Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia

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Civil Air Transport (CAT), founded in China after World War II by Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer, was initially a commercial carrier specializing in air freight. Its role quickly changed as CAT became first a paramilitary adjunct of the Nationalist Chinese Air Force, then the CIA's secret "air force" in Korea, then "the most shot-at airline in the world" in French Indochina, and eventually becoming reorganized as Air America at the height of the Vietnam War. William M. Leary's detailed operational history of CAT sets the story in the perspective of Asian and Cold War geopolitics and shows how CAT allowed the CIA to operate with a level of flexibility and secrecy that it would not have attained through normal military or commercial air transportation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Perilous Missions still constitutes our best resource on the origins of Civil Air Transport. It offers a rich treasury of oral testimony and documentary evidence.” —Journal of Military History


"Particularly gripping is Leary's account of CAT's role in efforts to bolster the defense of the doomed Nataionalist stronghold of Taiyuan, an operation which rivaled in human drama the concurrent, and far more successful, Berlin Airlift which was then taking place in faraway Europe."
—Georgia Historical Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817353407
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2006
  • Edition description: 2
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 723,959
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

William M. Leary is E. Merton Coulter Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia and author/editor of 14 books, including Under Ice: Waldo Lyon and the Development of the Arctic Submarine and Project Coldfeet: Secret Mission to a Soviet Ice Station.

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Read an Excerpt

Perilous Missions

Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia

By William M. Leary

Smithsonian Institution Press

Copyright © 2014 William M. Leary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5340-7


Origins of CAT

Major General Claire L. Chennault left China in summer 1945 in the midst of controversy. The acerbic warrior, at odds with his superiors for decades, believed that his leadership of the Fourteenth Air Force had merited a third star and command of all air units in the theater. As the general's supporters pointed out, despite massive logistical problems, the Fourteenth Air Force had compiled an impressive record against the Japanese. In three years of combat, American fliers claimed some 2,600 enemy aircraft destroyed and 2,230 million tons of shipping sunk or damaged. Washington, however, had a different perspective. "Everyone agrees," Air Force commander Henry H. Arnold had written in 1943, "on his exceptionally able tactical control of operations and his combat successes." But Chennault did not "exercise the necessary administrative and executive control of his present units to warrant independence." Arnold never changed his mind, and an embittered Chennault retired shortly before Japan surrendered.

Anger, disappointment, and frustration seemed to plague Chennault's career. Perhaps it had something to do with his French Huguenot heritage—they were a people known for passionate dissent. Born in Texas in 1890, Chennault grew up amid the woods, bayous, and lakes of northeastern Louisiana. His mother died when he was five. When Chennault was ten, his father married Lottie Barnes, a grade school teacher whom Chennault later recalled with affection for fostering his ambition and love of learning.

Chennault entered Louisiana State University in 1908, the year his beloved stepmother died. After two years, he left Baton Rouge to teach in a one-room school in rural Louisiana. Other posts followed: he taught English at a business college in Biloxi, Mississippi, and he was assistant director of physical training at the YMCA in Louisville, Kentucky. Family responsibilities and limited resources finally forced Chennault to abandon the teaching profession. American entry into World War I in April 1917 found him married, with three children, and working in a tire factory in Akron, Ohio.

Chennault, who as a boy had dreamed of a military career, entered Officers' Training School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, in August 1917. Emerging ninety days later as a freshly minted lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve, he was assigned to duty with the Ninetieth Division in San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio's Kelly Field was the center of training for military aviators. Chennault had been caught up in the romance of flight ever since he had first seen a Curtiss pusher biplane at the Louisiana State Fair in 1910. He made up his mind to become an aviator and volunteered for the Air Service but was turned down because of his age and marital status. It took nearly two years of persistent effort—a quality Chennault would amply demonstrate throughout his later career—before the determined young man entered flight school and won his wings.

In fall 1920 Chennault secured a regular commission in the newly organized Air Service. A variety of assignments followed over the next seventeen years, including command of the Nineteenth Pursuit Squadron in Hawaii, 1923–26, which he recalled as "my happiest time in the Air Corps," and instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama.

