February 1968 Issue
By Gen. Bruce K. Holloway
Genesis of the 14th Air Force
The General Knows, Because He Was There
Ceremonies were held late last year at Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., at which a P-40 monument was dedicated as a Flying Tigers Memorial. Principal speaker was General Bruce K. Holloway, Vice Chief of Staff, U8AF, a World War II member of the 14th Air Force. Complete text of his address has been released to Ex-CBI Roundup by the Department of the Air Force.
Mix together in a large rice bowl one of the greatest air tacticians this country has produced; a handful of ex-Air Corps, Navy and Marine pilots; a combat veteran of the Spanish Revolution; some airline pilots, tired of flying straight and level; several old China hands; a missionary or two; a noted political columnist and other assorted individualists. Sprinkle liberally with Texans and you're pretty likely to get a colorful and volatile combination. That's exactly what happened in 1941 when the American Volunteer Group, or AVG-better known as the Flying Tigers-was formed by General Chennault. Predictably, the result was both vividly colorful and highly volatile-as a lot of Japanese were soon to find out.
In six months of combat, the AVG shot down 297 Japanese aircraft at a cost of only 12 American pilots. General Chennault's Flying Tigers ran up their amazing score while flying obsolescent fighter planes in the face of overwhelming numerical odds and against some well-seasoned Japanese pilots.
This remarkable band of men was the forerunner of the 14th Air Force. The story of the air war in China fought by the Flying Tigers of the AVG and their successors, the Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force, is one of the most dramatic chapters of our history. I'm sure all of you know something of that saga, but you may not know about the chain of events that led up to the 14th's soldier-of-fortune beginning.
The negotiations that paved the way for creation of the Flying Tigers date back to 1940 when the United States agreed to make available 100 P-40B's, originally programmed for Sweden, and 350 operating, and support personnel for the purpose of bolstering the Chinese against the Japanese onslaught.
The principals involved in these negotiations were Secretary of State Cordell Hull; T. V. Soong, the Foreign Minister of China; William Pawley, who organized and operated a Chinese-American company, Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (commonly known as CAMCO), which was the main supporting organization of the AVG; and General Chennault, who was to be the military leader of the outfit. Pawley and Chennault were the principal recruiters. They literally toured the world, recruiting largely from the U. S. Air Corps and Navy, as it turned out, about an equal number from each.
In May 1940, Mr. Pawley was in Hawaii where he was particularly successful in signing up a number of Air Corns reserve officers. One afternoon on the beach he held a session which I attended. I was convinced that to sign up right there was the thing to do. This didn't work, because General Frank, the Third Air Force Commander in Hawaii, made it quite clear that regular officers were not eligible. Mr. Pawley and General Chennault wisely decided that they could carry on without me, so the pilots and ground personnel whom they had recruited sailed from San Francisco in July, 1941. As it turned out, I did join the AVG in 1942 as an observer, and was able to fly combat missions with them and get to know their people and problems.
AVG training in the P-40 and the peculiarities of aerial combat in China actually began during the fall of 1941 in Burma at Rangoon, Mandalay and Mamyo-places that proved to be less romantic than Kipling made them seem. CAMCO, the maintenance and supply organization, set up housekeeping in Burma at Toungoo, later moved to Lashio, and still later to Kunming, China. The three operating squadrons were first located at Kunming, Peishiyi, and Kweil-in in China and the AVG flew its first combat mission on December 20, 1941. The group operated continuously from that date until July 4, 1942, when it was dissolved and the U. S. Army Air Forces 23d Fighter Group formed from its resources.
Perhaps not since the days of the Barbary pirates has there been a more heterogeneous and swashbuckling group than the AVG. Some of this color disappeared as time went on, but by and large, there was a great deal of individualism and room for initiative and development of air leadership in the modus operandi which we observed right up to the end of the war in China.
Quite a few AVG people became famous. General Chennault perhaps heads the list, and since you all know about him, I will merely say that like most big people, he had a few faults, but in the realm of tactical genius, he was without a peer. Columnist Joe Alsop, who somehow escaped from Hong Kong after the Japs moved in, joined the AVG and served variously as political advisor, mess officer, information officer, and general aide to the Old Man. Jim Howard later earned the Medal of Honor in Europe for taking on single-handed about 20 ME-109's. Another Medal of Honor winner was Pappy Boyington, a colorful character if there ever was one.
