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Amateur Ambassador

June 2024
7min read

It was February 14, 1972, and early morning in the local time zone. I pressed the aircraft transmitter switch and spoke. “Shanghai Tower, this is MAC four-zero-six-two-niner on Victor one-one-niner-decimal-seven, over.” The response was immediate. “Roger, MAC four-zero-six-two-niner, this is Shanghai Tower. Read you loud and clear. Maintain this frequency. You have been radaridentified. Descend to fifteen hundred meters, and proceed to X-Ray Quebec [Longhua radio beacon]. Landing Runway thirty-six. Report field in sight, over.”

The voice on the radio, while unmistakably Asian, spoke with a British accent. Within minutes our U.S. Air Force C-141A aircraft would be landing at Shanghai Airport. For the first time since 1949, when Communist forces under Mao Zedong had ousted the Nationalist forces, an official delegation was the guests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although the cloud cover was negligible, the early-morning haze restricted forward visibility.

As a new Air Force major recently returned from Vietnam, I had been flying C-141s with the Military Airlift Command (MAC) at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, since January 1971. In mid-1971 President Nixon revealed that Secretary of State Kissinger had secretly visited the People’s Republic of China to arrange for a presidential visit within the year. Since MAC had responsibility for supporting presidential travel, I thought idly how terrific it would be to take part in this prestigious mission. Some months later, after the White House had announced that the visit would take place February 21-28, I was in my office grappling with a pesky scheduling problem. Lieutenant Colonel Miller, my squadron commander, poked his head in the door and nonchalantly asked, “Major Robertson, how would you like to go to China?”

Air Force One, the presidential jet, flew as “Spirit of ’76” for the trip. Six C-141s and three commercial charters also made the journey. Fewer than five hundred Americans actually entered China. Most of the C-141s preceded the President by a week, delivering support equipment and advance teams to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing before returning to the United States. Only the President’s official party remained in China during the visit. Unfortunately I was not scheduled to spend even one night in China. After the President had left, the C-141 crews would make a second trip to pick up the equipment and advance teams for return to the United States.

I flew the last C-141 mission into China before the President’s arrival and the last one out after the visit concluded. My crew of eleven was nearly twice its normal size so that we could operate safely for twenty-four hours without a ground rest stop. We carried Air Force members of the White House staff, Air Force One security teams, various pieces of aircraft support equipment, and California champagne for a banquet President Nixon would host at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Uncertain how some of their allies would react to the visit, both the U.S. and PRC governments decided to operate solely from U.S. and Chinese soil. The tiny island of Guam, a U.S. possession in the Pacific, made this possible. The PRC civil aviation administration provided detailed information on operations within Chinese airspace. From Guam all flights entered and departed the mainland at Shanghai. Here a Chinese navigator and radio operator joined each U.S. crew for all flights within China to translate instructions, report flight progress, and provide navigation assistance.

So on that February morning I found myself straining against the shoulder harness to catch a first glimpse of the Chinese coast and the city of Shanghai beyond. Through the haze the city was barely visible, but it was not difficult to sense the vastness of its metropolitan sprawl. After an uneventful approach and landing, I cleared the runway and taxied the C-141 to the ramp. As Air Force “crew dogs,” whose idea of luxury after a long day was a beer and a burger, we were unprepared for the lavish pampering our hosts were about to confer on us.

A large group of people met us, beginning a routine repeated at each stop throughout the trip. The airport manager, an interpreter, a protocol official, and a political representative of the local government headed the group. After our passports had been checked, Capt. Bill Brinks, one of my navigators, and I (my hosts referred to me in civilian jargon as the captain) were escorted past a large shrinelike statue of Chairman Mao inside the terminal to a lounge. Here other officials joined the group to drink hot tea and share a few polite, if tentative, exchanges.

My first test arrived with the tea. The political officer, a stern-looking fel. low, presented me with a radar tracing that compared our actual flight path into Chinese airspace with the directed flight path. Although the tracing showed only a momentary deviation from the directed track, this gentleman seemed intent on making an issue of it. Perhaps he merely wanted to impress us with the accuracy of the PRC radar. Nonetheless this unexpected challenge created an awkward moment for me, and some of our hosts seemed similarly affected. “Our excitement at seeing Shanghai for the first time must have caused us to stray momentarily,” I declared. As the interpreter translated, broad smiles spread across the faces of our hosts, and a lively exchange ensued. Preparing for our visit, we had been cautioned to steer clear of political subjects. Although this warning inhibited our first attempts at conversation, my band of amateur ambassadors gained confidence quickly.

At each stop, after tea, conversation, and business, came the inevitable offer of “a bite to eat,” a nearly mandatory multicourse feast. We stuffed ourselves with the most delicious and varied dishes I’d ever had. We were not always sure what we were eating, but it was all savory. And our hosts reacted with genuine pleasure and amusement at our clumsy attempts to master chopsticks. From the lively table talk a recurring theme soon emerged. Our hosts advanced the notion that the PRC was replete at every level, neither wanting nor requiring anything outside its borders—a remarkable conviction for a nation with so many mouths to feed and so few resources save manpower. They expressed little interest in learning about us.

