Chapter 16

But the mission to Beijing was still with us.  Ab and I talked about it in terms like "we will never have this chance again," and "we could tell our grandchildren about this one."  When a new P-61 came in to replace the one we class 26'd, we were suckered -- we decided to go.

Our last mission lasted over eight hours.  We found the Japanese training field at Beijing, but there were no enemy planes about on the ground or in the air.  We got bracketed by searchlights for the first time, but that didn't prove to be a problem.  In fact, we let it happen with the thought that it might lure an enemy night fighter up, but it didn't.  Our fuel reserves only allowed thirty minutes over the target.  During that entire time, we didn't see anything to shoot at, and nobody shot at us.  We turned for home, and some unexpected, late, hostile activity that came about in an odd way.

It happened that the airfield at Hsian had been built in the 1930s by German engineers.  They had built maybe a half dozen airfields in China under some political arrangement with the Nationalist Chinese.  Being German-made, the airfields were well designed and well constructed, and all were absolutely identical.  The same hangar, the same traffic tower, the same runway orientation, parking area, perimeter road -- everything.

When we were nearly seven hours into the flights and looking for familiar landmarks, Ab suddenly said, "Smitty, I see the field."  It was hard to believe, but there it was, as near as we could make out in the darkness.  So, wheels and flaps down, we made a straight-in  approach only to be met with a whole lot of ground fire, with criss-crossing tracers all around us.  We pulled up 25 feet above the runway, making a snappy 100-mph air pass down the length of the field.  Fortunately, the Japanese gunners were leading us too much with their fire.  We had concerns about our fuel reserves, and didn't mount an attack on that field.  We got out of there to resume our heading to Hsian, and later landed without any further incident.  A mission of long duration was called an "ass buster," and that anatomical quarter was indeed busted after eight and a half hours of flying.

A day fighter pilot later told us that the Japanese field we had approached lay just a few degrees off our course, but the charts, with their frequent errors, placed the airfield a hundred miles from where it actually was.

We left Hsian within a day or two to spend a couple of weeks in Chengtu, clearing the 426th operations and quartermaster.  Fred LeFever, the squadron awards officers, said that we had been recommended for a Silver Star as a result of our Nanchang mission.  This decoration, as well as the Chinese award made earlier, never reached us.  We never received any commendation for the Nanchang victory.  Ab and I did receive a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), however.  The citation read:

"The award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (is made) to First Lieutenant James R. Smith, (who) distinguished himself while participating in aerial flight as Radar Observer from 24 November 1944 to 7 July 1945, flying both day and night missions.  During his night missions, he intercepted attacking enemy aircraft and strafed and bombed enemy railroad trains and truck convoys.  Flying day fighter missions, he attacked enemy installations, troop concentrations, lines of communication and supply dumps, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy.  Fire from hostile aircraft and enemy ground guns were encountered frequently, but he carried out his mission with aggressive courage.  The outstanding accomplishments of Lieutenant Smith reflect credit upon himself and upon the Army Air Forces."


A year after I returned Stateside and mustered out, I came across a feature story in Collier's magazine, providing a detailed account of the bold and successful OSS attack on the Yellow River Bridge.  I feel good even at this late date that our efforts counted for something in the destruction of that strategic target.

The End


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