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In search of Moon Chen

On a very hot day in July 1989, while visiting Washington on other business, I phoned a Flying Tigers veteran in nearby Arlington and found myself invited over for drinks and dinner. I got on the Metro and joined Eddie Rector and his other guests. He led us over to the National Cemetery to watch while the bugler blew "Taps" and the flag was lowered with the sun. That was how I met Dorothea Dunsmore, Eddie's long-ago sweetheart in Rangoon, and Moon Chen, the fabled CNAC and CAMCO pilot I'd been reading about for years. I had a busy evening, scribbling notes and recording their memories of the Sino-Japanese War and the American Volunteer Group. It was well past midnight by the time I returned to the Metro station, and the car I boarded was labeled "last train to DC."

It was only this spring that I learned more about the Chinese-American pilot, and it's a great story. Hong Moon Chen, to give him his formal name, was born in 1908 in Columbus, Ohio, one of ten children of Chan Fong and Haylee Wong. Chan Fong was among the Chinese laborers who had been brought to California in the last third of the 19th century to lay railroad tracks eastward across the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, to meet other gangs of Civil War veterans, freed slaves, and Irish immigrants who were laying track to the to the west. (The Chinese earned $31 a month, a dollar more than the eastern gangs because they cooked their own meals.) In Chan Fong's case, it was the Southern Pacific Railroad to El Paso, Texas. When the work was finished, about 1890, he settled in Mississippi as a grocer and then in Ohio, where he ran the stereotypical Chinese laundry. Moon's mother died in 1918 from the terrible flu pandemic; his father died in 1924.

Orphaned at 15, Moon Chen had no choice but to go to work. Nevertheless, he managed to finish high school and attend the University of Michigan, graduating in 1932 as an aeronautical engineer. There were of course few aeronautical jobs in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, and there were none at all for a man with a Chinese name and features. Nothing daunted, Moon scraped up enough money to take flying lessons at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, NY. Armed with a commercial pilot's certificate but still with no likelihood of a flying job, Moon went to Shanghai in 1935 and interviewed with Chinese National Airways Corporation. He became a CNAC pilot, and in 1937 he met and married Priscilla Chang in Shanghai.

Not long after the wedding, Japan sent its army and navy against Beijing and Shanghai, the third stage of a war that dated back to 1895, and that had already cost China its long lodgement in Korea, its offshore island of Taiwan, and its northeastern region of Manchuria. In effect, CNAC served as a transport service for the Chinese Air Force under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, with his capital at Nanjing. There, a retired US Army Air Corps captain named Claire Chennault was trying to whip the Chinese Air Force into shape to resist the Japanese drive westward along the Yangste River, from Shanghai to Nanjing to the tri-city now known as Wuhan (and most recently the first hotspot in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic). In the end, Chiang's government retreated more than 1600 river miles to Chongqing, with Kunming even farther west as its supply hub by truck from Burma, air from Indian, and train from Vietnam.

CAMCO personnel at 
Loiwing, China
In 1939, Moon Chen went to work for Bill Pawley's Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which likewise was trying to get out of the way of the Japanese advance, and which was then establishing an aircraft assembly factory in Loiwing, on the China-Burma border. (In the photo above, probably taken at the factory's opening that year, Pawley is the second and Moon is the fourth man from the left.) Pawley and Claire Chennault had come to detest one another in China, but were forced to get along when CAMCO won the contract to support the American Volunteer Group in Burma and China. As pilot of CAMCO's twin-engine Beechcraft transport, Moon would have supported the Flying Tigers during their year of training and combat, August 1941 to July 1942.

Captain Moon Chen USAAF

Capt Moon Chen USAAF After the American Volunteer Group was replaced by uniformed officers and NCOs of the US Army Air Forces in July 1942, Moon Chen made yet another career move, commissioned as a first lieutenant in the USAAF. By 1943 he was a captain and Chennault's liaison officer with the Chinese Air Force. Here is the 35-year-old Capt. Chen with his wife Priscilla and their two young sons. What a handsome family!

The four-year-old (in the front at right) is the future Major General William S. Chen, who got his second star in the US Army a few months after I met Moon Chen in Arlington. "He had a booming voice," the general recalls of his father, "and he knew how to work a room." Certainly that was my impression of the man I met in 1989, to the degree that I don't remember him at all as being small of stature, which photographs show him to be. He was a cigarette smoker (I don't remember that, either, so probably he had quit by then, as I had done) and liked a Scotch or martini "on the rocks."

As a USAAF officer, Moon Chen was both an administrator and a pilot, flying C-46 and C-47 transports on more than 500 flights "over the Hump" of the Himalayas between India and China. He also served as General Chennault's liaison to the Chinese Air Force. His son feels that the association with Claire Chennault was one of the major influences on his father's life, right up there with the University of Michigan (whose football fight song was his favorite piece of music) and the love of flying.

Postwar, he left military service to work for Chennault's Civil Air Transport, a paramilitary airline that employed many AVG and 14th Air Force veterans during the civil war that end in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek's defeat by Mao Zedong's Red Army. CAT retreated to Taiwan with Chiang's Guomindang (Nationalist) government. As the Cold War heated up, the US Central Intelligence Agency secretly invested in CAT, which provided pilots and planes to support the French colonial army in Vietnam and, more openly, American and UN forces in Korea. (Erik Shilling of the AVG was among the men who supplied the beleaguered outpost of Dien Bien Phu before it fell to the Viet Minh.) Moon Chen, by this time, was no longer in the cockpit but flying a desk, including managing CAT's civilian air routes in Asia.

Like many veterans of the air war in China, he became disillusioned with CAT as Chennault gradually became a figurehead, and he left the airline not long after the "Old Man" died in 1958. About the same time, the CIA took over completely, and CAT morphed into Air America, whose unmarked gray spook planes I would see parked discreetly on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon in 1964. Moon Chen worked as a consultant for Northrop Corp as it was developing the F-5E Tiger II, and went on the payroll as the air-superiority fighter went into co-production on Taiwan, where 308 F-5Es and F-5Fs were built between 1973 and 1986.

Moon Chen retired about 1980, and was living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, when I met him in 1989. He later moved to California, where he died in 2009 at the age of 101. His last communication to his family and the world was a thumbs-up gesture, which has the same meaning in the US as in China: "all okay" in American English, or ding hoa in Chinese, meaning "very best," or so my Mandarin instructor tells me.

A tip of the virtual hat

I'm grateful to Maj Gen William Chen, Sally Ford, Tom Moore, Eugenie Buchan, Brad Smith, and Difei Zhang for their help in preparing this page. They're not responsible, of course, for what I have written here. Blue skies! -- Daniel Ford

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

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