ON ALERT IN OPERATIONS SHACK IN HUNAN, CHINA, PILOTS LISTEN TO SCRATCHY PHONOGRAPH, SHOOT THE BULL ON TACTICS AND WISH FOR FLIGHT ORDERS.
Chennault’s fliers set incredible pace for American airpower by shooting down 150 planes for seven
By T. H. WHITE
I can’t tell you the number of planes or personnel of the China Air Task Force. It’s small – even now, the force we have in China is so small as to be negligible in any military account of strength. We have to defend from here half of China. We have to keep the air clear from Chungking and Chengtu as far south as the Salween River and as far west as Tibet. It is an unbelievable problem of logistics and tactics considering the fact that we are ringed around with enemy air bases on three sides of our positions, and that the enemy can put in the air against us anywhere from five to ten times our strength.
I can give you the figures on what we’ve done – we’ve destroyed over 150 enemy planes in the past few months. I can tell you what we’ve lost – we’ve lost one bomber in action, shot down in the Hong Kong raid. And we’ve had six fighters destroyed in action. We’ve had planes shot up on the ground, of course, when enemy numbers have simply wave-attacked us to exhaustion. We’ve had our planes come back holed and sieved by enemy anti-aircraft. We’ve have them com back bathed and stained in blood, and our men have died. But our planes have come back.
Strategically, the handful of planes out here has harassed the Japanese along a 5,000-mile front, has made such places as Canton and Hong Kong tremendous drains on the Japanese Air Force. It’s unbelievable, some of the exploits we’ve conducted – we went over Canton one day and shot down 27 enemy fighters without losing a plane of our own. On that day we hit a Japanese supply ship hauling in assembly parts for the Zero assembly plant in Hong Kong. The Chinese told us that engines and assemblies for 500 fighters went down on the ship we sank.
It’s almost funny the kind of planes we have out here. Some of our P-40’s are the stuff the A.V.G. used to use. They’re ancient and rickety planes by now, and nowhere else are people fighting in that kind of machine. But we are. Newer P-40’s here are being used for every purpose in the world – for fighting, for reconnaissance, for dive-bombing, for level bombing, for strafing. Colonel Scott, the chief of our fighters, says that when they make the P-40’s watertight, we’ll use them as submarines too.
Sometimes we read in the papers from the States about the marvelous P-51’s and P-47’s that are just pouring off the assembly lines. It reads good. When the war’s over we expect to go back home and see them in a museum. Meanwhile everyone here makes the most of what he’s got. The P-40’s were outdistanced by the Zero long ago, but we got some aluminum fuel tanks to attach beneath them as auxiliaries and they work well. That’s why we can fight over Hong Kong and Canton, and go on fighter sweeps into Burma.
Our bombers are okay – B-25’s – the most solid, sturdy bomber ever built. The Japanese had a wobble gun in their bombers. So Captain Elmer Tarbox, one of our bomber pilots, decided we should have one too. We designed and built our own wobble gun in the tail of the B-25 and now our tail has a sting in it. That wasn’t enough though; we experimented a bit more and plugged some gun muzzles in the nose of the B-25. That worked well, so now every bombardier has a gun too. We sling more lead from our formations than any other medium bomber outfit in the world. We sling it from above, behind, underneath and in front.
You ought to see one of our formations going over the target. I’ve been on five raids now and I still can’t get over that insane thrill of exultation when the flight heels over as one plane, so close we can almost spit down on our wing man, or “low Joe,” and every gun on every angle is laying down a screen of fire all about us. It’s suicide for the Japanese to close in on us. We always get more than our share. But the Japanese keep closing. They’re the original suicide boys.
That’s the Force. It’s one of the most magnificently tempered instruments America has ever produced. It’s a precision tool for precision bombing, as accurate as a death-dealing micrometer. But a tool is only a tool. It depends on the guy who uses it. And the man who wields that tool is General Chennault.
I don’t know whether Chennault is a great strategist or not. But I think he’s the greater air tactician of this war. He’s a guy who doesn’t talk much, but thinks and thinks and thinks. He used to sit under the trees in Chungking during the great raids of 1939 and 1940 and watch those Japanese come over day after day, and figure out just how they could be hit and hurt. When he had it figured out, he went back and organized the A.V.G.’s and hit them and hurt them. He figures out plane specifications on paper and translates those specifications into tactics.