One of the most amazing success stories of those who served in the AVG and the 14th Air Force is that of Gerhard Neumann, who escaped from the Nazis in 1939, went to Hong Kong, and later joined the AVG. He stayed on with the Army Air Forces, was made a Master Sergeant, and was line chief of the 76th Fighter Squadron when I first knew him. Without much doubt, he was the best squadron line chief that I have ever known. He is now Vice President and General Manager of General Electric's Flight Propulsion Division, and among other honors, was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1958, for his efforts in designing the J79 engine.
Another colorful character was Brigadier General Casey Vincent, who was the youngest United States General since Custer. Milton Caniff used him as the model for the comic strip character, Vince Casey. And there were others who were distinctive in still other ways men like Ajax Baumler who had been an ace in Spain and John Alison, who later became an Assistant Secretary of Commerce and is now Vice President of Northrop. All were different; all pulled together; all understood operating discipline, and the manner of doing things in the Chennault way. There has perhaps never been another outfit like it.
|PLAQUE on monument at Gunter is headed "Challenge-Sacrifice-Victory, P-40 Tomahawk." The inscription reads: "Dedicated in September 1967 at Gunter AFB, Alabama, in tribute to the "Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Group and Fourteenth Air Force who served the cause of freedom and human dignity in the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations during World War II." Photo by Frank Swanson.|
When the 23d Fighter Group replaced the AVG, less than half of the original Flying Tigers signed up to stay on, although some would have come back later after being inducted into military service if they had been allowed home leave first. The material resources of the AVG were taken over by the 23d. Today there are to my knowledge only three of the original AVG members still on active duty in the Armed Forces-Major General Charles Bond, Colonel Gail Stubbs, and my aide, Major Henry D. Chiu (who was then a Chinese citizen).
The 23d Fighter Group remained as the real backbone of the 14th Air Force until it was deactivated in 1945, after the war with Japan had ended. In addition to the 23d Group, other fighter and bomber units were added to make up the ultimate combat forces of 14th Air Force, but it never was much larger than some of the augmented wings that operated in Europe. Its record is all the more remarkable for that fact.
If there is one word that describes the nature of operations and smpport in the 14th Air Force, it is austerity. The 14th received what was left after all priority efforts in Europe and the Southwest Pacific were satisfied. The B-24's and B-25's were first-line bombers, but even they were for the most part early models, lacking much of the equipment that was to be found in the higher priority theaters. It was late 1943 before some early model P-51's reached China, and 1944 before anything which could be called a first-line fighter arrived.
I don't want to run down the good old P-40, however. A lot of us are alive today because of its ruggedness and diving speed-two characteristics in which it excelled enemy fighters. Almost always we were heavily outnumbered by the-Japanese and inevitably took some hits. Sometimes our P-40's came back from a combat mission so full of holes you almost had to put them against a dark background to see them-but still flying. Johnny Alison's last mission with the 23d Fighter Group is a good illustration of the P-40's durability. He was climbing into a gaggle of Zeros that were after our B-24's, and had to pull up so steeply after one of them that he spun out. As he stalled, several of the Zeros hit him at once. They filled him full of holes, but he got his P-40 under control and dived away. Until he picked up speed, they kept working on him. Finally, the Zeros' fire blew his whole rudder off, and he went into a terrible skid, which slowed him way down. He tried to duck into a cloud, but one Zero was still on his tail. Fortunately, one of our Chinese pilots arrived in the nick of time and shot down the Zero.
Alison managed to keep his airplane under control even though it had no rudder and looked like a sieve. He flew it back to Liangshan where he made a good landing, but since both tires had been shot flat in the flight, and the field was soft, he nosed over. Johnny didn't get a scratch out of all this.
The reason for 14th Air Force austerity that I mentioned a moment ago was not just low priorities on equipment. We operated at the end of the longest and most difficult supply line of World War II. On an average it took from four to six months for a shipment from the ZI to reach Kunming. Everything was 100% dependent on aircraft over the Hump and transportation priorities frequently went to support for the Chinese ground forces. At times even oxcarts had priority over gasoline and ammunition for the small 14th Air Force.
Not many people appreciate the extremes of the slim diet on which we operated. For a period of two to three months, the 75th Fighter Squadron at Ling Ling had nothing but five gallon cans with which to refuel the airplanes, no cars or trucks, not even a typewriter. Ammunition boxes were carried on the backs of coolies. There was just one radio, and it could reach Kunming, about 600 miles away, only between the hours of 5:00 and 6:30 in the evening. There was a certain advantage to this. Reports were written as briefly as possible in longhand, and I would wait until near the end of the transmission period to send my plan of action back to General Chennault at Kunming. The only way he could change it would be to send someone over by plane, since all communications stopped after dark. But in spite of these deficiencies, the outfit worked well because our mission was clear, our tactics sound, and our people a pretty gung-ho lot.
