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HOME > TIGERS > P-43 > PART 4

REPUBLIC P-43 AND CHINA'S AIR WAR (4)

P-43 under maintenance in China

V. THE P-43 IN COMBAT

During July and early August 1942 there is little record of activity on the part of the P-43s turned over to the 23rd Fighter Group. It seems likely these aircraft needed repairs to their fuel tanks that required Fairprene cement that may not have been immediately available. As of August 13th Chennault had received five P-43s with five more promised [49].

On August 17th the P-43 entered combat for the first time. The 75th Fighter Squadron (FS) was at Kweilin en route to its new base at Changyi when a Japanese intruder was reported by the warning net. Two P-40s and two P-43s scrambled. The P-40s were unable to intercept but both P-43s made contact. Lt. Phillip B. O'Connell got within range only to have his guns jam and then his radio fail. Lt. Burrell Barnum then followed the speedy Japanese craft in a lengthy chase involving climbs, dives and straight runs. Barnum fired from long range but never got close enough to inflict serious damage. Barnum reported the "I-45" to be equal in speed to the P-43 at 20,000 feet [50]. Barnum most likely encountered a Type 100 Headquarters reconnaissance plane of the 18th Independent Squadron, an airplane credited with a maximum speed of 375 mph. at 19,000 feet [51].

The P-43's next air combat came on September 3rd when Lt. Martin Cluck of the 75th aborted a reconnaissance mission with mechanical trouble. At low altitude near base attacking Japanese fighters jumped him and riddled his P-43. Cluck landed safely and escaped from his aircraft but the P-43 was destroyed by strafing. A P-40 was also destroyed on the ground. The 24th FR and 10th Squadron claimed ten aircraft destroyed on the ground [52].

During a meeting with Stillwell in early September 1942 the subject of P-43 logistics was among the items discussed. Chennault's memorandum from that meeting clearly shows that both C.A.F. and C.A.T.F. P-43s would remain operational and needed to be supplied with spares. It also shows that the prior decision to divert P-43 engines to transports remained in effect and no spare engines would be available for P-43s [53].

During the September meeting the American's acquiesced in China's refusal to allow crated P-40s at Karachi destined for the C.A.F. to be diverted to the U.S.A.A.F. Logistics arrangements for Chinese A-29s and P-66s were also discussed during the meeting. The day when the C.A.F. could replace much of its old Russian equipment with new American planes seemed close at hand.

On October 13th a crowd of 50,000 people was ferried across the Yangtze to Chungking's commercial airport to observe the dedication of twenty of the new fighters. In two formations of ten the planes took off and put on an aerial demonstration before returning to their base. This public display was followed by a flurry of combat activity that began on October 24th when two P-43s flying from Nancheng claimed a Japanese reconnaissance plane [54]. Formations of P-66s of the 3rd Group flying from Peishiyi attempted similar interceptions on the 25th, 26th and 27th without success [55].

On October 27th no less than twelve P-43s flying from Taipingsu escorted nine A-29s in a raid on Yungcheng in Shansi, Province. One aircraft was claimed destroyed on the ground without loss to the Chinese [56]. P-66s flew another mission in November. A-29s flew two additional missions in November on one of which they were joined by old SB bombers. An A-29 and three SBs were lost in bad weather [57]. This mission on November 27th was the C.A.F.'s last of 1942. The C.A.F. filled the rest of 1942 with training as additional P-66s were received and P-40Es arrived to supplement the P-43s of the 4th Group.

On September 12th Major Frank Schiel, commander of the 74th FS, flew a notable mission. This was a reconnaissance flown from Kunming to Hanoi. Three enemy fighters rose to intercept but Schiel avoided them and returned with information that led to a successful bombing mission a few days later. Schiel was awarded the Silver Star for this P-43 mission.

In late November 1942 F-4s (the reconnaissance version of the P-38 fighter) arrived in China and gradually took over the photo reconnaissance mission. Both P-40s and P-43s continued to fly visual reconnaissance missions as well. P-43s occasionally flew photo missions with a makeshift camera arrangement.

P-43s performed in the fighter role as ground strafers, interceptors, and along with P-40s as bomber escorts. Because of their small numbers and distribution among the squadrons seldom did more than one or two P-43s fly on any given mission. An exception occurred on December 14th when four P-43s joined fourteen P-40s in an escort mission to Hanoi covering the P-40s in a successful combat. On December 30th three P-43s gave top cover to six P-40s on a mission to Lashio, Burma, enabling the P-40s to claim one of six Japanese fighters encountered.