He thinks in terms of what the Japanese think, and makes them jump first. He outwits them. He took those old P-40’s of the A.V.G. and modeled his tactics to fit their specifications – the dive, the single pass, the straight getaway, and then come in for more. Don’t dogfight, don’t climb under them, come in from the side. Chennault says that if he had the Zero in his command, he could change his tactics and fight the P-40 in the enemy’s hands and come off even better than he’s doing now.
Mobility, of course, is the touchstone of military genius. And mobility is our force out here. With maybe ten major centers that require fighter protection, Chennault manages to have his few fighters everywhere they’re needed whenever they’re needed. When you go on a party with Chennault it seems that you skip down through half the bases of Central China. You’re in to your striking base, you hit, and then you’re out again. He flicks his bomber force around like you’d flick a whiplash. Flick and back, flick and back.
We start out somewhere in the mountains and hop down in the night or the early morning. The Chinese are ready for us at the striking base. The dawn comes up from behind us and the hills and mountains are like cut black paper silhouetted against the growing light. Before you know it, the squadrons are gathering. The airfield is empty in the morning. Then you hear a buzz. Maybe it’s Colonel Scott who usually comes in first, and he slips down onto the field with the flourishing landing he likes to assume. Then zingo, more P-40’s, a few culled from each base, all of them in for the party. It’s fun watching a party start. You get the old hands, the veterans of four or five months. Tex Hill and Eddie Rector, and Major Allison and Colonel Scott. And maybe four or five green kids in for the first time on a big show, standing around waiting for the bombers, listening to the big shots talk, everybody hoping like hell he can paint a Japanese flag on his ship when the show is over. Then the heavy drone of the bombers and the big stuff comes floating in.
|Chief of fighter pilots in China was Colonel Robert Scott of Macon, Ga., a lone-wolf ace whom his men loved. Scott now commands a school for fighter tactics in Arizona.|
Nobody knows what we’re going to sock except General Chennault and maybe the chief of the bombers or fighters. Chennault crouches up there under a rock ledge or in a cave on the hillside and looks at the field. He talks to his bomber chief and his fighter chief, all of them crouching Chinese style on their haunches in the open and nobody can overhear what they’re saying. It’s only when the motors are turning over that we get the final briefing that tells us where we’re going. We hit for four or five days, hit all around the compass, and then suddenly the field is empty again and we’re back in the safe bases in the rear among the mountains, deep behind the net. The Japanese call this guerrilla stuff, and their radio gripes like hell because we won’t stay and fight. But it works, boy, how it works.
There’s probably less red tape in this war area than any other under our flag. The red tape is catching up with us now, forms we have to fill in for Washington, paper work that’s beginning to accumulate. But this is the way we work: we sit around the staff office and the bomber chief says to the fighter chief, “Let’s go down next week and tear the hell out of Hanoi.” And the fighter chief says, “Can you give me four or five days till I get a few more ships in condition?” Then they get down and they really do knock the guts out of Hanoi.
Like football coaches planning plays
I get a big kick out of seeing men as young as myself organizing such spectacular demonstrations of arms. Take the squadron leader of our outfit, Lieut. Colonel Ed Basye. Basye is only 28 years old but when he takes that flight over the target he’s responsible for the lives of some 70 men. He looks over the photographs the reconnaissance men bring in and picks out what he wants. he calls in Stout and they plot the target. They send up to barracks and all the boys are in the shack in an hour or so. It’s like a football session. The guys crouch low on their haunches or stand around chewing gum and Ed gives them the dope – just as if he were the captain handing out the other team’s trick plays and telling the boys how they are to work a spinner, who takes the ball, who does the blocking and who receives the pass. That football simile is one I like very much. Chennault would be the head coach. Colonel Vincent is chief of staff – he’s only 28. He’d be the assistant. Butch Morgan, who is A-2 for bombardment, would be line coach. Colonel Scott, who commands the fighter group, would be backfield coach. The squadron leader is captain. The coach works out the plays on paper and talks them over with the other coaches. Then the boys work them out.