Although the 14th never reached a strength of more than about 500 fighters and 190 bombers, its area of operations was as large as Western Europe, extending in an arc from Hankow in the north to Canton and Hong Kong in the south. The area included the Hanoi-Haiphong complex in Vietnam, and Japanese forces as far north as Lashio and Myitkyina in northern Burma. Our mission was a simple one: to protect the aerial supply line to China, commonly known as the Hump Run, and to use whatever additional resources we had to hit the Japs with strikes against shipping, airfields, supply dumps, harvesting operations and enemy ground forces, all on a random and surprise pattern. It was so upsetting and successful that General Takahashi, Chief of Staff, Japanese Armies in North China said: "But for the 14th Air Force, we could have gone anywhere we wished in China."
This statement brings up a rather interesting mystery with respect to the strategy of the Japanese themselves. It must surely have been known to them that at Kunming, the eastern terminus of the Hump Run, there was rarely more than three or four days supply of fuel and ammunition for the Air Force units which protected the terminus area. If the Japanese had been willing to expand enough effort for a few days running, the defenses would have folded and Kunming could probably have been taken by a relatively modest airborne force. This would have been the end of our air operations in China. In my first few months in the theater. I used to wonder when this was going to happen, but it never did. Most of the action took place farther to the east and only about once every two or three months after the AVG was well in business did the Japanese hit Kunming. Throughout 1942 and 1943 when they did attack Kunming their losses were staggering and thev would wait for a considerable period before another try.
A big reason for the successes of the 23d Fighter Group, and for that matter, the 14th Air Force in general, was the Chinese warning net that alerted us to the approach of enemy aircraft. The warning system was incredibly archaic, consisting of ground observers equipped with sundials for telling time, and old French telephones for transmitting information. Most of the reports were based on, the sound of aircraft overhead rather than on visual plots. The reports sometimes contained a lot of modulation based on Oriental "face" of one form or another. In spite of all these shortcomings, it worked, and we rarely were surprised. The warning net also would pick up our own aircraft when they were lost, and give them steers back to base. This was very important since the 14th Air Force operating environment was one of persistently bad weather, with little or no radio aids, and with cultural features for navigation limited principally to rivers and a few railroads.
I think perhaps we developed the first bad-weather landing system in China, and probably the only one in which the ground equipment was a human ear rather than electronic gadgets. At Kunming we had a let-down pattern worked out very similar to those used by jet aircraft today. The real trick was establishing the initial point and heading. This was done by a radio operator on the ground listening for the engine noise and providing verbal steers until we were on an approximately correct heading. From there on we "simply flew a teardrop pattern as we let down to land. While I was there, nobody ran into the ground.
Despite all the handicaps I've talked about: bad weather, obsolescent equipment, inadequate supplies, numerical inferiority to the enemy and an area as big as Western Europe to be covered by an Air Force not much bigger than a composite wing-despite all these handicaps, the 14th Air Force did a pretty good job.
I suppose the most easily understood index of success is the work of the fighters in air-to-air combat. According to Aerospace Studies Institute, the 23d Fighter Group marked up 941 aerial victories. This air-to-air score is slightly below the record of the 4th and 56th Fighter Groups of the 8th Air Force in Europe; however, with the 297 victories credited to the AVG. the overall total for the 23d is 1,238 enemy aircraft shot down.
In three years of operations, the entire 14th Air Force-fighters, medium and heavy bombers-destroyed 2,300 enemy aircraft and probably destroyed another 110 at a cost of 500 of our own aircraft lost from all causes. The statistics vary somewhat with their source, but taking a reasonable average, the 14th sank and damaged more than two million tons of merchant shipping. 77 naval vessels and several thousand river boats. Our fighters and bombers killed an estimated 60,000 enemy troops. Together with the Chinese Army, we kept nearly one million Japanese troops pinned down on the mainland, and without a doubt prevented the defeat of China-an event which would have had very serious consequences for the Allied campaign in the Pacific.
The record of the 14th Air Force was set by a group of unusual people who were "always short on the tools of war but always long on imagination, endurance, persistence, and guts. The greatest tribute we can pay them is to preserve the Air Force traditions of courage, ingenuity and dedication to which they contributed so much. I think those traditions and the reputation of the 14th Air Force are in good hands with the Air Force Flying Tigers of today.
|AS A MEMORIAL to the Flying Tigers of World War II, this P-40 monument was dedicated late last year at Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., now the home of the 14th Air Force. Photo by Frank Swanson.|