Chapter 5

After this encounter, we went ahead with our plans to land, clean the windshield and get airborne again before the next bomber came in.  We still couldn't reach Blackie and because of the possibility of runway damage, we decided to make a slow, low-level pass at the field to see whatever we could see about conditions on the ground.  With wheels and flaps down and throttled back to about 100 mph, we started this inspection pass at an altitude of less than 100 feet.

We reached the outer edge of this postage stamp field and had covered the first few hundred feet of the runway when all of the Chinese anti-aircraft batteries opened up on us.  It was absolutely like the Fourth of July -- tracers criss-crossing everywhere.  We were sitting ducks, but because of our very slow speed, the Chinese gunners were aiming too far ahead of us.  We didn't take a single hit.  It seemed to take forever, but we finally made our way out of range.  Still out of range, we circled the field and flashed our recognition lights off and on.  We tried putting on our landing lights, but the glare on our windshield was blinding and our night vision would be affected.  We hoped this activity would identify us to the Chinese gunners, but we weren't absolutely sure.

We still didn't know about runway damage, but we didn't want to risk another inspection pass.  We landed without runway lights or landing lights.  Ab "side slipped" the plane on the final approach to get a partial oblique view of the runway through the side Plexiglas.  The bright moonlight and some luck were enough for him to make a perfect landing, a paint job.

As soon as the plane stopped rolling, we were out to clear the windshield and Blackie was there to help.  He had been at the field throughout the raid, and had enjoyed the show.  With clean windshields, we were back in the air a few minutes later, but there was no more activity.  Maybe the bomber we had driven off had warned off other incoming raid elements, or maybe he, himself, was the last plane.  We continued to patrol and search for about an hour, then landed when we decided things were secure.  Flying is a very tiring enterprise, combat flying doubly so.  We fell into bed exhausted, but triumphant warriors.

The next morning, still jubilant, we rode out to the crash site for souvenir hunting, looking for something like a piece of a "rising sun" flag, or maybe a pistol.  What we found was a smoldering hole in the ground eight feet deep and forty feet across.  The biggest piece of wreckage I found intact was a 6-inch inspection plate cover.  There was a morbid curiosity about the plane's crew, and what might be left of them.  All we found were a few scraps of cloth that had been clothing and a meaty piece of flesh that had toes on it.  Nothing else.  We went back to our quarters greatly subdued, reflecting some on our own mortality.

The same day we were called into the Chinese squadron's headquarters for a ceremony in honor of our achievement.  There were some plump young girls who presented each of us with a bouquet of flowers made out of crepe paper, and there was a fat Chinese general who made a speech.  He spit a fine spray when he spoke and had been eating lots of garlic.  The interpreter told us that we were being awarded a decoration to reach us later from the Nationalist Chinese government.  We gave our APO address to the general, but never heard further about this.  I was told that the award would be the Order of the Flying Cloud, Second Class, or that was what it sounded like the interpreter had said.  (This medal finally made its way to us nearly a half century later.)

Laohokow was to fall to the Japanese eight days later.  It would be a hectic evacuation.  A lot of materiel would be abandoned, and some people would be lost, along with our decoration.  Subsequently, the 14th Air Force did award Ab and I each an Oak Leaf Cluster to the Air Medal in recognition of our performance.  My citation read:

"Second Lieutenant James R. Smith distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight as Radar Observer on 27 January 1945.  As a crewmember of a night fighter, he took off during alert at an airfield in eastern China.  The crew contacted an enemy plane by use of technical equipment and closed in upon it, although increasing darkness hampered them.  Approaching within a few hundred feet, they opened fire, and the enemy plane began to burn.  Nevertheless, they continued firing and pressed closer until their quarry exploded, showering their own plane with oil  They made contact with another enemy plane and began to pursue it, but oil on the windscreen blinded them and the enemy escaped.  Upon preparing to land, they discovered that the field lights had been bombed out and the runway was pitted with craters but, displaying great skill, they landed safety.  The skill and courage displayed by Lieutenant Smith reflect high credit upon himself and upon the Army Air Forces."

But meanwhile, still almost a week before Laohokow's fall, it was two nights later when we were scrambled again.  It was a black night with an overcast sky and a low 1,000-foot ceiling.  This time we took off in radio contact with Blackie, who was with the interpreter in the radio shack.  We headed southeast as before at 7,500-foot altitude.  This time flying in a thick cloud cover, the bright moonlight of a few nights ago was gone, leaving total darkness in the swirling overcast.

Blackie called to tell us that the Bamboo Telegraph had an incoming bogie fifteen miles southeast of the field.  There was no way to verify this information and no GCI to help us find him, so we continued on our heading, trusting to luck.

"My weapon is flashing" was the correct report radar to pilot, when the radar equipment was operating satisfactorily.  We laughed about this terminology, but my equipment was working well.  I had advised Ab of this just moments before I picked up the bogie on the radar.  He was at 20,000-foot range, heading toward us.  The thick overcast was a condition that made a visual interception problematical; nevertheless, we followed the procedure for handling a head-on approach as before.  Closing to 500-foot range, we made a "hard as possible" 180-degree turn to find we were again confronted with the bogie making a head-on approach.  I didn't visualize what was happening right away, but soon realized that the target had been flying straight at us when I first picked him up, then during my first 180-degree turn, he had begun to circle.  Each of our subsequent 180-degree turns found us meeting him head-on on the back side of his circle.  I don't know how many head-on encounters we made -- there were maybe five or six.  We were engaged this way for at least five minutes, when he straightened out and took a southeast heading. 

The bad weather had forced him to abort his attempt to bomb our field and he was returning to his home base that we knew was in Nanchang, 400 miles away.  There was no break on any kind in the overcast, but we maneuvered to follow him at a range of 1,500 feet.  The target was flying slowly so as to conserve his fuel, and we followed him for over an hour, hoping eventually to break out of the overcast -- but the gloom persisted.  Twice we closed in to as close as 250 feet, directly behind him, without being able to see anything.  So we dropped back and kept following at 1,500-foot range.

After two hours, we began to worry about navigation problems we would face when we returned to Laohokow.  Out of radio range, we had long since lost contact with Blackie.  Doubtless the field was still overcast, and there were no homing facilities or radio navigational aids there.  We had to depend on dead reckoning and the radar to get us back.

We now had been in the air a long time.  We had a maximum range, without auxiliary tanks, of 800 miles.  Our tanks were full at take-off and we had been flying very slow, which would save fuel, leaving us with some extra safety margin, but we couldn't be sure how much.

We continued to follow the bogie while I checked and rechecked what I hoped was our position and what our ultimate return heading to Laohokow might be.  There was no way to figure what the "winds aloft" were, so there had better not be any.


Chapter 6