What I like, too, is the whole pictorial quality of the operations. There’s the alert shack. In one end is the operations room where Basye and the operations officer sit, and the two sergeants with the single telephone. The squadron library is there with twelve books and a half dozen ancient magazines. That’s the place where the boys do their real serious strategic bulling – where they wonder what’s cooking in Burma, how to hit the Japanese, why they missed on that last run, what the hell the score is in Libya. The alert crews are there from before dawn every morning till after dusk. There’s a phonograph in the corner and it plays and plays. The needles are old an the records are old and scratchy. They play mostly Bless Them All and In the Valley and a few Dinah Shore vocals. There’s no classical stuff, but nobody seems to ask for any. There’s no Maxine Sullivan and the boys would sure like to hear her. Sometimes somebody back home sends records but they’re invariably packed so poorly that they’re smashed. There are all sorts of boxes in the shacks and a couple of torn cots; somebody is usually sleeping on them. There are bulletin boards all around with all sorts of new orders and standing orders, and occasionally congratulations from General Marshall or General Stilwell.
The men who write the Army regulation books would be shocked if they could see the way the China Air Task Force dresses. The boys are dressed in old sweaters and old shirts, in woolens and cottons, in any old kind of boots and sandals. Some of them wear Army sheepskins, and others wear native-cured leather jerkins to keep warm. A lot of the boys wear Chinese Army caps with the oriental visor that makes them look like peanut vendors. Some of the spick-and-span officers coming up from the rear accuse us of being dirty, filthy and unwashed. But there’s no point in shaving every day if there are no girls around, and we take baths often enough to keep us healthy.
We “sir” the men who deserve it
You don’t stand up when the superior officers come in, not even for the highest brass, not even for a silver star. Once a party of winged colonels came in from the Inspector General’s office. Some officious young captain yelled” “Attention” and everybody snapped erect, thinking it was at least General Stilwell. There was
|Ace Albert Baumler of Bayonne, N.J. has downed German, Italian, and Jap planes.|
|Ace John Allison of Gainesville, Fla. added two bombers to score in one fight.|
plenty of grousing when they found it was only a colonel. We salute when we think it’s important and we “sir” the men who deserve it. General Chennault is treated with the same reverence by his men that the twelve disciples gave Christ. But he earned it. I’ll bet ours is the only outfit in the world where you can find a sergeant asking his colonel if he can borrow the colonel’s car to do a personal errand. And the colonel says yes.
It’s that way for the boys all day, except for the raids which give them four or five hours in the fresh clean air. They play poker, red dog and cribbage. Money has absolutely no value in China. The country is so blockaded that paper money can’t procure any sort of goods. The only thing you can do with it is send it home to your folks or play poker. I know one lieutenant who has sent home over $2,000 to his wife since he’s been here. In some of the poker games they ante for $1 and raise for $5, and some games ante for $1 and have no limit. Oddly enough, the enlisted men play for much higher stakes than the officers. There are a few real players among the enlisted men who fleece the sheep by about the 10th of the month, and then settle down to cut each other’s throats. One fellow, a master sergeant, has banked $7,000 in winnings since the war broke out, and is worried about his income tax.
To get back to the pictorial quality of this fighting – I don’t mean the great scene of battle, the moment when the bombs are dropping and the guns are firing. I mean all the other pictures of life. There’s the scene when you stand in the doorway of the shack and watch the boys, hunched up and bundled in warm clothes, walk out across the long field to the planes. You stand there in the shack with the phonograph playing and you see them split into groups of four or five, diverging across the field to the planes spread out in dispersion, and climbing in. Then you hear the motors sputter up or you see the crew sweating as they walk those propellers around. The jeep runs about among them to find out whether or not they’re ready. When they are they trundle over that taxiway like awkward docile cattle being shepherded along by the little jeep. Then the runway itself is clear for the mission and off they go, howling in full blast down the runway into the dust, up into the air, over old Baldy, our mountain landmark, over the lake and suddenly they’re graceful in the air. They circle around the lake once or twice, get in formation and away they fly in terror and beauty. If you’re not along on that mission, you feel confused and sad, and left behind.
