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.