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Crouch / CHINA'S WINGS
SAINT PATRICK’S DAY, 1931
A ragged wind gusted among the deep-draft vessels anchored a few miles northeast of Woosung, near the eastern edge of China, where Shanghai’s river, the Whangpoo, emptied into the mighty Yangtze. The transpacific liner Empress of Japan drew too much water to cross the submerged mud bar the larger stream had built across the Whangpoo’s mouth, so a lighter eased alongside to take her passengers the last dozen miles upriver to Shanghai. Choppy swells whumped between the hulls and pitched up fat drops of spray. As he trotted down a gangway onto the smaller craft, William Langhorne Bond turned up his coat collar and clasped his fedora tighter to his head. Close-cropped strands of reddish hair showed beneath his hatband. A toothbrush mustache edged past the corners of his mouth, dominating his thin face and drawing attention from his piercing gray-blue eyes and the bent nose that looked like it might once have been broken. It was March 17, 1931, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the thirty-seven-year-old former heavy-construction foreman had come halfway around the world from his home in Petersburg, Virginia, to take a job he knew next to nothing about.
Bond found a seat inside the lighter, but he couldn’t keep still. Soon back on deck, he cupped his hands, lit a cigarette, and rested his forearms on the starboard rail. The Yangtze’s far northern shore was ten miles distant, a reach so wide Bond couldn’t escape the sense he was still at sea. Nobody knew where the river began (he loved that); probably at some anonymous trickle on the Tibetan fringe, thousands of miles away. But by the time the Yangtze had convulsed and roared and soughed from its mountainous headwaters and undulated across the lowlands of eastern China, collecting tribute from an uncounted multitude of creeks, springs, and lesser rivers, it had grown into a truly enormous aquatic beast that spewed water into the East China Sea through a fifty-mile-wide estuary. The Sinologists whose books he’d read during the Pacific crossing identified the Yangtze as the single most powerful force governing the evolution of Chinese culture. Indeed, in many ways, the Yangtze was China, a unifying artery running through the heart of a nation that might not have existed without it. No other earthly waters mattered so much, to so many people. Fully one-tenth of mankind depended on the waters of the Yangtze Basin, an intersection of demographics and hydrology that any businessman could see made the Yangtze River a gateway to the largest potential marketplace on earth, and from its position near the mouth of the great stream, Shanghai was the key controlling the gate. For the last ninety years, ever since British gunboats blasted open the trade of central China in the 1840s, fortune seekers from around the world had flocked to do business in the city. William Bond stood on the cusp of joining them at a time when China was reeling from nearly a century of domestic upheaval and foreign-visited disaster, struggling to unify, modernize, unlock its long-suppressed potential, and take its place among the world’s great nations. With his new job, Bond expected to participate in what would surely be one of the twentieth century’s great dramas.
The deckhands cast off, the engines growled, and the lighter made way for the Whangpoo. China beyond the riverbanks was greenish and gray and surprisingly flat. A low, rounded hill that lay like a rice sack above the joining of the two rivers provided the only contour of relief. Across the bar, the Whangpoo took on an unguinous yellow tint, and the lighter pushed into the upstream traffic. Tugs plowed forward at the head of barge strings laden with sand, gravel, and coal. Laundry flapped from the lee rails of sailing junks whose brown, patch-bespeckled sails, stayed by lengths of split bamboo, held the breeze like the wings of tattered dragons. Small wooden sampans coasted in the shallows, their decks choked with agricultural produce. The people aboard—whole families, it seemed—screamed curses as they shipped wakes trailing from the larger vessels. Bond cringed as the lighter steamed past an anchored “honey barge” awaiting the tide’s ebb, heaped to its putrid gunwales with Shanghai “night soil.”
