A Look into Tri-Villages' Past
Local Hero of a Distant War
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)
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.
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.
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).