Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Civil Air Transport (CAT)

General Claire Lee Chennault did not fade away after WWII. He divorced Nell Thompson in 1946 and in late 1947 married Anna Chen, a young Chinese journalist. He became an outspoken critic and opponent of Communism in the Far East. In 1946 he organized a civilian airline in China, which airlifted supplies to Nationalist forces fighting in the interior until the end of the civil war. The airline was reorganized in 1948 as the Civil Air Transport (CAT), one of the largest air-cargo carriers in the world. This airline would become the Central Intelligence Agency's first "proprietary" enterprise and played a covert role in the Korean War, Indochina, North Vietnam, Laos, and Tibet as well as at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Once again China's leaders called upon Chennault to form an air service. And once again Chennault answered their call, this time by forming the Civil Air Transport (CAT), whose acronym suggests to some a symbolic connection to the past. Chennault's business manager and partner Whiting Willaeur, for example, noted, "CAT comes pretty close to spelling Tiger." But this was a different breed of cat.
In May 1946, Chennault returned to the United States to seek financing for his new air service. With the help of former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was now director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, Chennault arranged a loan and bought 19 surplus Curtiss C-46 Commandos and Douglas C-47 Skytrains. Chennault and Willaeur recruited a group of ex-military personnel to maintain and fly them, including former American Volunteer Group pilots Joe Rosbert and Erik Shilling. The CAT took to the air on January 31, 1947, flying the first relief cargo west from Canton (Guangzhou). As Chennault noted later, it flew "under the sign of a new and more docile Flying Tiger." 

At the same time, another group of former AVG pilots- headed by Bob Prescott and including Bill Bartling, Duke Hedman, Robert "Catfish" Raines, Dick Rossi, and other Flying Tigers-were forming an airline in the United States. It eventually bore the name of the Flying Tiger Line. Rossi flew as a captain with the freight line for about 25 years, logging a lifetime of more than 25,000 flying hours.
On December 21, 1947, Claire Chennault and Anna Chan exchanged marriage vows in a simple wedding at the general's house in Shanghai. Anna, the well-educated, petite, and alluring daughter of the Chinese consul to San Francisco, became Chennault's adoring and devoted companion for the rest of his life. 

By April 1948, Chennault's air service was operating successfully, hauling tons of materials a month and helping to lift China back on its feet. By then, the civil war in China between the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Ze-dong), which Chiang had anticipated for years, had erupted and was in full swing. Chennault regretted that "some Chinese people are in open rebellion against their government-thereby delaying the rehabilitation of their country and diminishing its prestige as a world power.  "At first, however, he did not "feel it is my duty to participate in this needless, bitter conflict. My desire is to aid all Chinese." But as the civil war wore on, Chennault became increasingly anti-Communist. 

Chennault became more and more convinced that the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia posed a threat to the United States and to the Free World. He and Willaeur decided to cast their lot with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and to use the CAT to support his forces. With regard to China's ongoing civil war, Chennault figured that his old friend Chiang possessed "both the desire and the power to clear the situation rapidly." But he misjudged Chiang's military capabilities. 

During the Communist siege of Mukden, Manchuria, the CAT airlifted in thousands of tons of food, medicine, and other essential supplies. On return trips, CAT pilots and planes ferried out noncombatants and wounded soldiers. But Mukden became a death trap for entire Nationalist armies, flown in and supplied by CAT. At one point, Chennault's crews flew as many as 50 missions a day, braving artillery fire and landing on hastily built airfields to sustain Chiang's armies. But Mukden fell to the Communists, as did Manchuria and northern China. 

Thereafter, the Communists forced the Nationalists to withdraw first to Canton and finally to Taiwan. Chennault and the CAT moved with the Nationalists to Taiwan in October 1949-but not before losing, for all practical purposes, 73 of his airplanes to the Communists. Despite its losses and a subsequent battle with insolvency, Chennault's CAT weathered the squalls of adversity and continued to operate but only on a shoestring-nothing new to Chennault.

When war broke out in Korea in 1950, the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acquired the Civil Air Transport from Chennault, Willaeur, and other stockholders. The CIA used CAT planes to fly troops and supplies in support of the United Nations. And when French troops were surrounded by Communist forces at Dien Bien Phu in French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954, CAT pilots in Fairchild C -119 Flying Boxcars flew many flights to parachute urgently needed supplies to the beleaguered French soldiers. 

On one relief flight into Dien Bien Phu, pilot James McGovern-nicknamed "Earthquake McGoon" after Al Capp's lovable villain in the comic strip Li'l Abner-and his copilot Wallace Buford, were attempting to airdrop six tons of ammunition when a shell from a Soviet-built 37-mm gun knocked out one of the engines of their twin-engine Boxcar. It began losing altitude rapidly. 

Another shell tore into one of the Boxcar's twin booms that supported the plane's tail surfaces. Buford and a crew of French cargo handlers stayed with the crippled aircraft while McGovern tried to coax it beyond the encircled French fortifications lest its cargo detonate among the besieged troops below. "It looks like this is it, "McGovern was heard to say to Buford over an open microphone. An instant later, the cargo plane struck a ridge and exploded. In that instant, McGovern and Buford may have become the first American casualties of the Vietnam War. 

Under the CIA, the airline eventually became known as Air America and joined an expanding war in Vietnam, where, in the words of historian William M. Leary Jr. it would "pay a price in blood that would make [Dien Bien Phu] pale in comparison." 

Later in 1954, after the subsequent French defeat by the Communist Vietminh forces and the partitioning of French Indochina into North and South Vietnam, Chennault again returned to the United States on a mission. His task this time was to rally support for his proposal for a 470-member International Volunteer Group (IVG) to be modeled on his highly successful American Volunteer Group. The old warrior intended the IVG to be used to stem the spreading threat of Communism in Southeast Asia without the direct involvement of the United States. He managed to attract the interest of a few important people in the military and political arenas but to little avail. Opposing factions in the Departments of State and Defense finally squelched his efforts. Chennault would lead no more.

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