Today unexploded aircraft bombs are unearthed with frightening regularity by construction crews in Hong Kong. Residents are eager to know where these bombs originated, who dropped them, when, and what the targets were. Bailey’s account answers some of these questions and provides a unique historical perspective for Americans seeking to understand the complexities of military involvement.
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About the Author
Steven K. Bailey is an associate professor of English at Central Michigan University, where he teaches nonfiction writing courses and specializes in writing program administration. He has published articles on wartime Hong Kong in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch and is the author of Strolling in Macau: A Visitor’s Guide to Macau, Taipa, and Coloane and Exploring Hong Kong: A Visitor’s Guide to Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories.
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Eyes over Hong Kong
On September 22, 1942, Maj. Bruce K. Holloway took off from the dusty runway at Kweilin on a mission of special interest to Gen. Claire Chennault, commander of the China Air Task Force (CATF). Rather than his usual P-40E, the twenty-nine-year-old Holloway flew a Republic P-43A Lancer with a supercharger that allowed for high-altitude recon work. He banked to the southeast and climbed steeply through overcast skies that masked the war-scarred Chinese landscape far below. Holloway hoped the soup would clear by the time he reached Japanese-occupied Canton and Hong Kong, where the general wanted him to scout out shipping, harbor installations, airfields, and other high-value targets for an upcoming CATF offensive in southern China.
Like all radial-engine fighters, the P-43 had a blunt nose that made it easy to spot on an airfield full of pointy-nosed inline-engine P-40s. The Lend-Lease program had supplied the Chinese air force with 108 P-43s, which had little in common with the P-40s flown by the CATF. Though the P-43 and the P-40 flew at roughly the same top speed and had about the same operational range, the Lancer climbed faster than the P-40 and with its turbo-supercharged engine could fly as high as thirty-six thousand feet. P-40s, in contrast, got sluggish above twenty thousand feet. However, the Lancer mounted only four .50-caliber heavy machine guns as compared to the six on a P-40E. The Lancer did not have as much armor for the pilot either, and most critically of all, it lacked self-sealing fuel tanks. Consequently, the P-43 remained far more vulnerable to enemy attack. Even without bullet holes, the fuel tanks tended to leak, and the Lancer had acquired a reputation for fiery disaster. However, the P-43 turned out to be particularly well suited for recon missions in China because its speed and high-altitude performance made it difficult to intercept and invulnerable to flak. Since the CATF possessed very few recon aircraft of its own, General Chennault arranged to borrow more than a dozen Lend-Lease P-43s from the Chinese air force. CATF ground crewmen modified several of these P-43s by mounting a recon camera in the baggage compartment just behind and below the cockpit. The camera lens pointed downward through a hole cut in the bottom of the fuselage.
From the cockpit of his loaner P-43, Holloway caught sight of the Canton airfields through broken clouds, which cleared out entirely as he approached Hong Kong at twenty-five thousand feet. Far below he could see a peaceful harbor clogged with small craft, though he made his recon run at an altitude that made it impossible to differentiate between civilian junks and military targets, such as cargo lighters, launches, and patrol boats. However, a large Japanese ship anchored between the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island caught his eye, since he guessed it might weigh in at about twelve thousand tons. This made for a whale of a target. Holloway also spotted two large ships in dry dock on Hong Kong Island. He observed no activity at Kai Tak airfield and never encountered any enemy aircraft. He didn't see any flak puffs either. However temporarily, all signs of the war had vanished, and Holloway might as well have been flying over prewar Hong Kong.