VI. FINAL YEAR OF COMBAT - 1943

The C.A.F. celebrated New Year's Day by flying its first combat mission with three of its new P-40Es, an uneventful patrol searching for a Japanese reconnaissance plane [58]. On the 10th ten P-43s joined five P-40s in attacking Kingmen airdrome and targets of opportunity. Two P-40s were lost to ground fire [59]. Two days later two P-43s flew a reconnaissance mission along the west bank of the Han River. Near Itu (southeast of Ichang) the P-43s met two "Zeros" claiming one shot down in flames and one badly damaged [60].

As of the end of January 1943 the C.A.F. had three groups of bombers but only one squadron of A-29s and one squadron of SBs were rated combat capable. Its four fighter groups were deployed to defend Chengtu and the wartime capital of Chungking. Three groups were equipped with a mix of P-66s and I-153s but only two squadrons in each group were considered combat capable. The 4th Group at Taipingsu equipped with P-40s and P-43s was the sole group with four squadrons (21st - 24th) rated combat capable. It alone had an offensive mission ("attack enemy aircraft.active over the upper Yangtze") in addition to a defensive mission [61]. An American technical representative who spent three months with the C.A.F. estimated that as of February 1, 1943, the C.A.F.'s serviceable American equipment amounted to: nine A-29s, forty-five P-66s, 18 P-43s and 18-20 P-40s [62].

On February 1, 1943, the C.A.T.F. still consisted of just four fighter squadrons and one squadron of medium bombers. Serviceable strength was eighty-six fighters and twelve B-25s [63]. It is interesting to note that the operational strength of the C.A.F. (in new American equipment) and C.A.T.F. was virtually identical at this point. The C.A.F. was essentially inactive at this time while the C.A.T.F. was actively flying fighter missions and occasional bomber missions whenever weather permitted and targets were available.

The Japanese Army Air Force (J.A.A.F.) line-up had changed since the previous summer. There was still a strong contingent of army cooperation and reconnaissance aircraft but the striking force now consisted of two regiments of Type 99 twin-engine light bombers (16th and 90th) and two regiments of Type 1 model 1 fighters (25th and 33rd), together constituting the 1st Flying Brigade (FB) [64].

The 1st FB carried out a series of raids on the advanced bases of the C.A.T.F. in early 1943 during which it encountered little aerial opposition. In late February part of the 1st FB supported ground operations in southern China while the bulk of the Brigade concentrated in the vicinity of Hankou to take on the C.A.F. as a preliminary to resuming attacks on the C.A.T.F. [65].

The Japanese were presented an opportunity when they discovered C.A.F. aircraft at Liangshan. The Headquarters of the 4th Group had moved to Chungking in mid-February but P-43s of the 22nd Squadron were based at Liangshan. On February 24th fifteen Type 1 fighters of the 25th FR escorted twelve twin-engine light bombers of the 16th FR to attack Liangshan. The 22nd Squadron scrambled four P-43s under its squadron commander Wang Tejian. The Japanese reported encountering three P-43s and claimed one shot down. The Chinese records confirm this [66].

The C.A.F. may have suffered other losses during this period but Japanese accounts suggest air combats were few during early 1943 [67]. Quite possibly the C.A.F. was under severe logistical strain. In any event, on March 19th General Chow advised Stillwell that the C.A.F. could no longer defend Chungking and requested U.S. support [68].

For the American P-43s the New Year began with a routine weather reconnaissance flight to Schwebo in Burma by a single P-43 of the 76th FS. A similar mission to Bhamo on January 2nd proved anything but routine. Capt. Jeffrey O. Wellborn was on his return flight when he encountered an "I-45." The Japanese aircraft was above the P-43 but Wellborn climbed on to its tail without being detected. Wellborn's first burst took the Japanese by surprise. The Japanese aircraft then attempted to escape by diving but Wellborn followed and shot the aircraft down in flames. Like Barnum in the P-43's first combat the previous August, Wellborn probably encountered a Japanese reconnaissance plane rather than an I-45 (Japanese designation, Type 2 two-seat fighter or Ki 45). It was quite a start to the New Year for the P-43 and Wellborn's only aerial victory.

continued in part 5