Evidence of unruly commerce quickened as they churned upstream. Within a few miles, warehouses, known as “godowns” in the commercial parlance of the Far East, appeared, lining both sides of the river, windowless, four-story brick structures streaked with dirt and grime. Giraffe-necked cranes nodded over the godown docks, heaving cargoes into rust-streaked steamers. Work gangs loaded smaller items at the tie-ups of junks and sampans. All along both waterfronts, cars, trucks, carts, and wheelbarrows battled through lines of blue-dungareed coolies staggering beneath preposterous burdens. Rooftops bristled with billboards touting products in English and Chinese. On the west shore, smoke plumes trailed from the trio of smokestacks above the Shanghai Power Company’s new Yangtzepoo generating station, paralleling similar cloud ribbons pouring from dozens of factory chimneys. It was a chaotic scene, industrial and gritty. There was nothing quaint or picturesque about it.
Ahead, the Whangpoo curled southeastward, and Bond caught sight of the massive buildings of the Shanghai Bund as they heaved into view around the Pootung bend, one by one. It was the most famous cityscape east of Suez, a half-mile run of gray buildings along the downtown riverbank, and it was the core of Western imperial power in China. Architecturally, Bond couldn’t detect a shred of Chinese inspiration. He recognized the straight, art-deco lines of the Cathay Hotel, topped by a green pyramid; “Big Ching,” the clock tower rising from the center of the Maritime Customs Building; and the dome over the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. The buildings were impressive rather than artistic, breathtaking before beautiful, and shot through with more than a trace of military gothic intimidation, but it was the nautical chaos of the river that commanded the most attention. Bond had never seen such a busy stretch of water. Merchants counted Shanghai as the world’s fifth-busiest port, but surely that ranking was based only on tonnage figures? In terms of sheer frenetic bustle, it was hard to imagine a greater profusion of vessels anywhere else in the world. Scores of craft plied the waterway: junks, sampans, barges, tugs, coastal steamers, freighters, lighters, men-of-war, and jaywalking ferries darting across the river perpendicular to the main flow of traffic. Bond’s lighter thrummed past Garden Bridge, the trestle spanning the mouth of Soochow Creek, and approached the Bund beneath flags flapping from the taffrails of the warships anchored in center stream. There were blue-water cruisers, destroyers, and corvettes, and shallow-draft gunboats down from their upriver patrol stations, and Bond recognized Britain’s Union Jack, the American Stars and Stripes, France’s Tricolor, the Japanese Rising Sun, and one that must have been the standard of Mussolini’s Italy. Decrepit sampans sculled in the waters alongside, poised to scuffle over galley orts ejected through the warships’ slop holes.
The lighter docked at a pontoon in front of Big Ching. Bond nervously plodded down the planks and into a shoving throng. Rickshaw men and cabbies pressed into his face demanding hire; hawkers cried their wares under greasy canvas awnings. A tram clattered past on rails laid in the street, cars fought traffic with blaring horns, and swarms of two-wheeled, man-pulled rickshaws wove through the commotion. Collapsed beggars thrust misshapen arms at passersby. Marine engines growled in the river. Bond looked around with no idea what to do.
A waving figure caught his eye. George Conrad Westervelt broke through the riverfront melee, and Bond shook his hand with visible relief. A car horn screamed, and a new-model Packard shoved past. Four enormous, stone-faced Caucasians stood on the running boards, their elbows crooked through holds mounted to the car top. The pair in front held pistols; the two beside the passenger windows had shoulder-slung tommy guns. Bond glimpsed a dark-suited Chinese in the rear seat. Cossacks, explained Westervelt, bodyguards for that rich Chinese. Thousands of White Russian refugees had flooded into Frenchtown since Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power.
