TALES FROM THE TRENCHES
The Chinese Built a Shrine for This American Pilot
He was the first American casualty against the Japanese, nine years before Pearl Harbor. Today he has a shrine dedicated to him in China.
Several times a week, school buses pull up in front of a single-level, pagoda-like building in Suzhou Industrial Park, a joint Chinese-Singaporean economic zone some 60 miles northwest of Shanghai. Built in the style of old China—its tiled and upturned roof supported by numerous red-painted columns—the pagoda looks decidedly out of place among the modern office blocks and manufacturing facilities that dominate the high-tech enclave on the banks of Lake Jinji.
As red-scarfed Young Pioneers pour from the buses they come face to face with a tall marble statue of the man whom the pagoda and the displays within it memorialize. The figure wears 1930s-style flying coveralls open at the neck, has a fur-collared coat draped over his left arm and in his right hand clutches a leather aviator’s helmet. The statue’s face is turned upward, looking into the sky with steely resolve.
The man whom the statue represents was obviously a pilot, and just as obviously a hero whom China wants its people to remember, honor and respect. What is also immediately obvious, however, is that the aviator was not Chinese. As odd as it may seem in this time of increasing economic and military rivalry between the United States and the world’s largest communist nation, the man whom the statue and pagoda commemorate was an American.
His name was Robert Short, and he died defending China against the Japanese nine years before Pearl Harbor.
While some people seem destined for greatness, almost as if it were a birthright, there are many more human beings whose early lives give no indication of the renown they will ultimately achieve. So it was with Robert Short.
Born in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington, in October 1904, Robert McCawley Short was the oldest of two sons. His father either died or deserted the family—it remains unclear which—when Rob was 8 years old, and he and his brother Edmond were raised by their mother, Elizabeth. She worked as a telephone switchboard operator, and was by all accounts a kind and forgiving parent. This latter attribute was important, for by the time he entered Tacoma’s Stadium High School Short had a reputation as something of a good-natured wild child. Though a better-than-average student, the tall and good-looking young man liked sports, fast cars and pretty girls, preferred having fun to studying and was famous for his practical jokes. Having grown up as the man of the house, Short was also very protective of his mother, his younger brother and friends who were less physically capable than he. He detested bullies, and more than once used his fists to defend others.
Born the year after the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, Short grew up fascinated by all things aeronautical. Following his graduation from high school he set about turning that fascination into a career, spending more than two years studying for, and ultimately gaining, a license as an airframe and engine mechanic. But working on airplanes at the local Pierce County Airport wasn’t enough for the adventurous young man; he applied and was accepted for flight training with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Short underwent basic flight school at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, and then moved on to March Field in Riverside, Calif., for advanced training in fighters—then referred to as “pursuits.” The young man was a naturally gifted aviator, and his brash, adventurous and aggressive personality made him an ideal fighter pilot. Unfortunately, when added to his lifelong penchant for showing-off those same attributes caused his military downfall. In 1927 Short was “washed out” of flight school and released from the Air Corps after a particularly ill-advised stunt—he apparently “bombed” a civilian truck with watermelons, for reasons now lost to history.
By that point a highly proficient pilot in need of a job, Short stayed on in California and initially worked as a part-time flying instructor and—his earlier hijinks apparently forgiven—made a bit of additional cash flying for the Air Corps Reserve as a second lieutenant. After gaining a commercial transport license he flew cargo and passengers around the west coast, though “driving a bus,” as he called, did little to feed his thirst for adventure. As it turned out, an acquaintance of Short’s offered him what at first glance seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
Bert Hall was a former member of the Lafayette Escadrille—the group of American fighter pilots flying for France before America’s entry into World War I—and by 1929 he was under contract to General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist government. His task was to obtain new and surplus U.S. military aircraft that would be transported to Chiang’s capital in Nanking (modern Nanjing) and used to form the core of a modern Nationalist air force. Hall was also attempting to find qualified pilots for both military duty and to fly for China’s first airmail service, and it was the latter job that Short opted to sign on for.
It soon turned out that Hall was a con man—he’d been pocketing the money the Chinese had provided for the purchase of aircraft and ultimately went to prison in the United States—and the stories he’d told pilots about how lucrative the air mail jobs in China would be also quickly proved to be tall tales. Following his February 1931 arrival in Shanghai Short made a few mail runs, but the poor quality of the aircraft and dismal wages soon convinced him to cast about for other work. He didn’t have to look very long; as a highly experienced aviator with more than 2,400 hours of flight time he was in great demand and received several offers.
Unfortunately, the job Short chose to accept would soon get him killed.
Beginning in the early 1920s American businessman Lloyd E. Gale of Portland, Oregon, had made an increasingly lucrative living selling the Chinese everything from washing machines to automobiles. His L.E. Gale & Company eventually became the sole China agent for several U.S.-based aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing. Not yet the aviation behemoth it would one day become, the Seattle-based company was in the process of trying to carve out a piece of the growing Chinese market for modern military aircraft. The appearance in his office of Robert Short—a trained fighter pilot and reserve Air Corps officer—was a godsend for Gale. He was in the process of trying to get the Chinese interested in Boeing’s Model 218, a prototype single-engine fighter that in modified form ultimately entered U.S. service as the Army P-12E and Navy F4B-3.
