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The Vultee P-66 in Chinese service (part 5)

continued from part 4

"A huge bomber-fighter formation of Nippon Army planes heavily raided Liangshan, Szechuan province, on June 6, setting ablaze over 20 enemy P-40 fighters.

"Arriving above Liangshan at about 3 p.m. the Nippon Wild Eagles detecting over 20 enemy P-40 fighters on the ground, set all of them ablaze despite fierce anti-aircraft fire by the enemy. The Nippon raiders further smashed over 10 trucks and the runway as well as scoring hits on 10 fuel depots to set them afire.

"In this raid, three Nippon planes crashed into enemy soil.

"Another bomber formation carried out a surprise raid on Enshih, the advance enemy base in Hupei province, on the same day, wrecking havoc on the airfield with sure hits. Moreover, the Nippon bombers met seven enemy P-43 fighters which came up to challenge, and shot down one of them.

"One of the Nippon planes crashed against the enemy. All the other planes returned safely to base." ("Liangshan and Enshih Heavily Raided," Domei report, dateline June 8, Mainichi, June 9, 1943).

The action began with a C.A.F. mission against Niehkiako by three A-29s escorted by 13 P-40s and eight P-66s. Ground targets were bombed and strafed. One P-40 went down to ground fire. After the mission the P-40s returned to their base at Liangshan while the P-66s returned to Peishiyi by way of Enshih.

The Japanese sent formations against both Liangshan and Enshih. At Liangshan eight Type 99 light bombers of the 90th Flying Regiment were escorted by fourteen Type 1 Model II fighters of the 33rd Flying Regiment. The formation of eight light bombers sent against Enshih was unescorted.

Flying Tigers: Ki-43 fighter
Type 1 fighter of the 33rd Flying Regiment

At Liangshang the twelve Chinese P-40s landed. Also on the field were at least two American P-40s as well as a stray P-66 that had apparently landed with a wounded pilot. When aircraft were reported approaching there was no immediate concern as these were taken to be the formation of P-66s.

East of Enshih P-66s encountered the unescorted Type 99 light bombers that had just attacked the airfield. Although the Japanese identified their radial-engine opponents as P-43s, they were actually P-66s a type not previously encountered by the Japanese. The successful Chinese pilot was Chen Zhaoji of the 41st Squadron. The Ki 48 that went down took Lieut. Iwamura and the rest of his crew to their deaths.

At Liangshan the last Chinese pilot to land was Capt. Chow Chi-Kai (known as "Fatty") squadron leader of the 23rd Squadron who landed with his fuel tanks almost empty. Chow taxied his P-40 off the rain soaked runway. As he did he heard a radio warning of eight unidentified airplanes headed for the field. Chow had seen his first group commander killed trying to take off in the middle of a Japanese air raid in 1937 but he was determined to take to the air.

China Newsweek recorded what occurred. The aircraft referred to merely as "another plane" was identified in a 14th Air Force daily intelligence summary as a P-66. "Without hesitation he ordered his ground crew to push away his ship and climbed into another plane parked there. The pilot of that plane had been wounded and removed for medical care. Before he could check on the fuel or other equipment, however, Chow saw eight black planes approaching the field from the north on a bombing run...

"He started the engine...and taxied to take off without taking time to adjust his parachute, to buckle his safety belt or to close his cockpit cover." Chow was still in his take off run when bombs exploded on the runway just behind him and machine gun bullets hit nearby. "Before he was two hundred feet in the air he pulled for a 270 degree sharp, climbing turn, forgetting that such a maneuver might finish him in a stall. He followed the attacking Japanese bomber without even retracting his landing wheels and started to attack the leading flight which was coming back for another bombing run as soon as they came into range. He aimed at the flight leader and gave him a long burst. He turned away for another short attack on the starboard plane." This flight of bombers broke off the attack and headed eastward low over the Szechuan Mountains.

Five other bombers were strafing the field along with more than a dozen "Zeros." Chow debated briefly whether to take on these new opponents or follow the fleeing bombers. With his seat belt still unfastened and cockpit open, Chow decided a dogfight with fighters and bombers over the airfield made no sense. He decided to continue his attack on the first flight of bombers.

"Fatty" Chow attacked the port bomber, which was lagging slightly behind the other two. With his landing gear still extended he fired a long burst. The bomber burst into flames.

"Fatty" observed the rear gun of starboard bomber pointing idly in an upward direction. Suspecting the gunner might be killed he closed to thirty yards. The pilot immediately swung to the left to come under the protection of his leader's rear gun. "Fatty" fired a burst into the leader's right engine. The engine poured heavy black smoke and the bomber headed downward.

Flying Tigers: Ki-48 bomber
Type 99 light bomber with guns at the ready

The third bomber headed north. Chow followed, finally taking time to adjust his parachute and safety belt and retract his landing gear. When he was ready "Fatty" opened fire at the bomber's right engine. However, this bomber didn't catch fire. Instead it gyrated terrifically and became an erratic target for the Chinese pilot.

Chow fired a burst into the left engine. The Type 99 light bomber refused to catch fire. Chow pulled close to the bomber and flew parallel to it thirty yards off its wingtip and waggled his wings. The Japanese pilot had no intention of surrendering and turned sharply toward Chow. "Fatty" evaded and on his next pass aimed for the cockpit and fired a long burst. The bomber spun into the ground.

Back at Liangshan ten Chinese P-40s and a trainer had been destroyed, as had two U.S. P-40s. Three trucks and gas supplies also went up in flames. The wreckage of Chow's three victims was later found and his claims were verified.

Twenty-eight year old "Fatty" Chow received the Blue Sky - White Sun award from Chiang Kai-Shek as only the fourth recipient of China's highest award. He was soon promoted Major and appointed acting Group commander.

After the successful interception by the 11th Group P-66s and "Fatty" Chow's amazing feat in a borrowed P-66, all else was anti-climax. The Chinese fighters pulled back to Chungking and Chengtu. The P-40s and P-43s suffered losses and had many aircraft damaged during the combat in May and June. The P-66s had seen comparatively little action. The 4th Group was down to just 15 P-40s and P-43s of which only nine were serviceable. The P-66 squadrons remained strong with forty-six aircraft on hand of which thirty-nine were serviceable.

After the heavy Chinese losses the recently reinforced U.S.A.A.F. was able to spare some aircraft to reinforce the C.A.F. in June. Fifteen P-40Ms were diverted to the C.A.F. in two increments during that month. These were five P-40M-1s (serial numbers 43-5434, 5446, 5450, 5451, and 5456) and ten P-40M-5s (serial numbers 43-5463, 5692, 5694, 5707, 5710, 5712, 5713, 5716, 5719, 5721). Some of these aircraft saw combat during the later months of 1943.

continued in part 6