The airline that is the milieu of my book China’s Wings is the China National Aviation Corporation, CNAC, a civilian airline that flew and fought in China from 1929-1949, and for most of its history, the company was a partnership between Pan American Airways and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese Government.
Founded in 1929 to develop China’s domestic aviation, the airline made significant progress until the summer of 1937, when Japan invaded China. That August, a colossal battle erupted in Shanghai, the airline’s hub. It was a desperate, horrible affair in which hundreds of thousands died, and it very nearly destroyed the airline – and the partnership. The United States’ “legislated neutrality” and Pan Am’s desire to run a commercial airline free of political and military entanglements caused most of the airline’s American personnel to leave China. The Chinese, who’d spent eight years developing CNAC into one of their most valued strategic assets, felt deserted at their hour of greatest need. Only the superhuman efforts of airline executive William Langhorne Bond, walking a tightrope between the suddenly at-odds interests of China and Pan Am, managed to rescue Pan Am’s financial investment from the brink of extinction, lure some of the American personnel back to China, salvage the partnership, and save the airline. (Bond served Pan Am, and China, for 19 years, 1931-1949, and he’s China’s Wings main character.)
Ejected from its peacetime hub by the Shanghai fighting, which ended as a catastrophic Chinese defeat, the airline retreated up the Yangtze River to Hankow, and then further inland to Chungking, 1,400 miles from the East China Sea, and from the ashes of its near-destruction, CNAC again rose to become one of China’s most vital assets. Between 1938 and December, 1941, its air route between Chungking and Hongkong was “Free China’s” most efficient line of communications to the outside world, the speedy link that allowed the Nationalist Government to function on the world stage – and made CNAC’s airplane’s hunted targets of the Japanese invaders.
After four dramatic nights of evacuation flights from Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded the colony on 8 December 1941, the airline’s finest hours came in 1942 and early 1943, when its veteran fliers supplied Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (the AVG, popularly known as “The Flying Tigers”) and pioneered the Hump Airlift between India and China and proved to the United States Army Air Corps that the airlift could be prosecuted despite high mountains, horrible weather, and marauding Japanese fighters. Alongside the Air Corps, CNAC flew the Hump until the war’s end, always setting the standards for efficiency, safety, and performance.
After the Japanese surrender, dreams of peace continued to elude the airline – it was soon embroiled in the Chinese civil war. Its fortunes waned along with those of the Nationalist Chinese, and after Mao’s Communists forced the Nationalists to abandon Mainland China for Taiwan, the airline finally winked out of existence on the last day of 1949.
It had been one of the greatest commercial adventures of the 20th Century, and it was, beyond question, the most successful Sino-American partnership of all time.