“CNAC is the China National Aviation Corporation. It is one of those peculiar enterprises whose capital value in dollars and cents might barely equal that of a large American department store, but whose actual value in the war for the control of Asia can only be weighed by history.”
Theodore “Teddy” White, “China’s Last Lifeline,” Fortune, May, 1943
The people in this story knew as much about tomorrow as we do today. Which is to say, very little. The future revealed itself to them the same way it reveals itself to us, minute by minute. They faced it with human tools: courage, imagination, intelligence, humor, fear, and anxiety, and they lived, ate, drank, slept, fought, made love, and worked just like we do today, in near utter ignorance of what tomorrow might bring. The lucky ones were able to laugh about it. A man can only know what he knows, when he knows it. There are no predetermined outcomes. There is no fate. Much could have occurred. Only one thing did. That is history: that does not make it inevitable. Only hindsight makes it seem so. Otherwise, history is like life, a chaotic matrix of alternate possible outcomes, of choices people make, actions they take, distilling into the moment we inherit.
This is a story, a flying story, a story about an airline and the people who built it during the crux decades of the Twentieth Century. It also happens to be true.
Out in New Jersey the next day, Shirley Wilke Mosley, ever beautiful and gracious, made me tea. In her living room, we perused two black & white photo albums her father took in China between 1929 and 1940 while she talked about what it had been like to be a part of what was, at the time, the world’s most exciting undertaking – flying – in the world’s most exciting city – Shanghai.
Shirley was a little girl at the time, and I grew increasingly fascinated as she reminisced about the characters, personalities, and adventures that populated the CNAC universe in the years before Pearl Harbor. The Shanghai social whirl was delightful for a young girl taught to make cocktails for the pilots and their wives at parties hosted by her parents (manhattans, old fashioneds, whisky sours, and gin martinis, very dry, thank you very much), and she remembered attending a company-sponsored gala at Lunghwa Airport, five or six miles south of Shanghai’s foreign settlements, to celebrate the arrival of the airline’s first DC-2, where, wearing her prettiest dress to welcome the new plane, she marveled that she could stand upright under the wing of an airplane so enormous.
Apart from photos of so many of the people I’d be writing about, O.C. Wilke’s albums were full of airplanes: the S-38 and S-43 amphibians, the Loening Air Yacht, Consolidated Commodore, and Martin M-130, all flying boats, and landplanes like the Stinson Detroiter, the Ford tri-motor (the “Tin Goose”), the Douglas DC-2, and the Douglas DC-3, the greatest airplane of all time. The romance of those beautiful airplanes flying against the backdrop of 1930s China set a hook in my heart. Shirley’s stories and her father’s photos cracked open the world of expatriate China, and Shanghai, in the decade before Pearl Harbor.
I longed to write about it, but to write convincingly, a non-fiction guy is utterly dependent on the quality of the sources he’s able to locate. Before committing myself, I’d have to investigate the primary sources. Seduced by Shanghai (shanghaied by Shanghai?), it was time to read some books about the city and its history, see what quantity of period documents and letters I could collect – and judge their usefulness – and spend some time with the only man alive who’d flown for the airline before the Japanese invaded China – Moon Fun Chin.
I had one of my life’s best 24-hour pushes in New York: at Bantam, I lunched with John Flicker, my acquiring editor (thanks, John!), and Nita Taublib , who might be the most well-read person I’ve ever met, gave one of my best-ever Enduring Patagonia slide shows at the Explorer’s Club, dined and swilled fabulous Italian wine with my agent, Ronald, Farley Chase, and three other friends, guzzled beers at McSorley’s in the East Village, danced until dawn on the tables of a club in Alphabet City, walked and subwayed back to mid-town, and signed my name on the China’s Wings contract, still wearing my suit from the night before. It was glorious.
I thought I’d sold a book that would very much focus on CNAC’s crucial and pioneering role in World War II’s Hump Airlift – the massive airlift the Allies prosecuted from India to China, 1942-1945. For the proposal, I’d focused nearly all of my research on the Hump, and I anticipated dealing with the airline’s pre-Pearl Harbor adventures with one or two flashback chapters. The first hint that those early years might prove much more substantial came the following day, when I borrowed a friend’s car and drove out to suburban New Jersey to spend an afternoon perusing black and white photo albums with Shirley Wilke Mosley, daughter of O.C. Wilke, who’d been CNAC’s chief mechanic from 1929-1940, when the airline was based in Shanghai, Hankow, Chungking, and Hong Kong.
For the next year and a half, I failed to land another book project, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Amidst the magazine writing and the part-time gig, three other well-developed ideas failed to launch. I was working through one of them with my agent’s then-assistant, Farley Chase, growing increasingly frustrated – with the idea, not with Farley – when I swore, “Dude, you’re not going to like hearing this, but this isn’t the book I really want to write. I want to write one about the CNAC Hump fliers. I think about that story every day. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that it didn’t sell.”
Rather than telling me to get stuffed for wasting so much of his time, Farley asked me to send him the rejected proposal.
I hadn’t looked at it in 18 months, not quite being able to face the failure, but I attached it to an email and sent it east regardless.
Farley took it home and read it and called me the next day: “Two things. One, you’re right, it’s a great story. Two, your proposal doesn’t do it justice. Read it again and we’ll talk.”
I swallowed my ego and did as I was told and lo! Farley was right. The first China’s Wings proposal hadn’t sold because it wasn’t any good.
