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REPUBLIC P-43 AND CHINA'S AIR WAR (6)

With the ground front in Hupei stabilized about June 7th, the C.A.F. fighters withdrew to defensive dispositions in the Chungking and Chengtu areas. By the end of June the Japanese estimated the C.A.F. had eighty fighters in the Chengtu area and thirty-five defending Chungking [85]. The 4th Group defended Chungking aided by a detachment of P-66s. The continuing Chinese defensive posture is confirmed by the absence of any mention of C.A.F. operations in official communiques or Chinese press reports from early June to late August.

The Japanese developed a plan for an air campaign that would eventually bring about a confrontation with the 4th Group's P-43s. The first phase of the campaign (late July to mid-August) concentrated on American air bases centered on Kweilin; the second phase (late August/early September) targeted Chungking, Yangtze river traffic, and air bases in eastern China; and, a third phase (September) would resume attacks on Kweilin and also strike Yunnan and other targets [86]. The first phase operations (23 July-22 August) resulted in claims for about fifty American planes destroyed. None were P-43s. The Japanese detected the movement of only one P-43 into the Kweilin area during this phase [87].

The second phase operation opened with a strike against Chungking. China's wartime capital had been immune from attack for nearly two years. Though Japanese sources available to the author do not say so, it seems likely that this attack was meant to inflict damage to morale as well as material loss. An opening strike against Chungking might well paralyze the C.A.F. in their defensive posture at Chungking and Chengtu while the Japanese campaign hit Yangtze River ports and shipping targets not far afield.

As the Japanese campaign got under way in late July the C.A.F. had recovered its strength and numbered nearly 100 fighters with 52 serviceable and others soon to be in commission. This included nineteen P-43s of which seven were serviceable [88]. The Chinese had an efficient air-raid warning net and Chungking, being deep inside Chinese held territory, was not likely to be taken by surprise.

The Japanese had temporarily reinforced their air force in China with two heavy bomber regiments in order to conduct their air campaign. One of these regiments (the 58th equipped with Type 97 model II heavy bombers) was selected to make the Chungking attack. Twenty-one bombers and their seventeen fighter escorts from the 25th FR took off from Hankow at dawn on August 23rd. En route fourteen additional Type 1 fighters from the 33rd FR joined them [89].

The air raid warning was flashed to Peishiyi airfield. Twenty-nine C.A.F. fighters from the 4th and 11th Groups scrambled. Ten P-40s, eight P-43s and eleven P-66s took to the air. At about 1030 local time the Japanese bombers approached at a height of 7,000 meters (about 23,000 feet) but the Chinese had sufficient warning and some interceptors were able to exceed that altitude as the bombers neared their target. A flight of American fighters also scrambled from a distant base but was unable to intercept [90].

The Japanese formation flew past Chungking proper to attack their target, an arsenal, just west of the city. A reporter flying with squadron commander Capt. Kajikawa Kiyoshi saw him observing the bombing through binoculars and spring up as the bombs hit the target. The bombers then belatedly received anti-aircraft fire [91].

The reporter in Kajikawa's bomber "looked forward to the right and saw our fighters engaged in fierce air duels with the enemy fighters above us. White streaks of tracer bullets suddenly passed before my eyes indicating the enemy was tailing us. In an instant.our Hayabusa fighter flashed by in hot pursuit of the enemy fighter which was attacking us. Suddenly the enemy fighter burst out in flames and.went down at a furious speed trailing behind a long streak of black smoke. The enemy pilot bailed out and his parachute spread immediately." The aircraft shot down was almost certainly a P-43.

One Japanese bomber was shot down and others were damaged by Chinese fighter attacks. In Capt. Kajikawa's bomber one of the crewmembers (a Sgt. Ito) was wounded. The remaining bombers and their fighter escorts returned to base.

The Japanese reported encountering 10 plus P-43s, several P-40s and several unidentified aircraft. The 25th FR apparently was engaged in the bulk of the action. The Japanese claimed two P-43s (and three others uncertain), one P-40 and one unidentified aircraft [92]. It appears that the P-43s were able to climb swiftly enough to engage the Japanese but that some of the P-40s and P-66s that scrambled may have failed to make contact.

The Chinese lost four fighters. These appear to have been two P-66s, a P-40 and a P-43. The 4th Group lost Duan Kehui of the 21st Squadron. The 11th Group lost Su Rengui (41st Squadron) and Yen Guihua (42nd Squadron). The aircraft seen to be shot down with its pilot escaping by parachute may have been a P-43 claimed by Warrant Officer Seino Eiji of the 25th FR [93].

The Chinese communique reported three flights of their fighters intercepted the Japanese and claimed three fighters shot down and five bombers probably destroyed. They admitted little damage in the bombing and stated the C.A.F. "sustained damage which was slight." [94].

The Japanese knew their opponents were Chinese rather than American by virtue of their blue sky-white sun markings. They reported that the majority of the enemy planes were P-43s and that their fuel tanks were easily punctured making them much easier to shoot down in comparison to P-40s.

After this action the C.A.F. remained on the defensive at Chungking and Chengtu and did not challenge the Japanese as they attacked river traffic and ports along the Yangtze. At the end of August the Chinese reported they had lost two P-43s during the month including one in combat. They had nineteen on hand with eight immediately serviceable [95].

