Frank "dude" higgs

Local Hero of a Distant War

A Look into Tri-Villages' Past

Local Hero of a Distant War

Tri-Village News
January 15, 1980

By Mary Pollman

Society Editor Jane Fitting has been telling us at the office about her scrapbooks for years, and when she brought in the one filled with memorabilia of "her War", the whole staff wanted to look. Some of us found out some things we didn't know before. I, for instance. learned that one of the more celebrated heroes of the China-Burma-India theater in that war was an old college pal of hers and a Grandview boy, Dude Higgs. Dude's name and face were all over the Columbus papers in the 1940s (particularly on the funny pages, but more about that hereafter) as the dozens of clippings in Jane's scrapbook and those of Dude's sister, Mrs. Alleyne Jones of First Community Village, attest. It's been awhile now, since he was news, but it occurred to me his is a memory worth reviving.

Frank L."Dude" Higgs spent only about two months between 1937 and 1945 on his native soil. The rest of the time he was on the other side of the world teaching Chinese pilots to fly and flying himself as chief pilot for the Chinese National Air Corporation (CNAC).

What did a man from Grandview Heights with a notorious fondness for the ladies (only Caucasian ones though, he said), expensive tweeds, and high life, find enthralling about China in the 1930s?

Well, at first it was the money, as he told Charlotte Sherwood of the old Columbus Citizen in a letter she published in 1939. "They were willing to pay me more money each month than I thought was possible this side of Utopia," he wrote. He was paid in American gold dollars which he scattered freely during his 1940 visit stateside.

But his letter to Miss Sherwood goes on to say, my "feeling has changed. It now has become a personal struggle between me and the Japanese. These people (the Chinese) are so helpless. it is like trying to combat a buzz-saw with a cane for them to oppose the Japs."

(His feelings for the Chinese -- at least in 1939 -- did not extend to respect, apparently. In the same letter to Miss Sherwood he wrote, "One feels so damned sorry for them and there is only one saving feature -- most of them are so stupid and unfeeling that they really don't know what is going on. It is only this that makes it possible to look at the general scene each day..." His language makes us far more uncomfortable now than it made Charlotte Sherwood's readers. Higgs was probably not so much a white supremacist as a man of his time.)

Higgs' pity for the Chinese was widely shared by Americans -- pity for the people who were the first target of Japanese military aggression in the '30s. Pity, in part, motivated the Flying Tigers, the group of American volunteers formed just prior to U.S. entry into the war, to help beat back the "Japs" in China. (Higgs had dealings with the Tigers as with the regular U.S. air force that replaced them in China in 1942, but he was not a Flying Tiger or, during the time he was in China, a member of the U.S. air force.)

Besides pity, Higgs was motivated by a love for flying. [Columbus] Dispatch writer Brad Wilson interviewed him in 1943, during his last visit home, and related this: " 'Dude' got started on the long skyway trail to his present fame because of a lot of army planes flying over Grandview in the summer of 1929." (Dude was about 20 years old then.)

" 'I was cutting grass for some guy in Grandview, and wasn't much interested in grass cutting,' he said. So he stood the lawn mower against the side of the house and went following those planes to Norton Field, where the army was staging a show. 'Dude' ... admitted: 'The minute I looked inside of those open cockpit pursuit jobs at Norton, I was a dead pigeon. Knew that flying business was the only thing for me.'

By that time, Dude had already 'failed out of Hanover College, because he couldn't be bothered with studying,' according to his sister, Alleyne (Mrs Stanton) Jones. He had gone from Hanover to Ohio State University, but he told the Army Air Corps people he'd be happy to sacrifice his studies to become a pilot. The army wasn't having any, Mrs Jones said. There was no war on, they could afford to be choosy, and they were calling graduates only. So Dude finished college and was even working on master's degree when he was called up.

Here we need to mention an important friend Dude made in college: Cartoonist Milton Caniff. Higgs, translated into 'Dude Hennick,' was an important figure in Caniff's first strip, "Terry and the Pirates," most episodes of which took place in China. Caniff borrowed his friend's beetle brows, close-cropped hair and take-it-as-it-comes style for his pilot caricature. The pilot's last name, Hennick, he borrowed from an OSU hangout popular when Higgs and Caniff went to school.

