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Don Leu's Brief Brushes With History


My father, Don Leu, was a modest man who never "dropped names" or tried to impress anyone.  During his service with the U.S. Navy in World War II, however, he had brief encounters with a few people you may have heard of.



Above:  John F. Kennedy with his Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger.

When my father was 20 years old, in 1943, he entered the U.S. Navy's V-12 Officer Training School in Dickinson, North Dakota during World War II.  One of his fellow naval officer candidates at Dickinson was a young fellow named Pierre Salinger who would later become a prominent writer and, in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy's Press Secretary and spokesman for the White House.


Above:  Salinger with President Kennedy.

My father told me that Pierre was an amiable guy who played the piano well and attracted the ladies.  But, according to my father, the portly Pierre couldn't do a single push-up.  My mother told me that after she started dating my dad in Dickinson, in 1943, Pierre tried to butt in and asked her out repeatedly.  But she didn't care much for Pierre, she said, and always turned him down.


My parents kept a scrapbook of their time together in Dickinson in the early 1940s and it includes some old newspapers from the V-12 school there.  There are several articles written by the young Pierre (see my Don's Naval Officer Training webpage to read one of Pierre's articles).  Pierre Salinger died in France in October 2004.



Above:  Rudy Boesch, former Navy SEAL, on the set of "Survivor."

Above:  Rudy during his SEAL days.

The next year, in 1944, Don began training with the Navy's Scouts and Raiders (later called the Navy SEALs) in Fort Pierce, Florida.  In April of 1945, a new recruit named Rudy Boesch arrived, and he trained with my father in Scouts and Raiders for a few months before my dad shipped out to China.


In 2000, a much older Rudy became a contestant during the first season of the CBS television series, "Survivor."  My father was impressed that a former SEAL had made it onto the show.  As my dad watched "Survivor," he said to me, "If that SEAL could do it, I bet I could, too."


Interestingly though, he didn't realize that he and Rudy had actually served together in the same unit in Fort Pierce back in 1945.  I didn't realize it either until after my dad had died.  Rudy, by the way, served in the Navy for over 45 years, longer than any other enlisted man in the history of the U.S. Navy.  Rudy even looks a little like my father.  But he's a bit more, umm, irascible.



Above:  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife in Chungking in September 1945 with U.S. Admiral Kinkaid, one of the Navy's highest ranking officers. 

A few months after graduating from the Navy's Scouts and Raiders program, in September 1945, Don arrived in Chungking, China.  He had made a long and arduous overland trip in a U.S. Navy truck convoy that had traveled from Calcutta, India into southern China via the muddy, twisting and dangerous Burma Road.  Chungking was the Chinese Nationalist government's capital during World War II.  The Nationalist government had moved China's capital from Nanking to Chungking in 1937 because, located far inland, it was safer from the invading Japanese army.


The Chinese Nationalist President, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang, lived in Chungking during World War II.  However, they built a "safe house" in Happy Valley, about eight miles west of Chungking, where they could retreat to in times of civil unrest or Japanese attack.  Happy Valley had, for many years, been the lair of Chiang Kai-shek's second-in-command, General Tai Li, but Tai Li had donated the land to SACO in 1942 so they could build their headquarters there. 


My dad, Ensign Don Leu, arrived in Happy Valley in early September 1945 after driving in a U.S. Navy convoy of over 300 vehicles, coming in from Calcutta and carrying supplies for SACO camps throughout China to prepare for the planned invasion of Japan.  This was just as World War II had officially and suddenly ended, to the surprise of just about everyone, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.  The peace treaty was signed on September 2, 1945, as the long convoy was rolling through southern China on its way to Chungking.


Above:  My dad took this picture of Chiang Kai-shek's "safe house" in Happy Valley, near Chungking.

The war in China was far from over, however.  Many Japanese refused to surrender during the weeks and even months after the formal declaration of peace had been signed between the Allies and Japan.  To compound matters, the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-Tung, were now renewing their battle against the Chinese Nationalist government, which had begun in the 1930s.  This conflict had been suspended in an uneasy alliance between the two sides during World War II so the Chinese forces could jointly battle the invading Japanese.  That tenuous alliance was now unraveling, however, and the Nationalists were resuming their battle against the Communists, which President and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was directing from his headquarters in Chungking and Happy Valley.


My dad had been promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.) shortly after arriving in China and thus was the senior U.S. Navy officer at Happy Valley in the late fall of 1945.  He told me that he got to know, to some extent, the Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang, while he was stationed there.  The couple would sometimes visit their second home, which was perched on a hillside in Happy Valley, a few hundred yards from my dad's house.


Describing Chiang Kai-shek to me, my dad said, "He was honest.  He was dedicated.  He was a very fine but not brilliant person of average intelligence."  Regarding Chiang's wife, known as Madame Chiang, my dad said, "She was an elitist.  She was arrogant.  She was demanding.  She was self-centered, and she had a dominant effect on the general.  I couldn't stand her," he chuckled.


My Father's Brushes with History After the War

My father had several interesting encounters with celebrities and fame after World War II.  Like I say, he was a modest and unassuming person who never sought fame or wanted to be in the spotlight.  He was much like myself, you could say:  very low-key and introverted.  Here are some of his post-war brushes with history:



Above:  My father on the Today Show in 1966.


