“You have anything fragile?” asked the lady at the airport counter in Kunming. “Yes, right here,” I said, pointing at my Chinese-American friend, Moon Chin, behind me. “He is 100 years old and traveling with me to Burma.”
The last time Moon Chin was in Burma it was 1946, and at that time he was a pilot. He had visited the country earlier, in 1942, on a rather unusual mission: flying US Air Force Gen. Jimmy Doolittle to safety after the US air raid on Tokyo during World War II.
Indeed, Moon’s finest hour was when he flew his C-53 plane, a converted cargo version of a DC-3, over the Hump, the nickname for a huge mountain range of the eastern Himalayas, with Doolittle as passenger. The Hump was a crucial route for the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and the Allied Forces to bring war supplies and equipment into China during the war, but the route was often dangerous, with Japanese fighter planes, high mountain peaks and unpredictably bad weather.
After the surprise air raid on Tokyo, Doolittle crash-landed in China but was in need of a rescue. He was saved by the Chinese and put on the CNAC plane that Moon captained, for a trip from Chongqing to Kunming and over the Hump, with a last stop in India’s Calcutta.
On the morning of the flight, the US Embassy informed Doolittle that Myitkyina in northern Burma would fall to the Japanese by 12 pm. When Moon reached northern Burma that afternoon, he was preparing to let down on the runway of the Kachin State capital when Doolittle passed him a note in the cockpit to warn him that the Japanese had taken the town. But as Moon approached he saw another C-47 plane taking off on the runway, on its way to India, so he ignored the general’s warning and landed.
Many refugees were walking off the airfield, thinking they had just missed the final plane, when Moon and his crew came roaring in. They stampeded toward him, and when the plane door opened they scrambled inside. As soon as the door closed, Moon put his engines into full throttle and took off.
Doolittle turned to him with grave doubt and reportedly asked, “Do you know how many people you are carrying?” There were only 28 converted seats on board. Moon answered with confidence, “Don’t worry, refugees don’t weigh very much!” The plane barely lifted into the sky as they reached the end of the runway, but Moon managed to land safely in Calcutta, where immigration officials counted 70 passengers getting off, more than twice the carrying capacity. When the luggage compartment opened, eight more refugees fell out of it.
Moon’s pilot career began in China in 1933, and his list of accomplishments is long. In addition to his evacuation of Doolittle, he was the first to fly across the Karakoram mountain range from Xinjiang to India. He piloted flights for Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese head of state between 1928 and 1949, as well as Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-ling, known in the West as Madame Chiang. He also founded two airlines after World War II, including one that still operates in Taiwan today.
Over the years Moon has longed to return to Burma, and as a centenarian he thought he would give it a go. He did not pack as light as he once did: We arrived in Burma with 13 pieces of luggage totaling 125 kilograms and a folding wheelchair, just in case. Also traveling with us was a Burmese doctor, again, just in case. Moon can still walk reasonably well, despite his age; at home he gets on a treadmill every morning for a 2.4 kilometer fast walk, and the cane he carries is more cosmetic than anything, as he often walks ahead of it. Just about all his teeth are original, and his mind is still sharp as a nail.
His memories from the war years have also stuck. While we traveled through Burma he repeated to me many times that Inle Lake was one long lake in the summer but became two lakes during the winter dry season. He should know, having seen it from high up in the air. Curious as he was, and still is, Moon once flew off course to get a look at the famous ruby mine of Mogok from above. The military radioed headquarters and instructions were passed down quickly: “Don’t let that guy fly around here again.” Moon must have used his plane to “buzz” the mining camp.
Looking at a map of Upper Burma, Moon pointed at the town of Lashio, in Shan State, which still has a sizable Chinese community. “You know, they used to have an airplane factory there, assembling the Loening plane,” he told me. He is probably one of very few pilots alive today who has flown such an early airplane, a 1930s amphibian that could land on water, with an open cockpit above the plane and maybe passengers sitting below deck.
“The only time I have slept in a bathtub was in Lashio,” Moon recalled with a chuckle. “We flew in with a family evacuating from the fighting, and the couple had a tiny baby with them. There was no hotel and we landed in the evening, as onward there was no landing light in Calcutta, so we were stuck. I had a room but decided to give it up to the family, and I myself ended up sleeping inside the bathroom tub.” A very considerate captain, Moon was, indeed.
“In those days we pilots wore side arms—pistols, that is. Mine was given to me by Dai Li, the KMT intelligence chief,” Moon said, referring to the man who led the Kuomintang secret service in China. Dai was known for singling out, tracking down and ordering the assassination of alleged traitors who collaborated with the Japanese. “When we went to restaurants or bars they would take away our guns at the entrance, just in case we had a drink too many and went a bit crazy,” Moon qualified with a laugh.
During our travels through Burma, Moon was struck by similarities from his last visit. “Seventy years ago, it was just the same,” he said, pointing at a bullock cart. A matted canopy of the cart was labeled “taxi.” “Hey, it has a twin engine,” he added with a smile. The cart was pulled by two oxen.
How Man Wong is president and founder of the China Exploration & Research Society (CERS). He is a journalist and explorer from Hong Kong with an interest in aviation history and contemporary war history of Asia.