July 1976 Issue By Lt Col Kenneth Kay, USAF (Retired)
Reprinted from AIR FORCE Magazine
Of all the maverick units that have enlivened the history of air combat, one of the least-known was created in 1943 as part of Claire Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force. Binational, bilingual, and eventually bisected by China's internal power struggle, it was...
Every airpower buff knows about the Lafayette Escadrille and the Eagle Squadron and the AVG, maverick units in which Americans in two world wars flew for foreign nations. All three have been repeatedly glamorized and publicized by books and films and magazine pieces. To say that is intended in no way to deny them the glory they richly earned. But, except for a handful of aging warriors who served in it forty-odd years ago, hardly anyone has ever heard of the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW) of Claire Chennault's ragged Fourteenth Air Force in China Theater of World War II. And that's a great pity, because it was as maverick an outfit as ever existed, a totally unique binational mixed fighter and bomber wing in which Americans and Chinese flew together against the Japanese. There had been a Chinese Air Force at the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, mainly American trained and equipped but it had been virtually wiped out in the first days of fighting, leaving only a few obsolete airplanes and half-trained pilots. Therefore, China lay defenseless against Japanese airpower except for one small volunteer Russian air group that fought on for some two years before ceasing to exist. Then came Chennault's storied American mercenaries, the Flying Tigers of the AVG whose shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawks created legends in the few months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But combat attrition and the fall of Burma that cut off its logistical base finished the AVG, too, and by summer 1942 only a tattered remnant remained that Chennault (by then recalled to active duty from disability retirement as an AAF brigadier general while continuing to be Chiang Kai-shek's air adviser) used as a nucleus for his US China Air Task Force that in turn became the US Fourteenth Air Force. The Fourteenth was about as starved as the AVG had been, relying wholly for fuel, ammo, and spares on ATC cargo planes flying the Himalayan Hump. Despite the shortages, the Fourteenth achieved a spectacular kill ratio against the Japanese, due in no small measure to the brilliant air-to-air tactics the leather-faced Chennault drilled into his pilots. But successful as the Fourteenth was, it was powerless to halt Japan's ground advance across China, and no one knew it better than Chiang Kai-shek. The Fourteenth needed to be augmented by a new, revitalized Chinese Air Force, he believed, and in the spring of 1943 he sent Chennault to Washington to plead his case for one. The timing was right. China loomed large in American strategic thinking at that stage of the war. Many planners believed that the final assault on the Japanese home islands, considered a prerequisite to final victory, would have to be launched from the Chinese mainland. Keeping China in the war until that time was mandatory, and a combat-worthy Chinese Air Force, helping the Fourteenth contain Japan's China-based air, would be an invaluable asset. Generals Hap Arnold and George C. Marshall listened to Chennault's presentation of Chiang Kai-shek's proposals and bought them. The CACW was born.
The Chinese-American Composite Wing
A Wing Is Born It was a hurried birth and a messy one. American air units deploying overseas in wartime usually got their gear and trained together first. That's what T-O & Es were for. But the CACW began as an idea and a list of names typed on Special Orders. All across the United States every kind of MOS to man bobtailed P-40 and B-25 squadrons and their administrative higher headquarters got orders and proceeded to the Miami POE in a state of bewildered elation. Miami was congested with all kinds of personnel sweating out embarkation, some stuck there for weeks. But the CACW people were processed and pushed through. Maybe a week and a half after getting their orders, they were being set down on a former RAF base in the sandy Sind Desert a few miles inland from Karachi. There, they found themselves shaking hands with a host of smiling, bowing, equally perplexed Chinese Air Force officers and men. In the USAF's Alfred E. Simpson Historical Research Center at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, the official history of the Chinese-American Composite Wing, yellowing on a shelf as time passes, relates that the CACW was activated at Malir Field, Karachi, India (now Pakistan), by paragraph 2, General Order 32, Headquarters XIV US Air Force, dated 31 July 1943. Its mission: "To train Chinese Air Force personnel in all phases of combat operations including maintenance and administration." Reading those words now, all these years later, brings a smile of reminiscent regret to anyone who, like the author, was there at the time, part of the great enterprise. How vainglorious, even bumptious, those words sound. In the light of history, it is easy to see how foredoomed to failure that mission was because of linguistic, logistical, and above all, political difficulties. But in the blazing Indian desert heat of summer 1943, there were no doubts at all. We were filled with the confidence of youth and the valor of ignorance. And the Chinese we had been sent to help were so likable. That was never to change, right to the end of the war. The Chinese are naturally courteous, ingratiating people and the average American likes them instinctively, which may account for the historic friendship that had existed between our two countries. Except for two or three Old China Hands who were our intelligence officers, few Americans in the CACW knew anything about China or the Chinese people. Warner Oland as "Charlie Chan" in the movies, a waiter in a chop suey restaurant, that was about it. But these were real people, these slender, eager young men in mustard-yellow uniforms we were to go to war with. They spoke little English, but it was far more than the Chinese any of us knew, and they learned faster than we did. Above all, they were infinitely patient, gracious, willing. If they complained about anything we didn't know it. And there were legitimate grounds for complaint. The P-40s and B-25s waiting for us on the flight line at Malir were war-weary veterans of Libya and sometimes they flew and sometimes they didn't. Except for the personal tool boxes our mechanics had hauled as hand baggage from the States, we had nothing to work with. The Tenth Air Force people at Karachi were friendly, but they had a war to fight at the end of a global supply line, too, and couldn't help much. Our basic equipment was somewhere on the high seas, everybody assured us, and would arrive some day. Meantime, we went on with what there was. We boresighted guns with a Hindu-made carpenter's level; improvised tow targets; armed Russian bombs with Chinese fuses; hammered back together airplanes that fell apart landing.
