January 31, 2009
File this post under “It’s a Small World After All.”
Those who have read The Peking Man is Missing – and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s an incredibly cool story that is in fact partly true, and it involves enough conspiracy theories to make the Kennedy Assassination look like an also-ran.
At any rate, those who have read it may remember a certain Dr. William Foley. In the 60-odd years since the priceless fossils disappeared, countless theories have arisen as to what became of them. Some of the most credible involve Dr. Foley, who in 1941 was the senior medical officer with the U.S. Marines stationed in northern China, and who was charged with accompanying the fossils from China to New York, where they were to be stored for safekeeping during what was about to become World War II.
According to post-war interviews with Dr. Foley, he was unable to join the fossils on the first leg of their trip, from Peking (now Beijing) to the port city of Chinwantao (now Qinhuangdao), where they were to be loaded onto a ship. Dr. Foley therefore entrusted the fossils to his friend and colleague Herman Davis, who was based at the Marine barracks outside of Chinwantao.
After the war, Dr. Foley was rather reticent about the entire Peking Man affair; he and Davis had both spent years in Japanese POW camps, and the memories may just have been too painful to revisit. But Davis was much chattier; in various interviews he described receiving the crates of fossils and piling them, along with a bunch of others, in his quarters, where they were put to work as card-tables. He went on to describe the morning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. – the Japanese soldiers surrounding the Marine barracks, how he stacked the crates and used them to support a machine gun that he aimed out the window, his plan to go out shooting, and the order to surrender that came through just before he pulled the trigger.
Flash forward many, many years. In the 1970s, Foley was a highly regarded cardiologist practicing in New York, with Davis as his assistant. With China newly open to the West, speculation about the fossils went into overdrive. Books were published, rewards were offered, newspapers covered the story. And Claire Taschdjian, one of the last people in the world known to have seen the fossils, retired in Brooklyn after decades of teaching. Then in her sixties, she wrote her first novel, The Peking Man is Missing.
Flash forward another 30-odd years: Felony & Mayhem reissues The Peking Man is Missing (with, I gotta say, a much better cover than the original edition ever had). We get some nice press, including write-ups in the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger. And one day, I get an email.
Well, I get a lot of email. But this particular one was from a woman in New Jersey who wanted to talk to Claire Taschdjian. Her uncle, she said, had known Dr. Foley well, and had had personal knowledge of the Peking Man fossils. She included her phone number, and I called to say that, sadly, Claire Taschdjian died about ten years ago. And then I said, Tell me about your uncle.
He was a Marine, she said, stationed in China during the war. He was captured by the Japanese, and had been interned, along with Dr. Foley, in a number of different POW camps. Much later, after he had retired to the Jersey Shore, he was given a tape recorder, and used it to record his memories of the war. She had listened to the tape, and it was fascinating, she said. In particular, she remembered a story he told about Japanese soldiers surrounding his camp, and how he braced a machine-gun on top of a pile of crates….
WAIT A MINUTE, I said. WHAT WAS YOUR UNCLE’S NAME???
Herman Davis. Oh for heaven’s sake, I said, I know who your uncle was. He was a Pharmacist’s Mate First Class. He was a body-builder, and I’ve even…hang on a minute…yes, I’ve got a picture of him when he was in his twenties, showing off at the beach. Boy was he a dish! And we’ve got a picture, it’s in our book, of the camp where he was stationed. I know which POW camps he was in, and I’ve seen a video of one of the interviews he gave, in New York in the 70s.
She was flabbergasted at the notion that a total stranger would know so many details of her uncle’s life, and I explained that I had become a bit obsessed with the Peking Man story, and had gone to fairly elaborate lengths to research everything I could about the various players.
Because Davis was so happy to be interviewed, I am guessing that he doesn’t say anything on the tape that hasn’t already come out in book, articles, and the documentary that was made in the 70s for Canadian TV. But our plan is to listen to the tape and have it transcribed. Will it provide any new information about the fate of those extraordinary fossils? We’ll keep you posted.