William Chinn Interview, Part 1 of 3

  • David L. Roberts: This is David Roberts talking with William Chinn on April 20, 1999, in his home in San Francisco, California. Could you please state your full name and the date and place of your birth.
  • William G. Chinn: The name, of course, is William G. Chinn, I was born in May 26, 1919, which means I'm pushing 80 this year.
  • Roberts: Now you didn't tell me where you were born.
  • Chinn: I was born in San Francisco, right in the same city.
  • Roberts: Could you tell me something about the educational background of your parents?
  • Chinn: My parents, I guess they were all educated in China, and they speak mostly even when they have moved here. Actually, my father was here before the earthquake, and during the quake, of course, he, along with a lot of people, escaped over to Oakland in the ferries during that time. Because at that time, of course, the bridges were not here.
  • And then what happened is, that was 1906, and I think he went back to China in 1907 sometime and took my mother as his wife. Together they came back to the United States.
  • My mother was born in the central city of Canton [Guangdong], which is the city of Kao Lung, no not Kao Lung, the city of, let me see know, the name of the city is the capital city of Canton, anyway.
  • She went to school there, which of course was not the usual thing for girls in those days, but she was born in a family that were educated, so she also went to girls school in China.
  • Of course when she got to the States, both parents of course maintained the Chinese language completely. In fact, they depended on their older brothers and sisters to help them get along in case of questionnaires and things like that.
  • So as we grew up, little by little we also put in our shares in helping answer questions dealing with different kinds of things. My father was a merchant and along with that he has other sidelines, depending on the occasions and so forth.
  • Because in those days, if you don't have other sidelines of such a sales and carry on the benevolent societies and so forth, you are most likely relegated to some very basic ways of living, such as laundry and so forth. My father was not into any labor like that. He was mainly a merchant which deals in commodities from China.
  • Roberts: Did your parents encourage you to go in an academic direction?
  • Chinn: Oh yes. They were expecting us to do that. Of course in those days we divided the day into different parts. From early in the day, say 8:00 or 9:00 to about 3:00, the children, we'd go to the American schools, and then we would have a little bite at home to stave us for the time being and from 5:00 to 8:00 during the school week we go to Chinese school.
  • And from Chinese school also we have a session on Saturdays, and on Saturday morning it is mostly learning how to march and so forth in case of needs for parades and so on. But also there are still some classes on Saturday, but Sunday we have to ourselves.
  • Roberts: What was the nature of the Chinese school? What kind of things did you learn?
  • Chinn: The Chinese school included a lot of things, basically learning how to read, write, and so on. Plus as you move up the grades, some histories, and what they call usefulness in learning how to socialize and so forth.
  • The types of things that kind of writing you would use in addressing formal occasions and so forth. And this goes on until about when we get to high school, and then by that time we still do have the Chinese school at the same time, but our emphasis was mostly to try to get along well in the high schools in the American school.
  • Roberts: Now when did you start to get interested in mathematics in particular?
  • Chinn: My father was a very good mathematician in that he can add and subtract very quickly, and he can do that by doing more than one thing at a time. In that case he can do some addings fantastically, at the same time he's always doing something like that. We are exposed to that type of thing.
  • Roberts: And what about your actual class work in the American school in mathematics, anything memorable about that?
  • Chinn: I've always been interested in mathematics, number work as they start it out in the third grade and so forth, and all throughout I was always given the need to have a good foundation in mathematics wherever we go.
  • Roberts: Did you during your formative years read any books outside of school that attempted to popularize mathematics or science?
  • Chinn: Not so much as what you do in school. Of course, basically the Chinese school do work with the abacus, mostly.
  • Roberts: So that was part of your routine?
  • Chinn: Yes, that was part of our routine, right. Of course we don't do that until we are up into the junior high grade or something like that.
  • We do have little bead work when we were younger, but when it came to doing serious problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and so forth, what the Chinese do with those kinds of things are that they have rhymes that they memorize, and those rhymes help you to do some figuring.
  • For example if you have three beads up from the bottom of course you know in the abacus there are five beads below and two beads on top, and when you stop with the top beads pushed completely to the top of the abacus and the bottom beads are pushed completely to the bottom, and it is when you bring the beads to the center that they start counting as numbers and so forth.
