Noble Service

Baroness van Hogendorp of Baltimore looks back on her adventures in World War II with the American Red Cross. Her dangerous, entertaining journey will be celebrated next month in Washington.


The Baroness Katharine Harris van Hogendorp sits in the nostalgic light of morning by a handsome Knabe piano, its unique dun-colored finish worn away above the keyboard, a place where she rested her forearm while teaching generations of piano students.

She's a somewhat unlikely baroness, completely without affectation, warm and sympathetic and thoughtful, still light-hearted and venturesome in her mid-80s. She's a spirited Baltimore woman who married an enlightened Dutch nobleman.

She's reflecting this morning on her World War II service as a Red Cross worker at a secret air base in India. She had dash, daring and a strong feeling for adventure.

"I still do," she says. "Most of my adventures have proved to be successful, happy ones. Not all. I've made some mistakes."

But not on the day she she hitchhiked a totally unauthorized ride aboard a B-24 bomber making a reconnaissance run over Japanese-held Rangoon in Burma.

"Very exciting," she says. "I had many qualms before I got on the plane. But once I was on the plane and the guys cheered, I cheered with them."

She had hidden quaking in the grass and scrambled out to the plane taxiing toward its takeoff.

"I had been afraid so often by that time that it was part of living," she says. "You can become accustomed to anything. And I suppose you can become accustomed to being afraid."

Van Hogendorp chronicles this flight and other adventures in her recent book "Survival in the Land of Dysentery," an account of her tour of duty with the American Red Cross in India. Next month, her service will be celebrated at Red Cross headquarters in Washington. She'll sign a few books, too.

She was typical of the thousands of women who volunteered as Red Cross "girls" during World War II, about 50 of whom were killed in action.

Van Hogendorp served at an Army Air Force Base at Chakulia, India, and later in the Indian hill country at Darjeeling, the famed tea capital.

In the steamy lowlands of West Bengal, Chakulia was one of the major bases in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, a vast, dangerous, politically explosive war zone now often neglected by historians of World War II.

But from Chakulia, the Air Force flew vital supply and bombing missions over the "Hump" of the Himalaya Mountains into China. The route was called the Aluminum Trail because it was -- and still is -- littered with the wreckage of nearly 450 plane crashes. Chakulia airmen supported the building of the Burma Road and the campaigns of Gen. "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell. The first B-29 raids on Japan flew from Chakulia.

Friends from the sky

"I was very close to this particular crew," she says of the guys on her B-24 flight over Rangoon. They named their B-29 "Katie" after her. B-29s flew long-range supply and bombing runs, but the smaller B-24 "Liberators" flew scouting missions ahead of the bombers. "Katie" would fly 42 bombing missions, cross the Hump six times and drop rations to American POWs in a prison camp in Japan.

But van Hogendorp's joy in making the recon flight was tempered by her concern about the people who would be bombed the next day.

"It's a horrible thought to see that beauty and see people going their own way and all of that kind of thing and to think that all of that is going to disappear tomorrow and lives would be taken and innocent citizens killed."

But she says: "I don't regret having done that. Or any of the things I did. ... I was a pretty good girl, most of the time."

She was in her late 20s and had given up a promising career as a concert artist when she volunteered for work with the Office of Civilian Mobilization late in 1942.

She was the youngest of the four children of Katharine and Carlton Danner Harris, a clergyman who edited the Baltimore Southern Methodist, a monthly church journal. He became pastor of Wilson Memorial Methodist Church, a splendid classical edifice at Charles Street and University Parkway now used by the Johns Hopkins University as an interfaith community center. A stained glass window dedicated to him depicted the Ascension with an angel on either side.

"My sister and I posed for those two angels," van Hogendorp says. "Actually, I can't recognize myself at all. I can't tell which one is I."

She studied piano and voice at the Peabody Conservatory. A soprano, she often sang with her brother, Charles, who also studied voice at the Peabody. They once sang in Druid Hill Park before an audience of 40,000.

After the war, Charles, who became a Baltimore judge, frequently was a guest singer on her WFBR radio show "Songs at Seven."

End of her singing

"I had some good followers in Baltimore," she says. "I had a six-piece orchestra and I sang and I would always have a guest artist. Usually men. I would sing a solo or so and the guest would sing a solo and we would end up doing a duet. I did that for over a year until I met my husband. Then I gave it up."

After that her musical life was mostly teaching piano.

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