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Tacoma pilot is revered as a hero in China but nearly forgotten at home

A memorial hall built in 2009 to honor Tacoma pilot Robert Short in Chefang Town, Suzhou China. Short was shot down over China in 1932.
A memorial hall built in 2009 to honor Tacoma pilot Robert Short in Chefang Town, Suzhou China. Short was shot down over China in 1932. Lee Corbin/courtesy

The war wasn’t his but the fight was.

Outnumbered by Japanese planes, Tacoma pilot Robert Short was shot out of the sky Feb. 22, 1932, and onto the stone monuments that go only to heroes.

Short, a man who stood up for those in need, gave his life defending new friends in China. And China has never forgotten his sacrifice.

Short was born in Steilacoom in 1904, and his family soon moved to Tacoma.

He was a member of the Washington National Guard while still a student at Stadium High School. He was drawn to adventure — especially if it was in the air.

With America between two world wars, Short signed up for Army Air Corps training. He soon washed out.

It wasn’t that he was a bad pilot, said historian Lee Corbin, a Graham resident who’s spent years researching Short.

“The word is that he went up with some watermelons and bombed a truck,” Corbin said. “But I’ve never been able to confirm that.”

DO OR DIE SPIRIT

Photos from the day show Short as a 20-something pilot with matinee idol good looks.

In February 1931, he left the United States for China to fly airmail transport planes. He wasn’t happy with what he found.

“Upon my arrival last February 24, I visited the China Airways with the utmost disapproval of their equipment,” Short wrote in a letter to his mother in Tacoma.

“You see, the airplanes had been in continuous service for the last two years in the worst kind of weather, on water and on land without proper care.”

If aviation was new in America, it was newer still in China. American companies were there to sell airplanes. Short got a job with one to deliver planes from one part of China to another.

At the same time, China and Japan began engaging in sporadic armed conflicts. Short told his mother of watching Japanese planes bomb parts of Shanghai.

The Chinese government hired him to be an instructor for the fledgling Chinese air force. He developed friendships with and admiration for the Chinese.

“The Chinese are naturally inclined toward honesty, and if I’m fortunate in the future as I have been in the past, I won’t really miss much with regards to friendship, for the Chinese are very hospitable,” Short wrote on Oct. 13, 1931.

He also wrote that most Americans living in China didn’t take the time to understand the Chinese people.

“The half dozen American advisors that preceded me lied and misinformed all to their own advantage; then, in the minds of the Chinese, why shouldn’t they?” Short wrote. “No reason at all excepting for my sincerity and conscientiousness toward instilling and uniting the group that I am associated with; with an undying patriotism, the do or die spirit to enable China to command the respect of the outer world.”

“He hated to see the little guy get taken advantage of,” Corbin said.

On Jan. 28, 1932, Japanese bombers began attacking Shanghai, where Short was living in the international YMCA.

“It so upset him to see this going on,” Corbin said.

“Mother, you cannot realize the brutality and the uselessness of it all and what the United States will have to contend with sometime in the years to come,” Short wrote in a letter dated Feb. 4, 1932.

“Japan has no bases of supplies and if the world powers allow her to take Manchuria it won’t take her ten years to prepare for a world emergency with the United States as the prize.”

obelisk
Visitors look at an obelisk inside a memorial hall built in 2009 to honor Tacoma pilot Robert Short in Chefang Town, Suzhou China. Short was shot down over China in 1932. The obelisk marked the spot where Short’s plane crashed. It was later turned into fence posts during the Cultural Revolution. Jacqueline Short Durgin/courtesy

ATTACKS FROM ABOVE

On Feb. 19, Short was delivering a one-of-a-kind Boeing 218 biplane fighter from an airport near Shanghai to Nanking (now called Nanjing) to keep it from harm.

Short loaded the plane’s two machine guns.

A few minutes after taking off, he spotted three A1N2 Japanese biplane fighters. He took the fighters on, damaging one. A local newspaper chronicled the event.

Three days later, on Feb. 22, Short was flying to Soochow (now called Suzhou) in the same Boeing plane when over the city he encountered three Japanese bombers escorted by three fighters.

They may have been bombing a train station.

