The Fascinating Life Story of Captain Moon Chin: A Highly Decorated Chinese American Hero

Captain Moon Fun Chin was never ever been a U.S. military personnel, yet he was awarded four prestigious medals by the U.S. government:  The Distinguished Flying Cross, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal (Silver Star), The Air Medal, and The Presidential Unit Citation.  He became one of the most decorated civilian pilots by the U.S. military.  Who was Captain Moon Chin, and how did that happen?  He was the pilot who flew Jimmy Doolittle from Chongqing to Calcutta, first leg of Doolittle’s journey back to the U.S. after leading the famous “Doolittle Raid.”  He was probably the first pilot who flew over “The Hump” (the Himalaya Mountains) which was so crucial with providing supplies to China via the Flying Tigers during WWII.  He was also an early aviation pioneer and entrepreneur who successfully founded and managed an airline.  This article provides a brief summary of the fascinating life story of Captain Moon Chin.  It is based on a much longer article “Biplanes over China to the Edge of Cyberspace:  The Life of Moon Chin” by Philip Chin (no relation to Moon Chin).[1]

Moon Chin was born in 1913 in China. Because his father was a Chinese American with U.S. citizenship, Moon Chin was an American by birth, and he came to the U.S. in 1922 when he was nine years old. He was immediately fascinated by airplanes. Fortunately for him, the Curtis Wright Company, one of America’s top aviation companies; opened a flight mechanic and pilot institute in Baltimore, Maryland where Moon and his family lived running the family restaurant. Moon was able to persuade his father to pay for the expensive mechanic and pilot lessons, and was the only one of his class who completed the course. He received a limited commercial pilot’s license in 1932 and worked briefly for Curtis-Wright, but opportunities for continued employment and especially for getting ahead were very limited for Chinese Americans due to discrimination. Coupling that with the great depression, Moon, like many Chinese Americans, ended up going to China looking for work. This really alienated Moon to his father, and his father’s last words to him before he left for China were “You go to China you’re dead to me.” Moon and his father didn’t reconcile until a decade later well into WWII.

Moon arrived in Shanghai in January 1933. At first he was lost in Shanghai, because he only knew the Taishan dialect (of Guangdong Province) and didn’t know the Shanghai dialect. A couple of months later through a group of Chinese American pilots in Shanghai, he found a job, initially as a mechanic, with China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), a fledgling airline in China partially owned by Westerners. 1933 was during the 14-year (1931-1945) War of Resistance with Japan, so CNAC and China didn’t have money to build standard airports. Thus they relied on seaplanes that could takeoff and land on water or on short compacted dirt fields. Money was also short for CNAC to hire a lot of mechanics to repair planes; so many pilots died through poor maintenance or the inability to repair in-flight mechanical emergencies. Moon, with his duo training as a mechanic and as a pilot, was hired. At CNAC he also experienced discrimination because Chinese pilots had to serve as co-pilots under white captains and made less money than their white counterparts.

After Japan invaded Beijing in July 1937, the war between Japan and China intensified, and many white pilots refused to fly under war conditions and went home. That was when Moon was able to become a pilot and captain of his plane. Because of the war and because Japan occupied and controlled most of the coastal region of China, to avoid anti-aircraft artillery and Japanese fighter planes, CNAC usually flew at night, even in the worst possible weather. Many of these planes also did not have a radio. Under such difficult conditions, Moon honed his flying skills which he utilized fully later in many of his daring missions.

Chiang Kai-shek’s personal airfleet, along with much of the Nationalist Chinese Air Force, had been destroyed early in the war. Starting in 1938, Moon was contracted several times to fly Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang around on inspection tours of what remained of their territory. Flight with Chiang took Moon all over China.

Worried that further territorial moves by Japan would cutoff vital war supplies, the Chinese government contracted Moon Chin to explore the possibility of establishing air routes over the Himalayas in 1941. Thus Moon Chin became one of the first, if not the first, to fly over “The Hump,” or the Himalayas, and mapped the routes, routes that became vital and famous that were used beginning in December 1941 by the Flying Tigers (also known as the First American Volunteer Group) under General Claire Lee Chennault that provided vital military and other supplies to the Chinese Nationalists from Burma or India. Flying over The Hump was extremely dangerous due to freezing temperatures, windshield icing that could make the view completely invisible, high mountains, and uncertain and constantly changing weather. Strong tail winds could blow the plane forward into a mountain, and strong headwinds could slow down the plane so much that the plane would run out of fuel and crash. On one occasion, Moon had to circle around at low altitude for at least 15 minutes just to melt enough ice on the windshield to see outside. CNAC once lost 20 planes in a single day because the planes ran out of fuel. Sometimes over 50% of all available aircraft were lost in a single month, and hardly any of them from enemy action. Even if the aircrew survived a crash, there was no way that they could be rescued because many of the planes were not equipped with radio and there was no place for the rescue planes to land (this was before the age of suitable rescue helicopters). Flying over The Hump required superb flying skills, and many didn’t have the necessary skills and paid the ultimate price. A wartime photograph taken over “The Hump” showed silver shining from all the visible hillsides. The silver was aluminum wreckage from the planes that crashed nearly everyday.