A delicate problem surfaced early on. Our hosts enjoyed a toast or two with food. They were not the least concerned that we might have eight or so hours o/ flying ahead of us. Each table setting included beer, wine, and a pungent clear grain spirit distilled from millet. After the first toasting duel I picked a crew member we could spare for the rest of the day to become our official toastmaster. Not surprisingly I had many volunteers for this duty. After all, the safety of the aircraft and crew was at stake, as well as the honor of the United States. This arrangement served us well for the remainder of the trip, as did the hammock we rigged at the rear of the aircraft for our toastmaster to use between meals.

My first test arrived with the tea, when our host questioned our flight path into Chinese airspace.

After a two-hour flight from Hangzhou, we landed at Beijing/Capital Airport in the early evening. None of us were looking forward to the long flight back to Guam. A reprieve came at the last moment. A White House aide with urgent business in Guam needed a ride but could not leave until morning; we would stay overnight after all! Our hosts promptly gathered up our baggage, delivered it to our rooms at the airport hotel, and took us on a quick shopping trip to the airport concession. The following morning we were awakened, fed breakfast, and efficiently shuffled through the steps necessary to ready us for our departure. We left China on February 15, 1972, and returned to the United States a few days later.

We caused quite a stir at U.S. customs in Hawaii. At the time the PRC was one of several Communist countries from which it was illegal for a U.S. citizen to import anything. Most of us had purchased small gift items and loads of souvenir Mao buttons (a large red lapel button with Mao Zedong’s gilded profile set imposingly at its center). We had also picked up free copies of the little red book, Quotations of Chairman Mao . The customs officers, who could be cantankerous, seemed unsure how to handle this breach. I’ve never tried to bribe anyone, certainly not a customs officer. But the offer of a button or a little red book did seem to help these fellows resolve their predicament amicably and in our favor.

Just like everyone else in the nation, we witnessed President Nixon’s visit unfolding on television in the comfort of our homes. Most observers declared the visit a diplomatic coup of epic proportion. After twenty-two years of diplomatic silence, the freely elected leader of the world’s most powerful nation met with the Communist leader of the world’s most populous nation and reached an understanding. A joint communiqué announced policy positions aimed at assuring peace in Asia and resolving sovereignty disputes in Korea, Southeast Asia, and Taiwan. The country was fairly awash in optimism and, like the biblical Jehovah, saw that it was good. Maybe that’s why the White House added an overnight stay in Beijing to our return itinerary. Whatever the reason, the entire crew was thrilled. Some of our excitement must have rubbed off on our hosts. When we returned to Shanghai early on March 2, 1972, the airport manager, a rotund and jolly fellow, greeted us as old friends. We reciprocated. After a short ground time we departed for Beijing, where we were greeted with similar enthusiasm.

We arrived too late for a trip to the Great Wall. But after a quick check-in at the hotel (unadorned, comfortable, and spotless) we were treated to the consolation prize, a tour of the Forbidden City. Officially the city was preserved in its grand state only to remind the people how decadent and wasteful Imperial China had been. However, I sensed that pride in the rich legacy of the past also played a part. After a shopping spree at a concession and a quick stop at our hotel we ate a farewell banquet of Peking Duck at the famous restaurant of the same name. The next morning we exchanged token gifts with our hosts, said our good-byes, and took off for Shanghai one last time.

That March morning it began to sink in that my euphoric brush with history was nearly over, and I was not happy about it. Unwittingly I was about to set myself up for a brief but poignant dose of reality.

When we landed at Shanghai, the group that had met us on our first visit was on hand to greet us again. After taking care of business, our hosts treated us to one final “bite to eat.” Over the course of my short stay in China I had learned to appreciate something of the country, its people, and their sense of self-sufficiency. But I may have become too confident. As we enjoyed our last meal, I complimented the airport manager on how fortunate it was that even in winter we could enjoy fresh fruit from Guangdong Province in the south. I went on, perhaps a bit smugly, about how much I had learned about many of the twenty-one provinces in the PRC.

The political officer, who seldom smiled and rarely spoke, interrupted to engage the interpreter in a terse exchange. The smiles suddenly faded from the faces of our hosts. I turned toward the political officer as the interpreter anxiously translated, “You are mistaken, Captain. The People’s Republic of China has twenty-two provinces—including the province of Taiwan.” Somewhat startled, I did not respond directly but instead offered a toast to the health of our hosts and thanked them for their fine hospitality. The Chinese, clearly relieved, lifted their glasses and gave a hearty cheer. The moment passed quickly, but the political officer had made his point and I’ve never forgotten it.

I clearly recall the lofty promise of President Nixon’s visit; indeed, it spawned the evolution of a beneficial relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China that continues today. However, recent events in the Formosa Strait also stir in me other vivid images of my brush with history.

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