China treasures heroic Tacoma pilot; we should, too

Tacoma pilot Robert Short died when Japanese bombers shot him down Feb. 22, 1932.
Tacoma pilot Robert Short died when Japanese bombers shot him down Feb. 22, 1932.

What does it take for an American to command absolute respect in China? What kind of yankee instills so much awe in the people of that nation, they are moved to build a monument in his honor? When is a U.S.-Chinese bond so special, its memory endures for generations?

After the emperor’s welcome he received in Beijing last week, President Trump might be convinced he belongs in that pantheon. He was, after all, the first foreign leader given a state dinner in the Forbidden City since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The ego-stroking pageantry provided by Chinese leader Xi Jinping included a full military parade outside the Great Hall of the People, which left Trump visibly pleased.

But to understand the kind of American who inspires true Chinese reverence, rather than superficial gestures of political expediency, Trump would do well to learn about Tacoma’s own Robert Short.

The little-known story of the 28-year-old pilot who gave his life for his adopted Chinese friends in a dogfight in 1932 was published in this week’s News Tribune.

Short, a product of Stadium High School, went overseas to fly mail transport planes and eventually was recruited to train the ill-equipped Chinese Air Force. It was the interwar period, when hostilities burned hot between China and Japan, and the former Washington National Guardsman developed a fierce allegiance to his host country.

Short engaged a group of Japanese fighter planes on an apparent bombing run over the eastern city of Suzhou. Though the young pilot put up a good fight, he was shot down. His Chinese compatriots recovered his remains.

“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,” reads a letter that two Chinese military commanders sent to Short’s mom in Tacoma.

Like Trump, Short was honored with a parade, but his was a funeral procession. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Chinese people walked in a united display of national mourning.

In Suzhou, Short is such an enduring folk hero that school children read about him and a public shrine was built for him. It features a statue of the young pilot clad in his bomber jacket.

Short’s story is now getting its full due in the South Sound, thanks to Graham-based historian Lee Corbin, who shared his years-long research with TNT reporter Craig Sailor.

The heroic narrative made an impact on some readers. Bill Roden, a 90-year old former Army aviator living at the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard, called us with an interesting idea:

Tacoma ought to strike up an official sister-city relationship with Suzhou, he said.

There’s only one problem: China already claims a spot among Tacoma’s 14 sister cities and probably won’t get another. Fuzhou, a 7 ½-hour train ride south of Suzhou (and the former home of President Xi), has been our port city sibling and a fond destination for Tacoma visitors since 1994.

But that shouldn’t prevent Tacoma from finding other ways to embrace the spirit and memory of one of its underappreciated sons.

Stadium High already plans to do so; Principal Kevin Ikeda told us this week that the school will dedicate a plaque to Short at its Memorial Day assembly next year.

In a similar vein, Tacoma should consider installing a modest memorial to Short at Chinese Reconciliation Park on Ruston Way.

The waterfront park was conceived as a place of atonement for Tacoma’s shameful treatment of its Chinese population, peaking with the mob-fueled expulsion of immigrant laborers in 1885.

We can’t think of any Tacoman who extended the hand of goodwill between Tacoma and China as firmly and bravely as Robert Short — goodwill that transcends borders, prejudices and isolationist tendencies.

In today’s regime of “America first” nationalism, he offers an extraordinary example that true respect between world powers is not given; it is earned.