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The Flying Tigers Part 6

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In addition to the sorely needed supplies coming over the Hump, the reinforcements Chennault had been promised in June finally arrived. These consisted of six more B-25 Mitchell bombers, some worn-out P-40s and twenty well-trained Army Air Force pilots who had been defending the Panama Canal.

Late in September the monsoon season ended and the weather was again good for fighting in the air and on the ground. Chennault's spies in occupied territory confirmed air reconnaissance reports that the Japanese would soon drive up the Burma Road and once more try to cross the Salween River.

Chennault countered by attacking convoys on the Burma Road in regular fighter sweeps. He sent his Mitchells as far south as Lashio, bombing key bridges, dumps and airfields.

His biggest worry was how to deal with the new Japanese Zero fighters: the Oscars, twin-engined Nicks and clipped-wing Hamps. All these models could easily climb to 25,000 feet. Even at this altitude they performed well whereas the P-40 began faltering at 20,000 feet. Since Chennault always insisted on fighting where his men had the advantage, he devised a plan to lure the Japanese fighters down to the altitude where the P-40 fought its best. Like all his tactics, this plan was simple. He would send his bombers on a mission at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The P-40s, meanwhile, would be hovering out of sight several thousand feet above. When the Japanese struck at the bomber bait, the P-40s would pounce on them.

To make this trap work, Chennault needed an extremely important target-one that the Japanese would have to defend. After much thought he picked Hong Kong, a major staging area for Japanese convoys surging into the southwest Pacific. For a week Chennault and his chief of staff, Colonel Merian C. Cooper, worked almost around the clock, plotting the raid. Cooper, the director of King Kong and other famous movies, had flown as a combat pilot in the First World War. He had been assigned to go to Russia on a special mission but after waiting in vain for his visa in Chungking he became impatient and flew to Kunming. He told Chennault he "wanted a job with an outfit that was fighting."



On October 15 Chennault and Colonel Cooper held a meeting in Kunming with Stilwell and Bissell. The plans for the Hong Kong raid were approved, but the weather suddenly broke and thick clouds covered most of China for nine days. Finally on October 24 Chennault's warning net in east China reported that the skies were clearing.

Chennault ordered his bombers loaded, fueled and checked. Late that afternoon he and Cooper flew east to the jumping-off point, Kweilin, which was less than 350 miles from Hong Kong. While Chennault was establishing his headquarters in the cave that was Ed Rector's operations office, Cooper and a few other officers went into town. There they spread rumors about a big raid they were going to make the next morning on Canton. Cooper well knew that at least one Japanese spy would hear them, and all available enemy fighter planes would be gathered in the Canton area-some eighty air miles northwest of Hong Kong.

At eight the next morning the planes from Kunming began to arrive at Kweilin, a few at a time. Twelve bombers and twelve fighters had left Kunming, but five P-40s developed engine trouble and turned back. Thus only seven fighters would fly protective cover.

The pilots rushed to Chennault's cave and were hurriedly briefed. Kweilin was only a short flight from several Japanese air bases, and an unexpected raid could wipe out the entire striking force. After Chennault outlined his plan, Caleb Haynes pointed out the targets on a large wall map. Haynes was to lead the bombers.

"If you see any battleships here," he said, "attack them. Otherwise everybody should concentrate on the docks, warehouses and installations here." His finger ran down Hong Kong's waterfront. Haynes, who had recently been promoted to brigadier general, was extremely eager to hit Hong Kong, for strictly personal reasons. The Japanese radio had recently said there was nothing to fear from United States bombers in China since they were commanded by "an old broken-down transport pilot named Haynes."

Left to right: General Henry Arnold, General Claire Chennault, General Joseph Stilwell, Sir John Dill and General Clayton Bissell tour a Flying Tiger base in China.

2.

At 11:45 A.M. the seven P-40s roared down the Kweilin runway. Their leader was Colonel Robert Scott who had taken over command of the 23rd Fighter Group when Bob Neale went home. Scott had always wanted to be a fighter pilot but was told he was too old. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to fly supplies over the Hump to China and made several trips in this capacity. Then he talked Chennault into letting him fly a P-40-as protection for other transport planes.

In addition to flying these missions, Scott on his own began strafing the Japanese on the Burma Road. But even this wasn't action enough for him. With Chennault's tacit permission he became an unofficial member of the AVG and on occasion flew combat missions as a wingman with the Flying Tigers. In spite of all his combat time, Scott had yet to destroy an enemy plane. As he left the Kweilin runway, he was eager for his first victory.

