Chapter 8

Our plan was to approach from the south at low level, under 300-foot altitude, so as to stay off the scopes of any Japanese early warning radar.  When we calculated we were ten miles from the bridge, we planned to bounce up to 7,500 feet just long enough for me to get a radar fix on the bridge itself  Then heading directly for the bridge, we would dive back down to 200 feet altitude, picking up speed for just one fast south to north bomb run along the length of the bridge.  We had no equipment for aiming or sighting the bombs in to specific points on the bridge, but this attack along the length of the bridge at low latitude would hopefully see all four bombs hit some part of the target.  After dropping the bombs, our plan was to continue north ten miles, then gradually swing westerly in a big arc to recross the Yellow River ten miles west of the bridge heading back south to Laohokow.  It was a good plan, and the chance of encountering radar flak was minimized, but we didn't see the Yellow River Bridge that night, although we later played a significant peripheral role in its destruction.

We took off determined to bomb the bridge, but one hour out of Laohokow we happened to be following a railroad track, one of my navigation checkpoints, when along came a train.  Trains were a high priority target, ranking right behind a plane destroyed in the air.  A locomotive was not easy to kill, being made out of heavy boilerplate, machined steel and cast iron.  The Chinese P-40s with only 30-caliber machine guns couldn't inflict serious damage on a locomotive.  Our fighters had 50-caliber guns and could do better, but still had trouble confirming a locomotive as destroyed.  But we had 20-mm cannons with armor-piercing rounds.  All in a moment, the Yellow River Bridge was forgotten and we were nosed down in a long, low-level strafing run.

Ab opened fire while we were still at maximum range and held the triggers down continuously until the last split second, zooming abruptly up and away from the target.  When I looked back, the locomotive was still moving, but it had broken completely in two.  The middle of the engine was down on the tracks, making many sparks.  The cowcatcher was pitched up in the air and the engineers' cab was pitched down.  There was a mountain of steam that obscured things when the engine bumped to a stop.

We circled back to rake over the boxcars and we ran into sporadic ground fire.  We made altogether three or four runs at the boxcars, scoring hits all over them, but there were no explosions or other reactions to our attacks.  The locomotive was destroyed.  Most of the boxcars were damaged, but probably not put permanently out of commission.  The ground fire had been accurate enough to score a few hits on our plane.

This was the first time we had been hit, and Ab's and my reactions were about the same.  The hits were sudden, loud, ripping-crashing thuds, easily heard over the roar of our engines.  We didn't particularly like it, but it was kind of like lightening and thunder -- if you heard it, it had already missed you.  Following standard procedure, we had dropped our belly tanks, still containing some fuel, before initiating our first strafing run.  This ruled out the possibility of continuing to the Yellow River.  We did have plenty of fuel, however, to continue looking for targets of opportunity in the area where we found the train.  So we looked and found a road, then another, and finally an intersection with a large convoy -- maybe ten trucks, moving through.  We attacked and in five or six passes we had many of the trucks burning.  Some were hauling ammunition that exploded.  It was a very good show.

In this attack, we again met some ground fire and sustained hits on our aircraft.  We returned to Laohokow with our bombs unused, but elated and satisfied with a very productive mission.  We counted twelve or fifteen bullet holes in our plane.  I pondered this in terms of my mortality.  I'm sure Ab thought about it, too.

The next day, there was feverish activity at our field.  Day fighters were coming and going at very short intervals, not being airborne long, indicating that the enemy was close to us.  We made preparations to evacuate, but planned also to fly intruder again that night.  We didn't get much rest during this day, having to rearm and refuel the plane.

We took off at dusk, looking for any target of opportunity, hoping we'd find something to attack.  We flew three missions that night. I don't remember specific details, but my recollections include flying over a darkened village and seeing the moonlight glittering and reflecting off a thousand glass windows.  We circled, wondering at such a spectacle, only to realize, "Hell, they're firing at us!"  The village was full of a large number of troops -- it seemed like thousands -- shooting at us, but they were not good shots.  We didn't sustain any hits, but didn't attack, either.  There was no way to identify a specific target.  If we attacked the village we would be attacking friendly Chinese along with the Japanese.  A little later we did strafe a train with good results.  The engine was probably destroyed, and boxcars set on fire.  We also strafed a small truck convoy and several individual trucks.  I don't remember specifics of the other missions that night, but all of our ammunitions was exhausted on each of the three missions we flew.  We found targets close to the field in one direction, and further away in other directions we found an abundance of truck and convoy activity.  We generally raised hell.

Flying combat is a stressful undertaking and fatiguing.  We were especially tired, and napped in the cockpit while Blackie saw to the refueling and rearming while we were on the ground.  All three missions flown that night were productive.  We might have undertaken to fly a fourth, but at 3 a.m. we were exhausted.

The next morning we packed and got our gear down to the field.  Laohokow was to fall -- the Japanese would be there that day.  The day fighters had already gone and the 7th CACW administrative people were loading trucks and leaving.  There was a C-47 on the field and several hundred weeping Chinese were thronged around it.  The C-47 was there to evacuate a Norwegian missionary and his family.  It was clear that their Chinese flock didn't want to see them leave.  It was an emotional scene.  The C-47 left while we were loading up.  Within minutes, we too were in the air on a heading away from the 426th in Chengtu to Hsian in the north.  We had now flown 19 missions.  We had no way of knowing for sure, but this was maybe twice as many as any of the other crews in the 426th.  Twenty-five missions and rotation were in sight.


Chapter 9