Higgs went to China as an aviation instructor serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He resigned his commission however, in 1941, right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, so he could play a more active part in the war in the employ of the Chinese.

The feat that probably made Higgs' reputation occurred just a few days after he went to work for the Chinese: the evacuation of Chinese civilians from Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion there. Under cover of night, Higgs flew planes with up to 80 passengers -- capacity was 25 -- to safety in China. Admittedly, almost all were CNAC employees, but that doesn't take away from the courage Higgs displayed. (In the Hong Kong invasion, Dude lost almost all his possessions including the gold dollars in a Hong Kong bank. He managed, however, to save two pet dachshunds and - typically - his clothes.)

At other times he transported such celebrated people as Chiang Kai'shek and Madame Chiang, Wendell Wilkie when he was touring China as a candidate for U.S. President, and Clare Booth Luce, who devoted several paragraphs to their encounter in a story she wrote for 'Life'.

Higgs was a bachelor until 1944 when he married, in Calcutta, Diana Barrington Menzies, daughter of a Scots building contractor. Local papers here made much of their houseboat honeymoon in Kashmir. He was a married man for one year and six days. On Oct. 20, 1945, his plane, bound for Canton from Shanghai crashed, killing all aboard.

At that time, it had been awhile since Caniff had used the Hennick character in his strip. He laid Hennick to rest for good when he learned of his friend's death. Caniff's strip of Dec. 25, 1945 was an elegy:

Do you remember Dude Hennick?... Dude was a really hot pilot with whom Terry Lee had many adventures before we had entered the shooting war. It was he who first steered Terry's interest towards aviation and what it means to attempt to solve the blue mystery of the sky.

As has often been the case in this strip. Dude was patterned after a real person. His living counterpart had the same wide buccaneer-black brows, close cut hair and the shaded eyes of men who must stare into weather.

Today, your mind will be on your particular Joe who didn't come back for Christmas. But if you liked Dude Hennick, you may wish to spare a thought for Frank Higgs. Dude died with him.


More information regarding Dude Higgs can be obtained from the Chinese National Air Corporation web article about him.
(Note: The CNAC web site has been shut down. The text from the site is included below.)


FRANK LOTT HIGGS (1908-1945)
(CNAC Pilot)

Dude's good friend and fraternity brother was cartoonist Milton Caniff.
Frank Higgs became Dude Hennick in Terry and the Pirates.

The CNAC Web Editor would like to thank Jeanne Holder, the niece of Frank Higgs,
for providing this wedding picture of Diana and Frank Higgs and the following information.

Calcutta, India
October 1944

Frank Lott Higgs was born April 8, 1908 in Grandview Heights, Columbus, Ohio. His parents were Frank Morgan Higgs and Pleasant Barton Higgs. His sister was Pleasant "Alleyne" Higgs Jones. Jeanne says her mother, Alleyne, enjoyed living vicariously through her brother's very adventuresome life. While a student at Grandview High School, he was Booster President, played football, tennis, basketball, golf and baseball. His coach was Stanton Jones who later became his brother-in-law.

Higgs once said he first became interested in aviation when a lot of Army airplanes flew overhead while he was "mowing somebody's lawn" in Grandview one day back in 1932. He put aside the mower and followed the planes to old Norton Field, where the Army was staging a show. From the moment he got a close look, flying became his goal.

Frank went to Hanover College in Indiana where he played football, but Frank "couldn't bother studying" and he failed out of this school. From there he went on to Ohio State University where he received his Varsity "O" in golf. He became "Dude" in college because of his flashy clothes. He wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army but the Army only wanted college graduates, so he graduated with a BA from OSU in 1932 and was working on his masters' degree when the Army called him up. Dude went to pilot training school at Randolph Field, Texas in 1933 and Kelly Field, Texas in 1934-35 and graduated on February 20, 1935. From Kelly Field, Lt. Higgs was stationed at Selfridge Field, Michigan from February to August 1935. In 1935 Lt. Higgs weighed-in at 155 lbs., was 5'10' tall, had brown eyes and black hair.