  • So the individual digits in the lower beads would counts as ones, or units, and the upper ones are in fives. So when you push one of the beads down from the top that means five, and if you push one from the bottom to meet up with the five to get a number that adds up to six, and so forth.
  • And you learn rhymes to teach you more or less how to move the beads in accord with the rhyme so that you can do those kinds of thinking in an automatic fashion.
  • And you learn rhymes of especially adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, especially multiplying and dividing that you can learn by the rhymes how to improve your speed and so forth and so on.
  • Roberts: Now I understand that you went to Berkeley as an undergraduate?
  • Chinn: Right. I spent four years there and then after I got my AP degree, I started right away at the graduate school and at that time the graduate school began in the middle of the summer and went on to August or October, something like that, for one semester.
  • That was the middle semester, kind of a three semester situation. In fact that was the situation that I mentioned to you when I was about ready to be drafted, I was told to appear at the draft board at a certain date, and it turned out that that date was exactly the Monday following the what was it now?
  • Roberts: The Monday after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • Chinn: Yeah. And that was the day I was supposed to be taking the first examination of my first graduate school. And I missed that first, but because of my missing, I asked for an extension to finish up my examinations.
  • And they did allow me to finish my examination and did not call me in until the following January. So I was missing one final examination in 1941, which I did not catch up until I came back from the war in 1946, the middle of '46.
  • Roberts: Now let's see, as you were telling me earlier in the restaurant, if you could maybe just briefly summarize what you did during the war period.
  • Chinn: During the war, as I mentioned to you, probably because of my size, I'm not very good at fighting or being able to handle any Germans or whatever because of my size. The first thing I did was, I was sent to the Presidio of San Francisco and from there we were trucked down to the Presidio of Montcrief for our assignments.
  • And some of us were put into trains, and after a few days the trains stopped, and it turned out to be at Camp Grant, which is right to the west of Evanstown. In fact, it's about 90 miles from Chicago. And there I was in basic training for medical attachments and probably because of my size.
  • After about six weeks or so of basic training, some of us were put onto the trains again and rode off into the sunset. After a few days the train stopped and we were off loaded and loaded into trucks and after a while the trucks stopped and it turned out to be the Presidio of San Francisco again, which was a beautiful sight to me at that time.
  • Roberts: You didn't know that it was going to be there. C
  • Chinn: Of course, no, then I recognized the place. And then of course, it turned out that these were the bunches that were sent for further training in medical practices.
  • Where the basic training concentrated on how to wrap people's limbs and so forth, and how to wrap up people's heads in case of injury and so on, and how to take care of their arms and so on, these other specialties are for specialties like learning how to take care of x-rays, and being x-ray technicians, or other kinds of things like dental assistants and so forth and so on.
  • My particular function was to become a pharmaceutical technician, which we did in about six weeks time. After that we were sent down to the desert after following General Patton in his pursuit of the next stage of following him to the Sahara Desert.
  • But then after our maneuvering and so forth, I was about ready to go with the units and somebody found out that I had on the first of my draft I had indicated a desire to go into meteorological training.
  • I had forgotten all about it until somebody found it in my records. So they pulled me out of line. Fortunately at that time, medical training is still Medical Corps. I was detached from. That was an easy thing because they were both Corps at that time and one can switch from one branch to another branch. So I was pushed from the medical to the air corps.
  • While I was waiting, I was assigned to some quarters near UCLA. At that time there were some people that found out that I was there, that I had mathematics as my specialty, and also my second preference was for physics. And so it seemed to fit in very well.
  • So someone from UCLA approached me to help out with the cadets who are having difficulty with their physics or their mathematics. And I agreed to do that for them and I did it for a few weeks like that.
  • In the meantime, time marches on and I was pushed over to Salt Lake City to be re-assigned. While I was in Salt Lake City somebody mentioned to me that they needed some help because there were some generals coming back from the 7th Air Force in the south Pacific who have grouped together in Spokane to be regrouped with other units that they can take with them to be with the 8th Air Force, which was at that time stationed in Cambridge, England.
  • I was sent there to become an aide to one of the generals there. It turned out that this general was the grandson of a very famous Confederate general, I will not mention his name.
  • One night he asked me to be at the house to get his things ready for the next day's meetings. While we were doing that he stepped out of the room for a while and soon I heard some loud noises outside, and I thought he was ready to bash in his wife.
