China’s Wings by Santa Barbara native son Gregory Crouch is an exception to books written in the last few years about World War II. Sixty-five years after the war ended, very few authors offer anything new; Crouch has. His book delves into the Second Sino-Japanese War that started in 1931 — eight years before Hitler slashed into Poland — with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. It ends with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces 18 years and millions of casualties later. China’s Wings offers up a compelling and human narrative about the airlift to China from Burma that helped keep China in the war against Japan, and at the same time served as a vital precursor to the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949.
The center of the book is William Langhorne Bond, an executive with the China National Aviation Corp. (CNAC). Bond comes to China from Baltimore, where he was in charge of an inoperative factory (the Depression is full swing as the book begins).
Bond is called not just because of his shrewdness as a businessman, but also because of his comportment and courtesy, essential in the Confucius-based culture of China. Although he is stressed enough that it affects his health, he makes CNAC a success. This is despite primitive conditions, obsolete aircraft and the ruthlessness of the Japanese Empire. (The Japanese knowingly target and shoot down CNAC’s unarmed civilian aircraft in the years before Pearl Harbor). Bond possesses ”a sophisticated, mannerly, mature judgment.”
Endowed with an indomitable will to ensure CNAC’s success, Bond even turns down promotions and transfers. His leadership enables all but one of CNAC’s employees to escape Hong Kong when the city is besieged by the Japanese in December 1941. The narrative tenses as CNAC’s planes, overloaded with passengers and spare parts, lift off from the field with only inches to spare and the propellers nearly hitting the water. The New York Times wrote that this evacuation was “the most perilous bit of work in the history of commercial aviation.” Crouch gives this triumph a human face.
The last third of the book deals with Bond’s leadership of and participation in the successful airlift that kept China supplied after the fall of Burma in May 1942. The pilots and crews face not just enemy fighters, but also fog, wind and freezing cold flying over the Himalayas (“The Hump”). Throughout the operation, the civilian CNAC continually outperformed its military counterpart, the Air Transport Command:
“In September 1943, after completing many airfield improvements, the army moved 5,198 tons over the Hump with 225 planes, well over half of which were C-87s and C-46s capable of hauling nearly 5 tons. CNAC delivered 1,132 metric tons with 27 planes, all of which were DC-3 types with 2- to 3-ton payloads. Per plane the airline got 42 metric tons to China. The Army managed to fly only 23 tons ...”
Crouch, a graduate of Dos Pueblos High School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, illuminates something I have never read about in any book on World War II; the effects of the China Airlift on the Allied offensive in Western Europe in the early fall of 1944, especially that of Gen. George Patton. Quite simply, transport planes deployed to support Bond, CNAC and the Air Transport Command were unavailable for the European Theater of Operations. “Those same planes ...,”Crouch writes, ”might have propelled the Western Allies’ armies into the German heartland in the autumn of 1944, and certainly have hastened Hitler’s demise.”
Bond and his CNAC employees seem to meet almost every important personage in the CBI Theater: Chiang Kai-Shek; Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who praises CNAC for flying supplies when the Army Air Corps is grounded and who dresses so shabbily one of CNAC’s pilots thinks of him as a very old enlisted man; and even Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who begins his trip home after bombing Tokyo on a CNAC plane to Calcutta.
But the prominent figure most featured in this book is Claire Lee Chennault the founder and leader of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as “The Flying Tigers.” Chennault comforts Bond’s pregnant wife on a Clipper flight to the United States from Manila; later, after the war, he tries to swindle CNAC from Bond. CNAC provided valuable support to the Tigers by moving their supplies, engines and mechanics to Kunming, China, from Rangoon.
Crouch also gives the struggles and suffering of the CNAC pilots a context by giving the reader a sense of the strategies and battles of the CBI. He narrates the Japanese advance into Burma in the spring of 1942, their thrust into China, and the 1944 battles of Kohima and Imphal where the Allies decisively beat the Imperial Army and stymied any chance for the Japanese to win the war on the Asian mainland.
Crouch’s prose is tight, lively and occasionally sparkling. Bond, for example, is described as “feeling like a puddle of spent candle wax.” He augments the main narrative with colorful anecdotes about Elmer the sow bear (who had roles as mascot, putative co-pilot, and, finally, dinner) and a survival story of two pilots downed by weather who survive on grit, luck, the kindness of indigenous people and Coca-Cola syrup. He points out that the Chinese and Chinese American pilots are paid much less than the Caucasian ones even though the Asians are at least as qualified.
A vivid, entertaining read, China’s Wings is also an informative text that can be placed alongside Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 as an examination of America’s relationship with China in the World War II era.
An accomplished mountaineer, he has made seven expeditions to the storm-swept peaks of Patagonia, and completed the first winter ascent of the legendary Cerro Torre’s West Face. He later wrote Enduring Patagonia about his adventures in the vast, desolate region shared by Argentina and Chile.
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