Holloway touched down at Kweilin at 2:30 in the afternoon with a camera full of negatives that confirmed the presence of Japanese ships in Victoria Harbor, which was exactly what Chennault had been hoping for. Holloway also briefed Chennault on other potential targets. In his flight intelligence report, he wrote, "Cluster of five large oil reservoir tanks on north end of west side of Kowloon dock area very conspicuous target." Chennault concurred with this assessment, and on October 15 the general gave the order to launch the inaugural American raid on Hong Kong as soon as weather conditions permitted. Holloway would fly the mission, but this time he would be strapped into a six-gun P-40 with a dozen seasoned combat pilots flying on his wing. This time Chennault would send a formation of B-25 bombers, too. And this time, Holloway knew, the Japanese fighter pilots would be waiting.CHAPTER 2
In the early summer of 1937, retired U.S. Army Air Corps captain Claire Lee Chennault arrived in China to reorganize and train the poorly equipped Chinese air force. The forty-seven-year-old fighter pilot and strong proponent of air power had been recruited by Song Meiling — a woman known to most Americans as Madame Chiang — on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek, her husband and the leader of Nationalist China. War broke out with Japan later that summer, and heavy casualties rapidly reduced the number of Chinese aircraft and aviators, leaving China with little defense against Japanese air attack. By October 1938 the pilots of the Japanese army and navy had achieved complete air superiority. However, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) failed to defeat the Nationalist army on the ground despite conquering huge swaths of China. Faced with a stalemate, the Japanese high command tried to force Chiang's Nationalist government to sue for peace by bombing its wartime capital of Chungking. Japanese aircraft pounded Chungking and other Nationalist-controlled cities with impunity, an operation that killed a large number of civilians and caused heavy damage to targets that usually had little to do with the Chinese war effort.
Understanding that China desperately needed trained pilots flying modern fighter aircraft, Chiang tasked the newly promoted Colonel Chennault with organizing the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) in 1941. The U.S. military showed little enthusiasm for supporting the AVG, as the unit would siphon off some of its best aviators at a time when hostilities with Japan and Germany looked increasingly likely. However, the AVG benefited from the discreet support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the military grudgingly allowed its pilots and other support personnel to resign and join the AVG. The Nationalist government promised to pay AVG personnel an attractive salary supplemented with bonuses for every confirmed shoot-down of a Japanese aircraft. The Nationalist government also purchased one hundred P-40B Tomahawks for the AVG that had been manufactured at the Curtis-Wright plant in Buffalo, New York.
In the spring and summer of 1941, AVG personnel, supplies, and disassembled P-40Bs traveled by merchant ships to Rangoon, Burma. In the sweltering tropical heat, AVG mechanics went to work on assembling the P40-Bs, which had arrived in crates like giant model airplane kits. Once a sufficient number of Tomahawks had been assembled, AVG pilots began flight training under Chennault's supervision at a Royal Air Force (RAF) base just outside the town of Toungoo, some 170 miles north of Rangoon. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese army invaded the British colonies of Hong Kong and Malaya. The AVG received orders from Chiang Kai-shek to defend the famed Burma Road, which served as China's supply conduit to the outside world after the fall of Shanghai and other coastal cities. Chennault immediately sent two of his squadrons across the Chinese border to Kunming. The third squadron remained in Burma to fight alongside the RAF, whose pilots flew Hawker Hurricanes and Brewster Buffaloes — nicknamed Flying Barrels on account of their stubby airframes.
In the weeks that followed, AVG pilots consistently chewed up Japanese bomber formations over Rangoon and Kunming. The two cities anchored each end of China's tenuous, one-thousand-mile supply line. In Rangoon the dockside cranes plucked Lend-Lease military supplies from the holds of merchant ships. The SS Tulsa alone brought in thirty-five M-3 armored scout cars, forty-eight 75 mm artillery pieces, five hundred Bren light machine guns, one hundred .50-caliber heavy machine guns, and at least eleven thousand Thompson submachine guns. The ship carried so much weaponry and ammunition, in fact, that it provoked an unseemly squabble between the British and the Chinese over who should get the equipment. Still more vessels arrived with cargoes of disassembled trucks, which factory workers assembled at the General Motors plant near the waterfront. Longshoremen loaded the trucks and supplies onto railcars. Locomotives pulled the freight cars north through the Mandalay junction to the end of the line in Lashio, a city in northeastern Burma. Convoys of White, Mack, and Dodge trucks then hauled the ammunition, weaponry, gasoline, and spare parts to Kunming over the sinuous mountain switchbacks of the Burma Road. Keeping the road open remained vital to China's war effort, as the Japanese army well knew. It planned to invade Burma, cut the road, and stop the flow of military supplies into China, which would then have to sue for peace.
