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American aid to China's air forces

Xu, War Wings
War Wings: The United States and Chinese Military Aviation, 1929-1949

By Guangqiu Xu (Greenwood Press 2001)

Note that War Wings can be searched on Amazon.com, though not browsed.


Guangqiu Xu has written a very valuable book for students of the air war in Asia in the 1930s. I wish I'd had a copy in front of me when I was writing Flying Tigers! Xu is a native speaker of Mandarin and Cantonese, and he spent years ransacking archives in China, the U.S., and Britain. The result is a study unmatched (in English, anyhow) of the American role in Chinese aviation in the twenty-year period that includes the Sino-Japanese War. Alas, the book is hard to find and priced accordingly: I saw a copy on Amazon for $413, and even the e-book was north of $90. So I borrowed the book through inter-library loan.

Xu is a fluent writer of academic English--he teaches at Ohio Wesleyan--but he doesn't know a great deal about military aviation. His references to warplanes are often confusing, and he sometimes passes along information that is simply wrong. (For instance, that CAMCO's final assembly plant was in a village near Kunming, when in fact it was far away on the China-Burma border at Loiwing.) This can happen when contemporary documents (themselves often written by people without technical knowledge) are used without applying a filter of prior information. Still, War Wings should be read by every serious student of the Sino-Japanese War and the American Volunteer Group.

Because buying it is out of the question for most of us, here are my notes from the book.

The U.S. and China's air defenses

In Manchuria in the 1920s, the warload Chang Hsueh-liang--known in the west as the Young Marshal--had his own air force, as did several of China's warlords. "Several air squadrons, each consisting of 10 or more planes, were formed and carried colorful names, such as the "Flying Dragons," "Flying Tigers," and "Flying Eagles." (p14)

12 Vought Corsair scout planes (O2U in US Navy service) delivered to China in January 1930 with President Harding's approval. (p42) 20 Douglas scouts (O-2 in US Army service) delivered August 1931, and a total of 43 warplanes valued at $1 million were imported that year. (p43)

Major Jimmy Doolittle demonstrated a Curtiss biplane (the F11C Goshawk in US Navy service) in Shanghai in April 1933, resulting in the delivery of 50 "Hawk" fighter-bombers by year end, which gave China "the nucleus of one of the best-equipped air forces in the world." (p65)

Curtiss sent William D. Pawley--"a top company executive in whom the company reposed great confidence"--to China in February 1933. H.H. Kung got him an interview with Chiang Kai-shek, at which he pitched an expansion of CNAC air routes and the purchase of Douglas DC-2 airliners. In April, Pawley sent Kung a proposal for an aircraft factory, and was probably instrumental in the creation of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation to be owned by Curtiss-Wright, Douglas, and Intercontinent Aircraft Corporation. (p69) After long negotiations, Pawley on behalf of the same three companies signed a contract in December to construct a factory in Hangzhou at a cost of $250,000, which the Nationalist government would repay over the course of five years. It opened in August 1934, and its first project was to rebuild 10 crashed Curtiss Hawks. It next built or assembled Douglas scouts, Northrop light bombers, and probably Curtiss Hawks to a total of 127 warplanes by the end of 1936. Xu suggests the parts were mostly fabricated locally, but more like the planes came in kit form from the US. (p70)

Pawley born Florence SC 7 Sep 1896, worked in Latin America, got interested in aviation, organized and became president of Companies National Cuban de Aviation Curtiss of Havana in 1928, which company merged with Pan American Airways in 1932. Became vice-president of Intercontinent Corp in 1933 and president of China National Airways Corp. (p106, source the Pawley Papers at the Marshall Foundation Library in Lexington VA)

In 1934 Pawley involved in finding instructors for the Canton Aviation School and establishing an aircraft factory there. Independent of the central government at that time, the Canton Air Force was soon taken over by the Nationalist government. (p74)

