From Missionary pilot to Mercenary pilot
His fingers are long, slender and frail. Felix Smith held the pen firmly and with slow but determined movement he autographed his book for me. “For How Man, withanks for all of the good things you have contributed to the history of CNAC and CAT. Felix.” So it reads now on the inside cover page of the book, China Pilot, flying for Chiang and Chennault. That’s the first time I saw someone short-cut the words “with thanks”. For Felix however, his life had no short-cuts, but instead was long and distinguished.
A later edition of the same book has the title China Pilot, Flying for Chennault during the Cold War. Chiang Kai-shek was cut off, as he became less and less relevant in Asia and the world. This is not just another book among a very long list of books written by pilots who saw action in battles and wars. According to Felix, the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, which published the later version, chose the book as one of ten best war aviation history books.
These same fingers signing the book must once have danced on the keyboard of the baby grand piano now sitting idle in the living room, covered with two layers of cloth. During Felix’s childhood growing up in Milwaukee, his father was a head music teacher. That influence certainly must have rubbed off on young Felix, since he learned to play both the violin and piano.
Not far from the piano by the corner window, boxes of papers and old photographs surround a bed transforming the space into Felix’s bedroom. Having turned 100 earlier this year, age and frail condition have imposed constraints on movement, and Felix has moved the bed from his second-floor bedroom to the ground floor, at a corner of the living room.
It was also these same fingers which held firmly to the steering wheel inside the cockpits of a large array of airplanes as Felix flew through darkness, thunderstorms and sprays of gunfire during five wars in Asia. “In total, I have flown over thirty thousand miles in an airplane,” Felix confided to me.
As a young man, Felix joined CNAC, China National Aviation Corporation, in 1945, flying the HUMP during the final days of World War Two. That was followed by a long stint after the War with CAT, Civil Air Transport, started by General Chennault of Flying Tiger fame. In fact, CAT had nothing civil about it. Instead, it was run much like a military logistic and cargo airline.
With CAT, Felix flew on the Nationalist side during China’s Civil War from 1945 to 1949, ferrying troops and ammunition back and forth as conflict dragged on throughout the Mainland. Such flights continued after the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan, after which Felix and other CAT pilots conducted dangerous covert flights into the Mainland during the early years of the PRC. Throughout much of the Cold War and through several hot wars, CAT was the civilian proxy airline for the CIA, flying junkets into much of Southeast Asia. Similar airline outfits were named Air America and Air Asia.
Between flying for CNAC and CAT, Felix became a pilot for the first ever Christian Missionary Airline in the world, flying a war surplus C-47 turned into a cargo plane for relief and medical supplies. The plane was christened St Paul, after the first missionary disciple. On its fuselage was painted a red heart with orange flames around the edges, inscribed with bold lettering underneath, “Lutheran World Mission.”
Felix was hired by Reverend Daniel Nelson, a missionary who started this odd airline. Besides St. Paul there was St. Peter, another C-47, but missing an engine. “We rob Peter to pay Paul,” Daniel confided to Felix, explaining how they cannibalize one plane for spare parts to keep the other in the air. Daniel was killed with his family some months later in a Macao Airways flying boat, when four passengers who were bandits tried to waylay a shipment of gold in the plane’s cargo hold. Amid the mayhem on board, the pilots were shot in the cockpit and the plane plunged into the sea.
The Korean War followed, and Felix continued his flying career with CAT, which Felix in his book often referred to as “the company.” Many of the flights were carrying military personnel or supplies, all contracted by the US Army. When the French Indo-China War began, CAT began flying covert missions in Southeast Asia, which was the beginning of a long relationship with the CIA, which Felix called “the customer.”