Silly things happened and tragic ones: Chinese gunners misunderstood what their American pilots said on the intercom and needlessly bailed out of their B-25s for long walks home across the desert; two Chinese pilots who had trained at Luke Field stalled out their P-40s and spun in; a deputation of camel drivers complained that the Chinese had deliberately strafed their caravan and "three of those camels had been pregnant to boot." And if you didn't watch them like a hawk, the Chinese armorers would pour so much gun oil on the caliber .50s that they'd gum up at altitude and stop firing. But generally the training went well, and no two peoples of contrasting cultures and different tongues ever worked better together. Reporters for American news magazines filed stories describing how our American officers and noncoms lectured their Chinese opposite numbers on tactics and techniques through Chinese interpreters, and photographers took glossy prints of American and Chinese pilots swaggering in from the front line, 'chutes slung over their shoulders, side by side like debonair brothers. Ready for Combat The brotherliness was no press agentry either. By October, when the first increment of the CACW - two fighter squadrons and their group headquarters, one bomb squadron and its group headquarters - was ready to take its brand-new airplanes across the Hump and into the war, it was combat-ready. The aircrews could fly and shoot and bomb, and the ground crews knew their stuff, too. There was total cooperation and harmony. The mechanics and armorers and radio technicians and all the rest had worked out a bastard English-Chinese lingua franca that provided effective communication in the shops and along the flight line. The Chinese officers gave banquets for the American officers. The GIs gave their poorly paid Chinese alter egos various treats. To an amazing extent the weeks of desert training had made the CACW a kind of bilingual military family. The Americans were the teachers and the bosses, but nobody pushed authority or pulled rank, and sensibilities were protected. It was a comradely bunch of men who went to war together. The arrival of the first increment of the CACW at Kweilin in South China with twenty-four P-40s and twelve B-25s virtually doubled the tactical strength of the Fourteenth Air Force. There was still practically no maintenance equipment available. But spirit was high. The pilots were eager to fight. The ground crews had learned to make do and improvise. The airplanes at least, with their handsome blue and white star of Kuomintang markings on wings and fuselages, were there and ready to go. There were drums of aviation gasoline in the limestone caves of the conical South China mountains and rows of hundred-pound GP bombs and belts of machine gun ammo the Chinese had been hoarding so long it was green with corrosion. We polished it by hand and strained the gasoline through shammies. We sandpapered the P-40 wings to get an extra five mph in a dive, and waited for orders. The first big strike came Thanksgiving Day when the 1st Bomb Squadron, in coordination with and under the operational control of the Fourteenth Air Force's 68th Composite Wing, struck Shinchiku Airdrome on Formosa, where for many months the Japanese had believed themselves to be virtually invulnerable. It was a smashing success, as such things were measured in China. Forty-two Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground, along with supplies and buildings, without the loss of a single CACW airplane. It was a time of jubilation. The premise on which the Wing was founded - to train and lead Chinese airmen so effectively that within a year they could operate with no further American participation - looked as if it could not fail.
So it continued to be as the autumn gave way to winter. The fighters and bombers of the CACW swept the Formosa Straits and the South China Sea, sinking Japanese shipping. The commander of the bomb squadron single-handedly sank an estimated 28,000 tons. Small though it was, the bobtailed CACW was helping the weary Fourteenth inflict painful wounds on the Japanese giant. The long-promised unit equipment from the States never arrived, but nobody minded much, as long as there was gasoline and ammo. Japanese bombers hit us at night, but we salvaged parts from our airplanes that their daisy-cutters had smashed (which eased the problem of spares) and kept going. The second increment came in from India to round out the 3d Fighter Group and 1st Bomb Group, and CACW had become a force of some potency. Through the winter and into the spring of 1944, its fighters and bombers struck repeatedly at Japanese installations in Hankow, Kiukiang, Wuhan, Hong Kong, Canton, anywhere they could reach within their limited range. The operations began to grow costly in terms of airplanes and pilots. It was understandable. In the stress of combat, Chinese wingmen sometimes misunderstood their American flight leaders instructions and peeled off for home, leaving them undefended. It was understandable, but it was not easy to forgive when the flight leaders were killed. Which began to happen with increasing frequency. Disturbing Event On the ground, though, harmony continued to prevail. There were four messes operated by the Chinese service organization that supported the CACW, one for American officers, one for American EM, two similar ones for the Chinese, but along the flight line things were still easy and fraternal. But odd and vaguely disturbing events began to occur. Now and then the Chinese group commanders in their polite, urbane way, protested mildly against targets they considered too well defended. They were overruled and yielded gracefully, but in some mysterious fashion all the gasoline would suddenly vanish and the Chinese base commander, charged with logistical support, would have no idea why he had run out. Bad records, he might say apologetically, but it cut no ice. The airplanes sat. As the official Wing history puts it to frequent laconic phrase: "The squadron ran out of gas and all activities ceased." The Americans would grumble, the Chinese would lay on lavish banquets with many toasts in rice wine to brotherhood, and later on when the Americans would agree to strikes against less dangerous targets the airplane fuel would magically reappear. By June 1944, when most of the CACW units had been moved north to help block the Japanese drive up the Yellow River, it began to dawn on the Americans that their Chinese comrades might be subject to restraints they knew nothing of. Chinese top cover for American dive-bombing missions failed to appear and there was never an explanation. Chinese pilots who had proved their courage beyond doubt began to turn back rather then risk fighting. No one could understand what was happening. Ultimately the liaison officer of the Chinese Air Force 4th Group conceded to a CACW intelligence officer that "Our basic principle is to avoid in the use of our aircraft contact with the enemy." The effect of this on the Americans was consternation. They had come to China to fight a war and win it. You didn't do that by ducking fights. They argued and pleaded and stormed, but it was useless. The Chinese smiled, invited them to banquets, lost the gasoline again. So it went until after the summer campaign of 1944 that finally brought the Japanese ground advance to a halt, but at the cost of the majority of American-manned aircraft in the theater. In any event, China was beginning to lose its prominence in strategic planning. American successes in the Pacific were slowly building a bridge of islands toward the heart of the Japanese empire, and capture of the Marianas provided staging bases for B-29 operations far superior to those around Chengtu in western China. More and more Americans in China began to feel that the war was moving on, leaving them forgotten and neglected. Resignation and Disenchantment Nobody ever came right out and said so, but information trickling down from Kunming and Chungking to units in the field made it ever clearer that the Chinese component of the CACW could be counted on for less and less. There was not much acrimony over this; it was more a matter of resignation and disenchantment. The original Americans in the Wing, those who were still alive and hadn't rotated home, still had their warm friendships with the original Chinese, but as if by tacit understanding no Chinese flew any longer in formation with the Americans and more and more the maintenance crews split along national lines and worked independently of one another. Instead of Americans being withdrawn from the CACW as was originally planned, new personnel arrived from the States; pilots, ground crewmen, and nobody said anything to them about international brotherhood. Our airplanes, including the new long-range P-51s that were far more vulnerable to ground fire than the sturdy short-legged old P-40s, still wore the Chinese markings. And the flags that flew over our gravel runway, mud-revetment based hacked out by thousands of toiling coolies were those of Nationalist China, but for all pragmatic purposes the CACW, except for its Chinese element, was just another Fourteenth Air Force wing. Americans flew together on missions; the Chinese the same, most often at lightly defended targets. As the war wore on and wore down, the CACW continued to maintain its charade. But even the most politically naive American GI could perceive that the official Chinese position was to remain as aloof as possible while America defeated Japan. The real war, the war for China, would be fought after the Americans had finished off Nippon and gone home. And every rifle, every round, every bomb and airplane and gallon of fuel that could be preserved against that day of reckoning with the Communists biding their time up in Yenan should be preserved. And so, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave Japan the excuse she had been praying for to strike her colors and the Americans finally left China, they left behind every item of military hardware they had brought. How well, or poorly, the Chinese Nationalists used those items is a matter now of historical judgment. But the CACW did leave a legacy. Perhaps more than one. The Nationalist Chinese fighter pilots who in 1958 from their Taiwan bases scored such stunning victories over the Communist MiGs were perhaps inheritors of the training their elder brothers got 15 years earlier from CACW fighter aces like Bill Turner and Bill Reed and Keith Lindell. And now that the 800,000,000 cheerful and patient sons of Han anre being permitted by their Peking master to rejoin the world community, at least slightly, the natural friendliness between the average Chinese and the average American, that thirty years ago kept the Chinese-American Composite Wing with its impossible dream from degenerating into disaster, may turn out to be mankind's ultimate salvation. History is an uncertain teacher, but in the long run it must prevail. Who is to say that teh futility of the CACW was really futile after all?