Chapter 9

In the confusion of the fall and evacuation of Laohokow, nobody in our squadron was going to know where the hell we were.  We didn't know anything about Hsian except that there was a U.S. fighter wing there, flying P-51s.  We planned to hook up with them, if they would have us, and fly intruder missions in conjunction with the day fighters.

We arrived in Hsian during the afternoon and attracted some attention, since none of the personnel there had seen a Black Widow before.  Prior to landing we asked the tower for permission to make a "tactical approach," and showed off a little with a low-fast approach down the runway, pulling up into a steep chandelle, dropping wheels and flaps while inverted at the top, and pulling the plane through the rest of the half-loop to a landing.  It loses something in the description, but the P-61, with its super large control surfaces, could make this maneuver a real spectacular.  Other planes, even our small fighters, couldn't pull it off with the same oomph.

Col. Coleman was a West Pointer and we were at attention answering his questions:  "Where did you come from?", "Name, rank and serial number?", "Let me see your orders."  He held us at attention, in a brace, but finally we were put at ease and could explain about Laohokow, the evacuation, the 7th CACW and the contribution we had been able to make to the Chinese fighter squadron by flying night intercept missions and, particularly, night intruder missions.

Col. Coleman bluntly told us that he had heard unsatisfactory reports about night fighter operations, and he would like to see us refueled and out of Hsian as soon as this could be done.  He said that our squadron, operating out of Ankang, had been reported to have had unjustified mission aborts.  One night fighter crew reported firing on an enemy truck convoy when the flight had been plotted by fighter control all the time, and had never left friendly territory.  The colonel and the 14th Air Force were down on night fighters.  We were dismissed.

We started looking for gas to leave and learned that there wasn't any.  We went back to Col. Coleman to report this fact and, as we were now stranded, at laughingleast for the night, we found ourselves again making our case for flying intruders.  The colonel said, "With the fuel situation what it is, what could you do if I did agree to one trial mission?  There is no fuel to be had."  Ab replied, "There is some fuel left in those P-51 tanks out there.  Could we have it, if we can siphon off enough to fly just one mission?"  I don't know what persuaded the colonel -- possibly the fact that his own day fighters hadn't been doing very well -- but he agreed to proceed with one mission if we could scrounge the gas.

We started refueling early the next morning.  Some of the flight crewmen helped.  With siphon hoses, 55-gallon drums and a small truck, we started down the line of already low or nearly dry P-52s.  We were told not to empty the P-51s' tanks, but leave some gas behind to prevent condensation.  Taking 20 gallons from one plane, 15 from the next, and so on, and with the help of a hand crank pump, we managed to fill our tanks.  It was exhausting work on a warm day.  I was handling the hose, breathing in the gasoline fumes, high up on the wing of our plane, and literally passed out.  Luckily, I didn't fall off the wing.  Blackie took over handling the fuel transfer part.

We got some rest during the afternoon, but not before agreeing with Col. Coleman that we would fly a sweep that would take us first to Xinxiang, a town near the north end of the Yellow River Bridge.   There was a railroad marshalling yard in this town, together with primary roads leading in and out to the bridge itself.  Col. Coleman felt that our best chance of making contact with the enemy was in Xinxiang.  It was the first time we had ever had a real briefing before a mission.  We were hopeful we would be able to show him that intruder tactics could be effective.

An hour after dark, we were airborne and on course to Xinxiang, 300 miles away.  The target was easy to find; I picked up the Yellow River Bridge on radar at about 15 miles range.  We headed north toward Xinxiang and dropped down to 1,000-foot altitude.  We didn't see anything.  There were roads and railways all right, but no traffic of any kind.  We found Xinxiang, but it was just a quiet, dark Chinese town.  We found the railroad marshalling yard, but there was no activity there, except that we saw flak towers, the first we had seen.  We continued northward along the railway tracks leading out to the northeast for 60 miles or so, and then moved back south following roads we found until we thought we must be back to Xinxiang.  Still no contact with the enemy.  Our briefing provided that we could spend 45 minutes in the target area and we were already past that, with nothing to show for all of our effort.  We had to head back without firing our guns.  We were discouraged.  Ab had taken a westerly course while I worked out a true heading back to Hsian, when Ab said, "Smitty, I think I see a train."  The terrain we were flying over was hilly, craggy.  There wasn't supposed to be a railroad track, but there it was, and with a train moving on it.

After maneuvering into position for a strafing run, Ab again began firing at maximum range, continuing the attack until almost too late to pull up and miss hitting the target.  The locomotive was lost in a cloud of steam and the tender was on fire.  The train was stopped by the time we completed a turn and dove again to strafe the boxcars.  The steam had cleared somewhat and I saw the engine was tilted to one side, like it was off the track or something was broken to let it lean over that way.  Three or four passes at the boxcars set some of them on fire.  All of them, maybe ten, were damaged at least to some degree.  There were no explosions, but we were satisfied that we had done major damage.

At about 1 a.m. we landed and found Col. Coleman waiting for us to hold a debriefing (another first).  We reported complete details of the mission.  A tanker with gas had arrived during the night, and a flight of P-51s was scheduled out at first light.  They might confirm the results of our encounter with the train.

Photo:  Smith at about the time of his enlistment, looking forward to service.


Chapter 10