One day in April 1942, Moon was told by CNAC to fly from Calcutta, India to Chongqing for a special secret assignment. On April 18, 1942, the U.S. launched a surprise bombing attack, known as the Doolittle Raid [2], on Japan using mid-range bombers taken off for the first time from an aircraft carrier. This mission consisted of 16 planes and 80 air men, led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. After successfully bombing several cities in Japan, these bombers flew toward the China east-central coast, because these mid-range bombers could not return and land on the aircraft carrier. These bombers ran out of fuel and crashed landed on the sea or beaches of the China coast. Local Chinese civilians and Chinese militia rescued almost all of the American crewmen, and then over the next few weeks kept moving them from one place to another place to escape from the searching Japanese soldiers, and finally they were transported to Chongqing, the Chinese capital during the war. Moon’s instruction was to fly Doolittle from Chongqing to Calcutta, with a refueling stop in Kunming, China, and then a stopover in Myitkyina in northern Burma to evacuate some CNAC personnel and equipment before the Japanese overran the town.

This flight for Doolittle turned out to be a very adventurous and difficult flight, and even Doolittle, a famous test and stunt pilot and top instructor of American fighter pilots, was impressed with the flying skills that Moon Chin demonstrated in incidents that Doolittle thought could be suicidal. About half way to Kunming because of warning of oncoming Japanese fighter planes, Moon had to make an emergency stop on a dusty country road and camouflaged his plane. After waiting out the Japanese fighters, Moon had to take off from the country road while taking the telephone wire on the side of the road with them. When their plane landed at Myitkyina which was just about ready to fall to Japan, about 50 local staff members frantically got on Moon’s plane, and the plane with a designed capacity for 25 people took off with 72 people. When Doolittle returned to Washington, D.C., he was immediately awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt and was promoted two grades from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General, skipping the rank of full Colonel.

After years of discrimination and unfairly paid by CNAC, Moon left CNAC in 1950, and together with two partners in Taiwan, founded in 1951 the Fu Hsing Airlines (also known as Foshing Airlines, which was later merged into TransAsia Airways. Moon was Chairman of the Board. This airline became a success almost overnight, and grew from two used seaplanes to over 100 planes in about one year. Even though Moon was now a high level executive, in 1954 after hearing a distress call, he volunteered on his own and was directly involved in a famous rescue of five U.S. Air Force (USAF) crewmen who had bailed out from a failing Air Force Transport plane over high seas about 150 miles from Taipei. When Moon arrived on the scene, there were 12 other planes circling over the stricken men, eight from the Nationalist Chinese Air Force, four from the USAF. Two of the USAF planes were PBY-5 seaplanes, just like Moon’s civilian aircraft. However, with the high waves and winds, none of the other 12 planes dared to attempt a suicidal landing on the water. Only Moon had the courage, skills, and confidence to land his seaplane, got all five crewmen on board, and then figured out a most difficult and ingenious way to take off from the roaring sea. One of the rescued fliers, Major A. W. Grinsted said in an interview with the Hong Kong Standard newspaper that the landing and takeoff had been “the best of flying I have ever seen.” Major General William C. Chase, head of the USAF “Military Assistance Advisory Group-China” presented Moon, his co-pilot, and radio operator in a later ceremony with honorary plaques and to express his personal thanks and the thanks of the USAF for their gallant work.

Moon participated in numerous rescues of both Chinese and American crews in the seas off Taiwan. He also acted as an unpaid technical advisor to the USAF Air Rescue units, and never asked for or received any compensation for his efforts. He even paid for his own aviation fuel.

Fu Hsing Airlines later changed from providing airline services to providing general sales and ground handling services for international airlines traveling in Taiwan and Asia. They also expanded into the growing airline catering business. In 1983 Moon sold the profitable Fu Hsing Airlines and retired to California after 50 years of living overseas.

Even though he was never in the U.S. armed services, the U.S. government recognized and appreciated his contributions on behalf of the U.S. armed services. That was why he was awarded all those military medals mentioned at the beginning of the article, which was extremely rare for a civilian to win. In 2005, Congress passed new legislation that granted veteran status for those merchant marines who had served during WWII, as well as the few remaining American civilians who had flown supplies across the Himalayas. Thus Captain Moon Chin is now officially a U.S. veteran and is eligible for veteran’s benefits.

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[1] I thank Philip Chin for giving me permission to write this article based on his work. Shorter versions of Philip Chin’s long article have also been published or found in:

a. “Unsung Hero: Captain Moon Chin,” Chinese American Forum, April 2010.

b. “Moon Chin,” Chinese American Heroes, http://chineseamericanheroes.org/2012/04/23/moon-chin/, posted on April 23, 2012.

c. “A Brief Biography of Captain Moon Chin,” http://www.aaap-sg.net/archive/Mini-Bio%20MFChin.pdf.

[2] For a more detailed description of the Doolittle Raid, see this website’s article “The Doolittle Raid: Mission Impossible and Its Impact on the U.S. and China.”

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2 Responses to “The Fascinating Life Story of Captain Moon Chin: A Highly Decorated Chinese American Hero”

  1. Rich Braverman says:

    Hi Don

    Wonderful story!

    Rich

  2. Steve Wang says:

    Wow! What a story…

    I am now 64, but in all my years, I never heard of this wonderful, inspiring story of Captain Moon Chin. Wish there was a way to get this story widely circulated…

    Steve Wang

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