A beautiful and colorful first flight cover commemorating the first airmail service from Shanghai to Canton, signed by CNAC pilot Robert Gast.
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.
At cnac.org: O.C. Wilke
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.
The reunion room thundered with band of brothers camaraderie, packed with overjoyed old dudes slapping backs and bellowing into each other’s hearing aids, faces flushing red as they roared greetings and good-natured abuse. Hard-earned exuberance: not a man among them had less than a thousand hours of combat flight time. During the 1930s and ‘40s, these daredevil pilots flew for the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), and they pioneered and prosecuted the most dangerous airlift in history, braving high mountains, horrible weather, and Japanese fighter planes to fly supplies over “The Hump” – the 18,000 to 23,000 foot mountains of the Eastern Himalayas that stood between Kunming, China, and the Allied supply bases in Assam, India. Fully loaded, their twin-engine transports couldn’t fly over the mountains, they had to thread around the highest peaks, hoping they wouldn’t be trapped by foul weather or box canyons. Trusting everything to their skill, primitive, albeit sturdy airframes, crude instruments, and rudimentary navigational aids, they flew the Hump day in and day out for more than three years.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured Burma and cut the Burma Road, isolating free China in the Asian interior behind the Eastern Himalayas. (Even today, in a world seemingly crazed by mountain adventure, many, even most, of these mountains remain unclimbed.) China’s only hope of maintaining ties with the outside world was the untried aerial supply route over the Hump. The U.S. Army Air Corps didn’t think it could be done, and said so in Washington. CNAC’s example proved otherwise, and President Roosevelt pointedly asked the Army: If they can do it, why can’t you?
Of course, the Army Air Corps hated CNAC The airline’s pilots could earn $2,000 a month, ten times what the typical Air Corps pilot made for similar work, and CNAC existed beyond the reach of “chickenshit” military discipline. What an airline man did off-duty was his own business. But the U.S. Army mostly flew in daylight, mostly in decent weather, and considered a tour complete and sent a man home when he had done a hundred Hump missions. CNAC flew day and night, in all weathers, and many CNAC pilots made more than five hundred trips over the Hump. Flying unarmed transports over the Himalayas may sound boring and routine, and to a certain extent it was, but make no mistake, flying the Hump was a high stakes game. 32 CNAC pilots were killed during the war. The Army Air Corps, flying routes the airline had pioneered, lost a plane every two days. By the end of the war, two thousand fliers had been lost on the Hump.
A hodgepodge of Chinese and Western pilots straggled into the CNAC ranks from odd corners of the aviation world, maverick aerial flotsam of a world at war. Among them were ex-military, ex-Flying Tigers who signed on with CNAC when the AVG disbanded (American Volunteer Group): Californian ace Dick Rossi, credited with gunning down six Japanese planes, Scandinavian golden boy Einar “Mickey” Michelson who once finagled a date with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and iron-willed Joe Rosbert, who crashed in the high Himalayas and made an epic 47-day trek to safety through blizzards, glaciers, and stone-aged headhunting tribes – on a broken leg – that ranks with the great survival stories of all time. Chinese and Chinese-American pilots like Moon Chin and Harold Chinn had been with the airline since the 1930s. Jim Fox, Ridge Hammell, and big, barrel-chested Pete Goutiere joined CNAC when they were stranded in Asia by the collapse of Pan Am Air Ferries. Others, like Donald McBride and Bill Maher, were frustrated flight instructors refused admission into the Air Corps or naval aviation who abandoned their cush stateside jobs for the spice of combat. Outcasts in a forgotten theater of the world war, they happened to be the very best at what they did, and I soon realized their collective memory holds one of aviation’s great untold stories.
The constant danger provoked extreme reactions. Some men clamed up and salted away their outrageous mercenary earnings with near-religious devotion. (After the war, CNAC money gave birth to both Cathay Pacific airways and the Flying Tiger Line.) Others, like wildman Jimmy Scoff, who crashed three planes in less than a year, blew every single penny in the cathouses of Calcutta’s Kariah Road. In those days, the men were flush with the easy immortality of youth. Some would make it, some would not.
I thumbed through a self-published war memoir at the back of the room. I found it hard to concentrate amidst the reunion commotion, so I flipped forward to the first page and squinted at the humpster’s faded 1943 headshot, then looked up transfixed into exactly the same chiseled face: Pete Goutiere.
“Back then,” he said, “I was younger than you are now.”
China’s Wings is the result of the journey that began that day.
Us narrative non-fiction guys and gals are pretty dependent on the quality of the stories we discover. A story swallows a massive chunk of your life if you decide to write a book about it: you’d better hope you fall in love with it.
The first glimmer of this story came to me from Charlie Fowler, a climbing partner with whom I ascended Cerro Torre, spent the night on top, and watched the sunrise from the summit. (An event that climaxes “The Cerro Torre Campaign” chapter of my book Enduring Patagonia.) Charlie was an astonishingly experienced climber, and besides Patagonia, his other adventuring obsession was the mountains of Central Asia.
Back stateside from explorations along the Tibet/China frontier, Charlie sent me an email in January 2002: “Greg, I keep hearing stories of these old World War II American plane wrecks in the Eastern Himalaya. You’re a military history guy and a mountaineer; you should spark up a story on that.”
I recognized the kernel of a good idea, and as a lifetime WWII history buff, I surmised those wrecks were probably relics of the airlift from India to China the U.S. prosecuted over “The Hump” during the war (the Hump being the eastern spur of the Himalayas that drops down the Burma/China border), but I was in Oman on a National Geographic assignment at the time. I didn’t get around to researching Charlie’s idea until six months later.
When I did, my initial “flying the Hump” web search quickly stumbled across a website called cnac.org – the unofficial/official repository of all things related to the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), a civil airline partnership between Pan American Airways and the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek that flew and fought in China from 1929-1949.
(cnac.org is run by Tom Moore, nephew of a CNAC pilot named Emil Scott who was killed leaving Kunming, China in early 1942, and it’s an absolute goldmine of information, even if it can be a little hard to find the best pages.)
I perused the website, getting more and more intrigued. I’d consider myself pretty well-versed in World War II aviation history, and I knew many of the tales that seemed to orbit the CNAC story – among them Pan Am’s transpacific flying, the Flying Tigers, and the Hump flying – but I’d never even heard of the airline that seemed to have played such a pivotal role in those significant and well-known events.
Quite by chance, I stumbled through the website’s reunions page and noticed they had an reunion scheduled only three weeks hence, and it was in San Francisco, twenty miles from my home in Walnut Creek. With some trepidations, I called Bill Maher, President of the CNAC Association, introduced myself, and explained that I might be interested in writing a book about his airline. I asked if I could attend the reunion. “Hell yes!” thundered Bill, one the airline’s former Hump pilots. “Come on over. We’ve got great stories.”
I attended, and Bill was right. He and his brethren positively oozed incredible stories and adventures. I was hooked. Driving away from the reunion, I was physically shaking, convinced I’d just discovered an untold, compelling, and significant story – one I was meant to tell.
Sadly, Charlie Fowler won’t ever enjoy the fruit of the seed he planted – he was killed by an avalanche in China in 2006.