Roy Holbrook sent to the US in August 1935 to examine American equipment and to recruit instructors for the Central Aviation School at Hangzhou, where Col Jouett's contract had been canceled. Among others he talked to Claire Chennault, who probably introduced him to Billy McDonald and John (Luke) Williamson, his partners in the Flying Trapeze, who signed on as fighter instructors; and Stirling Tatum, hired as a bombardment instructor. Altogether, the school had 11 Americans under Lt Col George Reinburg (ret) by end of 1936. (pp71, 106)

July 1937, Russell Hearn recruited 182 American pilots and twice that number of mechanics for service in China. (p119) Xu implies they actually got there, but that's not entirely clear (and seems doubtful!). Some Americans traveled to China without passports after the State Department refused to issue passports to them. (p120)

2000 Soviet pilots served in China, with 200 dying in combat. (p121)

May 1939 Kung invited Wm Pawley, his brother Edward Pawley, and Capt Bruce Leighton to his office to discuss hiring American volunteers to fly for China. No apparent action. (p128, source being Pawley's own and no doubt self-serving manuscript history of the Flying Tigers)

Allen (Pat) Patterson, president of the Consolidated Trading Company, represented Chance-Vought and other companies in China. March 1939 Patterson signed contract with Kung for 54 Seversky fighters (mostly export versions of the new P-35), 120 Ryan and North American trainers, and 25 Vought Corsair dive bombers on a credit line of $12.8 million. Pawley set out to block the contract. (p129) In May Pawley contracted with Kung for 100 Curtiss warplanes worth $4.5 million. The US State Dept and its embassy in Chongqing got involved on Patterson's side. (p130) The Chinese in August canceled the Patterson contract and confirmed the Pawley one. "The major cause of the canceling of the Patterson contract was Pawley's intervention, certainly." (p131)

The US exported 279 airplanes to China 1938-1940 valued at $22 million. (p131) But does this include aircraft assemblies?

Central Aircraft Factory in Hangzhou manufacturing 30 Vultee V-11 light bombers in July 1937 when war broke out. First test flown July 12. Expected to build two a week at cost 20 percent of the same plane built in the US. But Japanese bombed the plant a few days later, and in September the plant moved to Wuhan, where it resumed production in January 1938, building three bombers a month. Then planned to move to Kunming, but settled on Loiwing instead. (p132. Xu wrongly places the new site in a village near Kunming; I have corrected the location here and below.)

A revised August 1938 contract stipulated that the Chinese government would buy $1 million in aircraft from the new factory each year. CAMCO to invest $350,000 in the plant; Chinese to pay cost of moving equipment and material to Loiwing, via Hong Kong, Rangoon, and the newly opened Burma Road. Wallace Pawley set up a CAMCO office in Rangoon. Construction began at Loiwing in January 1939 and was completed June 1940. About 200,000 square feet of factory, shops, and quarters, with 12 American and 3000 Chinese employees. Aircraft production began in May 1939, but only 30 Hawk III fighter-bombers were assembled by September 1940. The problems included endemic malaria (18 percent of staff were down sick at one point) and of course the fact that the factory was still under construcition.... (p133)

And also by the British closure of the Burma Road for three months. CAMCO hoped to build 163 Hawk IIIs and Vultee V-11s by the end of 1941, and to assemble 100 training planes (Patterson's order?). But Japanese bombed the factory on Oct 26, 1940. (p134)

In July 1940 the Chinese Air Force had just 37 fighters (mostly biplane Hawk IIIs) and 31 "old Russian bombers". (p148) The Soviet Union, pressured by the Winter War with Finland and the need to bolster its own defenses, sent only 80 fighter planes to China that year, causing the Chinese to turn to the US for planes and pilots. (p149) The CAF's strength in June 1941 was 89 Polikarpov fighters, 70 Russian SB bombers, and 89 assorted and obsolescent American warplanes. (p156)

In Pinyin, Mao Pang-chu is rendered as Mao Bangchu, and Chou Chih-jou is Zhou Chirou.