About ten years ago, my grandmother uncovered a typewriter and a box of photographs and papers in folders that said things like “World War II letters” and “Chungking, 1940.” She gave them to me, telling me how they once belonged to her cousin, Melville Jacoby, the war correspondent, but she wanted me to have them because I was beginning a career as a journalist myself. I hadn’t heard of Mel until then, but I began using these materials to piece together Mel’s story. By 2011, I realized his story—one of great escapes, a mythic romance, and an exploration of what it is that drives reporters to risk their livelihoods, and their lives, to bring distant stories home—was ready for a book. In June 2016, that book, Eve of a Hundred Midnights, was published by William Morrow and Co.
To prepare the book, I relied on letters, photographs, whatever archival research my limited resources would allow, and my grandmother’s memories. Yet I knew Mel’s story revolved around his sense of place. He’d developed his passions for reporting and for Asia while an exchange student in China in 1936-37, just as that country went to war with Japan, and he would return to China in 1939-40 and again in 1941, before moving on to report from the Philippines as war between Japan and the U.S. approached.
As I worked on the book, I felt intimately familiar with who Mel was, what was important to him, and how he perceived the places he traveled and worked. This was a man who was drawn again and again out of his comfortable California life to a world descending into a brutal war, a man who did not back down from the conflict; indeed, this was a man whose passion for making sure the world understood what was happening in China was matched only by that of his fellow correspondents, particularly the former Annalee Whitmore, with whom Mel would fall in love and who he would marry in Manila, just a week before Pearl Harbor.
I understood how Mel perceived the world, but I had a blind spot. If I was ever going to truly connect with Mel, I needed to know what the places that mattered to him actually looked like. What did they feel like? How did they sound? How had three quarters of a century shifted these places? How had those places stayed the same?
To answer these questions, and to return to a place that had meant so much to a beloved member of my family, I traveled to China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Philippines.
I began in Beijing, with Jackie, a tour guide my mother had befriended one year earlier. Jackie, whose Chinese name is Zhangrong, helped me navigate China’s capital and brought me to less traveled portions of tourist sites like the Great Wall of China. Here, a friend of Jackie’s walks ahead along the top of the wall.
Jackie, his friend, and her two children sit on a kang—a traditional bed warmed from below by the pipes of a nearby fireplace—as we linger over a meal at a farmhouse near the Great Wall.
Beijing was my introduction to China, but Chongqing—the hilly, inland city that served as China’s wartime capital—was my goal. On my first night in Chongqing, I wandered the city’s countless alleys and stone stairways without a map, feeling the place that had once been Mel’s beloved home.
Without a proper wartime map of Chongqing, I hunted locations of importance to my book, often errantly, by foot, sight, and instinct. I discovered corners of the city no tourist would intentionally see, like this path on the outskirts of a park near what had once been the city’s international district.
Multicolor lights accompany the Three Gorges Museum’s powerful recreation of a June 5, 1941, air raid shelter disaster. That day, guards had locked the gates of Chongqing’s massive municipal air raid shelter, which had been built without proper ventilation. Thousands died as they fruitlessly tried to escape suffocation, while more perished in stampedes attempting to enter the shelter to escape wave after wave of incendiary bombs. Mel featured the grisly aftermath in the first photos and dispatches he sent to LIFE Magazine.
Many smaller air raid shelters throughout Chongqing not only survived the war, but have since been transformed into commercial establishments like this noodle shop.
A couple peers at Chongqing’s nighttime skyline from an observation pagoda in Eling Park. Uncaptured: the eerie, auditory reminder of the war that echoed across the horizon as fireworks exploded at the tail end of the city’s Spring Festival celebrations.
In Mel’s era, crossing the Yangtze, or Changjiang, required hiring a sampan to ferry you across. Now, multiple bridges span the river, as does the city’s aging “tram.”
Throughout China, I survived by snacking on street food. Here, a sidewalk chef flips fried pockets of dough stuffed with pork and scallions.