Night fights are the most beautiful of all. The great blue arc lamp on the field makes everything a ghost scene, the planes silhouetted against them, the incandescent orange-white exhaust, the red and green wing lights they use to make formation. It’s the most aesthetically satisfying thing I’ve seen in the past five years; and I’ve seen everything from Javanese dances to Angkor-Vat at sunset. You have to see the way the red tracers light up the night to understand beauty.
A lot of bombings take place that are not quite according to regulations. In the early days the tail gunner used to carry a sackful of small fragmentations. He was supposed to drop them when he got the signal from the turret gunner who was watching the main bomb bay. On one flight a tail gunner was kicked in the shoulder by the turret gunner, and thinking it was his signal, he released his bombs. The turret gunner was very angry – he had kicked the tail man only to have him close the hatch through which a frigid blast was blowing. But a few weeks later an intelligence report came through congratulating the flight on the extraordinarily precise bombing of a barge load of Japanese soldiers in the river. The bombs had dropped directly on the barge and sunk it.
War as a substitute for sex
I think maybe war is a substitute for sex. It is the only comparable release from tension. It’s just that gun throbbing beneath you, or the feel of the bomb switch or the roar of the engines – it beats into you elementally with all the rhythm of life itself. Sex is a hell of a problem out here, especially on a dull week when there’s nothing doing. A surprising number of the married men are continent. They just believe in being faithful. That may be because they’re in China, where syphilis is rampant and there is no companionship with English-speaking girls.
|Insignia of China Air Task Force is the flying tiger of Chennault’s earlier A.V.G. units, with addition of Uncle Sam’s hat to show it is now part of U.S. Army Air Force.|
It’s the A.V.G.’s who made things difficult here for the rest of us. The A.V.G.’s were young Sir Galahads in the air, but on the earth they were truer to the American pattern. They used to have lots of fun. Once they went into a Chinese play, and in the middle of it they raided the stage and carried off the leading lady. When they evacuated Rangoon, they evacuated six Burmese girls with them. They got as far as one little Burmese village and one of the boys decided to marry his girl. According to American law, the mayor of a town has the right to perform marriage ceremonies, so they all got together and decided to elect one of their number mayor of the village. And right then and there the newly elected mayor spliced the couple. Well, what with one thing and another, the American boys here got the reputation of being just a little bit eager. Chinese parents are afraid to let their daughters go out with them.
Yet the relations between our men and the Chinese are really wonderful. You drive a jeep downtown and all the little Chinese bare-bottom kids run out yelling “Okay, okay.” Our boys play with them and give them money and the kids just love them. The Chinese sentries and our boys get along perfectly. Our boys have learned two words, Ting hao and Hae. The boys like the sentries and the Chinese troops are proud as hell to be guarding our airfield. For fun, one day, one of the boys tried to get a Chinese soldier to pose with his bayonet attacking an American pilot. The Chinese was insulted. He wouldn’t take any such pose. “Bu Hao,” he said, “Mei-kuo shih peng-yu.” (Not good. American is friend.) Our boys have learned a couple of other expressions: they know that they are Mei-kuo jen and they yell that too at the Chinese sentries. The local brew is always called Chin-Pao juice (Chin-Pao means air raid alarm), whether it’s yellow wine or Maotai or Kaoliang or the fierce local brew they make down South of anisette that tastes like absinthe and leaves you with a head bigger than a cockpit.
Life in China is full of minor inconveniences. This is the end of the line of American dispersion and we get what’s left. The men feel that they are forgotten. There are no magazines or books for us. It would be the easiest thing in the world to get a few copies of fresh American periodicals up here, but they never get over the Hump. One or two of the shipments have bothered the boys very much. There was one consignment of wave-set-oil that puzzled them considerably.
The food is damn good for China, but it’s not what the Americans have been accustomed to. The coffee is rotten, and there is no beer. There is no American toilet paper and, as one colonel said to me: “Anybody only has to use this Chinese toilet paper once to know what we’re fighting for.” The boys up in China have been standing alert and on duty for eight or nine months and some of them have not had a single furlough. A man who goes out on mission day after day has to have a break from the nervous strain; and they aren’t getting it. In other war areas such as Libya or India or Australia, the men get down to a big city every few months, but not in China. Nobody wants to spend the war in Delhi. But the tales of the pleasures of the Headquarters at Delhi (The Delhi Per Diem Club) filter through and make the boys green with envy.