Along with Emil Scott (another Flying Cadet, but now Lieutenants) Frank sailed from New York June 1, 1936, through the Panama Canal to San Francisco and then on to Honolulu. Frank was stationed at Luke Field on the Island of Oahu for 2 years. He resigned his commission with the U.S. Army Air Corps December 31, 1937 (soon after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War) and left Honolulu to go to China as military advisor to the Chinese Air Corps, instructing Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's pilots how to fly without killing themselves or their instructors! Family History refers to Dude as a "civilian advisor" to the Chinese Air Corps while another note says, "He went to China as aviation instructor, serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps. And, other Family records say Dude began as an Army flyer, resigned to instruct Chiang Kai-shek's fledgling Air Force, then went with CNAC as a Captain.

Mr. Frank Higgs was fined $5.00 for failing to register with the police within 48 hours of arrival in the colony of Hong Kong and listed his age as 30 and occupation as "geologist" (his major in college, I think).When Dude first arrived in China he kept a diary. He sounded lonely, talked of the cold, missed people, had he made a mistake by going over there??, always a mention of drinking in the evening, and seemed to write a lot of poetry (wish we had some of his poetry).

His address on January 19, 1938 was c/o YMCA, Salisbury Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong. From January 20th to February 6, 1938, he was at the Army-Navy Club in Manila. February 6-10 he was at the Metropole Hotel, Hong Kong, and from February 10-12th at the Victoria Hotel, Shameen, Canton. July 18-20th at Liuchow, Kwangsi Province, China, and August 20 thru September 30, 1938, in Kong Kong. October 31 thru November 2, 1938 in Hanoi, "the capital of Indo China, a typical French city". February 1939 in Mengtsz.

Frank became a pilot for the Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) in 1940/1(?). CNAC was operated jointly by the Chinese government and Pan American Airways. As a "Senior Pilot" Frank flew many passenger flights in and around China. Frank flew many famous passengers, including Wendell Wilkie and Clare Booth Luce. What may be regarded as Higgs' "shining hour"came in the rescue of several hundred persons from Hong Kong during the Japanese attack on the city. From The Dragon's Wings, "The first aircraft, a DC-3 piloted by Frank L. Higgs, roared off Kai Tak's runway at 7 P.M. for Namyung, a small airfield about 200 miles north of Hong Kong." He and 9 other pilots, including many ground personnel, managed to salvage five planes, filled in crater holes on the airfield and flew as many people as possible to safety in free China.

Dude was in China before the Flying Tigers, originally called the "American Volunteer Group" (AVG), and had dealings with them. The AVG was disbanded in July 1942 and 18 of their pilots went to fly with CNAC. William McDonald's wife, Peggy, said that Dude had dealings with the Flying Tigers as with the regular U.S. Forces that replaced the Tigers in 1942. But, that he was neither a Flying Tiger nor a member of the U.S. Forces during the time he was in China. Frank once said, "I came over here because they were willing to pay more money each month than I thought was possible this side of Utopia. That feeling has changed. It now has become a personal struggle between me and the Japanese." (He was paid in American gold dollars.)

Jeanne, Higgs' niece, called Charlie Uban in May, 1994 (he was 73 yrs. old, who wrote "The Boy from Burma Hump" in the DesMoines Register and later published in Robert Waller's book, "Old Songs in a New Cafe"). He is a former Rep. in the House in Iowa. He said he had 1 flight together with Frank (a DC3, in 1943) to find Anderson's plane which went down near Kunming. They found it in the hills on the way up to Burma. They buried his bones and scratched his name on the propellor. Frank made Uban the captain so he would be paid more for the flight. Frank became the co-pilot. He said there was to be "No drinking 8 hours before flying". They drank to escape pressure. It was not usually a difficult trip from Canton to Shanghai, low flying (but now we know he was TOO low). (All the information above from Charlie Uban.)

On October 20, 1945, Frank was flying between Shanghai and Canton, supposedly with some bankers aboard (and much gold and currency); the plane crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. A newspaper clipping from Manila said there were 20 passengers aboard.

