100 Hawks for China

CAMCO personnel at 
Loiwing, China
CAMCO personnel at Loiwing, China, probably at the factory opening in 1939. Bill Pawley is second from left, Ed Pawley is third from right, and Gene Pawley may be the man in the center of the photo, all three of them wearing white shirts and ties. (Hat tip: Eugenie Buchan)

Bill Pawley and the Flying Tigers

William Pawley Like Lauchlin Currie at the White House, Bill Pawley was central to the creation and management of the American Volunteer Group, but was so hated by Chennault that he never got full credit for his role. This is a first cut at a Pawley biography, with emphasis on its intersection with the Flying Tigers story.

William Douglas Pawley was born in Florence, South Carolina, in September 1896. His father was a wealthy businessman based in Cuba, so Pawley attended private schools in Havana and Santiago. He later attended Gordon Military Academy in Georgia. In 1925, he began work as an estate agent in Miami, but two years later took up the career that would make him modestly rich: he began working for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

In 1928 Pawley returned to Cuba to become president of the Nacional Cubana de Aviacion Curtiss, which post he held until the company was sold to Pan American Airways in 1932. Pawley then became president of Intercontinent Corporation based in New York; the company had evidently been founded by Clement Keys, former president of Curtiss-Wright. Meanwhile, he moved to China in 1933 and became president of the China National Aviation Corporation; CAMCO, I believe, was jointly owned by Intercontinent and the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. Over the next five years, it built and operated three aircraft factories--assembly plants, really, for the Chinese. Pawley would buy Intercontinent outright in 1938, name his brother Edward as vice-president, and apparently would use it thereafter as a family holding company.

"Pawley was socially charming, handsome, and ruthless," wrote Charles Barton in an article about another China aircraft salesman, A. L. "Pat" Patterson (Air Classics, September 1999). Patterson was a Chennault ally, which was probably the basis of the enmity between Chennault and Pawley. Patterson represented the Seversky company, whose P-35 fighter Chennault had favored in the 1935 fly-off to determine which plane would become the U.S. Army's first monoplane fighter; Pawley represented Curtiss, whose P-36 would eventually win the competition. Among other tricks (or so Patterson told me years ago), Pawley torpedoed a contract worked out by Chennault and Patterson to buy P-35s for the Chinese Air Force, and it was this setup that bankrupted the Seversky company, which was later reorganized as Republic Aviation, whose first product was a P-35 derivative marketed as the P-43 Lancer. Eventually, of course, Republic designed and built the hugely successful P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the great fighter-bombers of the Second World War.

In 1940, President Franklin Rooosevelt was trying to funnel aid to the surviving democracies in Europe, and especially to England. In China, Chiang Kai-shek needed an American "Special Air Unit" to replace the Russian squadrons that had been withdrawn so as to defend the Soviet Union from German attack. Apparently independently, two operations got underway in Washington to persuade the Roosevelt administration to send aid to China despite laws that forbidding it to arm any belligerent nation. The rule was "cash and carry." The workaround was for the U.S. to loan China money against future deliveries of tin, tungsten ore, tung oil, and hog bristles, all needed for the American war effort; China would then use the money to pay cash for war materiel, as the law required, and the stuff would travel to China in freighters flagged to neutral countries.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Bruce Leighton, a retired navy officer and a vice-president of Intercontinent, seems to have begun the lobbying in Washington, urging the Navy Department to release pilots to fly for China, much as was being done on behalf of Britain. Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his brother-in-law, T.V. Soong, to the U.S. to obtain American fighters and bombers, and Chennault went along as Soong's adviser. These two campaigns intersected in Washington in the early months of 1941. Chennault and Soong were successful in getting the "Special Air Unit" approved by Roosevelt, to comprise 266 planes and a thousand pilots and ground crews. The 1st American Volunteer Group (of three such groups) would be equipped with 100 Curtiss P-40s diverted from a British order.

Then Pawley stepped in: as Curtiss-Wright representative in China, he demanded his customary 10 percent commission on the P-40s, a demand that almost wrecked the Special Air Unit. A compromise was worked out, with China paying Pawley a lesser amount in a separate deal, and Pawley getting the contracts to hire the American personnel, provide the AVG with housekeeping services, and assemble the P-40s in Rangoon, Burma.

This actually worked out fairly well. The Pawley brothers set up an assembly plant adjoining Mingaladon airport, a few miles north of Rangoon, and ran the operation from an office on Phayre Street in the city. (Intercontinent also had an office in New York City.) When Rangoon seemed likely to fall to the Japanese in the earth months of 1942, Pawley moved his operation to the third and last CAMCO factory at Loiwing, in China near the Burma border. This in turn fell to the Japanese in May, by which time Pawley had shifted his base once again, to Bangalore in southern India. He seems to have become a partner in the already-existing Hindustan Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which was to have built Harlow trainers for the Indian Air Force; it may also have assembled some Curtiss H-75 (P-36 type) fighters for the RAF.

In 1944 Pawley became president of Hindustan, and he was also responsible for building India's first ammonium-sulfate plant in Trannvancore. I like to think that he set Bangalore on track to become India's version of Silicon Valley, which it was by the end of the 20th century.

In 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Pawley as U.S. Ambassador to Peru. According to a friendly biography at Spartacus Educational online, left-wing newspapers in Lima claimed that Pawley was making "lucrative deals" for himself in Peru, transporting "unspecified goods" in and out of Peru. In 1948 he became U.S. ambassador to Brazil--and an FBI informant. Later he was a friend of the dictator Rafael Trujillo and an investor in the Dominican Republic's bauxite industry. He was also extremely friendly with the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, again with business connections.

In 1951 Pawley became a special assistant to to Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson. He was however a Republican and easily made the transition to the Eisenhower administration, in which he was involved in the "Executive Action" program to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power. He was involved, for example, in a CIA plot to overthrow the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. In Cuba, he tried unsuccessfuly to persuade Batista to resign in favor of a junta that would prevent the country from falling to Fidel Castro's guerrilla force. Following Castro's seizure of power, Pawley pressured President Eisenhower to provide military and financial help to anti-Castro Cubans in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Pawley had done his best to ingraitiate himself with the surviving Flying Tigers. He published a memorial booklet to the AVGs who had been killed in their service, with a portrait of each, and he founded an AVG veterans' group and served as one of its first officers. However, Chennault refused to have anyting to do with the organization unless it removed Pawley from office, which was promptly done by the Old Man's admirers.

Pawley died of gunshot wounds in January 1977, and his death was ruled a suicide. Conspiracy buffs argued that his death had something to do with investigations being carried out by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. More likely, as relatives argued, Pawley was in excruciating pain from a severe case of shingles, and took his life in order to find relief.

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Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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