Chapter 4

Near the end of January 1945, word reached the squadron that a Chinese fighter squadron at Laohokow wanted one night fighter.  There were no details with the request.  No one in the squadron particularly wanted the assignment, but Ab and I volunteered and flew to Laohokow the next day with orders placing us on detached service to the 7th CACW.  We were officially in the Chinese air force, under a Chinese squadron commander. 

We had loaded our gear and bedrolls into the plane, together with our crew chief, "Blackie," who had added cases of tools and boxes of spare parts he scraped together along with all of the extra ammunition we could find room for.  We knew nothing about Laohokow except where it was on the map, some 450 miles east northeast of Chengtu.  What we found was a dirt airstrip only 2,800 feet long, way too short for fighter plane operations, no hangar, a dilapidated gas truck, a radio shack made of mud brick with a tin roof, and a worn-out 6x6 G.I. truck.  The squadron of planes consisted of ten or twelve vintage P-40s, the old Flying Tiger kind with the shark's mouth painted on the nose and Chinese insignia on their wings and fuselage.  These planes were no longer in service to the U.S. Air Corps, but they held a nostalgic beauty for me.  A kind of "Terry and the Pirates" thing.

Once on the ground we were met by some officers from the Chinese squadron (of which none spoke any English).  But we were welcomed and conducted to a fine home, by provincial Chinese standards.  There were servants and a cook who provided sumptuously for us.  The airfield wasn't much, but the accommodations were looking good.  It was a day or two before we found an interpreter and learned that Laohokow was located near the confluence of some small rivers and streams that had strategic significance.  As a result, the Japanese were advancing on the town and the airfield.  They had bombed the field at night several times.

There was a radio for air-to-ground communication, but no English-speaking operator.  So we had crew chief Blackie set up to go to the radio shack during an alert so as to relay any information he could to us.  There was no other communication equipment at the field itself, no telephone even; but with these arrangements in place, we would stand alert at the general's house, where there was a phone to the squadron headquarters. 

The early warning system was called the "Bamboo Telegraph," and it literally was that.  Within a perimeter of about 100 miles around the airfield, when bogies flew into the air space, rice paddy peasants would signal by rapping two sections of bamboo together.  The sound on a still night would carry for miles until the next rice paddy picked up and repeated the signal  Nothing fancy about it, but it worked.  When the sound of the bamboo drumming reached us, it would be swelled so that you could hear maybe 10 or 20 drummers.  We would then know that we had only about 15 minutes to scramble.

The first few nights were uneventful, but at about 10 p.m. on the fourth night the phone rang and someone said, "Ching-pao, ching-pao," the Chinese word for "air raid."  We made for the field in the old 6x6 truck, lights out, groping our way as fast as we could.  We could hear the bamboo telegraph clattering.  Once at the field, we made straight for our plane, got in and started the engines.  Blackie left for the radio shack to set up communications, but before we started to taxi, a stick of bombs started exploding in sequence "walking" down the runway, crossing in front of us.  I watched the bombs explode with a feeling of absolute detachment.  Our engine noise masked the explosions, leaving just fireworks.  I always like fireworks.  Ab said, "Let's get out of here!" and went full throttle headlong east, crossways to the 2,800-foot north/south runway, bumping things along the way.  The field was much less than 2,800 feet wide, and there was a low hill facing us on the east side.  I am sure Ab and I both thought about these things during the take-off run, but we had gathered speed and were committed before we could change our minds.  Ab literally yanked the plane off the ground and we staggered into the air. 

Something was wrong with our plane -- at full power we were in a kind of mushing stall.  We weren't gaining altitude fast enough  Ab said, "Smitty, we are going in."  I remember that I swiveled my chair so as to face backwards.  I remember clearly seeing moonlit rocks and bushes rushing by just a few feet below us.  I braced myself for a crash and then, all at once, we were gaining speed, climbing out of danger.  At the time of our hasty take-off, Ab forgot to close the upper cowl flaps.  These flaps were opened after landing to help with engine cool-down.  They weren't meant to be opened in flight, as they acted like brakes, and at the same time destroyed the lift over a large part of the wing area.

