On Dec. 7, 2009, Moon Chen’s last gesture before he passed away was a thumbs-up. According to his second son, retired U.S. Army Major General William S. Chen, it meant “A-OK” as a pilot’s gesture and “the Very Best” in Chinese culture. Both of which represented Moon, a Flying Tiger veteran’s satisfaction with his life.
“He [Moon Chen] had a tough life. He had to learn a lot on his own. And so his success was due to his drive, his ambition, and his passion,” Chen said.
An Orphan’s Dream of Flying
Moon Chen’s mother, Hayley Wong, died of the 1918 Spanish Flu. His father Chan Fong died six years later. Orphaned at 15, Moon Chen had to work his way through high school and college. He received a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1932, but could not find a job in engineering due to the Great Depression and discrimination against Asians in the aviation industry.
These setbacks did not deter him from pursuing his dream of flying. By working in a high-class Chinese restaurant in New York, Moon Chen saved enough money for flying lessons at the then-Roosevelt Aviation School at Roosevelt Field in Long Island, where his idol, Charles Lindbergh, took off before completing the first solo transatlantic flight.
During his early days as a pilot, Moon Chen had flown an open-cockpit biplane across the country for the U.S. Mail Service. William Chen said his father told him and his brother many years later, “Sky’s the limit, sky is my companion. To be sitting on top of the world and way above the clouds, what a beautiful feeling, a wonderful feeling of heavenly peace and tranquility.”
A Narrow Escape
Armed with a commercial pilot’s license, but without any employment opportunities in the United States, Moon Chen decided to go to China. He was employed by the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) in Shanghai in 1936. One year later, he married then Vice Minister of Finance, Chang Shou-Yung’s daughter, Priscilla Chang.
A few weeks after their wedding, on July 7, 1937, Moon Chen flew over the Marco Polo Bridge near Beiping (now Beijing) and observed a Japanese attack on Chinese troops. He was nervous when he stayed in Beiping at night because he felt that the city was going to fall and he had a responsibility to fly the plane back.
The next day, he contacted a fraternity brother—the postmaster general of Beiping—who hid Moon Chen in a mail truck and filled it with mailbags before sending the truck to the airport.
Later, the truck was stopped by the Japanese at a blockade. Soldiers opened it up and poked their bayonets into the mail bags, but Moon Chen was tucked safely in the back of the truck and did not get hurt.
Shortly thereafter, Moon Chen arrived at the airport, rounded up his crew, and drove the plane to the airstrip. As the aircraft was taxiing, some Japanese soldiers began to chase and fire at it, but he eventually managed to take off and fly back to Shanghai.
The Flying Tigers
Moon Chen had been working for the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) in Loiwing, Yunnan Province, from 1939 to 1941. After the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the United States Army Air Corps and was assigned to the China Air Task Force and later the 14th Air Force, both of which were commanded by Claire Lee Chennault. With a winged tiger as their patch, they were nicknamed “the Flying Tigers.”
At the time, Moon Chen flew C-47 and C-46 military transport aircraft as a first lieutenant. William Chen said, one day in 1943, Moon Chen was the pilot flying Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek (former leader of the Republic of China) and his wife Soong Mei-ling. Their plane was somehow detected and attacked by the Japanese. So Moon Chen dove the plane toward the ground to evade the enemy plane. He was successful in getting rid of the Japanese attackers while at a low altitude before returning to a regular altitude to their destination.
During the war, Moon Chen also flew the notoriously dangerous Hump route to accomplish more than 500 missions. But he rarely talked about it.
“A lot of veterans, also perhaps to their families, never really talked that much. But he did say that he was proud of the fact that he was working for General Chennault,” William Chen said.
The Chen family had developed a good relationship with the Chennault family. Three years after World War II, Chennault’s pet dachshund, Joe, had a litter of puppies. He gave one of them to Moon Chen’s sons. Then in about 1956, Moon Chen’s wife Priscilla took William Chen and his older brother Bob to visit the Chennault family in Louisiana, where Chennault took the kids out fishing. The two experiences remained fresh in William Chen’s memory many decades later.
A Pilot’s Best Life
According to William Chen, his father had a booming voice and liked smoking and drinking martinis, and was always the center of attention at parties. He was highly connected, very sociable and affable, and widely sought after for help.
In 1944, Captain Moon Chen was assigned by General Chennault to be a personal representative and liaison officer to the Chinese Air Force. After the war, he joined Chennault’s Civil Air Transport (CAT) and became the company’s regional manager in Shanghai.
Later in 1948, when the Republic of China’s military suffered huge losses in the battles against the communists, Moon Chen handled the office move from Shanghai to Canton, and then to Hong Kong. He flew the company’s last plane in Canton out of mainland China.
