From the Road to China to the Antiques Road Show

I asked Joan whether I could write about her family and the Antiques Road Show. She gave me permission. She had one caveat. No bragging about her family. I agreed.

John Wagoner was a young lawyer in Grand Island, Nebraska when WWII broke out. He had to call in some favors, but he got into the Army Air Corps. He trained as a pilot, but ended up doing logistics for C-47s flying over the Hump from China. He also defended soldiers in courts martial. Additionally, he had “an extra-legal” business trading between China and India, but that is a fascinating story for another day. In short, John was a resourceful person.

a_veteran_in_olive_drabHis tour of duty took him to Chungking (now Chongqing) China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s provisional capital. At the airfield one day, John observed a VIP air plane land. It was General Hurley’s plane. On it was Florence Gerrard. John noticed her and returned the hat box that she had left on the plane.

Ms. Florence Gerrard was to begin work for the State Department at the American Embassy. She was to perform secretarial duties at the embassy and John was very interested in the tall young woman, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Florence (Gerry or Flo) Gerrard was raised in Greenway, Arkansas. That’s near Piggot. Her home had no inside plumbing until she and her husband had plumbing installed for her parents sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s. The tall girl graduated high school and then secretarial school in St. Louis. After that, she took a civil service exam, the war broke out and she ended up in Panama with the U.S. State Department. After two years in Panama, she returned home.

While at home on leave, she received notice from the State Department that her next posting would be in China. If she could quickly get to Washington, D.C., a plane would take her there. Florence caught the train, and made the plane.

The girl from Greenway learned that she was on the plane assigned to Major General Patrick Jay Hurley and various other important people like Kathleen Harriman. Ms. Harriman was going to Moscow where her father, Averell Harriman, was ambassador to the Soviet Union. The three-week flight to China took Florence to London, then to Turkey, Egypt, Moscow, back to Egypt, then to India, and over the “hump” to China. While Florence was a secretary at the Embassy, there is some evidence that Florence was really employed as a secretary by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. Florence never said much about her work except to make vague statements about it.

By now, you not doubt realize that John and Florence fell in love and married. After the war, they decided to stay in China. They had fallen in love with each other and the people and culture of China.*

John opened an import/export business in Shanghai with some Chinese partners. The family lived in the French Concession. (In 1994, Joan and I believe we may have found the home that by then was a multi-family apartment.) Joan was born, and then June was born. Business was good, but the communists were an ever-present threat.

John and Florence loved beautiful things, particularly beautiful things that could be bought cheaply after the war. One of the stunning pieces they acquired was a hand crafted silver plate cutlery set in an Art Deco pattern of the early ’20s-’30s. It is shown below.

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By 1949, the communists were closing in. John sent Florence, Joan and June back to the US. Six months later, John followed after hitching a ride on a military plane. John renewed his law practice in Grand Island becoming a well-known trial lawyer. More children came. The union of John and Florence produced seven children. Joan (“Miss Boss” as she was known by her siblings) is the oldest. John and Florence are gone now.

From the period of 1945-1946, fast forward nearly 70 years. Joan’s three sisters in Omaha each put in a bid to attend the Antiques Road Show that was to appear in Omaha. Only one got a ticket.

The lucky sister, Mary, took the silver cutlery set that belonged to sister Ann. A producer was captivated by the set and the story behind it. The Roadshow experts could not figure out the markings on the set, but they decided that the it was probably made by a German or Austrian silver smith. Mary will appear in a short segment when the Road Shoe presents its program on Omaha. The silver set will be featured. Florence would have been so proud.

The family has a transcript of an oral interview of John and Florence about their time in China. It runs 155 pages. The transcript is entitled “Road to China.” It is fitting that a part of their fascinating story will be recounted on the Antiques Road Show.**

Addendum: Subsequent to this post going up, I have learned that June, one of Joan’s sisters, has been able to confirm that Florence was with the OSS. June searched a repository of declassified documents and found references to Ms. Gerrard. That probably explains why Florence was flown with a bunch of VIPs to China. Fascinating.

RGK

* This beautiful Chinese piece hangs in our home.

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** The Roadshow in Omaha took place this weekend. I have no clue when the segment will appear.

9 responses

  1. Much as it’s impressive to show a pic of the silver service in its chest, it’s unsatisfying without showing the pattern and maker. Inquiring minds want to know. I realize that there probably aren’t many sterling fans reading this, but at least one appreciates its beauty.

  2. SHG,

    It turns out it was silver plate. The pattern is in an Art Deco style. The post has been amended accordingly. Also, see the addendum confirming that Florence was a secretary in the OSS.

    All the best.

    RGK

  3. Judge:
    Think of how different your world would have been had Mr. Wagoner been 5 minutes early–or late–to the airfield when that plane landed in China. I say, with due respect to the beauty of the cutlery set and other memories of their initial time together, that it was the hat box which matters much more. While the intrinsic value of a hat box is nearly nonexistent, in this case its symbolic value was, and is, priceless (Judge, I can’t help it: I’m an incurable romantic and a sucker for a story like this).
    Robert

  4. Robert,

    Me too. The hat box is indeed a critical part of the story. I wonder how many people can envision a lady’s hat box now..

    All the best.

    RGK

  5. Neat. I loved the episode where Lark _________ actually became teary over some incredibly valuable _________ dynasty lions that someone brought in. Interesting items and the more interesting stories behind them.

  6. Great story! My father was a young pilot in Long Beach, CA who was “persuaded” to join the Army Air Corps instead of getting the draft. He was sent to India to fly those C-47s (DC-3s converted to transport gasoline and armaments to China from India — flying bombs). His route was mostly Assam to Kunming, and the C-47’s service ceiling was below many of the summits of the eastern Himalayas, which necessitated flying up the valleys. Luckily, by the mid 1940s pressurized B-25s replaced the old workhorse C-47 which could fly at a much higher altitude, above the mountains and much of the weather.

  7. Fluff piece of information. I visited Chungking about five years ago and Americans are still welcome due to WWII experience. The city was ‘Vinegar Joes’ Hq.

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