Short attacked the group, killing the bombing mission’s commander with machine gun fire.

Outnumbered, Short was boxed in by the three Japanese fighters.

“He puts up a good fight but they finally get him,” Corbin said.

Short and his plane crashed into a shallow lake. The Chinese recovered his body.

He was 28.

News of Short’s aerial battle and subsequent death soon became international news.

The Japanese were not happy to learn they had been fighting an American.

“It caused such a stink that there was this American fighting them that (the U.S. State Department) had to write up a whole big report and send it back to Washington, D.C.,” Corbin said.

In China, Short already was a national hero. His mother and his brother, Edmund, attended Short’s state funeral on April 24.

Newsreel footage shows police pushing back crowds. Pallbearers included Chinese military officials and fellow American pilots.

Some 45 cars festooned with wreathes made their way down Shanghai streets followed by 100,000 people on foot. Some newspapers put the number at 500,000.

The funeral procession traveled 20 miles from Moore Memorial Church to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport. Short was buried as a colonel in the Chinese Nationalist Army.

Chiang Kwang-nai, commander-in-chief of the Chinese 19th Army; and commander Tsai Ting-kai sent a letter to Short’s mother. They called him a hero who gave his life so others might live.

“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,” the letter read.

“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.”

The Chinese meant what they wrote.

robert short portrait
Tacoma pilot Robert Short. Date unknown. Jacqueline Short Durgin/courtesy

REVERED HERO

When Jacqueline Short Durgin was growing up she didn’t hear much about her Uncle Robert. Her father and Short’s brother, Edmund, didn’t speak much about him.

“There was a trunk in the basement with a few mementos and photos,” recalled Durgin, 80.

As years went by Edmund wanted to know more about the events that took his brother’s life. In 1977, in Hawaii, he met Nokiji Ikuta, the Japanese fighter pilot who shot his brother’s plane out of the sky.

“I think time and age mellow people,” Edmund said in 1984. “I had no feelings of animosity. He was doing what he was hired to do and so was Robert.”

In 1984, Durgin came to Shanghai with her father to look for Short’s grave.

“We went and looked and couldn’t find it,” said Durgin, a Seattle resident. “The Cultural Revolution had intervened and a lot of artifacts had been lost.”

One of those artifacts was an obelisk that had marked the spot where Short’s plane crashed. Elderly locals remembered the incident but the marker was gone.

On the return trip from China, Durgin and her father stopped in Japan to meet Ikuta again.

“The Japanese flier told my dad that he had a shrine in his house to which he prayed every day for the repose of Robert’s soul,” Durgin said.

In 2015, Durgin returned to Suzhou with her sister to see a museum exhibition dedicated to their uncle. It was called, “China’s American Hero.”

“I’m overwhelmed by it,” Durgin said at the time.

Durgin and Corbin, who was also in attendance, visited a shrine built in 2009 and dedicated to Short. A statue of Short in his bomber jacket stands in front of it.

“In the courtyard was that obelisk,” Durgin said of the missing monument. “It had been quartered and used as fence post for a pig pen.”

The Chinese government had asked its citizens to return artifacts lost or destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

“This obelisk had been returned piece by piece and the fourth piece had come back just two months before we got there,” Durgin said.

The approximately 1,000-square-foot shrine has displays and models of Short’s plane, Corbin said.

Short’s grave was found and moved to the The Nanjing Anti-Japanese Aviation Martyrs Cemetery.

His story has become legend in China, and Durgin said she and her sister were treated like celebrities.

Japanese aggression had a profound effect on the Chinese psyche, Corbin said.

“Then the fact that an American would be willing to lay down his life to battle the Japanese,” he said.

Zou Zhiyi, a Chinese scholar who has spent decades researching Short, said the pilot’s story was published in a Chinese textbook in 1934 and is still taught today.

Another researcher, Zhang Jingye, said that, before Short’s death, the American public was not interested in the Japanese aggression in China.

“But when Short was killed, they realized that one of their compatriots died for Justice in China,” Jingye said. “That really narrowed the mental distance between the western public and China.”

As for Durgin, she attributes the hero worship of her uncle to a simple fact: “That he gave his life for his friends, the Chinese people.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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