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Book Review 246: China's Wings

August 28, 2012 - Harry Eagar
CHINA'S WINGS: War, Intrigue, Romance and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight, by Gregory Crouch. 498 pages, illustrated. Bantam, $30

Gregory Crouch absolutely delivers on the war, intrigue, romance and adventure in this rousing, and authentic, story of how air service came to and, remarkably, survived in China in the '30s and '40s.

Before reading “China's Wings,” my notion of the coming of aviation to China began with Japanese military planes assisting the invasion of Shanghai and, slightly later, the picture of hundreds of thousands of peasants pounding gravel to construct airstrips for the B-29s of the XIV Air Force.

It turns out that civilian aviation was imposed over the medieval structure of China from around 1930, with American and German firms. Crouch gives a pretty good (but not perfect) overview of the way outside businesses penetrated China.

The China National Aviation Corporation was remarkable in many ways, not least in that the Chinese government for the first time retained a controlling interest in one of these joint ventures.

This structure, which later brought in Pan Am, created many headaches for William Bond, the American manager, but also, during the period of American neutrality up to December 1941 allowed Bond to arbitrage the split ownership to legally accomplish some things that an all-American or an all-Chinese business could not have.

“China's Air” is largely a biography of Bond. Though he did not speak Chinese, Bond seems to have had an amazing facility for figuring out the intricate politics of China. He also had to cope with the slightly less intricate politics of Pan-Am, which needed a base in China to complete its transPacific route.

A second remarkable character in the book is Moon Chin, and his story provides a fair sample of the strange turns the story of “China's Wings” takes.

Moon Chin was born in China, but his immigrant father was in San Francisco when the earthquake resulted in the burning of all the immigration records. Despite the Chinese exclusion laws, this event allowed some Chinese to claim that children had been born in America and were thus citizens. The government permitted this.

Moon Chin thus grew up in Baltimore. A flyin' fool, he ended up flying for CNAC and, surviving into his nineties, provided plenty of background to Crouch, who came to this history after Bond died but early enough to interview many CNAC veterans.

The book is packed with nuggets of information, but Crouch makes the case that aviation was crucial to the survival of a national government in China: Without planes, it took 62 days to travel from Shanghai to Chengtu. With planes, a day.

It was not the volume of traffic – there were hardly a dozen planes available to CNAC – but the fact of communication that made the difference.

“China's Air” is filled with derring-do and the off-duty escapades of its young pilots, but nestled inside all this stirring stuff are nuggets that suggest how important and completely unpredictable things were. CNAC had ended up with a few old biplanes that were unusable on its routes after Japan started shooting down airliners. Its manager, P.Y. Wong, had the inspiration to use them to ship out tungsten from the interior on a route to Hong Kong that was not, until later, interdicted by the Japanese.

Tungsten was crucial for alloy steel, and China produced half the world's supply. Without the tons of tungsten, the United States would have had a more difficult task in rearming.

Despite the romance of aviation and the drama of war, “China's Wings” is primarily a business history, and one of the best.

But Crouch covers a great deal of ground. A West Pointer, he is especially strong on logistics; and in the final chapters he raises some provocative and controversial questions about American aviation policy in China.

It was Bond who devised the idea of an air train to China after the Japanese closed the Burma Road, and CNAC flyers pioneered it. There are many hair-raising stories about flying “The Hump,” but Crouch questions whether the effort didn't prolong the war in Europe by a winter.

It is a commonplace of military history that the enormous efforts to supply China and, later, the XIV Air Force paid small returns because of the incompetence and corruption of the Nationalists and the misplaced strategy of Claire Chennault.

The same precious cargo planes, Crouch proposes, could have kept the Allied armies advancing in western Europe when their offensive stalled for lack of supplies in late 1944.

I am skeptical. The Allied generals and armies weren't performing well against the Germans, and the Allies had failed either to capture or to improvise a port after five months. Despite the protestations of the in-over-his-head George Patton, there is little reason to suppose a few tens of thousands of tons of gasoline would have cracked the German army then.

Besides, although Chiang fought (or didn't fight) a phony war, there was considerable value in keeping China in the fight even notionally. China very likely would have collapsed without any lifeline to the outside world, and China did tie down a third of the Japanese army.

It's a question how readily Japan might have deployed those forces, but considering how very expensive it was to eliminate each Japanese soldier in the Pacific, not having to face the Mainland divisions was a great advantage to the Americans. (Whether keeping China in the war was good for the ordinary Chinese is another question, and the answer probably is no.)

Less controversially, Crouch says that lessons learned flying The Hump made the success of the Berlin Airlift possible, and the long time it took the Army Air Force to learn CNAC's lessons about Burma make it pretty clear that from a standing start, the Air Force could not have run the Berlin Airlift.

It's a wonderful story.


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