A sleek, maneuverable and highly capable biplane, the Model 218 interested the Chinese because it was technologically on a par with Japan’s frontline aircraft. Tokyo’s September 1931 invasion of Manchuria and the increasing threat of all-out war made it imperative that the Chinese upgrade both their central and regional air forces, and the Model 218’s October arrival in Shanghai seemed like a very good omen for both China and Boeing.
Robert Short first saw the stubby fighter soon after it was assembled at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport. His position as Gale’s demonstration pilot ensured that Short quickly amassed dozens of hours in the Boeing warplane, and his aerial displays of the 218’s abilities—coupled with the Jan. 28, 1932, outbreak of fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces in and around Shanghai—convinced the Nationalist air force to purchase the aircraft outright. After receiving a coat of green paint on its fuselage (though its wings and tail remained a vibrant yellow) and with two .30-caliber machine guns and their ammunition installed the aircraft was ready for the delivery flight to Nanking, a mission Short was asked to undertake.
That flight began on the morning of February 20, and was initially uneventful. However, when Short arrived over the city he noticed formations of Japanese bombers making runs on the main railway station and other targets. While he was still assessing the situation he was bounced by a trio of Japanese fighters. At that point his training kicked in and likely without conscious thought he pulled the Boeing into a sharp turn, armed his plane’s guns and went after his attackers. Over the next 20 minutes the young American pilot managed to score several hits on the Japanese aircraft, and when the enemy finally turned away Short was able to land, uninjured and with no damage to the Boeing.
We can only imagine how exhilarated he must have felt when he climbed from the cockpit, greeted by the cheers of those awaiting his arrival. Short had always dreamed of being a fighter pilot, and he had not only survived his first dogfight, he’d managed to damage his opponents and drive them off. Probably equally as important, given his personality, he’d driven off another bully and in the process helped prevent further harm to a people and country he was just beginning to know.
His next fight would not turn out as well.
Though Short had managed to come out on top in his first aerial engagement, he must have known how lucky he was. The Japanese pilots operating over China at that point were well-trained, highly motivated and flying biplane fighters that were equal to the Model 218 in both performance and armament. Yet when the opportunity to confront the enemy flyers came again, Short did not hesitate.
On February 22 three Mitsubishi Type 13 biplane attack aircraft assigned to the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) aircraft carrier Kaga took off from a land base outside Shanghai for a raid on the train station in Soochow (modern Suzhou). The bombers were escorted by three Nakajima A1N2 biplane fighters, and as they approached their target a single defending aircraft rose to meet them. It was Short in the Model 218 and for reasons we will never know—a desire to defend innocents against a bully, perhaps, or because he was a fighter pilot to his core, or because he simply couldn’t stomach what the Japanese were doing to China—he bored straight at the three bombers and opened fire.
Climbing up beneath the three bombers Short raked their bellies with his two machine guns, then jinked out of the way as one of the escorting fighters tried to get on his tail. Pulling the 218 into a climbing turn, the young American came back around on the Type 13s from above, the tracers from their defensive machine guns whipping past the nimble Boeing. Short kept firing as he swept toward the lead bomber, his rounds punching into the area around the aircraft’s front cockpit and killing the pilot. The bullet’s also seriously wounded the co-pilot/gunner in the rear seat, but he was able to take control of the aircraft and turn it toward safety.
Short had no time to savor the punishment he’d inflicted on the lead bomber, for two of the three escorting fighters were now on his tail, one high and one low. Both opened fire simultaneously as the American pulled into a climbing right-hand turn, and the Japanese bullets hammered the Boeing’s cockpit and engine. Short was seen to slump forward just as gasoline streaming from ruptured fuel lines ignited, turning the 218 into a flaming torch as it spun toward the ground. The stubby fighter slammed into the bank of a canal, its wreckage burning fiercely as the victorious Japanese pilots circled above. They had reason to want to memorize the scene, for while their bomber pilot comrade was the first member of the Japanese Naval Air Service to be killed in combat, they had also just scored their service’s first confirmed aerial victory.
Sadly, Robert Short’s death also marked a milestone: At 27 years old he took on the dubious distinction of being the first American pilot killed in air combat with the Japanese—nine years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought his nation into World War II.
Short’s transformation from mere pilot into Chinese national hero began soon after his death. Proclaimed a martyr for freedom by the Nationalist government, the young American was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel in the Nationalist army and given a huge public funeral attended by a half-million people—and by his mother and brother, who were brought from America to attend. The first statue and monument to the “immortal friend of China” were erected near the crash site five months after his death, and were successively moved over and enlarged over the years until finding a permanent home at the pagoda-like building on the shore of Lake Jinji.
Today, 84 years after his death, Robert Short—the noble American who gave his life defending China—remains a hero whose memorial continues to draw busloads of visitors, young and old. Few of those who gaze at the statue of the steely eyed pilot seem to realize that the honors accorded him were rendered by the Nationalist government, which Beijing now considers to have been illegitimate and fascist—and which in modern form now rules that “rogue province,” Taiwan.