The flights to service the French forces in Indo China lasted many years, at times flown in big planes like the C-119 called the Flying Boxcars, right up to the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Indonesia was another theater where CAT saw action, airdropping supplies to support an uprising in an attempt to unseat then President Sukarno, whom the US suspect to have communist leaning. Lastly was the Vietnam War, from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, with most of the action for CAT in Laos, when CAT was again contracted by the CIA. There were also smaller contracts and lesser skirmishes in between, like ferrying Hmong hill tribe fighters in an attempt to harness the communist rise in Asia. These missions, while small, were no less significant and were just as dangerous to a flyer as the five recognized “Wars” listed above.
In one incident, Felix had just finished training for flights into Tibet to airdrop Tibetan Khampa guerilla trained by the CIA to harass the PLA after the Dalai Lama went into exile in India. William Welk, his colleague at CAT, pioneered most such flights. But in 1960, just as Felix was about to be dispatched in a B-17 bomber for this long-range mission out of Bangkok in full darkness, the US government stopped all covert flights after a U2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot Gary Powers was captured.
Several times during our conversation about his clandestine missions, Felix put his finger to his lips with a secret grin and whispered, “I kept my mouth shut, but we all kind of knew what each other was doing.” This happened whenever he was recounting their work for “the customer” as he called the CIA. Occasionally, there would be a slip of the tongue and he would simply say CIA. Each time he realized it, he again put his finger to his lips. But Felix flew more than military missions. Once he flew a full load of sheep from New Zealand to Mainland China for the Nationalist’s Agriculture Ministry. These were to be used as new stock and studs to revive the local livestock after the War. Later, CAT, operating from Taiwan, pioneered a passenger service called Mandarin Jet in parallel to its military cargo service, more or less as a cover for the covert missions.
“This book I wrote is really about all my pilot friends, not so much about myself,” he reiterated more than once. But reading through it, one cannot but be carried along by someone who was quite a maverick during the heady days of the Cold War. It was a far cry from today’s automated flying machines in which a fighter pilot does not even have to see the enemy aircraft before engaging to shoot it down with the push of a button.
“Some of our fellow pilots were such great flyers that when I saw them fly, I wanted to resign,” Felix said. I asked about the father of a common friend, Harry Cockrell. “Oh, I knew Harry Junior since he was born. And Senior is one of those very fine pilots, and also a gentleman with excellent manners, always immaculately dressed,” Felix recounted. I asked about Moon Chin, another common friend, who turns 105 this year. Felix was all praise and said Moon was one of those best pilots that Felix admired. “I’ve learned a lot about Chinese through Moon”, he added.
CAT was stationed in Taipei during the 1950s and 60s. “In those days, I had a Chinese cook, and I told him ‘Cook no lap sap!’ meaning no trash” Felix said. “But I could tell just from the smell coming from the kitchen that he was cooking up some nice Chinese dishes, not for me, but for his other friends,” Felix recounted with a smile in his face.
His book recounted several major airplane disasters. One was the downing of a Cathay Pacific flight near Hainan Island in 1954. The commercial flight was shot out of the air by two Chinese Air Force jets. Among the passengers was Len Parish, one of the CNAC pilots, and his family. His wife Fran and daughter Valerie survived the crash and were rescued from a life raft, while Len and his two sons went down with the plane.
I have known Valerie for many years as we met at the annual CNAC reunion in San Francisco. While the fiasco triggered massive media coverage at the time, few knew or noticed the final reparation and apology that China made afterward, admitting to a mistake. Felix thought the fighter pilots might have mistaken the first three letters of Cathay for CAT, the American- funded airline.
Felix also exposed another mysterious loss of a CAT C-46 passenger flight operating around Taiwan. It was in 1964 and during the time of the Asian Film Festival hosted in Taiwan. Returning from the south, the plane made a stop at Makung, an off-shore seaport island with many military installations less than a hundred miles from the Mainland. Piloting the plane was Benji Lin, a seasoned captain with fourteen years of flying experience. Benji graduated from the Chinese Air Academy and was son-in-law of Tiger Wang (Wang Hsu-ming), commanding general of the Chinese Air Force.
