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Ray Whitehead of the Chinese Air Force

Ray Whitehead in Kungming
Raymond Whitehead--what a puzzle! For a long time there were two of them, both claiming to have flown for Chennault and the CAF in the 1930s. The first supposedly settled in Bethlehem, Georgia, after WW2, and told stories about his service in the Chinese Air Force and the American Volunteer Group where, he said, he'd served Chennault as a staff officer. When he died, a confirming photo (see below) and a pair of aviator goggles were among his personal effects.

Then I discovered that Whitehead was a native of New Zealand, which made sense, since after he was discharged from the AVG he supposedly worked for British miitary intelligence in China. The best account of his life is in The Flyers: The Untold Story of British and Commonwealth Airmen in the Spanish Civil War and Other Air Wars from 1919 to 1940, by Brian Bridgeman (privately published in Britain, 1989). And now I've heard from his daughter, so I can finally fill in the blanks.

Raymond Galbraith Whitehead was born in Wellington NZ in October 1910. He went by the name of Ron, graduating from prep school in 1926 and attending the University of New Zealand for a year before dropping out to work for the Dominion newspaper. In 1929 he went to Britain and won a "short service" commission in the Royal Air Force. Whitehead in the RAF That's him in the center of the photo at right, about 1933. I was always a bit dubious that the photos showed the same man, and now his daughter provides the answer: they don't. The long-nosed gent at the top of the page was someone else entirely.

After a spell of flying light bombers, Whitehead flew Bristol Bulldog fighters for 32 Squadron at Biggin Hill outside London. He completed his service in March 1933 and returned to New Zealand, thence to Australia, where he spent £400 ($2000 at the time, or roughly $40,000 in today's greenbacks) to buy a secondhand de Havilland D.H. 80A Puss Moth. He decided to fly it home, more than a thousand miles over the Tasman Sea from New South Wales to New Zealand:

'... a battered old Puss Moth took off from Gerringong Beach, NSW, on the most hazardous tran-Tasman flight attempted. On board were two daring young pilots, Raymond G. (Ron) Whitehead, a 24 years old New Zealander and [Australian] Rex Nicholl, two years older than Whitehead. Their plane, the first Puss Moth ever brought to Australia, was still powered by its original engine. To make the 1300 mile flight to New Zealand it had been converted into a heavily overloaded 'flying petrol tank'. The plane was not fitted with radio, its compass was 20 degrees out and there was so little room that one member of the crew had to sit on the other's knees through out the flight.' (Sydney Sunday Mirror, 26.10.1958)

Here's the Puss Moth, on a New Zealand beach, during a barnstorming tour:

Whitehead's Puss Moth
in New Zealand

For the next several years, Whitehead flew as an airline pilot and barnstormer in New Zealand and as bush pilot in New Guinea. In 1937, he went to China to join the 14th Volunteer Bombardment Squadron, which Claire Chennault was tasked with organizing with foreign pilots and Chinese gunners and bombardiers to counter the Japanese invasion that began in September that year. Whitehead was flight checked by Julius Barr and made some flights in the Vultee V-11. He was then sent to join a group of French and German mercenaries flying Curtiss Hawk III fighter-bombers for the 5th Pursuit Group at Nanchang. During combat over Hankou on December 14, he was severely wounded and forced to bail out. Chennault wrote in his diary that evening:

'Poivre and Whitehead arrived 11:00 AM. Combat with Japs about 12:30. Poivre killed fighting three Dewoitines [Mitsubishi A5M 'Claude' open-cockpit fighters], Whitehead shot down. Two Ch[inese] pilots killed. Damn the luck. Russians sought safety in flight.'

Whitehead spent three months recovering from his wounds, and in March 1938 took the train to Hankou to rejoin the 14th Squadron. (At the top of this page is a 1938 photo of "the Australian Whitehead" and the French pilot Andrew Boulingre.) Alas, the unit was disbanded and its foreign personnel sent to train Chinese pilots elsewhere. Thanks to his daughter, I now have Whitehead's own account of what happened next:

"Ordered south to Yunnan (Kunming) to pick up new French dewoitine Cannon Fighters (Hispano-Suiza 1000 hp engine and 20 mm cannon), and flew to [Hong Kong], then by boat to Haiphong and rail to Kunming. Planes were not ready, and Hankow meantime fell. Finally a new group of French Air Force 'volunteers' came from France and I joined this group as combat pilot. This French group broke up after a few months due to internal bickering in the command, and I returned to a Chinese Defence of Kunming Squadron."

That was the 41st Pursuit Squadron. Whitehead first flew the Dewoitine D510C monoplane fighter, then the old standby, the Curtiss Hawk III, along with two French pilots. When one of the foreigners was discovered to be reporting back to French intelligence, all three were fired in March 1939. Whitehead went to work for Texaco, transporting fuel from Hanoi to Chonging, only to have his trucks impounded when the Japanese seized northern Vietnam in September 1940. He then began to truck goods over the Burma Road from Lashio to Kunming. In the summer of 1941, after a bout with smallpox, he signed on with Chennault's American Volunteer Group as transportation officer, later assistant operations officer. He wanted to return to flying, but in March 1942 Dr Gentry found him unfit due to faulty depth perception and "hyperphoria" (one eye higher than the other). He was discharged from the AVG at the end of May, 1942, and attempted to return to the RAF, to no avail. Instead, he once again ran a transport business in China, meanwhile performing odd jobs for British intelligence.

In December 1945, Whitehead returned to Hong Kong with a convoy taking 300 British civilians. According to The Flyers, he ran an export-import business in Hong Kong, then returned to journalism. I found his name as a member of the Hong Kong press club, identifying him as a correspondent for International News Service, in the 1950s. He worked as a free-lance journalist until he died in May 1980. His daughter now confirms this, adding: "It is a pity he never wrote the book he intended, as it would have made a rattling good yarn!" Indeed it would have.

Ray Whitehead, CAF But that leaves the Raymond G. Whitehead of Bethlehem, Georgia, who claimed to have flown for Chennault in China, and who left behind this photo of a long-nosed gent in a fifty-mission cap with Chinese insignia. His middle name, however, was Glen and not Galbraith. I find two Raymond Whiteheads from Georgia in the Social Security death register, with the most likely candidate born in 1909 and died in 1983. Obviously he wasn't the same individual as Ray Whitehead in Hong Kong, but how was it that he claimed the same personal history and had a photograph that seemed to back it up? Was he just another Flying Tiger wannabe, and indeed was Whitehead his real name?

After I first wrote about this puzzle, I had email from David Mursch, who'd known Ray Whitehead (the Georgian, not the Kiwi) as an instructor in weather forecasting at Chanute AFB in Illinois in 1970. He remembered him as a warrant officer who--yes!--often told stories about the Flying Tigers.