Through the clouds of red dust churned up by the P-40s, the twelve bombers lumbered down the field. They circled the field and headed east in four flights of three planes each. There was a sharp rattle as the gunners tested their weapons. Hovering over the bombers at 20,000 feet were Scott and his fighter cover.

Robert L. Scott Halfway to the target, the whole formation swung south so they would pass thirty miles below Canton and not alert its fighter fields. Soon they swept over the lowlands cut up by canals and numerous rice paddies. Then came the sharp smell of salt water, and the airmen saw the South China Sea.

Scott split his fighters in two groups. He kept Tex Hill and two others with him. The remaining three swung to the left of the bombers. The entire formation turned and headed up the coast. It flew over Portuguese Macao, a famed spy rendezvous for both sides. In less than fifteen minutes the planes neared a rocky, mountainous island only half again larger than Manhattan. This was Hong Kong, a few minutes' ride by ferry to China. In peacetime the narrow bay between the island and the mainland city of Kowloon was filled with thousands of junks, ketches, and sampans. Now approximately ten freighters were lying at anchor there.

General Haynes led the bombers over Hong Kong to a point seven miles north of Kowloon, then turned south in preparation for the bomb run. Suddenly twenty-six Zero fighters appeared and swept through the last three B-25s. Shells began plowing into Captain Allers' bomber. One engine coughed and stopped.

Lieutenant Morton Sher shoved the stick of his P-40 down and dived to the rescue. He blasted one Zero to bits. While he was shooting down a second, other Japanese fighters put his plane out of commission. Sher leaped out. As he parachuted to earth, two P-40s kept guard so he wouldn't be strafed.

Tex Hill heard Allers' radioman shout, "Can't stay up with formation. Attacked by Zeros!" Hill looked around but couldn't find the stricken B-25. Just then he heard Scott calling excitedly, "Bandits ahead ... Zeros! At eleven o'clock!"

Hill said, "Yes, I see 'em," and plunged into battle.

Scott was also diving at a Zero. He checked a bit nervously several times to make sure his gun switch was on before dropping his fifty-gallon bamboo belly tank. Then he rolled the P-40 on its back to get more speed. When he was not much more than 1,000 yards from his target, Scott began firing.

He missed but kept boring in. Suddenly Tex Hill cut in front of him, his six machine guns spitting. The Zero flamed as Hill spun from his tight turn. Scott got behind another Zero and fired. He zoomed by so close he could see the pilot's head inside the glass canopy. Smoke was pouring back. He had his first victory.

Following their safe return to the Kweilin base, Lieutenants Nicholas Marich and Joseph Cunningham tell of their experiences inside Japanese lines after having been shot down during the October 25 raid on Hong Kong. Left to right: Cunningham, Merian Cooper, Butch Morgan (holding a Japanese fragmentation bomb), Marich and Ed Rector.

By this time Allers' B-25 had plunged 11,000 feet. As he finally was about to bring up his ship, half a dozen Japanese fighters swarmed toward him. His top gunner saw a Zero turning at their level and fired. First the Zero's tail section came off in pieces, and then the rest of the ship flew apart. Immediately another Zero made a pass. The top gunner and Lieutenant Joe Cunningham both fired. The Japanese plane exploded, tumbling into the ocean.

Now Allers' one good engine was on fire. Finally it sputtered and went dead. Allers headed for China, ordering his crew to bail out. Two jumped. Lieutenant Nicholas Marich, the co-pilot, and Cunningham were ready, but the bombardier was still struggling to get into his chute. His straps were too short. They were now down to 2,000 feet.

Allers lined the bomber up on a rice paddy and Marich shouted, "It's too late to hit the silk! We're going to crash-land!"

The B-25 plowed into the paddy but didn't tip over. Allers fired seven bullets into the Norden bomb sight but, as the crew prepared to burn the plane, three Zeros swept down to strafe. The men ran for cover; one shell hit Allers' foot.

The other eleven American bombers were moving over their target in spite of black puffs of flak. The bomb-bay doors of Haynes' ship were open. The yellow lights on the bomb panel indicated that the bombs were ready. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert ("Butch") Morgan, the bombardier, pulled the switch and called into the interphone, "They're off!"

The lights on the bomb panel went off. Far below, the yellow bombs were tumbling toward the center of the Kowloon docks. Now bundles of rice-paper pamphlets were pushed through the bomb bay. These had been printed at General Haynes' own expense and read, in both English and Japanese: "These bombs come with the compliments of the old broken-down transport pilot Haynes."

