I’ve been focusing on whipping the China’s Wings manuscript into shape with Tracy Devine, my editor at Bantam Dell, and I’m thrilled with the advice she’s giving, but it’s been soaking up all of my writing energies. We’re still plugging along, but this morning I’m finally going to pick up the story of China’s Wings where I left off weeks ago, with me coming back from New York having just signed a contract to write a book about CNAC flying the Hump during the Second World War and having just interviewed Shirley Wilke Mosley, daughter of chief mechanic O.C. Wilke.
Well, Shirley’s stores and her father’s photo albums sent me home fascinated with the story of the airline prior to Pearl Harbor, but I could only develop that aspect of the airline’s saga if I could locate a trove of primary sources from which to flesh out a lively, colorful narrative. Those sources could be of two basic types: on the one hand, original letters and documents; on the other, interviews with surviving airline veterans who’d flown or worked for CNAC prior to December 8, 1941 (which, due to the effects of the International Date Line, is Pearl Harbor Day in the Orient).
There wasn’t any rush to find sources of the former type — if they existed, they’d be resting undisturbed in various archives around the country, where they’d been for most of the last half century, but there was an enormous hurry to get to the people who’d worked for the airline before Pearl Harbor. By 2004, time had winnowed their ranks to a very small group. Four, to be exact: Harold Chinn, T.T. Chen and Frieda Chen, and Moon Fun Chin.
Although Harold Chinn’s son Craig lived a mere mile or two from my Walnut Creek apartment, Harold wasn’t at all in good health. Harold Chinn had incredible adventures flying for the airline from 1937-1949, but his memories were slipping. Frieda Chen’s brother Donald Wong was one of the airline’s three original Chinese-American pilots and she’d been married to CNAC pilot Paul Chinn until he was killed in early 1941, when she began working as Company Secretary. In 1943, she married Chen Teh tsan, T.T. Chen, an operations man who’d joined the airline in 1939. Frieda’s a spicy little fireplug, T.T. was one of the kindest men I’ve ever known (and the mixer of a truly great martini), and although both of them provided great supporting interviews and helped me understand many facets of pre-war China, neither had been at the core of events through the 1930s. If I were to truly develop the airline’s story through the decade before Pearl Harbor with the help of an eyewitness, I’d need the help of Moon Fun Chin, who started flying for the airline in the winter of 1933 and stayed with them until after the Japanese surrender, in the late summer of 1945.
Happily, Moon Chin lives in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, not far from my home, and I approached him with trepidation, well-aware how much of my project depended on his good graces…
[A run of Moon Chin stories starts at Three Great Pilots.]