Pearl Harbor Day in Hong Kong: “Those planes are Japanese!”


China's Wings coverSunday, December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy…”

Actually, in Asia, on the other side of  the International Date Line, it happened on Monday, December 8. This is the story of how the war came to Hong Kong and the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). Although, in truth, the war was pretty old news to everyone in CNAC in Decmeber of 1941– they’d  been fighting it for four and a half years, ever since the Japanese invaded China in mid-1937:

DC-3, DC-2, and 2 Curtiss Condors

DC-3, DC-2, and 2 Curtiss Condors at Kai Tak, 1941

Two of the airline’s three DC-2s gleamed on the packed dirt and stubbled grass in front of the the hangar at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. Alongside the DC-2s sat three Curtiss Condor biplane freight carriers. The previous night, the maintenance staff had fueled and serviced all five airplanes. Further down the flight line, three Eurasia planes waited in similar states of readiness – two tri-motored JU-52s and a much older single-engine machine. Pan Am’s S-42 Hong Kong Clipper floated on the placid waters of Kowloon Bay, tied against the flying boat pontoon.

T.T. Chen mixing a martini at Moon Chin’s house, 2004

A few minutes before 8:00 a.m., Chen Teh-tsan, T.T. Chen, a member of CNAC’s Hong Kong ground staff , was unloading the busload of Pan Am passengers he’d escorted to Kai Tak from the Peninsula Hotel, the sumptuous lobby of which the airlines used in lieu of a bona-fida passenger terminal. Suddenly, a noise. Everyone stopped. Airplane engines droned in the distance, growing louder.

“Look!” A passenger pointed to a gaggle of aircraft bearing down from the north at medium altitude.

“They’re British,” someone dismissed.

Chen had been in Chungking a few weeks before. He squinted at the formation. “No!” Those planes are Japanese!”

Pandemonium erupted. The passengers scattered. At a dead run, four of them followed Chen across the street and leapt into a dry drainage culvert with a bunch of blue-coveralled airport coolies. Maintenance Chief Soldinski sprinted to his car and raced for home. The crew of the Pan Am clipper took shelter in the sturdy dock house and yelled for Captain Ralph, who was still in the plane.

Kai Tak airport, pre-war, showing the main hangar and a flying boat tied up at the Pan Am pontoon. (Which looks to me like one of Pan Am’s three M-130s.) (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)

The formation broke into parts and descended to attack altitude. Twelve single-engine Ki-36 bombers bent toward Kai Tak, escorted by nine single engine, fixed-undercarriage Nakajima Ki-27 “Nate” pursuit planes. With no RAF opposition aloft, the nimble pursuits peeled out of formation into line ahead and swooped to 50 feet, heading straight toward Pan Am’s flying boat like dragonflies skimming the surface of a pond.

Captain Ralph jumped through the Clipper’s door and sprinted down the dock. Bullets churned the water and chewed into the plane behind him. Too far to the dock house. The New Englander flung himself over the side into three feet of water and splashed behind a concrete piling. One behind the other, six Japanese pursuits riddled the Clipper and screamed overhead to attack targets farther down the field. Bullets from the seventh ignited a fuel tank. The huge flying boat whooshed into flame. Heat seared the dock. Captain Ralph cringed behind the pillar, unharmed.

Kai Tak airport nestled against the base of Kowloon Peak

The bombers cruised in level at 500 feet, their radial engine roar changing tone as they passed overhead. Black cylinders swished and fluttered earthward and boomed in rapid-fire succession among the parked airplanes. Hot shrapnel ripped bloated fuel tanks. Flaming geysers of aviation fuel gushed from torn fuselages. Massive secondary detonations annihilated the airplanes.

The attack ended as abruptly as it started. The Japanese droned into the distance and vanished about three minutes after they’d been sighted. In front of the hangar, the mangled remains of eight airplanes raged aflame under roiling palls of oily black smoke – three Curtiss Condors, the three Eurasia planes, and CNAC’s two DC-2s. Another greasy smudge jetted skyward from the ruins of the Pan Am clipper. The Royal Air Force’s contingent of pathetic biplanes – three Vildebeast torpedo bombers and two Walrus Amphibians – burned at the other end of the field.

One of the DC-2s destroyed by the attack

China's Wings coverThe Japanese attack on the China National Aviation Corporation at Kai Tak Airport and the airline’s aerial evacuations from Hong Kong is one of the best chapters in my book, China’s Wings.

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3 Responses to Pearl Harbor Day in Hong Kong: “Those planes are Japanese!”

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