  • So not knowing what to do I scooted out of the back door and into the back door of the next house, which I knew was the person's who could outrank the one-star general I was working with.
  • He was also one-star, but he was larger person and he outranked the other guy anyway because of his status. Anyway he told me to go back to my barracks and he would take care of things. And he did. He calmed things down next door, and the next day I came back and everything was okay.
  • But before long the first general was re-assigned to Cambridge and off we went. Unfortunately he went down with the first mission in Cambridge. In the meantime the other general had asked for me and I became his aide in the meantime.
  • Then when he was ready to go to Cambridge, he asked me what I wanted to do, and I produced two letters from UCLA, one from the department head of physics, and one from the department head of mathematics. Both of them testified to my abilities while I was there.
  • Roberts: Do you remember who those were?
  • Chinn: Those were, let's see now, the first one was, when I think of his name I will fill it in for you. The second one was another person who just got his PhD just at the start of the war. He was also, let me fill in the names when I come to think of them. In fact, I still have the letters so I can refer to them in a minute.
  • Anyway, so I showed the letters to the general, and he said, "It's not an easy thing to do." So he scooted his chair to the back wall over where the phone was. And after jabbering for a while, he says "It's done." I said ,"What is done?" And he said, "You will stay here until you are re-assigned, and then they will be doing that in a little while.
  • In the meantime why don't you stay around my meteorologist for the time being and try to pick up some points from him. He's a good man." And so that's what I did, while the general who by that time had two stars now went over to Cambridge.
  • In fact, after I finished my lessons in meteorology I was commissioned of course at UCLA and off we went to Washington, D.C. for our next assignments.
  • None of us were supposed to know where we were supposed to go, but we did because we had our sealed orders which we were told we could not open until we were given permission to do so.
  • Soon enough we were all different places. People were differently dispatched and I went off with one crowd toward Bermuda, that was the first stop. The next stop was the Azores. Then the next stop in Casablanca for two weeks. Then to Algiers for a couple of days. Next was my final move to Naples, in Italy. It was there that I served until the end of the war.
  • After a year or so, more than a year, anyway, we knew that the V-E Day was coming, because the first thing we heard was that there was a German plane coming in to surrender. So we all went down to the field to watch.
  • At that time the field was all grass and no pavement. The plane, when it came, landed scorching everything behind it so that all the grass was gone on that one stroke. That was the first jet that we ever saw.
  • A plane that was wrapped up like a corrugated cardboard, and the fire was spinning out the back like that. Pretty soon we were given some leaves of absences.
  • Before that, as soon as I got to Naples, even though I didn't know where I was going, I had a letter in my mailbox already. It came from the general who had placed me there, and it said, "When you have time one of these days, when things get settled some more, do try to come over to Cambridge and I will show you around." I kept that letter in my pocket until I needed it.
  • When V-E Day was declared, and soon in August, V-J Day was declared and we were given a rest, R&R in Paris. So I applied right away to my commander in chief for my leave. I have enough points, because I started out with getting into the thing around 1941, by this time it was almost 1946.
  • I asked for a leave and after I showed my letter from the general, right away the commander in chief, who had never spoken to me before, said, "Do say hello for me." Which is exactly what you would expect. Of course I would not say anything because I do not know him that much.
  • So I went off to Paris for two weeks, and I was given a ride from Paris to London, and I was told what to do. In London there are two railroad stations, and I was supposed to take this particular one, but I forgot which one it was, but right now it is still just two railroad stations.
  • But he said, "When you get there, go to this station and outside of this grass area you will find a post. Go to that post there and you will find a telephone. Pick up the receiver and talk into it. Identify yourself and I will get through to you."
  • I did that and of course the secretary answered first, and then when I mentioned my name and what I was supposed to do, she said, "Just a minute." She handed the phone over to the general and he told me what to do.
  • Just get into one of the trains, because at that time any service man from the United States is allowed to get into the trains for free. So I took the train and went off to Cambridge and somebody, low and behold, was there to meet me with the little jeep, and took me there because at that time it was past supper time. I just went away without my supper.
  • They took me to my room. It was a big room with just one bed there, and I slept. The next morning I heard someone slowly opening the door, and it was the general who stuck his face in there. Since I did not move he very carefully closed the door behind him, and as soon as he did that I went and showered and shaved.