A man who always seemed to be marching to the beat of a different drummer and tended to be passionate in his commitments, Chennault championed fighters at a time when most contemporaries believed that the future lay with bombers. He wrote treatises on pursuit tactics (The Role of Defensive Pursuit, 1935), led an acrobatic team to demonstrate his theories, and stepped on the toes of superiors. His career languished. Passed over for promotion, a frustrated Chennault retired as a captain in April 1937, partially deaf from long hours in open cockpits and suffering from chronic bronchitis.

Retirement opened a new and crucial phase in Chennault's career. Through the efforts of Roy Holbrook, an American friend with the Chinese government, he obtained a three-month contract to make a confidential survey of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). He had barely begun his assignment when the Marco Polo Bridge incident of July 7, 1937, plunged China and Japan into full-scale war. Volunteering his services to the Nationalist government, Chennault assumed duties with an air force that his survey had revealed to be in deplorable condition. Throughout the summer, in the face of overwhelming Japanese superiority, Chennault made do as best he could, even leading Chinese air units into battle on occasion. By October, however, the air war had been lost.

Chennault retreated with the government into the interior, opened a flight training school at Kunming, and began the seemingly hopeless task of rebuilding the Chinese Air Force. He shared with Nationalist leaders the dark days of 1938–39, a time when China seemed bereft of friends and hope. His loyalty would long be remembered.

American economic assistance to China began in 1940. As Washington's relations with Japan worsened, President Franklin D. Roosevelt entertained a number of esoteric schemes to counter Tokyo's aggressive behavior. One of these involved the use of "volunteer" American aviators, recruited from the military services with official sanction, to protect the land supply route from Burma to China. Chennault, an early advocate of the plan, took command of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in summer 1941.

Overcoming difficulties that would have daunted a less determined man, Chennault had the AVG ready for action on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Over the next seven months, the Flying Tigers, as the AVG came to be known, earned a reputation as the most effective Allied fighter group in the Far East, destroying some three hundred enemy planes at a cost of twelve aircraft and four pilots lost in aerial combat. During a time of deep despair, when news from abroad sounded like a litany of disaster, the success of Chennault's young fliers in their shark-nosed P-40s gave hope to Americans. For many, the craggy-faced, square-jawed leader of the AVG seemed the very symbol of determined resistance.

Recalled to active duty as a brigadier general in April 1942, Chennault had no sooner taken command of American air units in China when he became embroiled in a controversy with his superiors that would last throughout the war. In part, the problem turned on personality. Theater commander Joseph W. Stilwell shared in full measure Chennault's talent for combat leadership, but neither man claimed tact and diplomacy as strong suits. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, Theodore White recalls, "was pure Yankee; strait-laced; crisp in diction; whatever [Chief of Staff] George Marshall and the United States needed of him, he would do." From the beginning, Stilwell had reservations about his subordinate. "Chennault," Stilwell wrote to General Marshall in October 1942, "has decided limitations. Within his sphere he is superior, but his administration is terrible and his judgment of men is weak."

Chennault and Stilwell were soon at odds over matters of high strategy. An impassioned advocate of air power, Chennault wanted to use the theater's limited resources to fight an air war against Japan. Stilwell disagreed, emphasizing the need to train Chinese ground forces to open a land supply route to China and defend the Fourteenth Air Force's advanced bases. Always prone to overstatement, Chennault argued long and loud that Stilwell lacked appreciation for air power. Stilwell made no secret of his conviction that Chennault had a grossly inflated concept of the ability of air power to affect the course of the war.

Under normal circumstances, the strategic view of the senior military commander would determine the course of events; but the China theater was not normal. Chennault's emphasis on air power had the enthusiastic support of Chiang Kai-shek. President Roosevelt, unable to provide any significant logistical support for China, also found Chennault's views seductive. Following the Trident conference of May 1943, Roosevelt ordered an emphasis on air power. The result was disaster. As Stilwell had predicted, the Japanese reacted promptly and vigorously, overrunning Chennault's forward bases in East China. His strategy discredited, Chennault's influence faded in Washington.

Chennault may have been a thorn in the side of his American superiors, but his relations with Chiang Kai-shek remained excellent throughout the war, perhaps because he deferred to the generalissimo, showed no interest in China's internal politics, and rarely criticized the Chinese war effort. Even below the highest levels of government, however, Chennault got along much better with Chinese than did most of his countrymen. As General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Stilwell's successor, later observed, "General Chennault enjoyed the confidence and respect of the Chinese officials, both military and civil, and the Chinese people loved and respected him also. Actually he was a national hero, and I believe deservedly so."

