Jimmy Carter had asked Deng Xiaoping for two things: allow the missionaries to return and permit the Bible in China. Carter was wise. By asking for two things, he hoped to get one. And he did. Deng allowed Bibles once again in China, but no return of the missionaries.
If the Chinese wanted churches, then they must lead them and not foreign missionaries. The Chinese churches have grown more than ever in history — becoming Chinese. Forty million Bibles have been published in China.
A great deal of wonderful things have happened since that first view of China 50 years ago on Christmas Day. May the next 50 be even greater.
Britt Towery, who served 30 years a missionary, is a San Angelo free-lance writer. His columns appear in the Bulletin on Fridays. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.