At the end of the summer the 1st Group (bombers) and the 3rd and 5th Groups (fighters) transferred to Karachi where they reequipped with B-25s and P-40s and trained under American supervision. These units of the C.A.F. became part of the Chinese American Composite Wing (C.A.C.W.) and began joint operations with the Americans late in 1943 [96].

The P-43s of the C.A.F. got into action one more time. On November 29th four P-43s of the 21st Squadron escorted a P-40M on a reconnaissance mission and ran into four fighters of the 25th FR. The P-43s claimed four for one loss. The Japanese claimed one Chinese fighter apparently without loss to themselves. In December 1943 the C.A.F. (other than the C.A.C.W.) numbered 19 P-40s, 22 P-43s, 53 P-66s and 14 A-29s. These aircraft seldom engaged in combat operations and essentially reverted to a training status. From December the P-43s were apparently retired from combat operations [97].

In May 1944 the Chinese had 20 P-43s on strength and a year later the number had grown to 28. However, by August 1945 the P-43s were no longer included in the strength of the Chinese Air Force [98].

VII. ASSESSMENT

The P-43 did not play a major role in the air war in China. This was primarily due to the small numbers in which it was committed to combat. This study could not find an occasion when the C.A.F. employed more than twelve, nor the 14th Air Force more than four, P-43s on a single mission. A typical mission for the 14th Air Force involved only one or two P-43s. With the C.A.F., missions generally ranged from two to ten P-43s but the total number of missions flown was very small.

The P-43 was apparently a pleasant aircraft to fly and published accounts by pilots who flew the aircraft are generally favorable and do not highlight any particular flaw or deficiency in performance [99]. When the U.S.A.A.F. adopted self-sealing fuel tanks as standard in 1941 the P-43 became a non-combat aircraft in that service. Its fuel tank troubles in China found it temporarily consigned to non-combat duty with both the C.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F.

The data assembled in this study suggests the P-43 might have been highly successful if used more extensively. It demonstrated ability to effect interceptions when P-40s could not and to shoot down Japanese high altitude reconnaissance planes. It had good range capability and could fly both bomber escort and reconnaissance missions. Its high altitude performance made it a good complement to the P-40 on escort missions.

There is sparse evidence of how the P-43 might have fared in fighter versus fighter combat. Chinese P-43s did claim a Japanese fighter in January 1943 but lost one when heavily outnumbered in a fighter combat during February. The P-43s lost only one of their number in combat with Japanese fighters in August 1943 and may have been responsible for the Japanese bomber that was shot down over Chungking. A single P-43 was also lost during the November combat and the damage inflicted on the Japanese is unclear. Despite the absence of self-sealing fuel tanks this record hardly suggests the P-43 was unduly vulnerable.

The decision to designate the P-43 as a non-combat aircraft in the U.S.A.A.F., to limit the numbers sent to China, and to rule out its use in combat elsewhere may have been unwise. The P-43 showed it had the capability to play a useful role in the air war in China. The P-43 had exactly the qualities that were needed when Japanese navy Zeros outperformed P-40s and P-39s over New Guinea. A squadron of P-43s at Port Moresby in 1942 might have saved many American fighter pilots by giving top cover to the Allison powered fighters. There is also little doubt Chennault could have usefully employed more than the ten fighters he was granted.

In the final analysis the "what if's" will have to remain unanswered. The facts are that the P-43 was originally sought by China because it was an advanced, high performance fighter; its performance appears to have been sufficient to allow it a good chance of success in combat; lacking self-sealing fuel tanks, it was not as well protected as P-40s and other U.S. fighters. It is fair to conclude that the historical record probably does not show the full potential of the P-43 because its use was so limited.

This story closes with an ironic observation. Beginning in August 1943, the month of the P-43's most significant combat with the C.A.F. and the month it was retired from the 14th Air Force inventory, a litany of complaints about the inadequacy of the P-40 and requests for new, improved fighters began to issue from P-40 Squadron commanders in China. The apparent cause was the introduction by the Japanese of their Type 2 fighter (Ki 44) and a switch in tactics emphasizing combat above 20,000 feet. Examples: ".they come in above our P-40s and we are unable to get to their altitude" (Maj. Robert L. Liles, 16th FS); ".using their superior altitude they stayed out of range of the P-40s, dropping down.to make one or two passes then zooming for altitude." (Lt. Col. Norval C. Bonawitz, 74th FS); and, ".Japanese fighters.have both speed and altitude advantage over our P-40s" (Maj. Edmund R. Goss, 75th FS) [100]. The majority of Japanese fighters were still older Type 1 fighters so the high altitude tactics clearly embarrassed the P-40 squadrons. "From these reports it is clear that the Japanese were using new type fighters and improved tactics in every sector of the theater, for every P-40 squadron, regardless of its location, sent in appeals for new type aircraft" [101]. Unfortunately the high-altitude P-43s had just been retired from service after having been denied engine replacements in favor of transport planes. Dozens of others had been salvaged for the same reason. Declared a "non-combat" aircraft, the P-43 had been provided to the C.A.F. who made but relatively little use of it. Just as the Republic fighter's limited combat career ended, the 14th Air Force found itself in need of a fighter with qualities found in the P-43.

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