Once in the air, we called Blackie at the radio shack, but got no response.  We tried repeatedly, but no Blackie.  Later we found out that when the stick of bombs hit, the Chinese communications team cleared out of the radio shack.  Blackie couldn't operate the equipment, but he stayed right there throughout the raid.

We had been told that these Japanese raids had been flying up the river from the southeast one plane at a time at about 15-minute intervals.  We took a heading of 140 degrees, hoping we might luck into a raiding bomber.  We were at an altitude of about 7,500 feet, flying in a bright moonlit haze.  It was a beautiful, luminous night and we were lucky.  The first plane in the raid had bombed our runway, but I picked up the second one on my radar.  We started the procedure of running an interception where we were approaching the target head-on.  The range at the time of my initial contact was 25,000 feet, but this diminished rapidly to 10,000, then 5,000, then 1,000 feet.  Then at 500 feet we made a "hard as possible" 180-degree turn that brought us behind the target at a range of 2,200 feet.  We started making adjustments to synchronize our speed with that of the target, when Ab announced, "Hell, I see him!"  (He was supposed to say "tally ho," which came from the English, who first developed night fighter technique.)

Ab now controlled the interception and closed to a very close range of only 250 feet, where we both made a careful visual identification of the target as a Japanese twin-engined medium bomber designated as a "Lily." Enemy bombers most often had feminine names.  Their best was the "Betty," then the "Lily," the "Nan" and others.

With identification established, Ab swung in behind the enemy and opened fire at this close range.  Our armament was awesome for that time, four 20-mm machine cannons loaded so as to fire two incendiary, two armor-piercing and two high-explosive shells very rapidly in sequence.  This was formidable weaponry and hits were immediately scored all over the enemy aircraft -- engines, fuselage, wings.  There was fire from the first hits, and then explosions.  Pieces of the plane flew back to blank out all forward vision through our windshields.  Then the enemy plane was an enormous fireball, arching over into a perpendicular dive.  We were watching through our side Plexiglas and could see the landscape brightly lit up with detail on the ground, clearly defined.  Then everything was instantly dark again, when the burning plane hit the ground and extinguished itself in a spray of white-hot material that exploded away from the point of impact in every direction.

The sound of our cannons and our engine noise had precluded any other sound reaching us during these events, but now Ab and I were both yelling, excited, exulting, congratulating each other, then within another moment taking stock.  We couldn't see forward out of the airplane.  The plane we shot down had not bombed our field, but the first plane had, and we didn't know what kind of damage had been done to the runway.  There was still no contact with Blackie on the ground, and we were going to have to land.

If the raid went according to past performances, the next attacking plane would arrive in what would now be 10 or 12 minutes.  We opted then to attempt the landing to clear our windshields before the next bomber attacked.  We had flown back to the field during these deliberations and we had just turned to carry out this plan when I picked up a second contact, again at our maximum range, heading toward us and the airfield.  We ran another interception that started out like the first one.  From a head-on approach we first got behind the bogie, and at about 2,000-foot range we synchronized our speed, then established a speed advantage so as to overtake the other plane in a controlled way.  Only this time, there was no "tally ho."  Ab couldn't see the target through the oil-smeared windshield.  Using my radar, I was able to direct us to within 250 feet of the target, but with no visual contact from Ab this time.

Our side Plexiglas was relatively clear of oil, and since identification in any event was essential, Ab maneuvered our plane to one side of the target where identification was easily confirmed -- a second twin-engined "Lily" bomber.  We started discussing ways we might bring our guns to bear on this target.  We could jettison my cockpit canopy, but I had no gun sight and besides, the cord to my throat mike wasn't long enough for me to stick my head out into the slipstream and still tell Ab when to attempt a shot.  A real "blind shot" seemed out, because we were almost certain to miss, but our tracers would give us away to the enemy.  We didn't want to lose him, but as he made a turn to start his bomb run on the field, he saw us and abruptly did a wing-over and dove away from us toward the ground.  I kept him on radar, following him in his dive until I lost him in the ground scatter.  We thought he might not have pulled out, but he did escape.  At least he didn't bomb the field.  We had driven him away from his mission objective.


Chapter 5