Now a park, the island of Shanhuba—seen just barely emerging beneath the Chongqing Changjiang Bridge—served as the city’s airfield during World War II. Remnants of the city’s history are quickly vanishing, but relics from various eras, like the crumbling high-rise in the foreground, survive.
An old man hammers at a piece of concrete in one of the many rubble fields that dot Chongqing as new construction continues apace in the megalopolis. Historically a part of Sichuan Province, Chongqing is now one of China’s five “National Central Cities” and is technically the country’s most populous, because its jurisdictional boundaries include surrounding communities.
Locals crowd a Saturday morning market on Sixian Alley in Downtown Chongqing, just steps away from a modern shopping center and “snack street” full of vendors hawking prepared foods.
At last, on my final day in the city, I located the one-time site of the Press Hostel, where journalists from around the world lived and worked together while covering the war. Here, I recalled something Mel wrote in 1940: “Few foreigners desert Chungking without wanting to return.”
Dinner from a streetside noodle vendor in Guiping, China. The next day I would search for the childhood home of Chan Ka-yik. Ka-yik had been Mel’s roommate at Lingnan, and his family lived in the nearby village of Jintian, where Mel traveled in 1937.
In Jintian, I was shocked to discover that the building that once housed the Chan family compound still existed. After I showed locals a snippet of digitized 8mm film Mel shot of the area, they instantly recognized the building, and the man who owned this scooter told me to hop on and drove me there.
The ancestral home of Mel’s Lingnan University roommate Chan Ka-Yik is now a school, but this portion of the building looks much like it did in Mel’s 1937 film and photos.
Given Jintian’s distance from China’s beaten path, my appearance at the former Chan compound was a moment of excitement for children who rarely, if ever, see Americans.
Urban canyons and neon signs line Hennesy Road in Hong Kong, once a frequent stopping point for Mel. The former British colony is now home to the Press Hostel’s spiritual heir, the Foreign Correspondents Club.
On my second night in Hong Kong, an old chiropractor from San Diego carried a glass of red wine onto the city’s historic tramway. Likely as gregarious with or without the alcohol, he soon invited me to an event at the Sin Sin Fine Art gallery in Central Hong Kong. There we witnessed a vibrant dance performance in the street, a moment from which is pictured here.
Manila Bay seen from the 6th floor of the Bayview Park Hotel. Mel and Annalee stayed in room 620 of the original Bay View Hotel until the couple fled on the last boat out of Manila on New Year’s Eve, 1941, just before Japan captured the Philippines in World War II.
Battle damage in a concrete wall somewhere in the ruins of Corregidor, the fortress island at the mouth of the Manila Bay, where Mel and Annalee spent six weeks reporting on American forces resisting the Japanese onslaught in early 1942.
A typical street scene in Manila, where mobile phone companies sponsor ubiquitous bodegas.
At the end of February 1942, Mel and Annalee fled again, this time on a perilous journey, sailing by night and hiding out on various islands by day. Here, just as the sun set, I began a trip across the same waters they once plied. As night fell, I relaxed, but for Mel and Annalee, it meant setting sail again into the great uncertainty of the Pacific.
The easiest way to get between towns in the Philippines is to get a seat in a passenger van. After I woke up on the island of Mindoro, I hired a seat with crabby company for my trip to Pola, where Mel and Annalee first stopped on their escape from Corregidor.
Two years after a 2013 earthquake hit the Philippine island of Cebu, damage remained unrepaired in some parts of its eponymous capital, Cebu City, including this neighborhood just a short distance from the provincial capitol building.
Exhausted by my last day in the Philippines, I almost didn’t come to Liloan, a beach town just outside Cebu City. Here, in the former American Club, Mel and Annalee Jacoby spent two weeks, before they learned a freighter had snuck past the Japanese blockade and arrived from Australia, preparing them for one more escape.
Bill Lascher is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Eve of a Hundred Midnights: The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and Their Epic Escape Across the Pacific.
Author photo by Saikat Chakrabarti at saikatclicks.com