Civil Air Transport (CAT) was a unique airline formed in China after World War II by General Claire Lee Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, and Whiting Willauer of the China Defense Supplies (CDS). They purchased war surplus cargo planes, enrolled WWII veterans, and wound up with an enthusiastic, colorful group of former Flying Tiger aces and CAT airmen from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps. Many had been highly decorated. Operating under the aegis of the China National Rehabilitation and Relief Association (CNRRA), CAT distributed food and medicine to the interior of China where roads, railways and bridges had been destroyed by Japan’s Imperial Air Force.
United Nations relief supplies overwhelmed the docks of Shanghai with no way to distribute them inland except by navigable rivers and air. When China’s Communist 8th Army besieged China’s northern cities, we delivered arms, ammo and food to the defenders and returned to Tsingtao with refugees and wounded soldiers. By the end of 1947, our first year, we had rescued 22,000 refugees and 4,500 wounded Nationalist soldiers from Communist dominated territories. Many of the reinforcements we flew north were draftees of the Nationalist China Youth Corps. They boarded our C-46s in Tsingtao carrying rifles from the First World War and parchment umbrellas. Tin drinking cups dangled from belts of hand grenades and they wore sneakers, and ever-present military police prevented the kids from deserting. We then knew that Nationalist China faced trouble, and Chennault and CAT would be drawn into China’s Civil War, and Chennault would help Chiang Kai-shek resist the spread of a Communist police state.
The other two Chinese airlines, Central Air Transport Corporation (CATC) and China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) flew alongside us in the distribution of food and medicine, and battling the Communists, but when it became apparent that China was losing its northern cities and the Yangtze River was about to be crossed by Mao’s Eighth Army, the Chinese Board of Directors of the other two airlines defected to Beijing, eager to be first in the development of the People’s airline. In a surprise departure from Hong Kong, with their corporate officers aboard, CATC and CNAC headed north to Bejing, the newly formed capital of Red China, leaving 71 airliners of their fleet in Hong Kong where laborers furiously piled spare parts on the People’s newly acquired planes. General Chennault’s friends had warned him that the new People’s Republic had asked the Soviets for transport planes but had been denied; and when he witnessed the action around the 71 airliners, our leader envisioned a paratrooper attack on Taiwan. Whiting Willauer, a brilliant admiralty lawyer, found a way to ground the planes in Britain’s Crown Colony, thus denying Red China the means of an airborne invasion.
With typical American / Chinese innovation, our WWII landing ship was converted to a sea-going aircraft maintenance and repair factory. Magnifluxing tanks with instruments for detecting hidden cracks in landing gear struts and other heavy structures were operable at sea. Machine shops, propeller repair and balancing devices, high-pressure hydraulic test lines, a carpenter shop, an air-conditioned shop for the repair of delicate aircraft instruments, a parachute loft and medical clinic were capable of going full-blast while dodging Red invaders. It had reached the safety of Taiwan with a barge full of spare parts in tow.
We provided hope to thousands of freedom-loving war refugees by flying them to Taipei. We rescued the Government’s Bank of China silver ingots. And we had precluded a brain drain by supporting doomed cities until its city fathers arranged orderly departures to the island of Taiwan, a 240-mile long island approximately 90 miles east of the China Mainland. But we had become an airline with no place to go. It was springtime, 1950. We didn’t know that another war was imminent. Chennault and Willauer sold their airline to the U.S. Government for a song. Our status as an occasional contractor to the CIA was over. CAT was now the bona fide Air Arm of the CIA, a dynamic instrument of America’s foreign policy in Asia. Legally we became employees of the U.S. Government, albeit secret. Our cover was CAT’s passenger schedule which continued, while the CIA’s covert flights appeared to be CAT’s cargo charters.
America’s stake in the Vietnam War didn’t begin as late as history books specify. It began on Christmas Day, 1950, with Operation STEM, America’s Special Technical & Economic Mission, the cover for our country’s look-see into French Indochina. The Agency’s superb officer, Al Cox, assigned this writer to Hanoi and eventually Saigon and Laos as pilot of a CAT C-47. The right seat was occupied by Max Springweiler who was equipped with the essentials required by a combo pilot-radio operator-flight engineer while airborne; and mechanic while the plane was on the ground. Max, a veteran of Euasia, Lufthansa’s subsidiary in China in the 1930’s, spoke fluent French, English, and German of course. He had lots of smarts and Al Cox believed he was valuable because many of Germany’s WWII Nazi officers were practicing their professions in The French Colony. Those interesting days can be told in a later installment on our Website.
After the fall of Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War, CAT / Air America would return profit earned by its cover operations (its seemingly civilian airlines), and thus become the only CIA proprietary that didn’t cost the Government anything; as a matter of fact it earned, for the U.S. Government, 23 million dollars.
