Elite Bay Area pilots helped change tide of WWII


At 95-years-old, Moon Chin surfs the internet on a computer he built and rigged up to a 60-inch flat screen TV with surround sound. YouTube has an animated story commemorating Chin's days as a pilot with the China National Aviation Company, also known as CNAC, which is similar to the CIA's "Air America."

Before World War II, Chin was part of an elite group of American pilots contracted to work with China. He flew dangerous missions over the Himalayan Mountains, or "the hump," to resupply Chinese troops fighting the Japanese. Nearly 2,000 pilots died trying to navigate through treacherous mountain passes and freezing 150 mph winds.

"Oh, I had a lot of scary moments," he told ABC7. "But, that kind of thing you run into quite often."

One year after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Chin was ordered to transport a VIP from his base in Chunking to Kunming.

"They got on the plane. I had no idea who he was," he recalled.

It was American flying hero and Alameda native Jimmy Doolittle, and he had just accomplished his storied bombing raid on Japan. Doolittle and his raiders crash-landed in China and he was returning from behind enemy lines unshaven with torn pants.

"He was dirty," said Chin. "I thought he was drunk the night before and he was late."

An air raid alarm forced Chin to make an emergency landing and he took cover in a ditch next to the VIP, who he finally recognized as Jimmy Doolittle.

"Then, I said, 'I knew you when you were in Shanghai in 1933.' Then, I remind him when he demonstrated in the race course," Chin said.

Nine years earlier, Chin was a mechanic who assembled a Curtiss-Hawk fighter plane that the world-renowned stunt pilot demonstrated for Chinese military leaders.

"Of course, the stadium was full and I was on top of the grandstand," Chin said. "I never seen a plane fly like that before. He came straight down the airfield vertical. He was vertical and he had both hands waving," he recalled laughingly.

When the skies were clear, Chin says Doolittle refused to get back on the plane, pointing to a telephone wire at the end of the airfield.

"He said, 'What about the telephone wire?' and I said, 'If we don't make it we take the telephone wire to Kunming.'"

Chin's daredevil humor coaxed the war hero back onto the C-47, but Doolittle wanted to know where they were going. Chin had orders to pick up a radio operator and support personnel in Myitkyina, Burma.

"Then he wrote me a note on a piece of paper. He said the embassy people told him Myitkyina would fall that noon," Chin recalled.

But, Chin had his orders. When they landed in Burma, the Japanese were closing in and refugees smothered the plane.

"Jimmy Doolittle, he was at the door helping lift people up to the door," said Chin. "Afterward, he asked me, 'You know what hell you're doing?' Then, I looked back there and the cabin was really full."

Seventy people were crammed into a plane built for only 21 passengers. Somehow, Chin flew them and his VIP back to safety. Days later, he learned Doolittle had bombed Tokyo.

"All the way from Chunking to Kunming, he never mentioned a word about that," Chin said.

Doolittle's safe return was a huge morale boost for a country still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"When I read the paper I said, 'Gee, why didn't he say something?' I wouldn't have taken all those passengers on the plane, Chin said.

Capt. Moon Chin is one of only a few civilian pilots who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. He went on to found Fushing Airlines in 1951, which is now TransAsia Airlines. Today, he lives comfortably in Hillsborough and attends reunions for the dwindling squadron of CNAC pilots who started fighting a war before it officially began.

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