Before his departure from Kunming in summer 1945, Chennault had extensive discussions with Lung Yun, governor of Yunnan province, and Dr. Y. T. Miao, prominent businessman and government economist, about postwar possibilities in the area. The Yunnanese officials, anxious to preserve a measure of independence from the central government, suggested that Chennault return to China and head a provincial airline that would serve as Yunnan's link to the outside world. The line would carry tin, Yunnan's main export, to ports in Indochina, developing a tourist traffic on the return trip. Chennault was sufficiently interested in the project to approach several subordinates about joining the airline in managerial positions.

Chennault, however, was not the only one interested in China's postwar aeronautical development. One of the general's wartime associates, Whiting Willauer, also had plans to exploit air transportation opportunities in the war-ravaged country.

Whiting Willauer would have been comfortable in Elizabethan England, where he happily would have set sail in quest of greater glory for country and self, profit, and adventure. Impetuous, intelligent, hardworking, and fiercely loyal to friends, he belonged on the quarterdeck with Drake and Hawkins. He once boasted that he was not afraid of anything. "Yes, you are," his wife replied, "you're afraid of being afraid."

Born in New York City on November 30, 1906, Willauer grew up with upper-middle-class values, though sometimes lacking upper-middle-class affluence. His father, Arthur Ebbs Willauer, was a prominent architect who died when Willauer was six years old, leaving his mother, Katherine Whiting Willauer, to raise four young children, among whom Whiting was the oldest.

Willauer attended private schools in New York, St. Albans in Washington, and the Stone School. He was a good student, as a yellowed report card from St. Albans testifies: "Head of his form: a splendid record." His home life did not go as well. His mother remarried, and Willauer did not care for his stepfather. In 1918 Katherine Willauer Witridge died while working in a hospital during the great influenza epidemic.

The strongest female influence in young Willauer's life—an influence enhanced by his mother's untimely death—was his grandmother, Daisy Day Whiting. A fiercely independent woman, she became a pioneer interior decorator after her husband had lost the family's money. When interviewed in 1953 about his early life, Willauer barely mentioned his mother, but he recalled with admiration the grandmother who had trained him to handle money and pointed him toward a legal career.

The other major influence on Willauer, especially during his impressionable early teenage years, was his uncle, Kenneth Whiting. Handsome, dashing, and hard-drinking, Whiting was a career naval officer who had made a reputation in submarines before moving on to aviation. He won his wings in 1914, fought for development of the air arm, and led the first American naval aviation detachment to Europe in 1917. "After the war," a naval historian has written, "more than any other single officer, he helped plan the U.S. Navy's first carriers, served in, and commanded them." Willauer remembered that a visit at age twelve to a Loening aircraft factory with Uncle Ken spurred an already strong desire to become a naval aviator. But both his uncle and grandmother later encouraged the young man to think about a nonmilitary career. The navy, Commander Whiting said, was not the place to be in the postwar era of disarmament.

Willauer graduated from the Stone School at age sixteen, and the family decided to send him to Exeter for a year before entering college. Exeter led to Princeton, where Willauer blossomed. The school brought out with special intensity the dual aspects of his nature. The active, competitive Willauer excelled on the athletic field, playing fullback on the varsity football team; the reflective, romantic Willauer responded to the intellectual influence of Professor Robert Root, a noted Chaucerian scholar. In his last year at Princeton, Willauer was captain of the lacrosse team while writing his senior thesis, "Platonic Influences in Shelley." He graduated with honors in 1928.

Willauer loved the sea and during summer vacations taught sailing at the West Chop Club on Martha's Vineyard. On a trip to Nantucket in 1929, he met Louise Russell. Attractive, strong-willed, and affluent (her maternal grandfather was a founder of Union Carbide), Louise had rebelled against parental wishes, gone to secretarial school instead of college, and was working for a newspaper on the island. After the usual fits and starts of young love, they were married on June 21, 1930. The newlyweds moved to Cambridge while Willauer completed his last year at Harvard Law School. Louise attended Radcliffe for a time but had to drop out while awaiting the arrival of Whiting Russell Willauer, the first of three children. He was born on May 24, 1931, the day before his father's final examinations.

