Passengers on the “St. Paul”

As those of you who have been following this blog for awhile know, one of the unexpected discoveries of my trip across Sichuan with Noel Piper in March, was the existence of two airplanes, the St. Paul and the St. Peter, which were used by the Lutheran World Federation to transport missionaries around China in the 1940’s. I wrote about these planes in a post titled “The Flying Lutherans.”

While I was in Minnesota this summer, I had the chance to meet with a woman who had been a missionary in China in the late1940’s and who had flown on the St. Paul. As you can imagine, I wanted to get her story. This is how she told it to me:


Our ship, the “Marine Lynx” deposited us all in Shanghai. My husband and I didn’t know a soul in that dark, complicated, crowded and unknown Chinese city. Our supervisor up in Qingdao had sent word by telegram that he had not been able to finalize arrangements for our arrival, that we were on our own, but “in God’s hands,” of course. Not having access to the instant communication that we have today, you can imagine what a helpless feeling it was to receive such news.

Some of our fellow passengers from the ship made arrangements for us to stay with their co-workers in Shanghai while we awaited our luggage to be off-loaded from the ship and cleared through customs. Every day for a week my husband, along with the other passengers, would go down to the harbor to try to locate our luggage in the area known as the “go-down.”

There are two things I remember about our time in Shanghai.  One was the bitter cold. My toes began to swell and hurt and I even developed ‘chilblains,’ something I had never experienced before.

The other thing I remember was the hospitality of the people who took us in. Even though we were in a foreign country, we were together with brothers and sisters. In the evenings we had lively times of singing, and they fed us better than we could have ever dreamed.

Once we secured our luggage from the ‘go-down,’ the next question was how to get to Qingdao, our planned destination? My husband learned that the Lutherans owned 2 small planes named the St. Paul and the St. Peter, which transported people around the country.

One of the planes (the St. Peter?) had actually crashed the week before while trying to land in Qingdao, a city on the coast surrounded by mountains. Everyone on board perished. Unbeknownst to us, my parents and friends in Minnesota had heard about this crash and assumed that we had been on board. Some friends even said, “well, it is too late to pray for them; now we need to pray for their parents.”

But we were safe.

We finally made it onto the St. Paul, along with 2 other families and flew north together marveling at the wonderful friendships and shared experiences that God had blessed us with.


flying lutherans


Image source:

The Flying Lutherans

While doing research in preparation for the Esther Expedition that I did with Noel in March, I read a book called “Mission Impossible,” by Ralph Covell. It is a history of the work of a particular Baptist group in Sichuan in the late 1940’s.

Among the more interesting stories he tells in the book, one in particular caught my interest, that of trying to fly from Chongqing to Xichang. The flights on CNAC (China National Aviation Corporation — one of 2 airlines in China at the time) kept getting cancelled. Here’s what he writes:

“In the midst of all this frustration, the chance came for me to give up on the uncertain CNAC flights and go to Xichang by the chartered Lutheran plane, the St. Paul. This Lutheran-sponsored DC-3 was the work horse of the missionary enterprise. Licensed in 1947 to operate in China, it had flown missionaries of every denomination to every province in China. In addition to its human cargo, it had carried freight, UNRRA relief supplies, hospital equipment, pumps, and jeeps. As the crisis worsened in China, the United States Consulate asked the Lutherans to use the St. Paul to evacuate missionaries from north China. The price tag of $200 for each flying hour was not prohibitive in view of its carrying capacity of of 5,000 pounds. Particularly was this true of the formidable terrain where our group wished to go.

The James Broomhall family had also been waiting in Chungking [Chongqing] to go into Xichang. When the St. Paul showed up for them rather unexpectedly one noon, Jim and Janet very graciously invited me to go along with them.”

Wait!  The Lutherans were flying an airplane around China in the 1940’s? And that airplane was named St. Paul?

Earlier this week, while I was in Wuhan doing a bit more Esther Nelson research, I came across a book titled “The History of the Chinese Lutheran Church,” by Harold Hsiao, which had this to say about the airplane:

“Something unique [that] happened during this period (late 1940’s) — and its importance should not be ignored but properly recognized –was the purchase of the St.Paul. In June 1946, [at the urging of] Dr. Nelson, the LWC (Lutheran World Federation) bought two small, old C-47 airplanes at a US Air Force war surplus liquidation sale. They were the St. Paul and the St. Peter, the latter being used for spare parts only. At the time, travelling in China was almost impossible as most of the roads had been destroyed during the eight-year Sino-Japanese War. Thus, the St. Paul became the ‘thriftiest, the fastest, and the safest’ means of travel within the country, bringing missionaries to and from their fields, transporting mission materials, and assisting the Chinese churches’ reconstruction in many ways.

The St. Paul begain flying on 4 July 1946, and in its first year alone made over 200 flights, serving not only the Lutheran churches in China but also the 24 Protestant denomenations and the Roman Catholic Church. The St. Paul transported fify tons of Bibles and one thousand tons of medical supplies to many parts of the country…

The St. Paul was’retired’ in 1950, when private airplanes were no longer allowed to fly in mainland China after the political change. ” (p. 154, 155)

So, the Lutherans had not one airplane, but TWO, and they bought them at an Air Force surplus liquidation sale! You can’t make this stuff up!

The plane eventually became part of China Air Transport, a CIA-run airline, which was the precurser to Air America. One aviator wrote about his experience with the St. Paul:

“During our China Mainland days we often saw an olive drab C-47, which was brightened with the flaming cross logo of the Lutheran World Mission. Its name was Saint Paul. The Saint Paul’s original pilot, Dick Rossi, claimed he answered control towers, “Amen, Brother”, instead of “Roger”.”
One site says that it crashed in the Gulf of Siam, near Hua Hin while in a training mission in 1954. Another site indicates that the plane was eventually sold to South Vietnam and was shot down in 1961.

It’s good to know that long before there were YouTube clips of “Lutheran Airlines”, there were actually Lutherans flying around….in China!

(Image source:                 You can see “St. Paul” written on the nose, just below the cockpit windows.

UPDATE: Noel is in Europe this month and found herself on a modern-day Lutheran Airline, called Augsburg Airways!