On November 29, 1952, a few weeks before Bob Snoddy’s child was born, he and Norman Schwartz were assigned to snatch a Chinese Nationalist spy, Li Chun-ying, out of Kirin Province, Manchuria, with a new pick-up system, but it was a Red China ambush. CAT’s olive-drab C-47 was shot down. John Downey and Richard Fecteau, the CIA officers in the rear prepared to reel the spy aboard, were thrown clear of the crash and lived to serve two decades in a Chinese prison. But Bob Snoddy, WWII USN Patrol Bomber commander (Navy Air MEal, Purple heart); and Norman Schwartz, WWII U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot (Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations) died. More than half a century later, the U.S. Joint Prisoner of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) retrieved a fore-arm identified as Snoddy’s and returned it to the family’s burial plot in Oregon. JPAC, to its credit, steadfastly refuses to close the case of Norman Schwartz. Two stars, representing them, are etched in the granite wall at the entrance to the CIA’s headquarters.
On May Day, 1953, CAT joined another war — the French Indochina Revolution. French President Charles De Gaulle sought American aid. President Eisenhower, reluctant to commit America to another potential ground war in Asia, loaned France six C-119 Flying Boxcars hastily painted with French Air Force insignia. When the French pleaded they lacked pilots familiar with the planes and the time to train them, Civil Air Transport, still a civilian airline bearing the Chinese Nationalist Flag, offered their civilian pilots who were not familiar with the Flying Boxcars either. In typical CAT style, they focused their attention in Ground School for two or three nights at Clark Air Base near Manila, received flight training from superb flight instructors of the USAF Training command and arrived in Hanoi on May 6, ready for action. We parachuted arms, ammo, food, and even a few Mack Trucks to scattered French forces while FAF fighter planes strafed the surrounding ground for “Flak Suppression”. But we picked up a few holes during afternoon sorties because the French fighter pilots consumed wine at lunch and napped in the afternoon. French citizens back home and their soldiers in Indochina were fed up with their never-ending Colonial war.
Our sorties ended in a few months, but almost year later the C-119 operation resumed. Unknown to French and U.S. Intelligence organizations, the Vietnamese had dismantled 37mm anti-aircraft weapons – a gift from Red China – and carried the pieces on bicycles or their backs to reassemble them in the hills which surrounded the Valley of Dien Bien Phu. They quietly watched brave French soldiers prepare for a decisive battle on the flat valley which provided an advantage for French field weapons. Attempts to send reinforcements from Haiphong were “quarter-hearted” according to journalists. While the valley fell, decimated French units retreated to surrounding outposts and CAT pilots flew through flak as thick as that in Germany’s notorious Ruhr Valley during WWII. Flak suppression was slight, nor were the French rescue helicopters apparent. When Paul Holden was wounded by flak, Wally Bufford, keeping the battle-damaged C-119 airborne, applied a tourniquet to Holden’s torn arm and got the Flying Boxcar back to Haiphong. Historian Bill Leary said Buford’s status as a civilian pilot is all that kept him from receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Wally was with Jim McGovern on a subsequent flight when they were shot down and crashed across the Viet border near a Lao village. Its people recovered the bodies of McGovern and Buford intact and placed them in a Buddhist tomb.
Five years later a French graves registration team discovered the wreckage and interviewed the villagers who showed them the burial place. The American military attache in Vientiane so advised and the message was passed in turn to CAT executives and the CIA. But nothing was done until Historian Bill Leary, about three decades later, found the documentation in U.S. Government archives and notified this writer who, in turn, gathered his cohorts to fight for the return of the remains. McGovern’s brother, particularly, still suffering from wounds received on D-Day, the invasion of Europe in WWII, pleaded, just get my brother’s remains to Arlington before I die. This did not occur, however. Wally’s body has not yet been found, but McGovern’s bones, positively identified by the new system of nuclear biology, were cremated and interred in one of the walls in Arlington. Had he been a member of the armed services when he died, he would have been entitled to a ground plot.
In the late 1950s Allen Pope was shot down, ejected and landed in the water with a broken leg. Sentenced to death by a Communist military court during that time, Allen stuck to the U.S. Ambassador’s assertion that he was paid by local rebels. Five years later Robert Kennedy secured his release.
By 1959, investigative journalists were peeking through holes in CAT’s cloak of secrecy. The CIA retained the original name in half of its group while naming the other half Air America. It was only a separation on paper, supported by legal documents, but the cohesion of the whole remained intact. Air crews and mechanics switched allegiances at the stroke of a scheduler’s pencil. Even our fixed-in-place secretaries received two pay checks each month; half pay from CAT, the other from Air America. Mechanics were not CAT’s or Air America’s: they belonged to a still different entity, Air Asia. The legal but operationally fake documents hoodwinked the Evil Empire and even fooled a few CAT/AAM chauvinists; and now a few contemporary CIA folks.
The fall of Saigon signaled the end of America’s largest and most cohesive Aerial Empire without a NAME. Just a smattering of odd-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces with five different titles. Fitted in place, they display a haunting, magnificent masterpiece.
Felix Smith, Permanent Honorary Chairman
Civil Air Transport (CAT) Association