Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: "China Pilot: Flying for Chiang and Chennault" by Felix Smith

There are two very good reasons to read Capt. Felix Smith's memoir, China Pilot. The first is to follow the author as he makes his way through the chaos that was Chinese aviation in the late 1940's. It's a fascinating journey taken as pre-war China disintegrated and the People's Republic was being born.

The second reason is to make the acquaintance of the man known as Earthquake Magoon [1]. That name, originally given by Al Capp to the comic-strip character he drew as the "world's dirtiest rassler", was the sobriquet inevitably bestowed on the legendary, Falstaffian James B. McGovern, Jr. Earthquake fit a lifetime of exploits into a decade in the Far East. In certain circles even today, nearly 60 years after his untimely death, Earthquake is spoken of with awe and amazement and Felix Smith brings him to life here in a skillful, loving tribute to an unforgettable friend.

But the journey begins in 1945 with the author dropping a DC-3 into a short, smoke-shrouded strip in the Yangtze River at Chungking. This was the end of his work with China National Aviation Corp. (CNAC), the largest civil airline in China. Felix, who'd grown up in Milwaukee and learned to fly in the pre-war years, had been invited into the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, and assigned to the Army Service of Supply – which had chartered the CNAC fleet and needed pilots to fly its aircraft "over the Hump" from India. With the war ending, CNAC was reverting to its civilian role. Smith was redundant, and headed back home.

Airline jobs back in the States beckoned, but Felix Smith had become smitten with China. General Claire L. Chennault, famous for leading the Flying Tigers, was organizing a new civil airline that would "distribute relief supplies throughout war-ravaged China." The General was looking for pilots, and Felix Smith signed on.

After a delay (during which the author flew a C-47 for a missionary group) Chennault's new airline acquired a name – Civil Air Transport (CAT) – and a clutch of surplus Curtiss C-46 Commando's. Capt. Smith participated in the recovery of the C-46's from a boneyard in Hawaii and the ferry flight back to Shanghai (no small adventure itself), and then began to fly cargo deliveries among China's cities. Hungjao. Hankow. Nanking. Kunming. Kweilin. Shanghai.

The flights were fraught affairs, plagued by lack of spare parts, the refusal of competing CNAC to turn on radio beacons for CAT flights, obstruction by mendacious Chinese Air Force officers, and a heavy dose of god-awful weather. The CAT pilots earned their pay, even though they weren't being paid. They'd voluntarily deferred their salaries, working for expenses until the airline was on a sound financial footing.

Between trips, the pilots recovered in Shanghai. One favorite spot was the bar at the Palace Hotel, where an actual cold beer could be had. It was there that Smith first saw...

"a broad foreign man with a bluff face and a black Vandyke beard. Massive eyebrows, like inverted gull wings, reached around the sides of his forehead. Feet planted on the lobby floor, hands on huge hips, he bent forward and scowled..."
The big man recognized the author and his companion as fellow Americans and joined them, leaving the bar in their company and walking with them to CAT's offices where they'd collect their expense checks. Along the way...

"The giant chuckled and put out his hand. 'Jim McGovern.' And then, gruffly, 'Friends call me Earthquake Magoon.'"
And after their business was finished...
"When...I turned to go, Earthquake Magoon was rooted to the floor, staring into a roomful of secretaries.

Glossy hair flowed neatly over their high-necked cheongsams, but the modesty of the prim neck-girdling collars was belied by the rest of the tailoring. Skintight, the dresses accentuated beguiling curves, while split skirts flashed glimpses of ivory thighs. Earthquake Magoon was as motionless as a taxidermist's bear. Speared by lust.

On our way down the stairs...Earthquake Magoon was uncharacteristically quiet, but when we got outside he said, "How does a guy get a job in this lash-up?"

In 1947 the Chinese civil war started to heat up. The Nationalists governed by Chiang Kai-shek, held most of the cities but the Communists under Mao Tse-tung dominated the countryside. As a result the cities were besieged one by one, and CAT became their aerial lifeline. Felix and Earthquake and their compatriots flew C-46's and C-47's into and out of increasingly precarious landing zones.

Repeatedly, Nationalist officers refused to admit how close the enemy was and more than once CAT crews were stranded, or nearly so, as the Nationalist resistance collapsed. The author's descriptions of these operations – the siege of Weihsien, the fall of Tsinan, the debacle in Manchuria – are riveting accounts reflecting the casual bravery of the CAT pilots, and of the Nationalist leaders the incompetence and occasional cowardice of many and the inspiring bravery of a few.