“The bomb bounced out among us”
War is death, and no matter how dull, dirty or dangerous your work, death is always just around the corner. It’s only in Hollywood that all our bombers return safely. Sometimes you have a narrow escape and you laugh about it for weeks. For instance, when I was coming home from the Hanoi raid, we had particularly rough weather crossing the Hump. All our bombs hadn’t cleared the run, and there was one beautiful live yellow fragmentation that we didn’t know about bouncing around in the bomb bay all the way home. When we got back to the airfield somebody just casually pressed open the bomb-bay door, and out bounced the frag on its nose right among us. We all laughed like hell. But that’s nothing. I imagine for every man killed in war there is at least one more who had an escape as narrow as that. There are fellows who dove planes through ack-ack with bullets passing between the back of their neck and the seat plate. There are fellows who just bent down over the bombsight and the bullets passed precisely through the pane of Plexiglas where their head was a moment before.
There are guys who have done better than that. There was one fellow who was hopped by two Zeros simultaneously. He dove out in a power dive, leveled off over a Chinese water ditch with his plane burning, still pursued by the Zeros. His plane speed was slowing down and there was no chance of getting away. He was only about 200 ft. above the ground so he jumped out of the plane, which was doing about 200 m.p.h. He landed in the water
|Anxiously searching the sky Chennault awaits return of two P-40’s missing from battle that sent 29 Jap planes crashing. Colonel Cooper, Lieut. Grossclose are at left.|
ditch, believe it or not, with only simple bruises. To be perfect that story should wind up with “he lived happily ever after.” But the next week he was killed in action.
They do get killed. We bury them, when we can find their bodies, in an old Chinese cemetery near the main base. That’s the only occasion besides the decoration ceremonies for which the boys dress in full uniform. It strikes you very sharply how handsome these American boys are when you see them clinging on those rugged bumpy trucks, riding out to the ceremony all dressed in their sharpest regulation. There will be a firing squad standing beside the flag-covered coffin. While the Chaplain is reading the service there will fly overhead a perfect formation of our bombers – sinister, black and low in the shy, in perfect diamond bombing pattern, droning like the toll of doom. Then there is the volley and we all salute. And then the Chinese trumpeter, dressed in ragged puttees and soiled Chinese uniform, puts his bugle to his mouth and blows taps. It goes on a descending scale, not on an ascending peaceful scale like our own taps. It is a true dirge and very depressing.
Bomber pilots are different from pursuit pilots, I find. Bomber men are more steady, less volatile. They are usually more thickset, the kind of man who has a bay window when he matures. The pursuit pilots are thin, spare, light men. There are all kinds of pursuit men in this C.A.T.F. The greatest of them all was their commander, Colonel Robert Scott, who left just recently to take over a training field back home. He has a thick Southern accent that gets smoky with suppressed excitement when he is angry. He is full of jokes and stories and flourishes, even in the way he flies his plane. he is the lone-wolf type of pilot – likes to get out on his own and shoot up the field or break away from formation and head after that Zero in the corner which seems to be slipping away. His men are crazy about him.
Starting over Hong Kong alone
There is Lieut. Colonel Bruce Holloway – a crazy man, a perfect leader. Holloway is the kind of fellow who goes down to Hong Kong all by himself and stunts, zooms and buzzes all over the island for 15 minutes with no one to come up and accept his challenge. There is Grant Mahoney of California who got five on the ground in Java and the Philippines and four in the air. He has been sweating out his fifth plane now for two months, ever since he wangled leave to go back to a combat area. He is now our outstanding reconnaissance pilot and ranges all over Asia looking for game. He’s had no luck so far – got one steam roller when he wiped out a Japanese airport a few weeks ago. That railway train bothers him when he gets tight. He complains that the train couldn’t maneuver very well on those tracks to get out of his way.
There’s another ace we have here who hasn’t been mentioned much in dispatches but deserves all praise: that’s Captain Baumler of Bayonne, N.J. “Ajax” is a real tough guy, and he’s been fighting for a long time. He was one of the American volunteers who went over and fought for Loyalist Spain. He’s one of the few American pilots who has the extraordinary pleasure of shooting down German, Italian and Japanese planes. Ajax is the kind of pursuit pilot the bombers love – he won’t leave formation for anything in the world, he sticks on the tail of the bombers he’s escorting, come hell or high water, and will peel off only when they’re being attacked.