Flak increased and four bursts hit Haynes' bomber, but no one was hurt. Down below, dozens of huge puffs billowed up from the docks so rapidly that the white smoke was quickly transformed into enormous black clouds. Only a few bombs missed. Soon fire and smoke covered the entire Kowloon waterfront.

As Zeros swarmed at the bombers, General Haynes abruptly shoved the nose of his ship down. The other bombers did the same. The surprised Japanese now found themselves under the concentrated fire of all the Mitchells. They couldn't pass through this formidable formation which was diving slightly, full throttle, wing inside wing.

Two Japanese fighters headed for Haynes' ship. The turret gunner hit one enemy plane, and it blew up. Then he swung his gun at the second Zero, which was above and behind. After one burst the Zero slid off and, as it went plunging down, exploded.

The P-40s were also picking off the interceptors rapidly. To Tex Hill the falling Japanese planes looked like little candles. Nearby Scott was tangling with four twin-engine planes, Messerschmitt 109s. He winged one Messerschmitt and, as it smoked and fell in a long, wide loop, he tagged behind, pumping lead into its tail. He doggedly kept firing until the enemy caught on fire and plunged into the water.

Scott was the last to return to Kweilin. As he came over the field he performed a victory roll, then landed. "General," he excitedly told Chennault, "I got four definitely!"

Chennault's fliers claimed a total of eighteen planes shot down, but this was too modest an estimate. That night a Japanese radio announcer said, "Only twenty of our fighters were lost in repulsing the American bombers." The cost to the Americans had been one bomber and one P-40. (Lieutenant Sher, the fighter pilot, reported back a week later. The following week Marich, Cunningham and another crew member walked into Kweilin. Allers and the other two crew members were captured.) As soon as the bombers landed, the pilots were fed and briefed for a second mission. Half would go after the Hong Kong power plant, and the rest would attack the main fighter airdrome at Canton.

Just after midnight Chennault was sitting in the cave at Kweilin listening to the warning-net reports of the second mission. In approximately twelve hours he planned to strike the docks and ships around Hong Kong again. He would keep at it until all the gas and bombs were gone.

Then an urgent radio message came from Bissell's 10th Air Force headquarters in Delhi: BOMB LASHIO AND MYITKYINA AIRDROMES UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE BEGINNING AT DAWN.

Chennault was furious. Just as he had Hong Kong reeling, he was ordered to turn in the other direction and hit Burma. Why couldn't the 10th Air Force, which was much closer, do the job? In spite of his feelings, he sent the bombers to Burma as soon as they returned from Canton and Hong Kong.

But he still wanted another strike at Hong Kong. He loaded every available P-40 with a 500-pound bomb and sent this force to dive-bomb ships in Victoria Harbor. At least one tanker and several freighters were sunk, but Captain P. B. O'Connell was lost in a daring attack on the tanker.

General Chennault chats with a pilot while his pet dachshund Joe stands on the wing of the fighter plane.

Though some workers had been killed in the raids, the morale of the Chinese in Hong Kong soared. At last there was hope. The Japanese yen began to drop in value, and soon it was against the law even to discuss the raids.

When Chennault learned of the great psychological effect of these raids, he was determined to launch another series. In November he returned to Kweilin to make arrangements.

He walked into Rector's cave, followed as usual by his ever-present companion, a dachshund named Joe. Rector had once asked Chennault why the dog was so faithful. Chennault said he had trained Joe to be a retriever. One day, while Chennault was hunting near Kunming, Joe leaped into a lake to bring back a bird his master had only winged. The big goose kept beating Joe over the head with its one good wing. When Chennault saw the persistent Joe was drowning, he took off his boots, jumped into the lake and saved him.

"Up to that day," said Chennault, "that dog liked me. Afterwards he loved me."

While Chennault was finishing his conference in the Kweilin cave, Joe spotted a rat deep in the cave and scuttled after it. Chennault kept shouting, "Come here, hound," but the dog refused to return. Although his plane was waiting to take him back to Kunming, Chennault sat down, saying, "Well, he'll have to come out sometime."

Two hours later Joe emerged, filthy and panting. The annoyed Chennault grabbed the dog. Then without saying a word to Rector, he walked to the plane and tossed Joe aboard.

