Flying Tigers

Illusive Target: Bombing Japan from China

Richard L. Dunn © 2006

Early in the "China Incident" (1937-1941) Japanese bombers flying from Formosa bombed Chinese airfields inland from Shanghai. These raids covering a radius of more than 500 miles, much of it over water skirting the Chinese coast, have been referred to as the first "transoceanic" bombing attacks. Japan could attack China from Manchuria and other occupied territory as well as from aircraft carriers and other warships in Chinese coastal waters. The transoceanic bombings by their modern Type 96 (Mitsubishi G3M2) land attack bombers compounded the problems of the Chinese air defense.

Six months of air operations all but exhausted the Chinese Air Force (CAF) as it existed at the beginning of the "Incident." The Chinese sought modern aircraft from a variety of countries. An influx of Soviet aircraft and "volunteer" pilots in late 1937 and early 1938 promised to revitalize the CAF. As important as challenging the Japanese in the air over the front might be, even if done relatively successfully, it did not promise to bring an end to the "Incident" or stop the bombing of Chinese cities.

Perhaps if the Japanese populace itself felt vulnerable to bombing, a political solution and end to the conflict might occur. With this idea began the years-long quest to attack the Japanese home islands from China.

I. Chinese Bombers over Japan

For the CAF the idea of a "transoceanic" bombing attack on Japan from China involved immense difficulties. In February 1938 a group of SB-2 bombers with Soviet crews staged through bases in the coastal provinces of China, flew across over a hundred miles of open water of the Formosa Strait, and attacked Songshan (Matsuyama) airfield near Taipei, the same base from which some of Japan's "transoceanic" bombers had flown. A group of SB-2s flown by mixed Soviet-Chinese crews failed to find the same target, however.

In March 1938 encouraged (or at least not discouraged) by the bombing of Formosa, the CAF began planning an expedition to Japan. The SB-2 was available in considerable numbers but did not have the range to reach Japan. A handful of the longer range DB-3 bombers, which could reach Japan, had been supplied by the Soviet Union but most had been lost or damaged in operations or accidents. The CAF had acquired nine Martin 139WC bombers similar to the U.S. B-10B in 1937. Two of these remained serviceable and were chosen for the mission to Japan.

Martin B-10 bombers
B-10B version of the Martin 139 bomber

The availability of aircraft was only part of the puzzle. CAF crews lacked expertise in long-range over water operations. Air-ground radio was in its infancy in China. Communications held the key to navigation, operational command, meteorology, and, base-to-base liaison. The aircraft had to be equipped with direction-finders, short-wave receivers and transmitters. Ground stations had to be equipped with short-wave and other radio equipment. A ground communication line was established: Hankow-Nanchang-Chuchow-Ningpo; with an alternate, Hankow-Changsha-Lishui-Wenchow.

Preparation and training went forward. The mission leader was Capt. Hsu Huan-sheng, squadron leader of the 14th Squadron. Pilot of the second aircraft was 1Lt. Teng Yan-po, vice squadron leader of the 19th Squadron. The 14th Squadron designation had belonged to a squadron of foreign volunteers which disbanded in March 1938 but at this point the squadron had apparently incorporated pilots from the 30th Squadron familiar with the Martin bomber. The 19th Squadron had also flown medium bombers in 1937, in their case the Heinkel He 111A-0. Most likely Hsu and Teng were among the most experienced medium bomber pilots in the CAF.

By May of 1938 the small expeditionary unit was properly equipped and trained. The next problem was weather. Weather on the central China coast was very changeable beginning in May, going from fine to overcast with little warning. As for weather conditions in Japan these could only be surmised from an accumulation of general weather reports from around East Asia.

the Glen Edwards diaries

At 1400 hours on 19 May 1938, Capt. Hsu standing by at Ningpo/Lo-shi airport cabled CAF Headquarters at Hankow that weather at Ningpo was fine. At 1523 hours two Martin bombers took off from Hankow and were ferried via Nanchang and Chuchow to Ningpo arriving at 1755.

At Ningpo the aircraft were readied for the flight to Japan. They were loaded not with bombs but leaflets. The purpose of the mission was to drop leaflets "calling up the" consciousness of the Japanese people. A secondary mission was to conduct a reconnaissance of Japanese ports and airfields.

