Culture Exchange

China’s aviation industry has World War II-era Williamsport roots

by Helen L. Yoas, librarian

According to Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Fall 2016 Fast Facts, there are 54 international students enrolled at the college, having come from Austria, Canada, Germany, Ghana, India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, United Kingdom and Venezuela. 

They are only the latest of many welcome visitors, however, and one group in particular – Chinese engineers – may have had as great an impact on Williamsport Technical Institute, a Penn College forerunner, in its heyday, and on Williamsport in general, as our school and the city had on them.

Chinese army engineers take a cylinder apart as they learn to manufacture a training plane in Williamsport in 1945. They would use the skills to establish an aviation industry in their homeland. Photo courtesy of GRIT Magazine.

If you’ve read the Penn College centennial publication “Working Class,” you may have noticed the following reference to a New York Times quote pertaining to WTI: “The institute’s detailed attention to connecting instruction with localized workforce needs attracted worldwide interest in its programs. 

“An article published January 14, 1945, in The New York Times reported, ‘Williamsport Technical Institute is training 20 officers of the Chinese Army in aviation mechanics. This is the third project in international education within six months for the 25-year-old Williamsport, Pa., public technical school. Two men from Colombia are studying machine shop practice and radio communications as the conclusion to a nationwide educational tour, prior to becoming vocational teachers in their homeland. Dr. George H. Parkes, the institute’s director, is on leave in Panama to advise the Panamanian government in the construction of a $3,000,000 vocational school.’”

When I read these paragraphs, I thought, “How cool!” and then didn’t think any more about it, until some chance research in online newspapers made me realize the length of the Chinese officers’ visit, the breadth of their experiences and the depth of the commitment to learning that brought them to Williamsport.

At the time, China was, like much of the world, embroiled in World War II, attempting to fight off an invasion by Japan onto its soil.

“The beginning of this program may well mark the opening of a new era of industrial co-operation between America and China.“

Word of the officers’ impending arrival was first published in the Williamsport Gazette & Bulletin of Nov. 2, 1944. It announced that the officers would “arrive in the city this month to combine a course of study and training at the Williamsport Technical Institute and the two Aviation Corporation divisions – Lycoming and Spencer Heater.” The men were on the last leg of their journey from Chungking (now spelled Chongqing), and would soon settle in at the YMCA. 

Their goal was to learn how to manufacture a training plane, a first step in establishing a postwar aviation industry in their home country.

More details were published in the paper the next day, making it clear that the men were here to work. Titled “Chinese group … to have few spare hours,” the article began: “Much as the people of Williamsport would like to fete them and provide for their relaxation in a manner befitting a city whose slogan suggests the utmost in courtesy, the 30 Chinese graduate engineers coming here for a year’s training at Aviation Corporation’s Lycoming and Spencer plants and the Williamsport Technical Institute will have no problem of time on their hands. … 

A photo in the November 1945 edition of The American Legion Magazine shows the officers sitting in a classroom at Williamsport Technical Institute, a forerunner of Penn College. According to the article, the men spent their evenings at WTI, taking courses in blueprint-reading, drafting, foremanship, heat-treating, gear cutting and other technical subjects. Photo by [photographer].

A photo in the November 1945 edition of The American Legion Magazine shows the officers sitting in a classroom at Williamsport Technical Institute, a forerunner of Penn College. According to the article, the men spent their evenings at WTI, taking courses in blueprint-reading, drafting, foremanship, heat-treating, gear cutting and other technical subjects. Photo courtesy of GRIT Magazine.

“The Chinese coordinator revealed that the engineers will put in a 48-hour work week at the aviation plants and will devote eight additional hours each week to study at the Technical Institute. Sunday will be their only day off.

“Colonel Tai said the group is coming to Williamsport from Chungking via India and New York. They are, he said, of uniform age, somewhere around 21 years, and all have had industrial experience. Although all are commissioned officers and connected with the military, they will be on detached service here and will not wear the uniform of the Chinese army. … (He) reports a wave of enthusiasm over aeronautics engulfing the young people of his country, anticipates a tremendous post-war development through the land, and foresees speedy reconversion to peacetime production in his predominantly agricultural homeland.”

The article concluded: “Colonel Tai has had no opportunity to sample the reaction of his people to the recent invasion of the Philippines and the ensuing naval victory by the United States forces, but he regards both developments as the forerunners of an increasingly accelerated drive calculated to hasten the day of victory in the Far East.”

Page 9 of the Gazette & Bulletin for Dec. 20, 1944, described the engineers’ 96-day journey concisely: “By airplane from Chungking to Dinjan on the Indian border. By rail from Dinjan to Bombay. By Army transport ship from Bombay to Los Angeles. By train from the West Coast to Williamsport.” 

The article continued to say that their course of study would begin on Dec. 22, only two days after their arrival, that the Chinese Embassy in Washington had requested that only one social event – a dinner planned for Jan. 11 – be held here in their honor, and that the men were defense-plant engineers who had only recently been inducted into the Chinese army. All of their names and ranks were listed, and the group was described as being aged from 24 to 38, with seven of them being husbands and fathers.

Tai was also quoted: “China is, industrially, an undeveloped country. Most of our people are peasant farmers and lack the experience of mechanical manufacturing. It is the ardent wish of the Chinese Government and of these young men to learn the art of making Lycoming engines. … It is a co-operative enterprise amongst three parties: The Aviation Corporation, the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Chinese Commission on Aeronautical Affairs.”

