China’s American Hero: How a renegade pilot won the hearts of Shanghai
Heroism is often the word used to describe extraordinary feats of bravery displayed in an otherwise bleak situation, and often it comes down to the right person being in the right place at the right time.
As a teenaged expatriate living in Shanghai, my home was not but a stone’s throw from the Hongqiao International Airport, which itself at the time was surrounded by lower-income neighborhoods and slums- the kind of places that wouldn’t complain about constant air traffic.
During my time there, I used to ride my motorbike around the area and interact with the locals. I would speak their language, eat their food, and otherwise get to know what life was like for the underappreciated people who kept the gears of Shanghai turning day and night.
One day, I sat down to eat near an elderly group of people, who – in a mix of broken English and Mandarin- introduced me to a Shanghai legend- one who was from my own country but made his historical stand in the war-torn skies above the very city where I stood.
Born in Washington state in 1904, Robert McCawley Short was enamored with adventure and aviation from a young age. A member of the Washington National Guard once he was of age, Short eventually tried to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, but allegedly was washed out after he took several watermelons into the sky with him and “bombed” a truck.
Still, a young man with almost Hollywood-like looks and a renegade attitude, Short decided he would fly for a living, opting to take on the hazardous task of flying airmail routes in China.
Upon his arrival in 1931, Short discovered that the aircraft were in such horrible shape, he decided to opt-out of the job and took on a role ferrying American planes to buyers across China.
Short had developed a fondness for the Chinese people, and applauded their bluntness and hospitality. Over time, he had come to call the city of Shanghai a home away from home- and the 1932 bombing of Shanghai by Japanese bombers enraged him.
Staying at a YMCA when the bombings began on January 28, Short let that anger burn inside of him until February 19, when he saw Japenese A1N2 fighters dot the sky as they flew to Nanjing.
Loading two machine guns on his custom Boeing 218 biplane, Short took off, damaging one of the three aircraft he could catch up with. After landing safely at Hongqiao Airport, he was praised by locals and journalists alike for joining a fight he technically had no part in.
On February 22, Short was en route to Suzhou (a nearby city), flying solo and separate from the Nationalist Chinese Air Force formation when he spotted three Japanese bombers being shadowed by three fighters.
Knowing the bombs were to fall upon the people he’d grown to love, Short engaged. He killed the bomber commander and tangled with the Japanese fighters for some time, before shooting one down.
Unfortunately, 3-to-1 odds are rarely favorable in combat, and Short was shot down, his aircraft crashing in the Wusong River. He became the first foreign pilot killed by the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War and was the first American casualty in the conflict against Japan, nine years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Imperial Japanese Naval Aviator Nokiji Ikuta was stunned by Short’s courage, and though the battle only lasted three minutes, the battle would be imprinted in his memory for life.
“I was very moved by both the bravery of this man and his skill” Ikuta later said.
Short’s actions would later spurn legendary Japanese military aviation leader and future politician Minoru Genda to field more modern aircraft on future missions.
For Ikuta, however, this encounter was enough to inspire him to turn in his wings.
“I lost my spirit” he recounted, “I could no longer feel the things that made me fight. I hated anything military and renounced my place as a fighter pilot.”
According to Aviation of Japan, Ikuta could never forget Short and prayed for his soul on a daily basis.
Fishing his body from the river, the Chinese were immediately stricken with grief that their hero had fallen. In short order, the Nationalist Chinese Army promoted Short to the rank of COlonel in their military and ordered an official funeral be held in his name, going so far as to invite his mother to attend. Chinese newspapers documented the tale far and wide, and at the time of his funeral, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people escorted his body 20 miles to Hongqiao Airport, where he was buried as a beloved warrior and national treasure.
“To say that he was fighting for China alone would be belittling his gallant and humanitarian deed because it is for humanity and justice that he died,” one Chinese general wrote to Short’s mother in a letter obtained by the News Tribune. “The name of Robert Short will live long on the scroll of honor of great men, and his meritorious service will ever be in the memory of all Chinese.”
Time, erosion, and Communism would threaten to destroy the memory of Robert Short- an obelisk placed where Short had crashed had eroded and was eventually cut up during the cultural revolution to be made a fence post for a pigpen.
Despite the changes in the country, Short was not forgotten. People could still point to where he crashed, and, in 2015, the obelisk and other artifacts were recovered and included as part to a 1,000 square foot shrine dedicated to Short, titled, “China’s American Hero.”
Short’s shrine is located in Suzhou Industrial Park, and his body was moved to the Nanjing Anti-Japanese Aviation Martyrs Cemetery.
As a young man hearing the story from the natives for the first time in 2004 or 2005, I was enamored with this dashing aviator, and often rode past the Hongqiao Airport (I lived on Hongqiao Road, to give you an idea of proximity), imagining Short taking off in his bi-plane, chambering his machine guns and preparing to take on long odds. It was inspiring, and, at the time, I knew his body was somewhere in the soil around me.
One day, parked within view of the runway, I pulled out my pocket knife and etched two letters into my motorbike’s exhaust pipe: “R.S.” I would, ironically, later crash the motorbike into a river canal, though I (obviously) survived.
Short was, in short, the first chapter of the American legacy in China during World War II. A daring volunteer who fought on principle, he led the way for the American Volunteer Groups “Flying Tigers,” known locally as the “Fei Hu Dui.” Their legacy lives on with timeless fondness in the hearts of many Chinese, who still remember them as eternally airborne symbols of the American spirit. volunteerism and courage- and leading the formation is Robert Short.
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