Fleeing Shanghai, August 16 & 17, 1937: Evacuating CNAC’s wives and children

China's WingsReturning to the series of stories about what happened to the people of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) at the outbreak of the Battle of Shanghai in August, 1937 that I started last week…

This incident builds directly from the China’s Wings outtake “Ernie and Florence Allison in Shanghai at the outbreak of war” post that I made last year.

Shanghai burns, August 1937
Shanghai burns, August 1937

The ground fighting that had broken out on August 13 intensified, and by August 16, it had developed into a massive battle. Both sides poured reinforcements into the northern districts. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, including many hundreds of American women and children, were caught within shell-shot of the combat zones. Those threatened Americans included all the families of CNAC’s American personnel.

Warships in the Whangpoo
Warships in the Whangpoo

U.S. Consul Clarence Gauss recommended they evacuate on the S.S. President Jefferson. It wasn’t mandatory, since the evacuees had to buy passage, but Ernie Allison had a ticket for his very pregnant wife, Florence, when he returned to the Grosvenor House a few minutes after five o’clock in the afternoon on August 16. He tried to break the news to his wife gently, that Florence would have to leave at 9:00 o’clock the next morning. “You know I can’t go on this ship,” he said. “It’s reserved for women and children.”

Florence didn’t fuss. “Yes, I know,” she mumbled. “It was on the radio. I packed a bag. Wouldn’t want you to go under the circumstances.”

Allie was relieved. He was near crazy with work-stress and worry. With Florence was so close to term, Allie thought they might allow her a second bag for the unborn baby.

Japanese troops in Shanghai
Japanese troops in Shanghai

The guns thundered all night. Florence Allison was awake at 5 a.m. CNAC’s Caucasian personnel did very little work on August 17, 1937. Most were busy supervising the evacuation of their wives, children, and girlfriends. The company truck picked them up. The President Jefferson was anchored in the Yangtze estuary, twenty-miles distant, and the only way to reach it was on a small harbor tender leaving from the middle of the Shanghai Bund.

The harbor tender that was to take the women and children to it was tied up at the Customs Jetty beneath “Big Ching” in the middle of the Bund. The boat wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10:00 a.m., but it was already crowded by the time the CNAC wives unloaded a few minutes after 9 o’clock. A stiff wind whipped Florence Allison’s blue and white polka-dotted maternity dress against her ankles and tousled her hair. She waddled down the jetty onto the tender with 17 other CNAC wives and 14 children.

The tender departed from the dock directly in front of the Customs House, the building in the center with the tall spire.
The tender departed from directly in front of the Customs House, the building with the tall spire just left of center.

Harold Bixby shepherded his wife, Debbie, and their four daughters aboard. Twenty-year old Elizabeth, second oldest of the Bixby girls, came aboard clutching the one small suitcase she’d been allowed. In it was a spare pair of pants, a few shirts, undergarments, socks, and all the photographs she’d taken in the three years in China.

Bixby on the dock, bidding goodbye to his wife and daughters, Aug 17, 1937 (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)
Bixby putting on a brave face on the dock, bidding goodbye to his wife and daughters, Aug 17, 1937 (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)

 Walter “Foxie” Kent, one of the pilots, helped his wife Marie aboard with their five-day old baby – born six-weeks premature and being kept alive in an incubator.

The tender cast off for its run downriver with 411 women and children aboard, far beyond its rated capacity. The tender steamed downriver, its only protection a huge American flag draped over its aft-end.

SS President Jefferson
SS President Jefferson

The women thought they’d been promised a two-hour ceasefire. If so, both sides ignored it. Chinese and Japanese planes bombed north of Soochow Creek. Shrapnel flew all over the city. Elizabeth Bixby and one of her sisters were on deck, in the open air. The small guard of US Marines hustled them below, along with all the other topside passengers, as stray bullets and shrapnel pinged off the tender’s sides.

Beyond Woosung, in the supposed safety of the Yangtze estuary, the overloaded tender pitched and heaved in heavy swells, remnants of the recent typhoon. The boat lurched, slewed, took a long roll to starboard, and very nearly capsized. Women toppled against each other and fell to the floor. A few screamed. Small children, so infrequently stuck alone with their Caucasian mothers, whined, “I want my ahma, I want my ahma.”

The tender wallowed close to the Jefferson. Both vessels tossed wildly. The tender’s captain lost his nerve and refused to draw alongside. A marine shoved him aside, grabbed the wheel, and laid the tender against the liner. On the uprolls, the marines literally threw the evacuees across to the Jefferson’s gangplank. Miraculously, they managed the transfer without hurting anybody.

For the women and children, the drama continued: a few days later, the Jefferson reached Manila just in time for the refugees to get caught in the worst earthquake the city had suffered in thirty years.

Harold and Debbie Bixby and their four daughters (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)
Harold and Debbie Bixby and their four daughters (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)

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Sources: Florence Allison’s diary, August 16, 1937, entry provided to the author via email by their daughter, Nancy Allison Wright (who was the unborn baby in her mother’s womb.); Kent, Walter C. “Foxie,” “Wings for China,” The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1937; author’s interview with Elizabeth “Bo” Bixby, January 24, 2006.

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Fro those who don’t know much about the Battle of Shanghai, the website World War II Database has a summary.

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China's Wings



  1. Glad I found your site. I’ve been trying to determine exactly when my mother, brother an I left China and got stranded in Manila, never making it to the States. My mother said we “missed the boat” taking American dependents from Manila to the United States. Curious to know if the SS President Jefferson completed the trip to the US later on, and if it (the ship) returned to Shanghai for more evacuees.

    1. Great story, Virginia! Lots of excitement in those days. I’m not sure off the top of my head about the SS President Jefferson’s sailings after Shanghai and Manila, but I’ll bet a search of the NY Times’s archive would reveal all. Or try your luck googling “Sailings of the SS President Jefferson”. You might find a website devoted to the old President line, or some other enthusiasts site.

  2. I am Lauren Kathleen Havelick Kline and Dwight Broeman is my nephew. My mother, Erin Havelick was one of the women on the Jefferson trying to get out of Shanghai in 1937. She has told me the story of having to leave all the possessions that she and my father, CNAC pilot Frank Havelick, had including their beloved dog Rudy, in order to board the ship to Manila. She was accompanied by other wives including Dorothy Nelson and daughter Barbara, and Peggy McClesky to name a few. My mother told me of the treacherous time they had trying to board the Jefferson and how they had to wait for a wave to raise them high enough to jump on to the boarding ramp of the ship. She didn’t know where my Dad was or when she would hear from him again. I have many telegrams that my Dad kept regarding their time in Shanghai.

    1. I wish I’d have seen those when I was writing China’s Wings! They sound interesting. Stories about barding the Jefferson are epic. As I asked Philip, have you connected with Tom Moore at cnac.org or with the CNAC Association? Both are always interested in bringing additional members of the CNAC family into the loop.

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