Sure, I’d included great anecdotes, but as the next six years of research and writing would teach me, there’s no end of phenomenal anecdotes about the China National Aviation Corporation. I just hadn’t given the proposal any structure. I’d tossed good meat in front of my potential editors, but I hadn’t given them any skeleton from which to hang it. Without that skeleton, they couldn’t envision a finished book, and if a book proposal has one single overriding mission, it’s to make an editor clearly see the finished book.
In that, I’d definitely failed.
With Farley’s guidance, I invested another six weeks in revising the China’s Wings proposal yet again. However, much as I loved the story, I was also full of dread. I really was clinging to the end of the rope. As a writer, another rejection would drop me into free fall.
I fedexed the finished proposal on a Wednesday, scheduled to hit editors’ desks on Friday. (Which is neat to ponder from my current perspective, considering what I now know about the strong CNAC/Fedex connection — I doubt many Fedex employees know about it, and it’s a fascinating aspect of their company’s heritage.) Editors do their reading over weekends. Monday was silent, and I suffered. Tuesday was not. My agent, Ronald Goldfarb, fielded offers from several publishing houses. Wednesday afternoon, Bantam Dell bought it for a handsome fee.
I’d stepped out of my apartment to take Ronald’s call and heard the news on the white concrete around the complex’s pool. I staggered upstairs, collapsed on my bed, pulled a blanket over my head, and sobbed tears of relief.
I flew to New York to ink the contract and meet my “acquiring editor”, John Flicker.
I came home from the reunion, thrilled to have bumbled into such an incredible story, invested three months researching and writing a book proposal about the madcap adventures of the China National Aviation Corporation, and had my agent submit it to a variety of publishers. To me, the story seemed incredible. I knew it was going to make a great book. I knew it was going to sell. I expected publishers to fall all over themselves in a frenzy to buy it, allowing me to focus my energies on writing the sort of book I’d always dreamed about authoring.
Instead, we heard nothing. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and still, we heard nothing. Hope leaked out of me as overwhelming, deafening, depressing silence came back from New York. The proposal failed. It didn’t sell.
I was astonished — and crushed. The three months of unpaid work I’d invested in writing an “on-spec” proposal pushed me over the freelance cliff. To make ends meet, I took a part time job. I still did as much magazine writing as I could sell, but even with that and the part time gig, it took me eighteen months to recover from the failure of the China’s Wings proposal. I’d had a divorce a year and a half before, I’d suffered an agonizing heartbreak since (they weren’t related events), I had a custody arrangement that didn’t allow me near enough time with my son, I was living in a grungy ground floor apartment, I wasn’t surfing or climbing, and I felt like I was failing as a writer. It was the lowest I’d ever been.
On the last morning of the reunion, the hospitality room again filled with CNAC people and their wives. I sat to the side and watched them socialize, the conservative shirts, Sunday dresses, crinkled smiles, and thick glasses. Moon Chin leaned on a silver-topped cane. It was Pete Goutiere’s 88th birthday. Eighty-three year old Bill Maher, the CNAC Association’s president, stood and called the room to order with his vigorous parade ground bellow. Time presses down hard on these men, they don’t have much to waste, and Maher opened the meeting with a nano-moment of silence for the 9/11 victims, then began rehashing the minutes of last year’s meeting. “Since these minutes were written,” Maher boomed, “two of the four people under consideration to serve as association officers have passed away…” He swore. “How’n the hell did we ever get this old?”
Then he turned on me and lashed out, “Where were you ten years ago, Mr. Writer, when I had twice as many members?”
That was in 2002, and sadly, the last eight years haven’t been any easier on the Association’s ranks. I wouldn’t have been writer enough to handle such a rich and complex story if I’d stumbled upon it in 1992, however. I was still in the Army, dreaming about climbing, and I hadn’t written a word outside of a journal. This is Thanksgiving, and honestly, I’m thankful I discovered it when I did. Nor do I think I’d have been able to write a book about CNAC if I’d just stumbled across the story today. There wouldn’t be enough time. I’m lucky I found it when I did.
CNAC veterans Fletcher “Christy” Hanks and Gifford Bull scrambled up the ladder into the plane and made a bee-line for the cockpit. I clambered up after them and stood behind the pilots’ seats. Neither of them had been in the cockpit of a C-46 since the Nineteen Forties, but the two old dudes instantly made sense of the dozens and dozens of levers and pedals, dials and gauges. Bull ran through the litany of controls and levers, reaching out with old, practiced hands to touch each one in succession: cowl flaps, mixtures, flaps, the high and low blower here. “Oh, oh, I remember. This is the carburetor heat down here.”
Within seconds, the pair was laughing about the quirks of the C-46 that had irritated them sixty years ago.
“I didn’t like the shape of the cockpit,” complained Hanks, leaning forward and reaching out a lanky arm. His hand was still eighteen inches short of the Plexiglas. “It was too far from the pilot’s seat to the front window. If the defroster didn’t work you couldn’t reach up and wipe it off.”
Bull agreed and put his hand onto one of the engine levers, “Yeah, and the detent on the carburetor heat was so poor they put a better one in the later models.”
I asked Bull if he thought he could still fly it. He swiveled and looked up at me, his blue Irish eyes alight and a huge grin sending crow’s feet tracking across his face. “I have no doubt I could start it up and fly her out of here.”
And I was equally certain there was nothing in the world he would rather have done.