Moon Chen had worked in the aviation industry in the Republic of China for 44 years before retiring and returning to the United States in 1980. His wife of 71 years, Priscilla, passed away in 2008 at the age of 97. One year later, Moon Chen also reached the end of his life. Lying on his death bed, he told his children and grandchildren how satisfied he was with his 101 years of life.
“I think you’ve seen it in the movies, where pilots are in the cockpit and they’re revving up their airplanes, they give the signal to the ground crew, a thumbs-up, meaning, all is well, A-OK. And of course, in Chinese, thumbs-up means ‘Ding Hao,’ the very best. And so, when my father used that gesture, he was conveying that his life was the very best and A-OK, and for us to not worry,” William Chen said.
An Inherited Ambition
When talking about Moon Chen’s past, William Chen feels both pride and regret. He regretted not knowing enough about the deeds of his father. But, he was proud to serve with his two brothers like their father, and become the first Chinese American two-star general in the United States Army’s history.
William Chen was appointed to be a major general in October 1989, his 28th year as an active duty member. But when talking about his career, he said his promotion from colonel to one-star general was more important for him, because that was a direct result of taking a risky mission and overcoming its challenges.
One day in June 1984, Colonel William Chen, who holds a masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Michigan and was a missile program manager at the time, got a call from his three-star general boss, who asked him to take over the Division Air Defense Gun System program.
The assignment surprised him because the previous manager was a brigadier general. It was a high-pressure task for William Chen as it was under media criticism for its radar having problems and was at risk of being cut due to a lack of necessary funding. As recounted by William Chen, Congress withheld the funds pending an operational evaluation, while the Army did not have any funding for the evaluation.
Even so, William Chen took over the program without hesitation. “I felt that where there was all of this bad news, there was also an opportunity. There was an opportunity to improve,” he said.
One day, William Chen was told by his three-star boss to go to Fort Bliss, Texas, where a special program review on air defense systems would be held for the four-star general and vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. William Chen immediately replied that he needed an early morning meeting with this four-star general to talk about funding.
The meeting did not happen, because all the generals were invited to a breakfast hosted by the commander of the Air Defense Center.
Later the air defense review went on, without anyone mentioning the Division Air Defense System’s operational evaluation.
At 3 p.m., the four-star general stood up and said that he had to leave. Then he suddenly turned to the audience and said, “Billy, what have you got?”
William Chen was astonished because he had asked for a private meeting, not a public speech. But he had no choice. He realized that he had to give a concise “elevator speech.”
So he went to the front of the room, looked directly at this four-star general, and said, “Sir, I need your help for the operational evaluation directed by Congress. We don’t have any funding. We don’t have the test range designated. And we don’t have a test plan.”
William Chen knew the general would act. He would turn to a three-star general and say, “Lou, where are we on this?”
Lou said that $75 million in R&D funds were available, but it would take time to reprogram the funds to the operations and maintenance appropriation.
“Fix it,” the four-star said and left. Hence the Army got the funding to move on the process.
After the air defense review, William Chen boarded a flight to Dallas. As he passed through the first-class cabin, he saw three smiling generals from the meeting, one of whom gave him a thumbs-up.
Next, during a pre-brief before a briefing for the Secretary of Defense, the Army chief of staff told William Chen to see him after the meeting, which made the colonel wonder if he had done anything wrong.
To his astonishment, the chief said to him, “The day after tomorrow, the new brigadier general’s list is coming out, and you’re on it. Congratulations!”
It was the proudest moment of William Chen’s life to present in the brigadier generals’ promotion ceremony in May 1986, where his parents and older brother watched him walk to the podium with the University of Michigan’s fight song “The Victors.”
“Now, let me tell you what I said at my promotion speech when I was appointed as a one-star general. I alluded to the fact that in the audience was my father, who was a captain in World War II; my brother, who later on was a captain. I had a younger brother that also was a captain. And so, captain was my favorite rank, until today,” William Chen said in a choked and emotional voice.
During a rally on May 31, 2021, William Chen slowly walked onto the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common amid loud cheers and applause. The 81-year-old gentleman was in a black suit and black “Veterans” cap, with a book named “Unsung Heroes” in his hand. The book cover contains 75 images of Chinese American World War II veterans, one of whom is Moon Chen.
William Chen was one of the key advocators for the “Chinese American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act.” He said the bill honoring Chinese American veterans was a “no-brainer” that gained support from many representatives as soon as they had heard about it. It was passed and signed by President Donald Trump in December 2018. A year later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hosted a ceremony to present the medals to living veterans and family members of deceased ones.
According to William Chen, about 20,000 Chinese Americans served during World War II, and about 400 of them are still living.
“They served with pride, and proudly served as Americans in spite of the discriminatory aspects of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. And our Chinese American veterans of World War II helped to open up opportunities for all Chinese Americans post-World War II through their sacrifices and hard work,” William Chen said.