James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Six

I was recalled to Calcutta. I would be in command to assemble 28 Army Air Corps musicians to serve as the headquarters military band for parade and reviews. We would be stationed at the Bengal Air Base a few miles north of downtown Calcutta. From this group I built a 16-piece “swing” dance/show band to back USO performers from the states playing our bases. I used some WAC singers, a comic, and Anglo-Indian girl dancers. I would act as the show’s master of ceremonies. At least one Saturday night each month the band would play at the Calcutta Air Corps officer’s club. Officers were allocated one bottle of booze per month which usually was put in the officer’s club.
In Calcutta, although I had regular quarters at Bengal, I was assigned, on a permanent basis, a room at the officers club in a large Calcutta hotel that had been taken over by the Americans. I had my own jeep and traveled back and forth on a regular basis between Bengal and downtown. It was good and happy duty. I made a lot of friends.
Another key area for us was our base at Yanshapore which was populated by “old English.” The parents of a young English girl singer with my show band lived there. We did two shows, and I stayed with her parents. The second night after the show the band bus and equipment left for Calcutta. I left late, alone, in my jeep. A tiger paced my jeep on a hill above me until I ran into an Indian demonstration in a small village. The road was blocked so I drove into an empty warehouse shed, closed the door, and sat there all night with my 45 ready. At sunrise, all was calm so I hit the road back to Calcutta.
We worked shows on a regular basis which took me into most areas of Eastern/Southern India. I got a special assignment to Bowanii Junction as a W-2 observer under the cover of investigating the area for a future show. Headquarters had information that Mr. Gandhi had called for an Indian demonstration there against the British railway system, which was operated with/by Anglo-Indians. I went in by jeep with a driver. There were thousands of Indians sitting on the railway tracks. The train came to a halt.
I watched as the English officer in charge of the training ordered his Anglo/Indian engineer to proceed through the crowd. The engineer refused. Mr. Gandhi was making his first “non-violent statement”. I returned to Calcutta and made my report.
All India was in famine and a cholera epidemic raged. People would lie down and die in the streets. Many of our troops suffered bad dysentery from drinking the water. I never drank the local water and always took my pill each day. My next D-2 undercover assignment was on May 15, 1945. The Indian province of Kashmir was on the Afghanistan border. It was beautiful with several lakes and populated by English families on “holiday”. I would join a British officer group, go through the Khyber Pass into Kabul, where we would join up with a convoy of Russian trucks headed south with grain, rice, etc. India was in famine. The Russians would exchange the grains with us for animals and weapons. The road stayed open all through the war.
The Burma Road from Chabua Assam, to Michinaw was now open. I was assigned to take the show on the Burma Road. We traveled in caravan with flatbed trailers for our stage. Gear, tents etc., in a bus. We headed down the road. Whenever we encountered a “working road crew” we stopped to put on an impromptu show. We did this all the way to Michinaw, stopping only at night with some crew to bed down. We played several shows in Michinaw. A C-47 flew us to our air base in Chintu, China, to do a show. Back to Calcutta.
On New Year’s Eve 1945 we put on a show at the Bengal Air Base in the huge B-36 hangar. It would be the biggest service officer party ever. I would open the evening with my band and play a 30-minute set, then the Navy Band would play a set. We would alternate sets all night, then for midnight I would produce and MC a big “show gala.”
The shindig started with a superb dinner and dancing. My band opened playing “swing.” Nobody danced. Then Navy Band came on. It was a better swing band than mine. Nobody danced. It was my second set. Something had to be done to get these people dancing. My guys were all good pros, so I decided we would play a set of old “Mickey Mouse sweet band ballroom dance songs.” All I needed was my trumpet and a rhythm section and the band would join in. The dance floor filled up. That Navy Band came back on playing “swing.” Nobody danced.
It was my set again. The ranking Air Force general and the ranking Navy admiral were sitting together at the head table. I was called over.
“Lt. Neely, it has been decided that you and your band will finish tonight here. The admiral will send the Navy Band to the NCO club for the rest of the night.”