A short, pugnacious retired U.S. Navy captain nicknamed “Scrappy” by his Naval Academy classmates, George Conrad Westervelt was married to Bond’s first cousin, Rita Langhorne, and he’d brought Bond into the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company two years before, in 1929. Bond had been hankering to get into aviation ever since Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in the spring of 1927. At the time of Lindbergh’s flight, Bond was a job boss on a construction site in Ohio, the latest of scores of projects he’d overseen since returning home to Virginia from France at the end of the Great War. He’d built a lot of roads, railroad beds, and bridges, and earned himself an equity position in the company. Unfortunately, the work had lost its challenge. The projects would get bigger; they wouldn’t get any less routine. Lindbergh was different. Lindbergh demanded action. Lindbergh was nine years younger than William Bond, and he’d gone and done this great thing. Bond wasn’t a man who spent money on frivolities, but in the wake of Lindbergh, he paid cash money to a barnstorming pilot giving airplane rides from an Ohio cow pasture.
The pilot flew over Bond’s job site. Bond hadn’t expected the roadbed he was building to look so unimpressive. Aviation was changing the world every day, and he was laboring hidebound in Ohio, sweating or freezing or soaking with the seasons on dirty construction sites. Maybe it was time for a new direction. If he didn’t switch soon, he’d be stuck building roads and railroad beds for the rest of his life.
Bond wasn’t alone in perceiving aviation’s potential. The entire nation went airplane crazy after Lindbergh’s flight. It was as if everybody, all at once, realized aviation could reshape the world—and that fortunes would be made while it did. Wall Street big wheels claimed new technologies like radio and aviation altered the rules of commerce: Business would be done faster and better, new markets would open, old ones would expand, and profits would grow exponentially. Aviation companies helped lead the most glorious stock market gains in history. Speculators considered the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company to have particularly fine prospects. With United Aircraft and Transport Company, the Aviation Corporation, and the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, Curtiss was one of four conglomerates fighting to dominate the new industry. Via its twenty affiliated companies, Curtiss had fingers in every aspect of the aviation pie. Not every division turned a profit. Indeed, most of them didn’t, but the industry was booming, and its future seemed limitless. Five times more civil airplanes were built in 1928 than in 1926. In 1928, Curtiss stock doubled. And then doubled again. Near the end of the year, Curtiss Company stock hit $192 per share, a spectacular gain from its 1924 price of $4.50. Airline operations expanded apace. From 1926 to 1928, domestic carriers like Western Air Express, Transcontinental Air Transport, National Air Transport, Eastern Air Lines, and Northwest Airways increased the nation’s route miles fivefold. Internationally, the recently founded Pan American Airways was growing from its humble Florida-to-Havana origins and beginning to cast airlines across the Caribbean into Central and South America. Aviation made headlines nearly every day.
William Bond spent 1928 mulling a career change. Once he’d examined the angles, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Bond saw his current project through to completion, resigned his position, sold his stake in the construction company, and began looking around for an opening. George Westervelt provided the entrée.
Westervelt had joined the Curtiss Company to supervise its aircraft factories, and in June of 1929, he was looking for a good man to investigate a troubled property, a million-dollar factory that one of Curtiss’s many subentities, Curtiss-Caproni, was building on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, a few miles south of Baltimore, near Logan Field. The project had fallen far behind schedule. When Westervelt’s wife told him that her cousin wanted an aviation position, Westervelt asked Bond to take a look.
The factory was intended to build seaplanes for the Navy, and an admiral in starched summer whites toured Bond through the construction site. Bond could see right away that the job foreman couldn’t lead sailors to a brothel. After they completed their rounds, the admiral squared up to him and asked, “Could you finish this plant?”
“I’ve been an in-the-dirt guy all my life. Railroads, tunnels, roads. I’ve never built a factory.”
“I didn’t ask that. I asked if you could complete this job.”
“Yes, sir, I can add and subtract and read a schedule, and I guarantee I can do it better than this.”
Bond accepted the job without asking what he would be paid. First things first, he told himself: Get the job; get into aviation.