And I mustn’t leave out Johnny Allison from that list of heroes. Allison, Scott and Baumler are our three great aces in this war theater. They’re all griped because they are administrative men and they can’t get out and fight more often.
As a group, these C.A.T.F. people are curious. The top command is almost entirely Southern. The Southern mentality I find is essentially a combat mentality and a glorious one. I never knew much of the South back home, but the American consul here, Ludder, who comes from Massachusetts like myself says, “I don’t see how the hell we ever licked them.”
Men from the South and the Far West seem to do best in individual combat action. But the thing that bothers me most is the absence of the old Yankee type in this combat theater. I don’t know what’s become of them and it bothers me greatly because the shrewd cold Yankee mentality is one of our greatest military assets. I hope that our New England boys are doing well in England and Africa – they must be somewhere. The only New England boy I know of who is really turning them up is barney Barnum. Barnum isn’t just one of those boys who went to Yale, he is the typical “Yale man” – made the best clubs, rowed on the crew, and after his graduation joined the Yale Club of New York, of which his grandfather was a founder. Barney is a combative, aggressive man. Once he was sweating it out at a mid-China air base, trying to whip some P-40’s into operative shape after they had been banged about, when there came an air alarm. Barney immediately took off in one of the planes he had patched up himself and engaged an entire flight of Japanese on his own. He broke up their entire formation and scored at least two probables. He got the DFC for that but Barnum says: “The hardest part of all was the fact that they came over before breakfast.”
I think that the lack of the New England mind in the higher ranks of the Army is a great shortcoming. What we need out here is a group of trained analysts and economists to break down the structure of Japanese economics on paper and select our strategic targets with a view to striking at the few vital cords that keep Japan’s industry bound together. Hit-and-run bombing is spectacular, but concentrated economic bombing, in co-ordination with the Board of Economic Warfare, would bring down the whole Japanese Empire sooner than anyone believes.
At present there is no great need of such an economic-intelligence general staff, for wherever the C.A.T.F. hits it is bound to hot something of vital importance. But what we need out here is a really major bombing concentration poised along the China Coast. The whole Japanese Empire is exposed to us from the rear, all its sea lanes lie under our threat. If only we had a few hundred bombers here and the trained men to select their targets, we could cause the Japanese Empire to collapse of its own weight.
One thing that really irritates the men here are some of those radio broadcasts and stray magazines from America – those pages and pages of advertisements of perfumes and French patisseries and sheer silk stockings. Whee!
|At sound of air raid warning U.S. fighter pilots in China forget their isolation and boredom, dash for shark-faced P-40 planes and another fight to scatter invading Japs.|
Those columns on where you can find good eating in New York and just how Lily Bell’s at 49th Street males the loveliest flaky crispy cuplets for strawberry and raspberry cream desserts turn our stomachs. But most fun is to see a picture of some society playboy at the races or at Palm Beach, dressed in gray woven-wool sports suit with a gray tie with light blue dots.
The commentators on the radio amuse us too – they always know everything. We get out and bomb Hong Kong and they tell us the strategic implications of it; the typewriter generals stink to high heaven out here. But the kind we hate worst of all is the guy who comes in over the air with a smoky reassuring voice telling us all that if only we can trade “plane for plane and man for man” with the Japanese, we will win because our capacity for replenishment is greater than theirs. They ought to see what it means to sweat a single replenishment over the Hump to China – and they ought to meet one of two of the guys whom they want to trade off man for man. We definitely don’t like this man-for-man stuff.
LIFE’S COVER: The $3,000,000 Jefferson Memorial, which is ready for dedication this week, is here seen across the Washington Tidal Basin, framed by the Japanese cherry trees. Authorized by Congress in 1934, the memorial was designed by John Russell Pope, Otto Eggers and Daniel P. Higgins. Mr. Pope died a year before ground was broken in 1938.
Adapted by Carl W. Weidenburner
from the April 12, 1943 issue of LIFE.
Portions copyright 1943 Time, Inc.