  • In 1966 my father was interviewed on a segment of The Today Show.  He was an educational planner and during the interview he discussed his recent plan for the schools in Chicago.  This was back when the Today Show discussed substantive topics instead of the fluff they talk about today. 


    I was only six years old at the time, but I remember getting up early that morning to watch him on TV.  My mom took a picture of our TV screen, which I've shown here.  Nice tie, huh?


  • In the summer of 1967 he flew back to our home in Lansing, Michigan after a business trip.  After he got home, he opened his luggage and realized that he had picked up the wrong suitcase, so he drove back to the airport.  Fortunately the folks who had picked up his luggage were also there, so they exchanged suitcases, shook hands and went on their way. 


    Above:  The Jefferson Airplane.  Don't look in their suitcase.


    Those "folks" as it turned out were the famous 1960s rock group, Jefferson Airplane.  They had flown into town to give a concert at Michigan State University nearby.  Their music is still played on television ads and even now, over 50 years later, I think of that encounter whenever I hear their music.  But considering all of their songs about psychedelic drugs, I've sometimes wondered what was in their suitcase!


  • In 1971 my father was eating lunch alone at a cafeteria in Chicago during a business trip when an older fellow dressed in a nice suit asked if he could join him.  This fellow wanted to talk about educational planning.  The person was William Paley, the revered president and founder of CBS and one of the most influential people in America at the time.  Paley had heard that my dad was in the building and sought him out, and they talked for over an hour about education.


  •  In 1972 after a business trip to the east coast, my dad flew back to our home in the Bay Area of California where we lived at that time.  He told us all about this wonderful couple he'd sat next to on the plane and their cute little girl, telling us that they were such nice people.  He went on and on about them. The next evening he was reading the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and saw their picture in an advertisement.  "Hey, here's that nice couple I met," he told us, and we read the ad. 


    Above:  Sonny, Cher and Chastity.  "I Got You, Babe."


    As it turned out, that "nice couple" was the famous pop music duo, Sonny and Cher.  They had flown to San Francisco the day before with their daughter Chastity to perform a concert there.  Just like with the Jefferson Airplane, my dad had never heard of Sonny and Cher (he wasn't much into pop culture, you could say).  I'm sure Sonny and Cher enjoyed spending a few hours talking to someone who had absolutely no idea who they were.


  • But perhaps his most interesting encounter occurred in February 1965 when my dad, a professor at Michigan State, was working in Bangkok, Thailand.  He was planning some new schools in Bangkok with the government and met a fellow American there named Burt Reynolds.  They were both from Lansing, Michigan, so they had a lot to talk about.  Burt was an unknown, struggling actor starring in his first movie, a low-budget, black-and-white affair called "Operation C.I.A." which was being filmed in Bangkok.  Since neither of them had much money they decided to split a hotel room for the week.  Burt invited him to stop by the film set, so my father dropped by a few times out of curiosity and brought his camera.  I don't think my dad ever saw the finished movie, though.

    Many years later, after Burt became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, my parents would occasionally see an advertisement for one of Burt's films and my mom would tease my dad saying, "There's your buddy!"  My dad didn't tell me the whole story about meeting Burt Reynolds until a few months before he died, and only after I asked him about it.  He told me that Burt was a great guy and very friendly and down-to-earth, and he enjoyed getting to know him.

    Several years after my dad passed away, I stumbled across his photos from Thailand, below.  Then I became intrigued so I bought a DVD copy of "Operation C.I.A." and watched it.  Frankly it's a pretty bad movie so don't waste your time.  But it was interesting to see the scenes of Burt Reynolds that my dad had photographed, as an onlooker in Thailand in 1965.


Above left:  My dad took this picture of the filming of "Operation CIA" in 1965.  That's Burt Reynolds my dad's roommate for a week in the sports car starring in his first movie.  Burt's dropping off his co-star, Danielle Aubry, at a hotel.  I believe this is the same hotel where Burt and my dad split a room.

Above right:  And here's the same scene from the movie.  Nice car, huh?



Above left:  Then the filming moved up to the rooftop restaurant.  Here's another picture from my dad's slide collection.  That's Burt on the right with Danielle, in the green dress.  The director, Christian Nyby, is adjusting the scenery.

Above right:  And here's the same scene from the movie.  This is Burt a few years before he became a celebrity, starring in such movies as "Deliverance" and "Smokey and the Bandit."



Table of Contents:

SACO:  The Sino-American Cooperative Organization

SECTION 1:  Introduction

My SACO Home Page


SECTION 2:  My Father's Experience in SACO

1.  Don's Naval Officer Training During WW II
     (July 1943 - May 1945)

2.  Across the Pacific to Calcutta  (June 1945)

3.  A Navy Convoy on the Burma Road
     (August 1945)

4.  At Happy Valley Near Chungking, China
     (Fall 1945)

5.  Coming Home  (March 1946)

6.  Reflections on China

SECTION 3:  SACO in the Media

"A Different Kind of War" by Vice Admiral
Milton Miles

1946 Collier's Article:  SACO and General Tai Li

SACO Goes Hollywood


SECTION 4:  Other Information About SACO

The SACO "What-the-Hell" Pennant

>  Don Leu's Brief Brushes with History

The SACO Veteran's Organization

My SACO Veteran's Forum

Links and More Information About SACO

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