Civil Air Transport (CAT) was a Chinese airline, later owned by the CIA, that supported United States covert operation throughout East and Southeast Asia. During the Cold War, missions consisted in assistance to Free World allies according to the Mutual Defense Assistance Act of 1949.
CAT was created by Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer in 1946 as Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (CNRRA) Air Transport. Using surplus World War II aircraft such as the C-47 Dakota and the C-46 Commando, CAT airlifted supplies and food into war-ravaged China. It was soon pressed into service to support Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces in the civil war between them and the communists under Mao Zedong. Many of its first pilots were veterans of Chennault's World War II combat groups, popularly known as Flying Tigers.
By 1950, following the defeat of Chiang's forces and their retreat to Taiwan, the airline was facing financial difficulties. The CIA formed a private Delaware corporation called Airdale Corporation, which formed a subsidiary called CAT, Inc. The subsidiary corporation purchased nominal shares of the Civil Air Transport. CAT maintained a civilian appearance by flying scheduled passenger flights while simultaneously using other aircraft in its fleet to fly covert missions.
With the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia, CAT’s mission changed.
During the Chinese Civil War, under contract with the Chinese Nationalist government and later the Central Intelligence Agency, CAT flew supplies and ammunition into China to assist Kuomintang forces on the Chinese mainland, primarily using C-47 and C-46 aircraft. With the defeat of the Kuomintang in 1949, CAT helped to evacuate thousands of Chinese to the island of Taiwan.
During the Korean War, CAT airlifted thousands of tons of war materials to supply United States military operations, including support of Kuomintang holdouts based in Burma. On 29 November 1952, a CAT C-47 left Seoul on a mission to collect an anti-Communist Chinese agent in the Manchurian foothills, using a "pole and line" technique. The mission appears to have been compromised and Chinese forces were waiting for them. Approaching low over the ground, it was set upon by small-arms fire and crash-landed near the town of Antu in China's Jilin province . The pilots, Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz were killed during the crash and subsequent fire, and were buried nearby. The two CIA officers, John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau survived and were immediately taken prisoner by Chinese forces, who were waiting for the flight. Downey and Fecteau were held by China and regularly interrogated for nearly twenty years. Fecteau was released unexpectedly following Nixon's visit to China in 1972, but Downey was only released after Washington publicly acknowledged their spy mission in 1973.
At the time, the families of the pilots were told that they crashed into the Sea of Japan on a routine flight to Tokyo, in order to keep the CIA's covert actions in China secret. In 2001, China allowed the US Defence Department's Prisoner of War and Missing in Action (POW/MIA) office to conduct a recovery effort for the bodies of the pilots. In 2005, the POW/MIA office announced that it had identified the remains of Robert Snoddy using DNA analysis. Schwartz's remains have not been successfully recovered.
The 1952-1953 edition of Jane's All The World's Aircraft lists the head office address as Suite 309, Kass Building, 711 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., with the footnote that the company had reregistered in the U.S. The president is given as Whiting Willauer, and the fleet, which consisted of 23 Curtiss C-46 Commando and 4 Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
CAT assisted the French government at various times during its Indochina wars, flying supplies and equipment into Hanoi's Gialam airport and other fields using C-46 and C-47 transport planes.
At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, CAT supplied the French garrison by parachuting troops and supplies with covert USAF C-119 inscribed with French Air Force insignia. In February 2005, seven surviving CAT pilots out of the thirty-seven involved in the battle received the honorific title of Legion of Honor during a special ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington.
The 1956-1957 edition of Jane's All The World's Aircraft lists the head office address as 46 Chung Shan Road, North, 2nd Section, Taipei, Taiwan (Formosa). The president and general manager is given as Hugh L. Grundy, with C.J. Rosbert listed as vice-president and assistant general manager. The fleet is listed as 2 Douglas DC-4, 22 Curtiss Commando, 2 Douglas DC-3, 3 Douglas C-47, and 2 Convair Catalina.
In the 1958-1959 edition of Jane's, the last year in which the "Airlines of the World" section was carried, the home office address in Taiwan remained the same, but no company officers are listed. The fleet is given as 3 Douglas DC-4, 25 Curtiss C-46, 5 Douglas DC-3, 2 Convair Catalina, with 2 Douglas DC-6B on order.