Dates and Places:

  • July 23, 1939, Dude took a plane to Hanoi
  • August 1939, Saigon to Phom Penh, to Angkor to Siemscap to Aranyu to Bangkok
  • August 13, 1939, he sailed from Bangkok to Singapore (Phnom Penh?)
  • August 23-30, 1939, to Singapore
  • October 1939, Singapore to Haiphong
  • January 4, 1940, in Hanoi - then to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China (Chinese Air Force Cadet School)
  • March 1940, in Rangoon.
  • March 19, 1940, left Kunming on leave to the U.S. visited Columbus and Curtiss-Wright to procure lend-lease planes and ferry pilots for China. Spoke to many groups and schools while there. Returned to the U.S. again in 1943.
  • December 8, 1941, Dude was in Hong Kong and was the first pilot there to evacuate civilians to Free China. He made 16 flights out of Hong Kong, one of 10 American and Chinese pilots who ferried more than 275 people out in two nights. Those he evacuated were Madam Sun Yat Sen and Clare Boothe Luce. On other occassions, Frank flew Wendle Wilke, Madam Chiang Kai-shek and General Chiang.

Other names mentioned in Frank's letters and scrapbooks were: Frank Knapke, Pottschmidt's, Hauptmann's, Eleanor Carroll, Harriet Myer, Carolyn Connor, Bob Rengo, Kalva Mi, the Naughtman's, Hessover (The American Consul), Chuck Sharp, Kuke Williams, MacDougal, Bermood, Charlie and Gladys Day, Moosky, Jim Bledsoe, R.C. Moss (Doe Run, Georgia), Co. Royce, Scott, Carney, Dudley, Andy and Mrs. Sargent, Arnold Weir (mechanic), Patty W., Hal Sweet, Mrs. Porritt, Gisele Dupont (in Saigon), Norma Aldrich, Seton Miller, Bonnie Miller (Singapore), The Angle's (Mengtsz in November 1939), Vera Prince, Mrs. Paul Walter Meyer, W.J. Law, louise Connor, Mary Dinsmore, General Chow, Mac McDonald, Nanee(? -male), Marie McCammon 12/31/1937, Dave Fair, Ede Corbin and Marie, Marion Chase (of Detroit), Mrs. Thraves (Mercy's mother) and Charles Sharkey (youngest Captain in CNAC at age 22, at that time).

Dude had 6000 flying hours and experienced 20 air raids while in China. CNAC pilots were the first to fly the "Hump". At this time when the Burma Road was bombed out, these pilots were flying supplies across the "hump", through Japanese lines in unarmed planes at night. Dude lived with William C. "Mac" McDonald in an exquisite 4 bedroom, 4-bath apartment for 4 years before Mac married Peggy and Dude married Diana. "Bless Bess", was one of Dude's favorite sayings. American airmen in the Orient said Frank's initials "FLH" stood for "Fly Like Hell".

In the 1943-45 log book of Don McBride, Frank listed his home address as:

F.L. Higgs
1286 Fairview ave
Columbus 8 Ohio

Dude married Diana Barrington Menzies on October 14, 1944, at Scots Church, Calcutta India. Diana was from Edinburgh, Scotland, the daughter of a Scots building contractor who lived in Calcutta. Their wedding and reception was held at the 400 Club in Calcutta. A Russian friend was the chef. A big crowd attended. Diana and Dude spent their honeymoon of two weeks on a houseboat at Srinagar, Kashmir, India. They lived in Calcutta (#3 Lansdowne Road) until the Japanese surrendered and then moved to Shanghai in mid-August 1945. Dick Rossi said that the Japanese were still wandering around the streets with guns, not knowing what to do with themselves.

Diana sailed to the U.S. arriving in Seattle, Washington in April 1946. She visited a friend and then traveled by train to Ohio to meet Dude's sister, Alleyne Higgs Jones and family. She ultimately married Jack Dean, was divorced and married again to Richard Sweetman of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Diana died October 14, 1974 (?). Dick Sweetman died about 1980.

The following from Jeanne Holder happened on a Family trip to Ohio in May 2000:

"I did visit with an 86-yr. old lady in the retirement home in Columbus, Ohio, who dated Frank when she graduated from high school. I actually met her in church in Columbus years ago when I was visiting and they sat next to me. Her husband had a beautiful voice and just on impulse, as I went out of the pew, I said to him, "What a beautiful voice you have, you must be Welsh." He was and he lived near my dad in Southern Ohio and was distantly related. His wife (this 86-er) said she had my grandmother's wedding ring because Frank gave it to her "for safe-keeping" when he went to China and she never knew what to do with it. So she sent it to me. I had a matching one so I wear both of them. Isn't that incredible?"