Willauer did well at Harvard, graduating sixty-fifth in a class of 408. He joined the prominent Boston firm of Bingham, Dana & Gould, specializing in the investigation and trial of transportation cases. Restless in private practice and entertaining thoughts of a political career, he left Boston in January 1939 and took a position in Washington with the Civil Aeronautics Board. Later in the year, he transferred to the Department of Justice and worked on cases involving political corruption. He soon was one of three lawyers in the department assigned to subversive activities. "It was during this work," he recalled, "that my eyes were first really opened to the techniques of international subversion. Although it is true that the major enemy in those days seemed to be the Nazis ... we also got a fairly good beginning into an indoctrination as to the aims and methods of the Communist conspiracy." In January 1941 he became special counsel to the Federal Power Commission, assigned to work on the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway.

The early months of 1941 saw rising international tensions as the United States edged closer to confrontations with Germany and Japan. Willauer, who held a reserve commission in naval intelligence, volunteered for active duty but failed the physical examination because of a history of frequent dislocations of the right shoulder stemming from a lacrosse injury and a recent incidence of pleurisy (later diagnosed as embolism). Distressed at the prospect of remaining behind a desk during times of crisis, Willauer contacted an old Exeter-Princeton roommate, Howard F. Corcoran, about a job with the newly formed China Defense Supplies, Incorporated (CDS).

CDS had been formed in spring 1941 as the official Chinese counterpart agency to coordinate lend-lease activities after President Roosevelt had declared China eligible for American assistance. T. V. Soong, China's sometime foreign minister, headed CDS, aided by David M. Corcoran (Howard's brother) and a group of Americans. Thomas G. Corcoran, oldest of the Corcoran brothers and formerly a close personal adviser to President Roosevelt, was the organization's political mentor.

Willauer joined CDS in July 1941 and assisted in setting up Chennault's American Volunteer Group. He spent most of the war years in China on a variety of field assignments, mainly dealing with the logistical problems of Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force. Willauer enjoyed the excitement and sense of purpose provided by his wartime duties. "I am one of TV's [Soong] staff," he wrote to his wife in 1943, "considered as a part of the operating machinery with the right to make decisions and to take action which will have tangible results.... I, like everyone, must have a sense of accomplishment some of the time to be happy. Also I must admit that the minor sense of personal danger some of the time, such as during air raids, or flying the hump, seems to give a good reaction. In a strange way it makes living seem more useful." Willauer later told his wife that he would not be content in a desk job in a law office after the "heady medicine" of the war years. "Indeed," he concluded, "I shall have a hell of a time going back into anything much less exciting than the war job."

In May 1944 Willauer became director of the Far East and Special Territories Branch in the Foreign Economic Administration. Concerned with economic intelligence, procurement of strategic materials, and postwar planning, he spent the summer of 1945 in the Philippines, trying to restore that nation's economy. Willauer also thought about his own future. He hoped one day to be able to work "in important international things" for the government. "I shall have to have some money for that," he confided to his wife, "and I think if I could pile up about a quarter of a million to a half-million due to some fortunate set of circumstances I would have the necessary financial prerequisite."


Excerpted from Perilous Missions by William M. Leary. Copyright © 2014 William M. Leary. Excerpted by permission of Smithsonian Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Origins of CAT,
Chapter 2: CNRRA Air Transport,
Chapter 3: CAT and Civil War,
Chapter 4: Siege of Taiyuan,
Chapter 5: The Chennault Plan,
Chapter 6: OPC and CAT,
Chapter 7: The CIA Buys and Airline,
Chapter 8: The Korean War,
Chapter 9: Covert Operations,
Chapter 10: Managerial Turmoil,
Chapter 11: French Indochina,
Chapter 12: A New Regime,
Chapter 13: Dienbienphu,
Chapter 14: End of an Era,
Appendix A: Operating Statistics, January 1947 to November 1949,
Appendix B: The Panzer Notes,
Appendix C: Airdrops at Dienbienphu, March 13 to May 7, 1954,
Appendix D: Equipment List, February 1954,

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