The AVG pilots tasked with keeping the supply line open painted shark mouths on the pointy noses of their Tomahawks — a paint scheme borrowed from RAF P-40 squadrons in North Africa — and used combat tactics that Chennault had devised after years of observing Japanese fighters and bombers in action over China. He had even flown a captured Nakajima Ki-27 in mock dogfights against various Nationalist Chinese aircraft, such as the British-made Gloster Gladiator, the American-made Curtis-Wright P-36, and the Russian-made Polikarpov I-16. Chennault knew the capabilities of Japanese aircraft and understood how Japanese pilots had been trained to fight, and unlike the American fighter squadrons that were being badly mauled elsewhere in the Pacific, his AVG consistently got the better of the Japanese. Rangoon-based journalists from the Chicago Daily News, Time-Life, the New York Times, and other prominent news outlets dubbed the unit the Flying Tigers. The name did not quite add up given that the unit flew P-40s with toothy shark mouths painted on their noses, but no matter — the American public seized upon this one story of Allied victory at a time when most of the front-page news involved Allied defeats.
At the end of December 1941, the newspapers reported the surrender of Hong Kong. During the first weeks of February 1942, the newspapers recounted the fall of Malaya and the mass capitulation of British troops at Singapore. At the start of March, the newspapers covered the surrender of the Dutch East Indies. The papers also reported that the Japanese army had taken Rangoon and cut the flow of military supplies into China. The Burma Road still remained open, but the loss of the Rangoon docks ensured there would be no more supply convoys churning up the mud of its hairpin curves.
As the Japanese army advanced northward from Rangoon, its forward units overran the airfields used by the AVG. The sprawling RAF airbase at Mingaladon outside Rangoon went first. The AVG training base at Toungoo went next, followed by a reserve base at Magwe. Soon the AVG had been forced out of Burma altogether, and the first convoy of ground crewmen packed up a motley assortment of twelve jeeps, eighteen trucks, and one Buick sedan that had been liberated from an abandoned Rangoon showroom. The convoy carried fuel drums, aircraft and vehicle parts, tools, radio gear, small arms, ammunition, a three-month supply of canned goods, two Siamese cats, and many cases of Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry that had been found on the docks at Rangoon. Led by AVG chaplain Paul Frillman, who drove the Buick, the convoy traveled all the way to Kunming, where the sedan became the staff car of General Chennault.
The AVG pilots, meanwhile, had been operating out of Loiwing, which lay just over the Chinese border to the northeast of Burma. At the end of April, however, Japanese columns took Lashio, and for the first time the boot prints of Japanese riflemen pocked the mud of the Burma Road. The hard-driving Japanese infantry marched up the serpentine highway and crossed the frontier into China, forcing the AVG to abandon the well-equipped aircraft repair facility at Loiwing as well. Along with an aircraft assembly plant, the AVG ground crews hurriedly attempted to destroy twenty-two irreplaceable P-40Bs that could not be repaired in time. Then they loaded up a second Kunming-bound convoy with as many spare parts and other supplies as the trucks and jeeps could carry. As Loiwing burned behind them, the ground crews joined the stream of refugees climbing the Burma Road into China. The AVG pilots, meanwhile, flew the remaining operational P-40s to Kunming. On May 3 Japanese troops entered Loiwing, where they found quantities of abandoned military supplies and half-destroyed American aircraft.
Lead elements of the Japanese offensive drove up the Burma Road to the Salween Gorge, a formidable natural obstacle some three hundred miles to the west of Kunming. From a Chinese perspective, it appeared that the Japanese intended to take Kunming. Chennault concurred with this assessment and agreed with the decision to dynamite the only bridge over the Salween River. In actuality the Japanese thrust consisted of a single motorized regiment tasked with mopping up retreating Nationalist Chinese troops that had participated in the Allied defense of Burma. Supported by AVG pilots flying hazardous ground-attack missions, the Nationalist Chinese army stalled the advance of the much smaller Japanese regiment at the gorge. By the end of May, it had become clear to all sides that Kunming would remain in Chinese hands.
