The last of the “fleeing Shanghai” episodes I began with “Evacuating Shanghai, August 1937“; Here I describe Harold Bixby’s last ditch efforts to save the Sino-American partnership of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC):
As the “Shanghai Incident” flared into the Battle of Shanghai and full-scale war in the middle of August, 1937, the suddenly widened war exposed the fault lines in the airline’s Chinese-American partnership.
The Chinese government pressured Harold Bixby to get the Americans flying again, for CNAC’s four DC-2s were the best transport planes in Asia, and only the airline’s American pilots were checked out to fly them. Bixby stalled CNAC Managing Director Colonel Lam long enough to secure the unpaid July bonuses due to the DC-2 pilots and the American salaries for August.
Most foreigners living in Shanghai felt the “Bloody Saturday” bombings on August 14 had been a Chinese conspiracy to tangle the foreign powers into an anti-Japanese war.
Driven by the isolationist desires of its population, the United States government was determined not to let that happen. A quote from U.S. Senator Borah (R), former chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, in the South China Morning Post summarized American policy: “Whatever course we pursue should have the objective of keeping out of conflict or controversy.”
In Shanghai on August 21, Bixby received a formal summons from American Consul Clarence Gauss and Chief Justice of the American Court for China Milton Helmick. Gauss warned Bixby that having CNAC’s American personnel fly what were essentially military support mission was a violation of American neutrality laws. Helmick threatened prosecution.
“We’re under a lot of pressure to let the pilots fly,” said Bixby. “China needs their services.”
“The law, Section 4090, Revised Statutes of the United States, if you must know,” said Judge Helmick, “forbids US citizens from joining the armed forces of other nations. The U.S. Court for China has stated the position plainly. Americans are forbidden to take part. It’s as simple as that. The penalty is a $2,000 U.S. fine and two years imprisonment.”
“But we’ll have to withdraw entirely,” Bixby pleaded.
“And I would wholeheartedly approve of that,” said Judge Helmick. “The law will be strictly enforced. Neutrality violations will be prosecuted to the limit.”
“The position of the United States is quite clear,” Gauss added. “We’re going to stay out of it, regardless of where our personal sympathies lie.”
Bixby made one more attempt to secure assurances from Colonel Lam that the Americans wouldn’t be assigned to military support missions. He told Colonel Lam that if CNAC wanted to continue enjoying the services of its American personnel, they absolutely had to be kept apart from military operations. Colonel Lam’s very next flight request was for two DC-2s to fly to a small town north of Hankow and transport planeloads of pursuit pilots to Nanking.
It was hopeless. Bixby announced that all fifteen Americans were withdrawing from CNAC “to avoid embarrassing the neutrality efforts of the United States.
Ernie Allison went to Hong Kong on a French ship on August 22. Bixby and the airline’s other remaining Americans left Shanghai for Hong Kong aboard the S.S. President Pierce three days later.
The Chinese were apoplectic. They’d nurtured the airline as a crucial aspect of the nation’s modernization for eight years and their American “partners” had abandoned them at the exact hour of their greatest need. Bixby was equally bitter, he thought the Chinese might have been taking advantage of American neutrality legislation to force Pan American out of the partnership and seize the whole airline for themselves.
The Chinese felt like they’d been deserted; the Amerians felt they’d been robbed.
[Here’s what I think of the US neutrality legislation of the 1930s: America’s worst foreign policy of all time.]
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Bixby to Morgan, August 25, 1937, written aboard the S.S. President Pierce en route to Hong Kong, the Bond Papers; Farmer, Rhodes, Shanghai Harvest, pp. 49; Senator Borsch quote: South China Morning Post, August 16, 1937; “C.N.A.C. Pilots Discontinue Services for Duration of War,” China Weekly Review, August 28, 1937; Bixby to Mr. Peng Sho-poi (sic), Chairman of the Board of the China National Aviation Corporation, September 13, 1937, the Bond Papers; New York Times, August 22, 1937; clipping from the Manila Bulletin, August 23, 1937, provided to the author via by Nancy Allison Wright; Florence Allison diary, September 1, 1937, text provided to the author by Nancy Allison Wright; author’s interview with Moon Chin on April 19, 2006.