Fleeing Shanghai, August 1937: Tensions in the partnership threaten to tear the airline apart


China's WingsBy the time the Caucasian personnel of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) returned to work after tending to the evacuation of their families, recounted here, the airline was in bad shape–tensions in the Sino-American partnership, the strength of which had always been an organizational pillar, threatened to tear the company apart.

Those tensions were about to get much worse:

Harold Bixby

Harold Bixby

Many of CNAC’s pilots were in Hankow, awaiting instructions. Harold Bixby met with those still in Shanghai, trying to decide how to manage the deteriorating situation. China needed CNAC’s Caucasian pilots and mechanics, and with China becoming daily more embroiled in the colossal battle developing with the Japanese in Shanghai, Company Managing Director Colonel Lam Whi-shing felt his country had a right to expect them to help. Bixby already knew they couldn’t: the American personnel had State Department instructions to stop flying, but CNAC owed Pan Am about $60,000 U.S. dollars for transpacific sales CNAC had agented. Bixby tried to pry the sum loose from Colonel Lam, but Lam wouldn’t pay without an American promise to continue helping. Bixby tried to force CNAC to pay Pan Am’s debt by refusing to co-sign the CNAC checks needed to finance what Colonel Lam felt were the company’s urgent and legitimate operational needs – to get the company’s Chinese staff evacuated to Hankow and to keep the airplanes flying in support of the rapidly widening war. Colonel Lam borrowed $300,000 (mex.) from the Ministry of Communications in CNAC’s name, kept the money in cash, and used it to finance the flying.

Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport

Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, 1938

Pilot Frank Havelick had one of the DC-2s in Hankow on August 18. Bixby ordered him to fuel the airplane, collect Royal Leonard, Floyd Nelson, Hugh Woods, and any other Americans he could find and fly the plane to Canton. Bixby’s public message asked Havelick to deliver the plane to the Chinese Air Force. There were probably other private communications. As Havelick approached Canton, CNAC’s agent there radioed Havelick the news that the local weather was so bad that he should divert to another airfield. The Canton weather was fine, but Havelick received the subtext: Bixby wanted him to divert to Hong Kong. He did. The $60,000 U.S. dollars CNAC owed Pan Am just about exactly matched the value of a used DC-2. Bixby and Allison sent a radio message on the CNAC network ordering Havelick to return to Hankow, but Bixby used Pan Am’s private code to radio a message to the company’s Hong Kong agent telling Havelick to stay in Hong Kong until released by Bixby’s private signal. The first part of the plan worked: Havelick stayed. But the station manager at Kai Tak airfield, a British officer named Lieutenant A.R.J. Moss, got word of the scheme, and he wanted no part of a conspiracy that might foul the colony’s relationship with Nationalist China.

Moss radioed to all stations that Havelick was staying in Hong Kong pending receipt of Bixby’s confidential orders. CNAC’s Chinese leadership monitored Moss’s message, and Bixby’s blatant “horse-stealing” shredded any vestige of good will that remained between the Chinese and American partners.

(ASIDE: Lt. Moss features in another one of my China’s Wings outtakes posts from more than a year ago: Emily Hahn and CNAC, aka the hardest cut, part III, which is hilarious.)

The Chinese were pulling CNAC in one direction, the Americans were pulling it in another, and the tension tore their partnership apart. Havelick hadn’t taken out all the American personnel. Some remained in Shanghai. Tremendous chaos beset the remaining personnel. Nobody had slept because of the booming guns. Overwrought pilots bickered with strung-out managers. “Orders” came to CNAC from the Ministry of War, the Ministry of Communications, and the Aviation Commission, and Colonel Lam kept promising DC-2s to every official in China. Colonel Lam gave confused, nonsensical orders that would have kept the pilots in the air twelve hours a day, and he treated them like he would have dealt with an air force squadron. Allison and Bixby countermanded the most egregious instructions. The American pilots felt like they were being press-ganged into the Chinese Air Force. Allison was under a tremendous strain, consumed with worry about his pregnant wife. A kind and gentle man at home, he was always stern with his pilots, and he was staunchly pro-Chinese. Allie drove his pilots. They balked and refused orders. “Allie was typical”: he tried to do it all himself. He flew a Dolphin from Lunghwa to Minghong, hid it in a creek, had himself driven back to Lunghwa, and then flew another one of the company’s hydroplanes to another hiding spot. Allie accused the pilots of malingering. “Everybody had a tremendous row.”

Ernie Allison

Ernie Allison

Bixby told Lam that the only way the Americans could continue was if the Americans had complete control. Lam had to stop making promises without consulting the Americans. Contractually, operations was the purview of CNAC’s American partners. Ernie Allison was operations manager. He should be the one deploying the airplanes. In his search for solutions, Bixby proposed dividing the airline. One part would comprise Chinese personnel able to conduct military support missions, the other would be the Americans restricted to commercial undertakings. Colonel Lam wouldn’t hear of it. American pilots were the only ones checked out to fly the DC-2s. Bixby’s proposal denied him use of the best transport planes in Asia. Colonel Lam stood to lose much face if he were unable to command them. Lam tried to get Bixby to compromise. CNAC was a Chinese-owned company. It had bought those four DC-2s with Chinese money earned in China. Those airplanes were Chinese property. An ardent patriot, he thought the Americans had been intentionally slow in checking out Chinese DC-2 captains they could keep control of the company’s most valuable assets. Moon Chin, Donald Wong, and Joy Thom were clearly capable of handling the airplane.

*     *     *

Colonel Lam’s loan; meeting with Colonel Lam: Bixby to Morgan, August 25, 1937, written aboard the S.S. President Pierce en route to Hong Kong, the Bond Papers.

Havelick’s DC-2 flight to Hong Kong, and the complications of its return: Nancy Allison Wright’s interview of Frank Havelick, April 17, 1991, text provided to the author via email on November 27, 2005; Bixby to Morgan, August 25, 1937, written aboard the S.S. President Pierce en route to Hong Kong (“Horse stealing” is the phrase Bixby himself used in the letter); Havelick to Andre Priester, December 9, 1937; both letters in the Bond Papers.

China's WingsConditions in Shanghai; bickering between the airline personnel; “Allie was typical”; Allison trying to do it all himself and his efforts to save the planes; “Everybody had a tremendous row”: Bond to Kitsi, written in Hong Kong, August 28, 1937, the Bond Papers; author’s interview with Moon Chin, January 7, 2005.

Colonel Lam’s sentiments about the Americans being slow to check-out Chinese DC-2 pilots: author’s interview with Moon Chin, April 19, 2006.

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3 Responses to Fleeing Shanghai, August 1937: Tensions in the partnership threaten to tear the airline apart

  1. Pingback: Fleeing Shanghai, August 1937: one DC-2 gets wrecked & Moon Chin saves another | Gregory Crouch

  2. Dwight Broeman says:

    My grandfather was Captain Frank J. Havelick. I am looking forward to reading your book!

    • Gregory says:

      I hope you enjoy it, Dwight. Thanks for checking in. Havelick was one of the airline’s stalwarts. Cheers, Greg

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