The western end of the Burma Road, however, had been lost to the Japanese. To compensate for the loss of this vital supply route, a small fleet of China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) DC-3s and C-47s of the American Ferry Command (AFC) began shuttling supplies from Dinjan airfield in Assam, the easternmost point in British India, to Kunming. The only other supply conduit into China consisted of tortuous overland routes from Soviet Russia, which remained locked in a war of national survival with Germany. Stalin no longer had any war material to spare for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, so everything needed to keep China in the war would have to be flown in from India.
The CNAC — a venture jointly owned by Pan American World Airways and the Chinese government — had pioneered flights over the Himalayas in late 1941. Freight service began in March 1942 with Lend-Lease Douglas DC-3s, and daily passenger service started in June 1942. The U.S. government contracted the CNAC to fly military supplies, essential personnel, and mail to Kunming. As might be expected, given the contract from Washington and Pan American's stake in the company, many of the airline's pilots came from the United States. However, the aircrews tended to be multinational in composition, since CNAC also employed Chinese pilots, flight engineers, and radio operators.
India-based transport planes of the AFC began taking over supply operations from the CNAC in April 1942. Commanded by Lt. Col. Caleb V. Haynes, the AFC flight line in India could muster about twenty-five Douglas C-47s. The total tonnage carried in the spring and summer of 1942 came nowhere close to the amounts needed for the AVG, however, much less the amounts needed for the army and air force of Nationalist China. Given the limited cargo capacity of the C-47, not to mention the limited number of C-47s, cargo had to be prioritized. The most vital items always flew first. From mid-April to mid-June of 1942, for example, the C-47 pilots of the AFC flew in two tons of cigarettes for the nicotine-addicted men of the AVG. Aviation fuel, munitions, and spare aircraft parts also ranked high on the priority list.
Pilots referred to this hazardous five-hundred-mile journey from India to China as the "aluminum trail" in honor of the many crashed aircraft littering the flight path, which took pilots over the world's highest mountains in weather that regularly brewed up perverse amalgamations of every aviator's worst nightmares: iced-up wings, zero visibility, rivet-popping turbulence, a complete absence of navigational aids, and towering mountain faces that exceeded the ceiling for heavily loaded transports. Some pilots called the route the "rock pile" in honor of the many peaks they had to fly over or thread their way between. Most pilots simply referred to this deadly flight path as "the Hump."
In addition to the risks presented by the weather and the mountainous terrain, the prospect of getting shot down was a real possibility facing the transport pilots. AFC and CNAC transports had to cross the Hump without fighter escort, and many of the C-47s that disappeared somewhere between Assam and Kunming fell to the tracer fire of Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) fighter squadrons based at Lashio and Myitkyina in northern Burma. The Ki-43 pilots tasked with intercepting American transports referred to their missions as tsujigiri, which translates somewhat roughly as "street murder" or "street ambush." Transports caught by a tsujigiri fighter sweep had few options. Though solidly built, the slow-flying C-47s were extremely vulnerable and carried no defensive armament other than small arms. On one occasion Lieutenant Colonel Haynes and his crew chief fired .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns out the windows at an attacking fighter bent on some street murder. Fortunately, the pilot of the C-47 ended this unequal duel by diving down to treetop level, where the fighter broke off the attack for reasons that remained unclear but likely had nothing to do with the Tommy guns.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bold Venture"
Copyright © 2019 Steven K. Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations List of Abbreviations 1. Eyes over Hong Kong 2. Chennault 3. Fried Eggs or Scrambled? 4. Tai-tai! Planes Are Coming! 5. Paddy Mud 6. Night Raid on North Point 7. Somewhere in Southern China 8. Dud Bombs and Dead Fish 9. It Was a Honey 10. Colbert’s Walk Out 11. Sweepy-Time Gal 12. Gulls, Pigeons, and Jays 13. The Death of Chan Lim-pak 14. Convoy Hi-87 15. Devils Incarnate 16. Gangway Special 17. Playing with Fire 18. Bold Venture Acknowledgments Appendix Notes Bibliography Index