Boarding the plane in Makung were several US military advisors and two Chinese. One was a Navy lieutenant, a radar expert attached to the Makung shipyard. He was accompanied by a retired naval officer turned businessman. They had no luggage and the lieutenant was on a 72-hour leave. They carried two confidential radar manuals as hand-carried items. The plane continued to Taichung and picked up the group of celebrity passengers with their entourage.
A US air attaché expert was allowed to inspect the crash site since there were US military advisors among those who died. Contrary to the Taiwan government crash report, the expert reached a highly disturbing conclusion. He surmised that the plane had been hijacked and made to turn toward the mainland, commencing a flight path back and forth, before finally plunging into a rice paddy.
To make a complicated espionage story short, the account by the air attaché described the pilot being shot in the head. And the two confidential radar manuals, which escaped detection, had been cut out inside in the shape of a gun, sufficient to hide two .45 pistols. But for security reasons, this report was never released, as the Nationalist government did not want to raise panic with a report of a hijacking during a sensitive time when relations with the Mainland were volatile. Instead, CAT took the blame in a cover up that accused the airline of poor maintenance of the airplane.
Among those who died in the crash was Asia movie tycoon Loke Wan-tho. I wish I had uncovered all these intrigues of the CAT crash earlier, as I could have related all of these details to an old and dear friend. Lady McNeice, who passed away in 2012 at the senior age of 94 in Singapore, was the youngest sister of Loke Wan-tho. Both brother and sister are avid bird watchers, with the former being a great photographer of birds.
Sir Run Run Shaw, an acquaintance I have met once, barely missed that plane disaster, because he changed to an earlier flight to Hong Kong in pursuit of William Holden, who himself was originally also scheduled to join Loke to visit the National Central Museum down south. Had history taken a different turn, the movie industry of Asia in the second half of the last century might have played out quite differently.
Felix and I discussed briefly the November 9, 1949 defection of twelve CNAC and CATC (Central Air Transport Corporation) airplanes from Taiwan to China. Felix was in Hong Kong at the time and played a role in the subsequent court battle to keep the remaining airplanes, seventy-one in total, on the ground.
I knew well two of the pilots, Jack Young and Leonard Lin, who piloted two of the planes, both owned by CATC, to Tianjin on that fateful day. I also knew Barrister Percy Chen, who fought in court for China to take charge of the remaining planes in Hong Kong. His arguments were at first successful, with the Hong Kong court making a ruling that the planes belonged to New China, the PRC. Later, the decision was reversed during an appeal to a higher court in Britain, with the planes finally ceded to the USA through a cobbled-together ownership and fire sale payment. It ended, to the delight of General Chennault, through the interference and threat of the US government intervening in the British judicial system, citing behind the scene the higher national and allied interests and priorities during the Cold War. Utimately the planes were shipped to the U.S. in 1952.
Our interview was coming to a close in the last of two mornings that I spent with Felix at his home in New Berlin, a suburb of Milwaukee in Wisconsin. Felix struggled to stand up from his rocking chair. This chair, which he seemed to have been affixed to for both long mornings, had a book stuck on the floor to stop it from rocking.
I offered to give him a lift under his arm, as his legs were weak and a bit unstable. He shook me off and insisted in getting up on his own, staggering a bit to hold on to the four-legged walker on wheels. He was eager to get to his desk. Fiddling with two drawers, he found the winged medal with a twelve-point star given to him as an honor by Taiwan’s Nationalist government. From boxes next to the window, he flipped through
Felix showing off his Air Medal
old black and white pictures to show me images and memories from his past.
As I was rising to leave, I told Felix that, this weekend, I would be attending the nearby Oshkosh Air Show, a once-a-year event when over ten thousand experimental and small planes would be flying in. Also being flown in would be many rare WWI and WWII warbirds. Felix offered a parting comment. Barely standing, with his back bent, and holding on to his four-legged walker, he said with a grin, “Give me a C-46, I can still fly it. It is easy.”
At 100 years of age, Felix Smith’s spirit is still taking flight.