Note: this is the final installment in a three-part series.
After the doctor’s work was done, it was time to get to the business of returning home. Saylor’s crew was still well away from the extraction point. The problem was transportation. There were no buses, trains or even roads. So they walked, hoping for a stroke of good fortune.
Luck came on the trail up to the mountains in the form of a Chinese teenager, name unknown, recently orphaned by bombings in Shanghai.
“He spoke a little English, and he stayed with us for the rest of our trip across China,” Saylor said. “He became our navigator, our interpreter and our food scrounger. We owed him big time.”
With his help, they made it to a broken down bus that gave them harbor, as long as they were willing to push it up hills.
The Japanese were still in pursuit and executing retaliatory attacks on Chinese soil. At one point, Saylor recalled, a bomber took out an identical bus just a short distance ahead of them — the second-to-last close call of the mission. The last came while they were taking shelter in a pagoda that gave them a clear view of bombings on a nearby city.
“One day, we decided we better not stay in this pagoda anymore, because we figured they’d find us,” Saylor said. These were violent times for Chinese civilians, and they knew some civilians would be willing to sell them out in exchange for their safety. “So we stopped going to that pagoda, and the next day they bombed it. We got out of there just in time.”
The situation had degraded to the point that there was no hope for an air extraction from China. They hitchhiked across the country, through India and then to West Africa.
Finally, in Africa, they made contact with the Navy and were able to arrange a flight across the Atlantic.
There was one problem: they had one too many passengers. The crew of the TNT attempted to bring their teenaged guide with them on the plane, hoping to bring the boy who ensured their survival back to the States. But they were told it just couldn’t be allowed.
He was left behind on the tarmac.
Saylor’s wife finally found out about her husband’s mission, but not from his own mouth. She was taking in a movie when the newsreel showed him receiving a medal from Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
She had a few adventures of her own during his absence. One of Saylor’s favorite stories involved her deciding to meet his family in Montana. She sent out a telegram ahead and immediately departed. When she arrived in the closest accessible town, she hitched a ride to the ranch. She was confused to find nobody knew who she was. But they put her up, and the next time the mail arrived, there was her telegram; she had arrived ahead of it.
Saylor himself went on to a 28-year career with the Air Corps and its successor, the Air Force. He served in Europe during the remainder of the war and admitted he felt a little awed by the continued heroism of the Army GI’s.
As it would turn out, Saylor’s emergency engine work on the TNT would be his first step in a reputation for never grounding a plane for mechanical failure. He retired in 1967, having achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.
April 17 was bittersweet for Saylor and his fellow surviving Raiders. Every year, they have met during the anniversary of the raid for a reunion. Last year, with only a handful left, they decided to make 2013 the end.