All of the cities fell to the Communists. Peiping. Tsingtao. Shanghai. CAT withdrew its operations to Hong Kong. Felix Smith became the Station Manager. They continued to fly to the mainland, landing within the ever-shrinking perimeter of Nationalist control. Chiang Kai-shek moved his seat of government to Taiwan.

As the 1940's ended, CAT settled into a Taiwan-based routine. But all semblance of routine ended in June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded the south. CAT promptly offered its services to the Air Force. The offer was at first declined, but soon the climate changed.

Newcomers appeared among the executive ranks. An OSS veteran, Alfred Cox, became CAT's CEO. Other 'suits' with military rather than airline experience appeared. In fact, CAT had been acquired by the U.S. government and was now a wholly-owned operating subsidiary of the CIA. The pilots were returned to full salary. And started flying intensively in Korea.

With the advent of CIA sponsorship, the flying soon included trips to French Indochina. The names would become heartbreakingly familiar – Saigon, Hanoi, Haiphong, Vientiane, Dien Bien Phu. The author describes the colonial society that the French were trying to return to a status quo ante bellum that would never re-emerge.

From 1951 through 1953, CAT (and the author) flew support missions in Korea and in Indochina. The latter involved use of Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar's given by the United States to the French. As the war began to go badly for the French forces, the re-supply missions grew increasingly hazardous. The C-119's were coming home with bullet holes in them.

Finally the French commander chose to make an ill-advised stand at Dien Bien Phu. Inexplicably, the high ground was conceded to the Vietnamese forces, and soon their artillery began to make itself felt. As the French situation grew desperate, air drops from the CAT C-119's became the only source of supply. The flights began to suffer casualties.

On 6 May 1954, attempting to drop an artillery piece to besieged French paratroopers, Earthquake Magoon's C-119 was struck by two anti-aircraft shells.

"Steve Kusak, in another C-119, closed in to help in any way he could. Oil from Earthquake's shell-torn engine spattered over Kusak's windshield.
'Which way are the hills lowest?' Earthquake called.
'Turn right,' Kusak answered.
Earthquake drifted down, toward the Lao village of Muong Het, sixty miles ahead, where a short dirt strip lay alongside a river in a narrow valley.
Kusak called, 'Bail out!'
'Shut up, I'm busy.'
Kusak followed him down. A few miles short of the village, Earthquake spoke his last words. Calm, matter-of-fact, he said, 'Looks like this is it, son.'
It was.
James McGovern, alias Earthquake Magoon, died in the crash along with his co-pilot, Wallace Buford. Dien Bien Phu fell the next day.
"I had just come in from Korea when I heard. I wanted to cry but couldn't. Just a long-term ache that returns as I write. Once in a lifetime you know someone who deserves special dispensation from the Fates to live forever. Earthquake Magoon was my candidate, but he didn't live half the span of an ordinary mortal."
The tone of the book becomes subdued after the account of Earthquake's last flight. There are tales to tell, friends to remember, debts to repay, and the author discharges these responsibilities with skill. But some of his heart is not in it. Still, he moves the narrative forward to February 1968 when a CAT Boeing 727 crashed during an ILS approach to Taipei. The CIA had been shifting its emphasis to its Air America operation and in the ensuing controversy was content to allow CAT to die.

In October 1968 Capt. Felix Smith left what remained of CAT. He would spend the rest of his career in the airline business in Asia but his time as a China Pilot was done. It was an incredible time, full of adventures and amazing characters and Felix Smith bears fair witness to all. Whether you come for the history or the Soldier-of-Fortune tale, you'll be welcomed and rewarded by this work.

Through the efforts of former CAT pilots led by Felix Smith, the remains of James B. McGovern, Jr., 'Earthquake Magoon', were recovered from Laos in 2002 and subsequently positively identified. On 24 May 2007 he was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

[1]: Most sources refer to James McGovern as 'Earthquake McGoon, but in this book Capt. Smith consistently uses the spelling Magoon, and here I have followed suit.(back)


Miami Dodge said...

nice blog..........
Miami Kia

Frank Van Haste said...

M.D., thanks!


Cedarglen said...

FightAware says that N631S is/has been flying. that's good. Any details to share, Frank? Thanks.

Dr.ATP said...


I've been reading China's Wings by Gregory Crouch, a popular history of the development of CNAC in the 1930s, mostly centered on William Langhorne Bond. You might want to check it out.

Frank Van Haste said...

Craig --
Everything is fine...but the flying has been pretty uneventful (i.e., not great blogfodder) and Real Life has been Real Busy. Stand by, tho', I ain't gining up.

Jim --

Thanks for the point-out! I'll track it down. And, when you get a chance, read Jim Fallows' China Airborne which sort of moves this into the 21st century.