War was not so distant in Prince Rupert after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941.
The North Coast fishing village transformed into a strategic military base. The population of the city tripled, from approximately 7,000 to 21,000 people. Reminders from that time are reflected in the wartime homes built across the city and some military structures, such as the Barrett Fort on southern Kaien Island.
But there are memories of war heroes that exist beyond Kaien Island.
Heather Mah and Cheryll Watson remember their fathers as great bush pilots who were raised in Prince Rupert and went on to become World War II aviation legends in their own right.
Both women spoke to the Northern View to share what their fathers’ roles were in the war, and how Prince Rupert always held a special place in their heart.
“He (Cedric) did 337 flights over the Himalayas — ‘The Hump’ — and my dad (Albert) did 420. They broke some kind of a record flying non-pressurized planes,” Heather said over the phone from her home in Montreal.
The Hump was the only way to get supplies to China after the Japanese took control over sections of the country and Manchuria. Both Albert and Cedric flew supplies for Pan American Airways, a subsidiary of China National Aviation Corporation. The treacherous route, known as The Hump, was known for poor visibility, turbulence, harsh winds and it wasn’t uncommon for planes to ice up.
Wartime pilots assisting the American mission in China were known as Flying Tigers. The Mah brothers were as fierce and determined as the moniker. Their bravery came from a shared mission to help their ancestral territory where much of their family lived during both the Japanese invasion and the civil war between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces.
Albert died in 2005 at age 84, and Cedric died in 2011 at age 88. Their aviation accomplishments and misadventures have been well documented, but what is less known are the anecdotes from their daughters.
“When my father was little, he would get up to some mischief. When he was as young as 10-12 he would run off the top of the garage with an umbrella to try to fly. That’s what my auntie told me,” Heather said, before sharing another story about stealing her grandfather’s ice cream truck and enjoying hot dogs and french fries during a brief stint behind bars.
From China to the Hump
The Mah family moved to Canada in the late 1800s. Mah Bon Quen and his wife had one son, Mah Chung Kee, who moved to Prince Rupert in 1912 and started up the Sunrise Grocery Store.
Mah Chung Kee had nine children, two of which were Albert and Cedric. When their grandfather died in 1936, the family went back to China to bring his body to his ancestral village. Some of the family stayed, but a teenage Albert and Cedric went back to Prince Rupert to finish their schooling.
“Father and Cedric came back to Canada and at a very young age, they both got interested in aviation. My father started flying at age 16,” Heather said.
The brothers went to California to learn how to fly. They returned to Canada, and worked at the Air Observers School in Edmonton, and later Albert went to work for Quebec Airways.
“By 1943 the war had broke out and his family, sisters and his mother, were still in the village in China,” Heather said.
Eager to serve in the war and be closer to their family, they wanted to fly but the Royal Canadian Air Force had a discriminatory policy at the time that wouldn’t allow ethnic Chinese to fly with them. Instead, they signed up with Pan American Airways and flew missions over The Hump in the Himalayas.
“This was really dangerous work. They were flying through the Himalayas. There were Japanese in the air. No pressurized cabins, they used oxygen masks and had trouble with icing up,” Heather said.
There are documented stories of the brothers taking part in dangerous missions. Albert once pretended to be deaf and mute to sneak past enemy lines in China in order to smuggle his 12-year-old sister from Fei Gno, the family village where many had returned after their grandfather passed away.
They hid in a coffin on a river boat to avoid the guards, while Japanese planes bombed from above.
Near the end of the war, Cedric was flying in a Douglas DC-3 carrying millions in Chinese currency. When his plane iced up, an engine failed and he was forced to toss most of the bundles of money over to lighten the load. They landed safely, and were thoroughly investigated.
In 1945, the Japanese surrendered, but the civil war in China erupted. The brothers continued to supply the nationalists until 1949 when Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese Army was defeated by the Mao Zedong’s Communist forces.
For their efforts, Albert and Cedric were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal by the U.S. Air Force in the 1990s.
After the war
Cedric worked as a bush pilot based in Prince Rupert for a few years. His daughter, Cheryll, was 15 years old at the time.
“He had a great gig out of there. He did a lot of work for some lumber companies. My dad would have to fly people in from the lumber companies in to check out the inventory,” she said.
“Definitely some very sophisticated navigational flying skills were required.”
Cheryll and her brother went to visit their father twice. She remembers how the community supported him, and helped out the single dad.
Sometimes, he even took his kids on flights.
“It was amazing to watch him maneuver the plane in between the mountains,” Cheryll said.
Then they moved back to Edmonton, where Cedric continued to fly as a bush pilot in the Arctic, where he also crashed and survived.
Albert moved to Montreal, where he met Heather’s mother, but he still made trips to Prince Rupert for reunions.
In 2005, he purchased a plane ticket to the North Coast for another reunion, but he passed away before he could use it. Heather inherited the ticket and travelled to Prince Rupert for the first time.
She reunited with her relatives, the Mah family is well established in Prince Rupert, including her cousin, Pat Mah, who runs Baker Boy on Third Avenue. She also met up with her dad’s best friend’s daughter, Donna Morse-Smith, who came to visit Heather in Montreal this past summer.
It was Albert’s connection over the years to family and Ingver Leon Morse that Heather said helped form a stronger bond with Prince Rupert and her cousins.
Determined to fly, the Mah brothers, Flying Tigers, are just two of the legends who emerged from Prince Rupert who can be remembered on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day this November 11.