The new raids began on November 23 with a strike on shipping in the Gulf of Tonkin. The next day, Chennault's bombers moved north and surprised the Japanese at the main Canton air base. Only two fighters got off the ground, and these were knocked down. Some forty-two planes were destroyed on the runway.

Standing, left to right: Clinton Vincent, John Alison, Bruce Holloway. Kneeling: Albert Baumler and Grant Mahoney.

Chennault kept varying his targets, throwing the Japanese into such confusion they had no idea where he would strike next.

On the morning of November 27 he assembled his biggest force: fourteen bombers and twenty-two P-40s. The target was Canton, where the Japanese had a large group of fighters. Just before noon the big American striking force took off, flew low over Kweilin and headed north. Once out of sight of possible local spies, the raiders turned toward Hong Kong. The fighters climbed to 20,000 feet, several thousand feet above the bombers.

In an hour they could see the hills of Hong Kong island and beyond it the usual fog banks of the South China Sea. Suddenly the formation swung sharply to the south-and Canton. Once more Chennault had tricked the Japanese, who were waiting in Hong Kong. The bombers flew over the great Whampoa docks at Canton and dumped their loads.

Within minutes two freighters were burning. As the formation began wheeling back to the north, the leader of the bombers, Butch Morgan, called, "California!" and started for Kweilin.

Only then did the Japanese fighters rise from their Canton bases to do battle. But Chennault's P-40s had the advantage of altitude and dived at the enemy like hawks. Fights ranged all over the sky, but the conflict was one-sided. Zeros were plummeting down like stricken birds. Scott ordered one man to escort the bombers to Kweilin. The rest of the Americans continued picking off the dazed Japanese fighters. The new pilots-Johnny Alison, Bruce Holloway and others-were proving worthy successors to the original Flying Tigers.

Thanks largely to Chennault's deception, twenty-seven Japanese were knocked down. It was one of the greatest air victories in Asia, greatly appreciated by the millions of Chinese spectators in Canton.

The next day the CATF ended its second series of raids with a strike at shipping in the Gulf of Tonkin. In six days Chennault's men had pounded targets eight hundred miles apart. They had destroyed seventy-one planes, three ships and innumerable supplies, at a cost of only gasoline and bombs. Not a plane, not a man had been lost.

Top: Chennault pins a Distinguished Flying Cross on the tunic of Major Edward F. Rector. Bottom: He bids good-bye to two of his aces-Rector and Hill-before they return to the States for well-earned leaves.

3.

For several months Tex Hill and Ed Rector had been sick with dysentery and malaria. And for some time Chennault had been requesting that they be sent home on leave; but General Bissell turned down the requests. After one dive-bombing attack on a gunboat-for which he eventually got a Distinguished Flying Cross-Hill was so sick he could barely climb out of his cockpit.

At last, late in November, permission came from Delhi for the two Flying Tigers to return to the United States for their well-earned leaves. Hill called his squadron together to give a short farewell speech. "If possible," he concluded, "I should like to return to the seventy-fifth after my leave." Then he turned the squadron over to Major Alison and started for India.

Rector was already on his way to an Indian hospital. But both would return to Chennault.

4.

The argument about Hill and Rector was only one of the bitter clashes between Chennault and Bissell. Chennault was annoyed by having to deal with the Chinese first through Bissell's headquarters in India and then Stilwell's headquarters in Chungking. It was, he wrote Stilwell, "unwieldy, illogical and unnecessary."

Late in January, 1943, Stilwell cut in half the deliveries of gas to the CATF. This meant there would be only 350 gallons a day, scarcely enough to warm up the engines and taxi to the runways. Consequently Chennault flew to Stilwell's headquarters to protest.

When Chennault insisted that the CATF would have to be grounded, the order was not put into effect. But even 700 gallons was not enough. Chennault was soon forced to ground his planes for twenty-two days.

Not long after Chennault returned from his meeting with Stilwell, Colonel Scott was ordered to fly to Washington, D.C., at once "for duty in the Office of the Chief of Army Air Forces." Chennault walked with Scott to the transport that was taking his fighter commander back to America.

"Tell them the truth about China," he said to Scott. "Get the facts to the people and get me some planes out here. I can win this war ... But you've got to talk."

In Washington Scott was brought to the War Room of the Army Air Forces. Here he told senior officers of all the services of the air battles in China won by Americans in obsolete P-40s at a ratio of fourteen to one.

When he had finished, General Arnold said, "Scott, you just told us the P-40 was obsolete. How then do you explain its record out there against new Jap Zeros?"