Showtime came. Dinner was over, good booze was flowing. A “fun” time was being had by all.
That afternoon at rehearsal I had set up a series of special spotlights for the operators high up in the hangar’s back roof. We had a very good Anglo/Indian male dancer, a good WAC singing trio, and a good comic. All had worked shows with me before. But I needed a “gimmick” to close. It may get me sent home, but that would be great by me.
Three small, beautiful Chinese girl dancers, each nude, with only a white placard in back and in front held by a red ribbon around their waist which bounced a little as they danced were the last act. They would close the show. On the stroke of midnight all the hangar lights went black. There were a few seconds before pandemonium almost set in. Three pencil spots hit the girls who were turned to a crowd, their butts bare. They held up placards facing the crowd which said, “It ain’t so.” It was a big joke in the military that the vaginas of Chinese ladies were sideways.
The crowd, by now all well liquefied, went bonkers. The cheers and applause were fantastic and made it all worthwhile. The general, with his captain adjutant, came to the stand. My first thought was, “Oh shit. He will court-martial me, but so what? I’ll get to go home.”
He said nothing, took the captain’s twin silver bars off his tunic and put them on mine. He then shook my hand and said, “Well done, Capt. Neely.”
I got the battlefield promotion which was later confirmed.
There was jubilation in Calcutta on J Day, but more assignments for me. Our troops in China and Burma were all headed back to the Calcutta area for transport home. Not to be. All the available ships were going to Europe first, then the United States. One of my new additional responsibilities was morale officer and as such it was one of my duties to meet each plane coming in from China or Burma and tell them, “Men, you are not going home. No ships. We will try the best we can to make your delay tolerable. Please follow your leaders. That’s the way it is. I hope it won’t be too long.” There was some disappointment of course, but those were the orders and they were good soldiers.
Most Air Force officers were getting flights back to the United States. Not me. I had more than enough points, but had been declared “essential.” I did not want to fly home. The Air Force was getting short of officers. I caught another duty of being in charge of the warehouses and hangars which were now full of old Air Force gear, supplies, weapons… everything. We could not sell anything, dispose of anything, until it was decided by Gen. MacArthur what we should do.
I learned in a staff meeting that the first ship would be arriving in Calcutta. I got a call through to the general to see if I could get on the ship and go home. The general told me it was booked solid and good luck with getting on it. I had a good friend, a captain, a regular Air Force officer, who agreed to sign on in charge of all the warehouses. This would free me if I could work a deal to get on the ship.
The Navy troop ship was loading at the docks. I went aboard and asked to see the ship’s captain. The ship was crowded and overbooked. I made him a deal. I would bring as gifts to the Navy music, instruments, equipment and gear, build the band and show, and perform shows each day for the troops. It was too good a deal for him to turn down; plus, it would give him some entertainment on the voyage. The problem was that there was no place to bunk me. So I was assigned to bunk and chow down with the ship’s officers. It worked out great.
The ship’s schedule was to go to San Francisco, but it was changed to Seattle. Before leaving Calcutta I had sent a wire to Mary in Los Angeles, which she never got. By chance she was visiting with my parents who now lived in Portland. One morning in the newspaper she saw an item about a troop ship from Calcutta arriving in Seattle, listing a Capt. Harold G Neely. Could it be?
First thing in Seattle I placed a call to Mary, but there was no answer. Then I called my parents in Portland. Mary was there. She drove my dad’s car to Seattle to get me. But there were more problems. I had been assigned to take a train load of troops to Los Angeles where I had enlisted.
In luck again, always the “hustler,” I worked a deal to remain in the Air Force Reserve and get discharged at Fort Lewis in Seattle. Mary and I stayed in Portland for a week or so, then we caught a train to Los Angeles. Mary had an apartment near the University of Southern California campus and a new job near a lot of our old Lyons friends.

(Note: Chapters in italic indicate these are Hal Neely’s own words from his memoirs.)

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