CNAC and the Long March

This is a continuation of the “gas streetlamps sputtered…” anecdote I began yesterday. It’s probably worth reading them in sequence…

…Bond and Bixby worked until two o’clock in the morning, trying to figure what airplanes to use and how to allocate them to satisfy the Central Government’s demand. Bixby didn’t know it, Bond didn’t know it, and not a single one of CNAC’s directors knew it, but it was surely no coincidence that eighty-six thousand soldiers of the Communist Red Army  began crossing the Yadu River that day, leaving their Kiangsi Province base and heading west, taking the first steps of a year-long, 7,000-mile odyssey that Communist lore would remember as “The Long March.”[i] Chiang Kai-shek’s “blockhouse strategy” had forced the Communists to move. The best units of Chiang’s Central Army had spent most of 1934 building a ring of military fortifications around the entire Communist base area and advancing slowly, at the rate of forward construction, to squeeze the stronghold from all sides.[ii] By the autumn of 1934, the Communists knew they’d be annihilated if they didn’t slip the Nationalist chokehold. Kweichow and Yunnan provinces lay athwart their probable westward escape routes.

For the Kuomintang, it was the best chance they’d had to eliminate the Chinese Communists since the Shanghai White Terror of 1927, and Kuomintang leadership conceived the Kweichow-Yunnan airline as a lever with which to help them exert influence in the two provinces, places where they’d previously exercised very little power. Chiang Kai-shek flew to Kweiyang to try and convince the local warlords to help him crush the Communists.[i] (Official correspondence always referred to warlords with the face-giving title of “military governors”).

Ford Trimotor in Yunnan Province in 1936 (courtesy of and Bill Larkins)

Few people were aware of the military situation — certainly not anyone on the CNAC board. Bond, Allison, and Bixby just knew that the proposed Kweiyang/Kunming line traversed high mountains devoid of emergency landing opportunities and therefore demanded a sturdy, reliable, multi-engine airplane that could hold 6,000 feet of altitude if it lost an engine. They decided on the Ford tri-motor, an all-metal, high-winged monoplane nicknamed the “Tin Goose” that resembled an overgrown Stinson with one engine on the nose and one planted on each wing. It was built by the Ford Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan, the same company that had given the world the Model-T automobile.

A pilot became more valuable the more planes he was competent to fly, and Ernie Allison assigned Moon Chin as a Tin Goose copilot. Moon Chin flew baled loads of Chinese banknotes and many members of Chiang Kai-shek’s staff to Kweiyang, the capital of Kweichow Province, and, at the behest of many important Kuomintang officials, Moon flew the goose on a variety of “special charters” in the region as the Communists skirmished west, marching and countermarching all over Kweichow to confound the Central Army. The Communists feinted north to threaten Chungking and then fled west into Yunnan. At the height of the campaign, the Kuomintang Aviation Commission (the agency that controlled the Chinese Air Force) tried to bully CNAC into carrying bombs and ammunition to Kweiyang, but Bond and Bixby decried CNAC’s commercial character and used the American neutrality tradition to evade the clearly military assignments.[ii]

Chiang Kai-shek failed to trap the Red Army. The Communists escaped across the Yangtze in Yunnan and streaked north along Szechwan’s western frontier, eventually finding safety in the remote mountains of Shaansi Province, far to the north. The importance of Kweichow faded after the Red Army escape, and when the Central Government stopped the Kweichow subsidy, the airline quietly dropped the unprofitable stop.

[i] Developing the Kweichow/Yunnan Line; its attendant politics: Harold M. Bixby, Topside Rickshaw, Ch. VIII, pp. 4-21; Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, pp. 407, confirms CKS’s personal visit to Kweiyang.

[ii] Moon Chin flies the Tin Goose: author’s interview with Moon Chin, January 7, 2005; July 15, 2005; C.N.A.C.’s service during the Long March: Bixby, Topside Rickshaw, Ch. VIII, pp. 4-22, Ch. X, 10, 12-16; The Senate passed the Neutrality Act of 1935 on August 20, 1935 (Robert Dallek, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: American Foreign Policy 1932-1945, pp. 108), too late for the C.N.A.C. men to invoke, although this neutrality act and others passed by Congress later in the decade would have a great impact on the airline.

[i] The Long March: Harrison Salisbury, The Long March.

[ii] Although often credited to CKS’s German advisors, the blockhouse strategy closely resembles the strategy the Manchu Dynasty used to defeat the Nian rebels in the 1850s and 1860s: Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, pp. 400; the success of the “blockhouse strategy”: Jonathan Fenby, Generalissimo, pp. 257; Salisbury, The Long March, pp. 17; Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty, pp. 290; Spence, The Search for Modern China, pp. 403-410.


1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *