A city with a normal population
of maybe 500,000 people was now thronged with refugees, bringing the
wartime population to over 7,000,000. The streets, day and night,
were crowded so as to be almost impassable to our jeeps and difficult
even for pedestrian traffic, with people moving in streams from
sidewalk to sidewalk, selling clothing, jewelry, sex, food --
exchanging money. Making things like jewelry, pasta, clothing,
shoes, items out of wood, furniture, curios, boxes, crates. They
also made mulberry wine, a delightful light beverage that took the
place of everything from Coca-Cola to vodka with most of us. The
sound was a constant changing kind of clangor with bells, firecracker
pops, horns, gongs, engines, sirens, shouts, arguments, day or night
around the clock.
And there were smells, powerful smells, interesting smells -- garlic,
incense, cooking, fireworks, kerosene, wood fires, exhaust fumes, open
sewers, animal odors. Some good smells and some really bad smells!
All of the war material, supplies, ordnance, and personnel used in
China was flown in over the "hump." Most of it came into Kunming,
which made Kunming, at that time and maybe anytime ever, the busiest
airport in the world. Planes were landing and taking off 24 hours
a day without pause. At times, incoming flights were stacked at
500-foot intervals up to 25,000 feet in several different zones around
Our flight was on
alert every night, from dusk to daylight. Our fighters scrambled
many times when incoming planes didn't identify themselves, or when
their IFF equipment failed to operate, turning them into bogies.
IFF -- Identification Friend or Foe -- was a radio transponder that was
in all allied aircraft. It would answer a query signal with a
coded response. The code was changed regularly, but the system
didn't always work. In these cases, landings would be suspended
while we "scrambled" and GCI vectored us to within range of the
"bogie." GCI -- Ground Control Intercept -- was a controller
located on the ground Through the use of more powerful radar and
other intelligence, GCI would direct fighter aircraft to within range
of a target. We would then make a final interception on radar and
identify the target -- in every case, a C54 cargo carrier or a C46 or
some other "friendly" type. Following this, GI would call off the
alert and normal traffic would recommence.
Intercepting friendly planes was disappointing and frustrating.
We took some serious kidding from day fighter people about "midnight
joy rides" and so on. The 426th had already gotten a bad name
because there had been a number of unjustified mission aborts which led
to confusion during alerts and used gasoline that was already in short
supply. Our morale was low because of it and, in addition, it
seemed to us that "D" flight was given the dirty end of the
stick. The aircrews assigned to us were the squadron
misfits. The planes we were given were the least qualified.
And to top it all off, we were resented by other squadron members
because we newcomers outranked most of them and consequently were made
"D" flight leaders over other fellows looking for promotion.
It happened that about this time we got a letter from a training school
friend "Sollie" Solomon, with a squadron on Formosa. Sollie was
in a good outfit, flying productive missions, and he wished we would
find some way to transfer and join him. We inquired, but transfer
was impossible. Sollie was in the South Pacific and we were in
China. Only 1200 miles separated our two bases and we got the
idea that we could easily fly that far and no one would be particularly
sorry to see us go. We could claim that we got lost chasing
bogies and with low fuel had to make for Formosa. We might get a
reprimand, but they would never court-martial us, and they would
certainly never send us back. We couldn't get this idea out of
our minds. But there were problems. Navigation would be
tricky, and we had no charts of the Formosa area. In fact, all of
our charts were unreliable, having been prepared from 19th century
explorer's notes that were incorporated into National Geographic's
sketchy data, which the Air Corps made into charts. Another
problem was the weather, which could be unpredictable in the South
China Sea, and could do us in.
We started a search for charts by talking with crewmen from ATC (Air
Transport Command -- primarily a personnel mover, like an airline but
with no amenities, not even seats sometimes), and we guardedly asked
our weather officer, Dave Griffith, about how South China and Formosa
weather information might be obtained. The plan we developed was
to check our destination's weather every day so that the next time we
were scrambled, and the weather was favorable, we would complete our
local mission with GCI, then break radio contact and fly to Formosa and
a new squadron.
We found the needed charts, but our questions about the weather 1200
miles away made Dave suspicious. He confronted Ab and me with his
conclusion that we were leaving the squadron. That being the
case, in a spirit of adventure, he wanted to go with us. As
flight leader we had authority to take non-flying personnel on flights
or even missions if there was justification. So we decided Dave
could fly on the pretext that he wanted to make a night inspection of
the Kunming area terrain, and to make some related solar
observations He promised absolute secrecy and started standing
alerts with us. A few days later, Formosa weather was clear and
we were scrambled to chase a bogie that we intercepted and confirmed as
friendly. GCI called off the alert and ordered "Oscar" (our
identification code name) back to base. We responded, "Roger,"
but swung onto a heading for Formosa, 1200 miles away, through a hazy,
moonless night. GCI started calling after about 30 minutes,
wanting a position report and getting no response. They called
again and again until their VHF transmission started breaking up and
finally disappeared because of increasing distance. We expected
our flight to take six hours and we had enough fuel in belly tanks to
provide a margin of safety, but two hours into the flight our radar
The radar was essential to our navigation across the South China Sea to
Formosa. Without radar, we could drift just a few degrees off
course and miss the island in darkness. Working only with the
radar's manual controls, I was able to get an accurate reading on our
terrain altitude and we pressed on, thinking "Formosa's a big island,
and with terrain altitude we can at least tell when we make
landfall." We would then be able to raise somebody on the island
on one of our radio channels.
Then, three hours into the flight, the radar picture made a further
change. In the unreliable terrain image I was looking at, there
were suddenly large polka-dot blips. When we circled, the blips
showed up on the terrain all around us. I had never heard of such
a signal return before and nothing like it was described in our
training manuals. There was no logical explanation for this kind
of presentation on our scopes and further reliance on our radar was
impossible. We were 600 miles into the flight. If we
continued, we would soon pass the "point of no return." We
decided we had to go back to Kunming.
Two hours later, we raised GCI, who thought we had gone down.
They were so glad to hear from "Oscar" that they believed our story
about "when our radio and radar went out, we got lost thinking we were
south of the field, when actually we were east. And then the
radio somehow started functioning again." It was dawn when we
landed. We had been airborne six hours and we never told anyone
where we had actually been.
Forty years later, I came across an article in National Geographic magazine about
Guilin, China, halfway between Kunming and Formosa. There were
pictures of this area with strange sheer hillocks a thousand feet high,
strewn throughout the valley. I knew instantly they were the
polka dot blips I had seen on my radar screen that aborted our mission
Later on, there was a night when the Japanese sneaked in a single
bomber that made several low-level passes at the field, dropping
clusters of small anti-personnel bombs. One of our planes was
scrambled, but made no contact with the enemy. GCI never picked
him up out of the myriad of our own planes in the air. I was on
the field during this raid and under fire for the first time.
With many noisy explosions close to me I was naturally afraid, but
curious enough to take stock of what was happening. The field,
not responding to any alert, was all lit up. The Japanese bomber
had glided silently in to scatter his bombs all around us before
slipping away under low power. I found a foxhole and settled in
to watch for the next pass when a corporal we called "Big Stoop"
(because of his size!) piled in on top of me. He apologized for
the inconvenience, but at the time I appreciated the protection his
250-pound bulk provided, and thanked him.
On another occasion, we were on alert and were scrambled, chasing some
friendly bogie, when there was an actual raid like the first one.
A single plane, sneak attack. Suddenly, it was the real
thing. GCI didn't pick up the enemy this time either, and there
were dozens of our own planes in the air. My radarscope was lit
with targets and we had latched onto one bogie when Ab saw a stick of
bombs exploding on the field and dove our plane toward this
activity Almost immediately, we picked up a target that was
approaching us head-on. We didn't realize in the excitement of
this first combat confrontation that a situation had been created with
our diving plane going perhaps 275 mph. When the two planes were
within a few hundred feet, we made a 180-degree turn to swing in behind
the target only to discover that with our 150 mph speed advantage, we
were going much too fast. Within seconds we helplessly overshot
the target. We maneuvered in a search mode trying to pick him up,
but made no further contact and never saw the other plane that I am
certain was a "bandit." I never stopped feeling badly about not
having made that interception. I was supposed to be the "hottest
RO" in the squadron, but I didn't feel like it and I got some looks
from my squadron mates.
On Christmas Eve 1944 we had been scrambled and had intercepted several
friendly bogies under GCI direction. There had been some radio
dialogue between "Oscar" and GCI, code named "Tiger." It was cold
and the mission had dragged on until midnight, when a different voice
on our radio said, "Hello, Oscar, this is 'Donald Duck.' Merry
Christmas!" The call sign "Donald Duck" belonged to General Clare
Chennault. We wished the general a merry Christmas in
return. Fighter control and GCI radio channels were monitored by
the general 24 hours a day. Even when he slept, they said.
A few days later, we were replaced by a new night fighter squadron and
ordered to Chengtu to join our squadron who, with the exception of the
men in our flight, we had never seen.
Photo: Smith and Absmeier pose
by the nose
of the Jing-Bow Joy-Ride, the P-61 that was with them throughout most
of the tour.