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“… CNAC and the U.S. Air Force overcame all the difficulties on the Hump route. At all costs, they kept the line open twenty-four hours a day. Many CNAC pilots flew the Hump more than 500 times; one man flew it more than 700 times. It was one of the most arduous, costly, and tragic operations in the history of air transportation.”

Back to War-time China

In 1937, when the threat of war hung over Shanghai, the Chinese swarmed into the Shanghai French Concession and Shanghai International Settlement. The residents in the settlements were panicked by the sudden influx of a million refugees, who packed every corner, road, street, and sidewalk. Among the foreigners was Father Robert Jacquinot de Besange, S.J., a French Jesuit. He established a safe zone in the midst of the ongoing war and chaos which sheltered thousands of lives. Additionally, many foreign groups organized various relief programs such as food aid, setting up hospitals, and bringing medical personnel to the safe zones.

The Chinese people’s retreat up the Yangzi River that would make its mark on Chinese history was under way. When many upper class families struggled to find their way out of the country, an American named William Bond, who was vacationing on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, made up his mind to return to China.

Bond was born in 1893 and grew up in rural Virginia. After high school, he became an officer and fought in World War I. Later, after the war, he worked for a construction company before joining the aviation industry in 1929. By 1937, Bond was a leader of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), China’s first airline jointly owned by Pan American World Airways and the Republic of China. CNAC provided both passenger and cargo services. With his action of journeying to China, Bond was unaware of his future involvement in a new era. His decision led to America’s historical contribution to aviation in China.

In the 1930s, most Americans didn’t want to be drawn into another war. In 1935, the US Congress passed the Neutrality Act preventing support for belligerents, and prohibiting US citizens from traveling to war zones. An American could be heavily fined, imprisoned or deprived of citizenship if he violated the act. However, most Americans sympathized with the Chinese who were suffering under Japanese invasion and hoped for China’s eventual victory.

On the eve of the battle, an unfortunate incident jeopardized the Chinese-American partnership in CNAC—a Chinese officer pointed a gun at CNAC American pilot Chuck Sharp and forced him to fly a Douglas DC-2 loaded with bombs and guns from Nanchang to Hangzhou. As a result, the US government ordered CNAC’s American employees to withdraw from China. The decision upset the Chinese government who gravely needed foreign assistance during China’s life and death moment.

Upon hearing the news, Bond felt that both sides were making a terrible mistake. So he flew to New York, and pleaded with the president of Pan American World Airways. Bond said that if Pan Am abandoned China when China needed them the most, Pan Am would find it hard to return to China after the war. He petitioned that CNAC’s U.S. employees be allowed to continue their operations in China.  He also lobbied various U.S. government offices through his personal contacts in President Roosevelt’s State Department. Bond believed that it was simply the right thing to do to stay in China; commercial interest was just one of many factors to take into consideration.

The Chungking airport in 1938.
CNAC’s four DC-2 on the flightline at Shanghai’s Lunghwa Airport in 1937.

With permission from Pan Am, Bond flew back to China in August of 1937 and began a three-month negotiation with the Chinese. Bond tried his best to convince the Chinese government to maintain the civilian nature of CNAC instead of converting it into a military force. The Chinese government was too distracted with the battle in Shanghai to listen to his plea. Bond was frustrated with both sides, but he did not give up and travelled repeatedly between Hong Kong, Hankou, Nanking, and other Chinese cities to carry on negotiating with various leaders and officers in the midst of the war. In early November of 1937, Bond drove a car to Shanghai when the battle was near its end in order to meet with Soong Tzu-wen, the Chinese Minster of Finance.

At that time, CNAC only had about ten airplanes, among them only four DC-2s capable of long-distance flight. These planes could transport passengers, cargos and mail between Chongqing and Hong Kong in five hours, which would have taken weeks or even months by road. Air cargo and other civilian flights significantly strengthened China’s defense in the war. By the end of December 1937, Bond finally reached an agreement with his Chinese counterparts that allowed CNAC’s Americans to continue operating in China.

Loading a DC-2 in China in 1936.

A Silk Road in the Sky

CNAC mechanics salvage one of the engines of the first commercial airliner ever shot down by Japanese. This was in August 1938, when the CNAC DC-2 was leaving Hong Kong for Chongqing.

In October 1938, the Chinese Nationalist government retreated further inland to Chongqing. Bond moved CNAC to Chongqing and continued its operation. With the Japanese occupation in China, CNAC had to give up many of its original routes and open up new routes, the most important of which was Chongqing to Hong Kong.

On the war torn Chinese front, every flight could mean a matter of life and death. On the morning of Aug. 24, 1938, CNAC’s Douglas DC-2 flying from Hong Kong to Chongqing with 18 passengers on board was attacked by five Japanese fighter planes. The two pilots managed to land the broken plane on a river, but Japanese planes followed with a merciless barrage of fire.  Three people survived by jumping into the river and hiding in grass by the bank, all the other passengers and crew members were killed. Some of them were shot as many as thirteen times. The U.S. State Department protested to Japan about the attack, but in vain. For safety reasons Chongqing to Hong Kong flights resumed but only at night and under bad weather to avoid Japanese attacks.

Under these extremely difficult circumstances, CNAC’s Chongqing-Hong Kong line served as the most convenient way to transport Chinese officials and emergency cargoes. CNAC made it possible to deliver mail between China and the Western countries within several days, which would otherwise take at least a month. In an era where mail played a vital role in communication, the flights from Chongqing to Hong Kong opened up a window for China.  CNAC also flew many Chinese officials to Hong Kong where they transferred to the U.S. and Europe, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek. (To be continued in the next issue)