Chapter 10

We slept until noon, when Col. Coleman sent for us.  Our locomotive was confirmed as destroyed, together with one boxcar and the tender, which had burned.  All of the other boxcars were reported to be heavily damaged.  Col. Coleman was a very reserved person, but when he congratulated us, he seemed to be genuinely pleased by what we had done.  Right away, we asked him to let us stay in Hsian to work with his day fighters. so as to institute night attacks after the day fighters had to leave an active area.  The colonel agreed, except that he said we would first have to go back to Chengtu and the 426th for orders to implement a transfer to his wing.

We told the colonel about our popularity problem with the squadron leadership, and expressed concern that we wouldn't be assigned back to Hsian.  So Col. Coleman provided us with a letter to our squadron commander requesting specifically that Ab and I be given assignment to his wing in Hsian.  For added insurance that we would return, we left most of our gear and our airplane in Hsian and caught an ATC flight that day for Chengtu. 

Back at the 426th we had accumulated mail to read and reply to.  Most of the guys were glad to see us.  Capt. LeFever, the awards officer, told us we would be put in for a Silver Star when confirmation of the Nanchang victory came in, and we had been put in for a second air medal for successful intruder missions.  We didn't see our CO, Maj. W. C. Hellriegel, until the next morning.

Hellriegel was glum when we reported, which was nothing new.  We gave him Col. Coleman's letter and asked if we could have orders cut assigning us to the Hsian fighter wing, per Col. Coleman's request.  Hellriegel gave us an instantaneous "NO!," saying that we should have come back from Laohokow two weeks ago, and we had had our share of combat -- that it was someone else's turn.  This was coming from a guy who, as far as we knew, had never flown a single mission in night fighters.  We argued, but Maj. Hellriegel didn't like us, or so it seemed, and we didn't prevail.  Still, we hadn't taken Col. Coleman into account.  When he found out that another night fighter crew was being assigned to his wing, he sent word back to Hellriegel that any crew other than Absmeier and Smith would be sent back, and that if he couldn't have us, Hellriegel would have to explain to the 14th Air Force Headquarters why his request was denied.

We were ordered back to Hsian right away and were on an ATC flight out the next day.  Among the other passengers was a bird colonel who seemed important.  As we approached Hsian, he was in and out of the flight deck cockpit of the C-54 we were flying in, talking to Hsian on the radio.  Once on the ground, he was the first one down the boarding ladder, where a jeep picked him up and sped over to where a flight of P-51s had been waiting for take-off at the end of the runway.  When the jeep reached the aircraft, with their engines running, the colonel jumped out, ran to one of the fighters, got the pilot out, climbed in himself and took off on the mission.

The colonel was the wing commander we hadn't met.  He was Gen. Chennault's son.  I don't recall his first name, as he was always Col. Chennault to me.  He had flown close to 200 missions and had been shot down once before that day, when he got shot down again.  While on a strafing run, his P-51 took a hit in the coolant tank.  When the P-51 engine was without coolant, it wouldn't continue to function.  He had time to climb a short distance away from the target area before the engine seized, and he bailed out.  His wingman marked his location and came back the next morning in an L-5, landed and picked him up.  We felt proud to be connected with an outfit with gung-ho commanders like Chennault and Coleman.  But our first impression wasn't entirely correct.

From what we had seen so far, we thought Hsian would be like an extension of Laohokow -- lots of fast action and excitement -- but we were mistaken.  We fond ourselves committed to play a kind of satellite part in a carefully planned, sometimes inspired, sometimes routine kind of war that belied Col. Chennault's first-day show of derring-do.  The reason was logistics.  Hsian was at the extreme end of the U.S. supply line -- the last outpost in the Nationalist held section of northeast China.  The Great Wall was just 230 miles to the north of us, separating China and Mongolia.  The Gobi Desert was close to Hsian.  The shortage of every wartime essential from gasoline to ordnance meant that a lot fewer missions were flown in Hisan, with more careful planning of each mission to maximize results.  Col. Chennault and Col. Coleman were hard taskmasters, making their presence felt at every critique or mission debriefing.  They wanted the mission's planned objectives met.  They insisted on the highest level of performance from aircrews on down.


Chapter 11