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The Mystery of Korea's First Aviator
Reference to elephant suggests all may not be as it seems
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-22 14:43 (KST)   
This is the third article in a series of "Korean firsts" by historian and longtime resident of South Korea, Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
Early airplane in Korea circa 1912-1913 (Meece photograph)
©2007 (Robert Neff) Nodaji: Western Gold Miners in Korea

One can imagine the astonishment of the general Korean population of Seoul in 1913 when they heard a strange roar from the sky and, glancing up into the heavens, espied a strange box-like device flying through the air. It was the dashing Lieutenant Narahara of the Japanese navy testing his airplane over the fields near Yongsan, Seoul. According to most historians this was aviation's first appearance in Korea, but was it?

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In late 1910, two of America's first licensed aviators, James C. Mars -- better known as "Bud," and Whipple Hall, embarked on an adventure that would place their names (at least Bud's) in the annals of aviation history. Aviation at this time was a wondrous curiosity that was virtually unknown in the Far East. Bud and Hall were determined to travel throughout the Far East and give flying exhibits to arouse interest in flight. They took with them at least two airplanes and a small crew of men and traveled by steamship from one destination to another. At each of these stops, the airplanes were quickly assembled and flown, and then disassembled and moved on to the next stop of the tour.

The first stop was Hawaii. They arrived in December, assembled their Falcon 1910, a small Curtiss pusher biplane, set up stands in a large open field, and then sold tickets to an enthusiastic crowd for the first exhibit of flight on the islands. The first day went well with a large number of tickets sold, but on the second day the exhibit was cut short when most of the potential spectators balked at paying for tickets that allowed them to watch the flights from stands. Instead they took to the surrounding hillsides and watched for free. Bud, furious at being deprived of his revenue, quickly landed the plane and had his crew disassemble it; then they all sailed for the second stop of the tour on the first departing steamer.

Over the next couple of months, Bud and his team flew exhibitions throughout the Far East in such places as the Philippines, Thailand, Siberia, Hong Kong, and Japan. In many of these places, such as the Philippines, he was the first aviator to grace their skies. He was surprised to find several airplanes in Japan, but not surprised to discover that they were all "in disuse because the officials did not understand how to manipulate them." After giving an exhibit of his flying skills there, the Japanese officials were so impressed that they immediately began working on their own airplanes and even bought one of Bud's airplanes. Bud later observed: "I believe the keenest interest in the world in flying is to be found in Japan where the government is now actively engaged in experiments for military purposes."

Not all of the Japanese were pleased with the arrival of aviation. "I had a narrow escape in Nogroya from being murdered by some superstitious natives, who plotted to destroy my machine and poison me. A little slave girl heard two of the conspirators talking and gave us warning in time. As a reward we bought her out of slavery and sent her home."

Not only were the Japanese superstitious -- so too were the Koreans. Some of the "worst persecution" he suffered was in parts of Korea where he was under constant protection from the government. It is with this revelation that we have our first mention of flying in Korea. It is not inconceivable that Bud and his team took a steamship from Japan to nearby Korea; arriving in Pusan or Chemulpo, then taking a train to Seoul, and yet, there are no Korean sources confirming Bud's arrival in Korea. The only account that we have of Bud's alleged arrival in Korea are his own comments that he gave to a reporter:

"The greatest mark of favor which I received was in Korea, where the King sent me an elephant. It was an embarrassment of riches. I gave it to a girl and told her to be good to it."

His comments seem somewhat ludicrous considering Korea was no longer an independent country and had been annexed by the Japanese in 1910. Furthermore, and perhaps casting even more doubt upon Bud's claim to having flown in Korea, there are no elephants in Korea. Perhaps he had mistakenly referred to Korea when in fact he had meant a state or region in India, but if this were the case, why did he use the title of king instead of rajah?

After nearly seven months in the Far East he returned to the United States where he was hailed as being the first American, and possibly the first aviator in the world, to almost completely circumnavigate the globe by airplane and ship.

Lombardi and Cattoni - early Italian pilots who visited Seoul in the 1920s
©2007 Seoul Press 1920s

One of the early Western gold miners in Korea was Brown Meece. He was from Texas and arrived in Korea in the summer of 1912 and left in January 1914. Even though he spent but a short time in Korea, he did what many of the gold miners didn't -- he recorded much of his stay with pictures. A couple of his more impressive photographs are of an airplane. The picture itself has no notes so we are unsure what part of Korea it was taken or even when, but we can see some Japanese advertisements in the foreground and the plane itself has some Japanese writing on its side -- could it have been Lieutenant Narahara's airplane? The picture's subject and approximate date make it extremely unusual, but what is even more extraordinary is the word "Odori" written in Korean on the side just above the Japanese. It has been suggested that "Odori" means big bird -- an apt description for an airplane.

Lombardi and Cattoni with their aircraft in the 1920s
©2007 Seoul Press 1920s

Over the next couple of decades airplanes continued to frequent Korea's skies as aviators from around the world attempted to circumnavigate the earth. Their arrivals and departures were dutifully noted in the local newspapers, as were the frequent accidents that took the lives of the early Japanese and Korean pilots.

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©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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