In the months that followed, the Gazette & Bulletin kept the public informed about numerous ways in which the Chinese engineers played a part in local activities. A Jan. 29, 1945, article about the Williamsport Hospital Fund campaign said: “The 25 Chinese Army Air Force officers receiving instruction and training at the Lycoming Division of Aviation Corporation, and at the Williamsport Technical Institute, contributed $100 to the fund, it was announced Saturday. The youthful officers arrived in Williamsport during December. Their gift is described as an expression of appreciation for the friendliness of local persons and reflects the importance they attach to the service a hospital performs in a community.” 

It was reported on Feb. 5 that the leading engineer of the group, Maj. Kying-Yun Loh, had presented a history of China at a meeting of the International Club at the YWCA. It was announced on Feb. 15 that Loh would describe youth activities in China to 200 members of the local YMCA boys’ groups and their fathers at a fellowship banquet to be held as part of Father-Son Week activities.

Imagine how it must have felt to these 25 young men to take part in the parade following President Harry S. Truman’s announcement of peace after the surrender of Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. The front-page article of the next day told how “an estimated 2,000 persons paraded along a route lined by approximately 25,000 residents, … (and) another 10,000 jammed their way within hearing distance.” 

Among the units were “Chinese Army officers here as engineering students at the Williamsport Technical Institute, who received ovations all along the line of march. Each carried his nation’s flag.” 

A Page 2 article included a moving statement from Loh: “The surrender of (the Japanese) marks a new era of the world. This, undoubtedly, is the achievement of the unselfish co-operation of the Allied nations. And it is also indisputable that such co-operation is the only foundation of lasting peace. This hard experience shows that it is not race or creed that divides good and evil people, but soundness of conscience makes the difference.

“During this long while, we Chinese were much inspired and encouraged by the sympathetic attitude in the beginning and full-hearted alliance at the later, from the United States. The world is very deeply impressed by the hard working and hard fighting spirits of you Americans. Our people are grateful of our friendly neighbor, and at the same time feel the importance of keeping ourselves worthy of our friends.

Tens of thousands crowd downtown Williamsport to witness a spontaneous parade on Aug. 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan in World War II. Among marching groups were 25 Chinese army officers studying at WTI and Aviation Corp. Photo by [photographer].

Tens of thousands crowd downtown Williamsport to witness a spontaneous parade on Aug. 14, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan in World War II. Among marching groups were 25 Chinese army officers studying at WTI and Aviation Corp. Photo courtesy of Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

“At this jubilant time, in this friendly place, our emotions are mixed. As this is the end of long ordeals, we should celebrate it feverishly; as it is only the beginning of the real opportunity to re-establish our torn country and tarnished civilization, there is no time for us to seek rest. The fallen warriors have cleared the path for peace, and great leaders are laying new foundations for it; there will be no excuse if we should fail to make good from it.

“In our homeland, we can imagine, that fire crackers are bursting everywhere, and everybody is shouting, laughing, or crying, for the coming of this long expected day. We enjoy very much your magnificent celebrations, but we feel ever stronger than before the desire to go home!

“We wish that this war were the last one, and human beings shall never again take to conquering and preying on their neighbors as their sacred ambition. We wish that all the energy of mankind would direct to the welfare instead of warfare. We have the confidence of a bright future of the world and of our country, if people could keep good their conscience and faith.”

As their time in Williamsport neared its end, one more occasion was reported in the Gazette & Bulletin of Oct. 9, 1945.

“A large Chinese flag will be presented to the Williamsport Technical Institute by the Chinese Army officers who have been studying in the Aviation Mechanics Department for the past nine months in a ceremony Wednesday morning at the top of the steps leading to the Williamsport High School. … The Chinese officers have planned to present the flag to the Institute out of gratitude for the training they have received in aviation mechanics. They have arranged the presentation to coincide with their national holiday, which is celebrated tomorrow.”

By the next month, the story of the Chinese engineers was receiving more widespread attention. An article titled “Clever People, These Chinese!” appeared in The American Legion Magazine of November 1945. It described the joint project of the Lycoming Division of the Aviation Corp. and “Williamsport’s nationally-famous Technical Institute” and quoted Maj. Gen. Pang-Tsu Mow, deputy chief commissioner of the Chinese air force: “The beginning of this program may well mark the opening of a new era of industrial co-operation between America and China. This is the beginning of China’s effort to build an aviation industry. Successful completion of the project will contribute materially to the aviation phase of China’s post-war industrialization program.” 

After describing the rigorous training and activities of their daily lives, the article concluded: “The young men attend the various churches, often in company with local residents. Local luncheon clubs and other civic organizations have on occasion had representatives of the group as guests. At a Kiwanis Club luncheon last March, representatives of Garrett Cochran Post of the Legion presented an American flag to the Chinese students as evidence of the ‘strengthening of the bond’ between the two countries. 

“Stressing the need for the establishment in China of schools similar to the Williamsport Technical Institute, Major Loh pointed out that if such vocational institutions were in operation there today, his group would not have been forced to make an 18,000-mile journey to this country to train for the jobs they are so urgently needed to fill in China.”

Two other Pennsylvania papers, the Harrisburg Telegraph and the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, covered the completion of the engineers’ work on Jan. 12 and 14: the graduation dinner, the presentation of embossed certificates by Williamsport Mayor Leo Williamson, and the announcement that although they originally planned to return to China that month, the group would remain for another year to manufacture 20 engines.

To bring the saga to an end was a July 19, 1950, article describing a local businessman’s receipt of a letter from Loh, reporting that all members of the group who had been stationed with him in Williamsport were alive and well following the end of civil war hostilities in China. I felt a sense of closure as I read this article, knowing that Williamsport and its Technical Institute had touched and been touched by lives that continued to fulfill the goals that had brought them here.  ■