Monday, July 18, 2005

Madame Sun: Saved by the Dude from Hong Kong

Some days as I put this column together I trawl through the web, looking for interesting anniversaries that would make for an interesting post. (No I don't have it all up in my head!). Sometimes I Google birthdays of famous people, or of historic events, but today I simply searched for today's date, July 18th. Normally that doesn't yield anything particularly interesting, but today I am across a biography of a person who lived an incredibly interesting life during a very turbulent era.

The man I speak of is Captain Frank Higgs (1908-1945). He was a Midwestern boy from Columbus, Ohio, a young man good at sport whose life was completely transformed by a formation of US Army planes flying overhead in the early 1930s; he related that he dropped his lawnmower, ran to the airfield where they landed, and began to dream of taking to the air. After graduating from Ohio State, Dude (his nickname in college) joined the Army Air Corps. He resigned his commission with the US Army in December 1937 to become an official advisor of the Chinese Air Corps for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

Naturally, Dude had to pass through Hong Kong to get to Chiang and his air force; he was apparently fined HK$5.00 for failing to report to the local police here 48 hours after his arrival. On his official papers submitted to the Hong Kong Police, he said his occupation was a 'geologist' (his major in college). The American advisors to Chiang had to tread carefully in China and in Hong Kong, when Britain was still neutral in China's wartime defense of its country against Japan. Claire Chennault, founder of the famous 'Flying Tigers' flyers (these 'civilian' US airmen were paid a US$500 bonus for every Japanese plane they shot down), listed his occupation in his passport as 'farmer'.

Dude was not a Flying Tiger, but rather flew civilian planes transporting both valuable cargo and passengers, including the Generalissimo himself and his wife, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (to distinguish her from one of my favorite bloggers!). He flew for the China National Aviation Corporation,(some great pictures on this site) or CNAC, a joint venture between China and Pan American Airways (Pan Am). As his aircraft had no armaments, he was very vulnerable to Japanese attack. As a result, this real-life Han Solo had to be incredibly adept at maneuvering his plane. One episode recounted by daredevil LIFE magazine correspondent Clare Boothe Luce many years later covers the incredibly romantic and evocative way that Dude shuttled her to safety (click the link for Luce's letter to the Dude's niece).

His most glorious moment came in the daring rescue (link to a New York Times article from December 15th, 1941) of a number of very important Chinese government officials and individuals from Hong Kong, which the rescued civilians called "the most perilous bit of work in the history of civil aviation." Under fire from Japanese planes and troops, 5 of the 7 CNAC planes flew to and from the Kai Tak aerodrome to a town called Namyung, a small town 200 miles to the north of Hong Kong. Dude was the first to take off on December 8th, and subsequently made 16 more runs between that town and Hong Kong before Kai Tak was overrun by the Japanese. While on the tarmac at Kai Tak they also had to fill in huge holes in the runway to allow themselves to take off. Many of the pilots flew without sleep for as much as 50 or 60 hours at a time. One of their planes was unfortunately forced down by the Japanese air force and then machine-gunned by their ground forces.

Among those rescued were H. H. Kung, the Chinese Minister of Finance, Madame Sun Yat-Sen, (widow to Dr. Sun and sister to Madame Chiang), and C. P. Chen, the Head of the Chinese Currency Stabilization Board. This critical airlift could have caused incredible problems for the Nationalist war effort and may well have had dire consequences for World War II had it not occured.

Sadly, the Dude's maverick, colorful life was cut short by a suspicious accident. On October 20, 1945, the plane he was flying, which was allegedly carrying a number of senior bankers on board and a great amount of gold and currency, crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. Given the Dude's flying experience, one must wonder what happened that day. Still, the Ohio Dude's fascinating life story puts the Indiana Joneses of the world to shame. We are grateful that this story of bravado and derring-do has survived to our generation.


Madame Chiang said...

Three things...

firstly, thanks for the compliment

secondly, your post today reminded me that those Soong girls married well!!! I can't think of another family that managed to pull off three such incredible marriages!

thirdly, have tagged you for a book thing

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Madame Chiang,

I'll definitely get to the book meme this evening!