A few weeks after Bond started, Curtiss merged with Wright Aeronautic and Keystone Aircraft to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, and Bond had a job in America’s biggest aviation company. Unfortunately, the gilded expectations fueling the speculative ball didn’t jibe with data reporting back from the actual economy. Steel and iron production sagged; freight-car loadings drooped; home building fell; industrial production sank. The stock market wobbled in September and the first three weeks of October. Then, on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, prices collapsed, the most massive single-day meltdown in Wall Street history. Aviation stocks were among the hardest hit, and values continued to sink in subsequent trading sessions. Curtiss-Wright’s stock plummeted 70 percent.
The crash didn’t affect most Americans, since only one in forty owned stock. The bank failures that would turn a painful recession into the country’s worst depression remained two years into the future. Few people in 1929 saw the Wall Street fiasco and the economic slowdown as anything other than a normal downturn in the boom-and-bust cycle of American business. The year 1930 was bad, but not earth-shatteringly so. Unemployment ran at a little less than 9 percent. Gross national product slumped 12.7 percent, but it had dropped a whopping 24 percent in the 1921 recession and the nation had recovered quickly. For Curtiss-Wright, however, 1930 was an unmitigated disaster. It had yoked its fortunes to projections of massive expansion in all aspects of aviation, and the dip caught the company grossly overextended. Bond finished the Chesapeake Bay factory in the last half of 1930, but the plant sat idle, and he hung on there as a glorified caretaker. In his spare time, and he had lots, he took flying lessons. Curtiss-Caproni’s contract with the City of Baltimore mandated guaranteed utilities payments once the factory was complete. Bond took it upon himself to persuade the mayor to defer charges until the plant went into operation, an initiative that saved the company $30,000 (about $380,000 in modern dollars) and earmarked Bond as a man suited to greater responsibilities.
One of Curtiss-Wright’s cash wounds was in China, where it had sunk half a million dollars into a 45 percent stake in the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), an airline it held in partnership with Chiang Kai-shek’s three-and-a-half-year-old Nationalist government, part of Curtiss-Wright’s grandiose plan to circle the globe with its aviation network. The company owed another $585,000 toward the full capitalization of the airline, and the corporate leadership sent George Westervelt to the Orient to decide if they should continue to support it. (In aggregate, the company’s commitment would represent a modern investment of nearly $14 million.)
In China, Westervelt discovered a full manifest of operational and technical problems and a subtle force in the foreign community arrayed against the airline. Many expatriate businessmen actually wanted CNAC to fail. It was the first major partnership between Chinese and foreign interests in which the majority ownership was Chinese, and as such, it represented an implicit challenge to the comfortable status quo, in which such joint ventures were either fifty-fifty or had the foreigners in the driver’s seat. Westervelt decreed those obstacles surmountable. The most critical problem ran deeper: Infected by the outrageous disrespect most foreigners living in Shanghai manifested toward the Chinese, many of the Americans Curtiss-Wright shipped to China treated the airline’s Chinese employees with arrogance and overt prejudice, utterly disregarding the fact that the company was a partnership in which the Americans held the minority interest. In Westervelt’s estimation, the company’s long-term success would depend on its American personnel learning to treat the Chinese as equals. Curtiss-Wright needed a new man in China, someone who could lead by example and work with the Chinese as partners, treating them fairly and judging them on individual faults and merits rather than on the basis of racist stereotypes. Considering how much stock the Chinese culture placed on courtesy, the airline needed not only a man possessing common sense and business acumen, it needed one with good manners. Westervelt cabled New York and asked them to send William Bond.
To Bond, the offer came as a complete surprise. He didn’t know much about China except where to find it on a map. Nor, for that matter, did he know much of anything about airline operations. He also knew he couldn’t afford to stand pat in Baltimore. No job was more insecure than that of a man in charge of an idle factory. If he didn’t get himself into a more productive role, he’d soon find himself among America’s growing legion of unemployed. Besides, China might provide the adventure he’d been craving.
William Bond accepted the summons without hesitation.