Us narrative non-fiction guys and gals are pretty dependent on the quality of the stories we discover. A story swallows a massive chunk of your life if you decide to write a book about it: you’d better hope you fall in love with it.
The first glimmer of this story came to me from Charlie Fowler, a climbing partner with whom I ascended Cerro Torre, spent the night on top, and watched the sunrise from the summit. (An event that climaxes “The Cerro Torre Campaign” chapter of my book Enduring Patagonia.) Charlie was an astonishingly experienced climber, and besides Patagonia, his other adventuring obsession was the mountains of Central Asia.
Back stateside from explorations along the Tibet/China frontier, Charlie sent me an email in January 2002: “Greg, I keep hearing stories of these old World War II American plane wrecks in the Eastern Himalaya. You’re a military history guy and a mountaineer; you should spark up a story on that.”
I recognized the kernel of a good idea, and as a lifetime WWII history buff, I surmised those wrecks were probably relics of the airlift from India to China the U.S. prosecuted over “The Hump” during the war (the Hump being the eastern spur of the Himalayas that drops down the Burma/China border), but I was in Oman on a National Geographic assignment at the time. I didn’t get around to researching Charlie’s idea until six months later.
When I did, my initial “flying the Hump” web search quickly stumbled across a website called cnac.org – the unofficial/official repository of all things related to the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), a civil airline partnership between Pan American Airways and the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek that flew and fought in China from 1929-1949.
(cnac.org is run by Tom Moore, nephew of a CNAC pilot named Emil Scott who was killed leaving Kunming, China in early 1942, and it’s an absolute goldmine of information, even if it can be a little hard to find the best pages.)
I perused the website, getting more and more intrigued. I’d consider myself pretty well-versed in World War II aviation history, and I knew many of the tales that seemed to orbit the CNAC story – among them Pan Am’s transpacific flying, the Flying Tigers, and the Hump flying – but I’d never even heard of the airline that seemed to have played such a pivotal role in those significant and well-known events.
Quite by chance, I stumbled through the website’s reunions page and noticed they had an reunion scheduled only three weeks hence, and it was in San Francisco, twenty miles from my home in Walnut Creek. With some trepidations, I called Bill Maher, President of the CNAC Association, introduced myself, and explained that I might be interested in writing a book about his airline. I asked if I could attend the reunion. “Hell yes!” thundered Bill, one the airline’s former Hump pilots. “Come on over. We’ve got great stories.”
I attended, and Bill was right. He and his brethren positively oozed incredible stories and adventures. I was hooked. Driving away from the reunion, I was physically shaking, convinced I’d just discovered an untold, compelling, and significant story – one I was meant to tell.
Sadly, Charlie Fowler won’t ever enjoy the fruit of the seed he planted – he was killed by an avalanche in China in 2006.