CNAC’s first three Chinese-American pilots: Joy Thom of Los Angeles, Moon Chin of Wing-Wa Village and Baltimore, Donald Wong of Chicago. All three were born American citizens, all three earned only one-third as much as their Caucasian counterparts – for exactly the same work and responsibility, and all three triumphed against whatever adversity they faced.
They began flying for the airline as co-pilots in the winter of 1933, when CNAC opened its “Route Two”, from Shanghai to Peiping (Bejing), and by 1936, all three had checked out as pilot captains. Joy Thom was killed in early 1941, trying to sneak under a storm flying a planeload of Chinese currency into the interior from Hong Kong; Moon Chin is alive and well today, living in Burlingame, CA and driving a jet-black Mercedes everywhere at 90 mph; Donald Wong flew for the airline 1933-1937, and again from 1942-1945, and the success of his life is perhaps most easily measured by his daughter, Dona Wong, a PhD on the faculty of Harvard University, who provided the above photo.
Writing about these three men was one of the great joys of China’s Wings.
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…
Chungking’s Sanhupa Airport, probably in 1938, which had the feel of a frontier colony. Because it was built on a Yangtze sandbar, all the buildings on the island were temporary, so they could be moved uphill and inland on short notice — floods submerged the island every summer, usually to a depth of thirty feet, swooshing a 12-knot current over its top. In the middle 1930s, an army of coolies had ferried locally quarried stone slabs to the island and jigsaw puzzling them into a 2,150 foot runway that could survive the floods. It also proved to be nearly-bomb proof — the Japanese started attacking Chungking in 1939, and their raids continued for three years. They never knocked it out of action.
On the flightline are two DC-2s and a Stinson Detroiter. Against the building in the foreground are the carcasses of two Loening Air Yachts.
I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about Moon Chin for several weeks, but I’m so embroiled in revising the China’s Wings manuscript that I’ve neglected the task. In the meantime, here’s a teaser photo of Moon taken at Lunghwa Airport in the spring of 1935, at the party the airline threw to celebrate the maiden flight of their first DC-2.
There’s an amazing story about discovering this photo, it being an astonishing coincidence that still boggles my mind… but telling that will have to wait, too.
I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, what with holiday logistics and the MASSIVE distraction of tweaking and revising the China’s Wings manuscript as the chapters come back from New York. To date, my editor has returned the first 14 chapters with comments and suggested revisions, and I’ve worked my way through chapter 12, but a new batch is due back when I get caught up, so I’ve been prioritizing that work to the detriment of this blog. However, I don’t want to neglect it entirely, so here’s a new (old) picture to get the ball rolling again.