"Chennault," said Scott. "General Chennault made the difference, sir."

"I'M GLAD THAT MAN IS ON OUR SIDE...."

1.

Chennault was promoted to major general on March 3. A week later the CATF became the 14th U.S. Air Force. On paper this was a formidable organization, but in actuality little had changed. Chennault's greatest fight was not against the Japanese but for enough supplies to keep his planes in the air.

By now the trouble between Chennault and Vinegar Joe Stilwell had reached the boiling point. Stilwell, a staunch advocate of ground warfare, thought Chennault's idea of fighting the major war in China's skies was ridiculous. Planes, he felt, should merely help the infantry win the battle on the ground-where, in his opinion, all battles were won. Air power would never stop a strong ground attack. And he doubted the ability of the Chinese to defend Chennault's advanced airfields.

The relationship between Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek was far worse. The Generalissimo had no confidence in Vinegar Joe's abilities and felt China was doomed as long as Stilwell remained in command. Stilwell, in turn, did not even try to hide his own bitterness.

At this time Wendell Willkie, who had been defeated by Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, arrived in China. The President had sent him on a round-the-world trip as his personal envoy. Willkie was shocked by the state of affairs he found in China. He asked Chennault to write him a detailed letter so the President would know the difficulties of the 14th Air Force.

Others added their pleas for more aid to Chennault. Dr. T. V. Soong wrote Roosevelt's special adviser, Harry Hopkins, that Chennault should be called to Washington to discuss the matter at the conference Roosevelt and his military leaders would soon hold with the British.

Several weeks later, on April 10, Chiang Kai-shek himself radioed Roosevelt: I WOULD URGE THAT YOU SUMMON GENERAL CHENNAULT TO WASHINGTON TO LAY BEFORE YOU AND GENERAL ARNOLD THE PLAN I HAVE BEEN DISCUSSING WITH HIM. I BELIEVE THIS IS MOST NECESSARY IN ORDER TO MAKE EFFECTIVE OUR MUTUAL DESIRE TO STRIKE THE ENEMY BY AIR....

Stilwell's supporters in Washington were just as busy. General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, did not feel that Chennault alone should be called to the capital. He suggested that Stilwell and Bissell accompany Chennault. Roosevelt agreed that Stilwell should come but crossed Bissell's name off the list.

Marshall immediately radioed the news to Stilwell. On April 20 Vinegar Joe flew to Kunming. When Chennault met him at the plane Stilwell asked in surprise, "Where are your bags? Aren't you ready to go?"

"Go where?" Chennault had no idea what he was talking about.

Stilwell took Chennault behind the plane and in an undertone explained about the Washington conference. It was only on the long plane ride to the United States that Chennault began setting down a written plan for future air strategy. He knew he must convince Roosevelt and Churchill that advanced bases behind enemy lines, as well as increased supplies, men and planes, were necessary to win the war in China. He used a briefcase, held on his lap, as a desk and wrote with a pen that leaked at high altitudes. But by the time the big plane landed at Washington, the draft was completed.

The General props his briefcase on his knees and prepares to work during a flight.

The first meeting of the important Anglo-American conference-it was called "Trident"-was held at the White House at 2:30 P.M., May 12. Chennault still did not have a regulation uniform. He wore a prewar olive-drab blouse, a gray wool shirt and black tie. Some of the British wondered what nation he represented. When Churchill saw the stern man with the leathery, lined face, he is reported to have said, "I'm glad that man is on our side."

Chennault, eager to defend his plan face-to-face with his critics, was brief but graphic. He suggested using China as a platform to mount a great air offensive against Japan. All he asked was a force of 150 fighters, 70 medium bombers, 35 heavy bombers-and enough supplies and gas to operate them. This offensive, he said, should start in July when good fighting weather broke over east China.

Stilwell objected strenuously. Increased air activity would only provoke the enemy into an offensive and the east China air bases would be captured. He suggested, instead, a ground campaign to recapture Burma.

General Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson backed Stilwell. But Roosevelt was swayed by Chennault's plan to bomb ships in the Formosa Straits and the South China Sea. He asked Chennault if the new air force in China could sink a million tons of shipping a year.

"If we receive 10,000 tons of supplies monthly," was Chennault's quick answer, "my planes will sink and severely damage more than a million tons."

Roosevelt banged his fist on the desk. "If you can sink a million tons, we'll break their back."

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The Flying Tigers Part 6 summary

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