“What the hell is the Navy doing here?”
That’s how U.S. Navy radioman Richard Rutan was greeted when he stepped down from a C-47 plane in central China in June 1944.
The question was somehow fitting for Rutan, a member of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, or SACO.Its official insignia, after all, was a string of punctuation marks on a pennant, like cuss words in a comic strip, symbolizing SACO’s unofficial slogan, “What the Hell?”
Rutan’s arrival at Lüliang drew a crowd of Army Air Forces men eager to greet the first plane ever to land at the new base.He was almost as baffled about his presence on the desolate airstrip as they were. A few days earlier, the 21-year-old had been at Guilin, about 300 miles inland from Hong Kong, intercepting Japanese code with a dozen other radio operators when his officer tapped him on the shoulder and told him to get his gear together.
He flew into Lüliang with orders to find the major in charge and request private space without offering an explanation. To his astonishment, the major handed him the keys to an empty building.