At 2348 hours Martin bombers Nos. 1403 and 1404 took off from Ningpo, headed for Kyushu. Not long after take off while flying in clouds near Tinhai Island searchlights from Japanese warships tried unsuccessfully to track the bombers by the sound of their engines. By 0042 hours the moon was obscured by clouds and the bombers flew in darkness for nearly two hours.

With the return of moonlight the bombers sighted the coast of Japan at 0240 hours and by 0245 were flying over Nagasaki at 3500 meters (about 11500 feet). The bombers stayed together until 0250 when they separated. The city was not blacked out and the bombers spent several minutes before dropping a flare bomb after which city lights were extinguished. They dropped leaflets and then proceeded to Fukuoka where visibility allowed the identification of land and seaplanes bases, factories and warships. Leaflets were also scattered at Kurume, Saga and other cities. At no time did they encounter interception of anti-aircraft fire.

The bombers rejoined at 0332 and less than half an hour later began their return trip. They soon encountered bad weather and lost contact with one another. At 0452 Changsha began broadcasting followed by Hankow at 0550. The bombers soon began receiving directional signals. At 0615 hours Martin No. 1403 announced sighting the China coast. A few minutes later No. 1404 reported it was flying near the coast. No. 1403 reported difficulty picking up the directional signal due to weak transmission.

At 0712 both bombers were over Sanmen Wan where they were fired upon at long range by Japanese warships at anchor. Neither bomber was hit.

The Chinese warning net was called upon to help pinpoint the bombers. At 0737 they were reported over Linhai. The planes were then directed over Ningpo and then landed at Yushan (No. 1404) at 0848 and Nanchang (No. 1403) at 0932. After refueling they joined over Wuhan and returned to Hankow by midday.

Chinese press reports stated that the planes dropped leaflets over major Japanese cities and that the leaflets contained a message of goodwill to the Japanese people. The leaflets told of Japanese atrocities committed against Chinese civilians and solicited moral solidarity from the Japanese people. According to Japanese press reports only one plane was involved. It was over Kumamoto and Miyazaki but not any major city. In the Japanese version of events, the leaflets were described as violently anti-Japanese in content.

Despite Chinese assertions that they dropped leaflets in lieu of bombs for humanitarian reasons, pundits suggested the Chinese had to carry extra gasoline on such a long mission and this precluded carrying bombs. The mission profile related above (bombers over Japanese territory well in excess of an hour) suggests the Chinese could have carried bombs rather than the gasoline necessary to cruise over Japan and drop leaflets on several cities. The American version (B-10B) of the Martin bomber flown by the Chinese had a combat range of 1,240 miles or 15 per cent longer than the round trip (1,080 miles) between Ningpo and Nagasaki and its ferry range was over 1,800 miles.

The report of the U.S. Military Attach in Chungking speculated whether the flight would cause apprehension among the Japanese population that a subsequent raid would carry something more lethal than leaflets or whether the failure to drop bombs would be taken as a sign of weakness. "The favorable reaction sure to be aroused in some foreign circles" the report opined "may, however, justify the risks involved in making such a flight."

II. The 1940-1941 Bombing Plan

The CAF did not return to Japan but the Japanese continued to bomb Chinese cities. The middle and later months of each year were "bombing season" in central China. The provisional capital at Chungking and other cities were repeatedly bombed. The attacks on civilians led to a U.S. "moral embargo" on the export of war materials to Japan. The balance of America's "neutrality" gradually shifted until the U.S.A. imposed legal embargoes on Japan and eventually became virtually a co-belligerent with China against Japan.

Diplomatic efforts by the United States were no substitute for effective military action by China. Such action was not forthcoming. China had a large but poorly equipped and led army; virtually no navy; and, its once fairly effective air force had been roughly handled and was entirely dependent on foreign equipment, and, to a considerable degree, dependent on foreign personnel. The introduction of the Type Zero (Mitsubishi A6M2) carrier fighter in late summer 1940 forced the Chinese to concede unquestioned air superiority to the Japanese.

As the bombing season of 1940 drew to a close the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek sent a team to Washington with the mission to rebuild China's air force. The stakes were high. Without an effective air force China might fall to Japanese aggression. Alternatively, another unchecked round of Japanese bombing against Chungking might result in Chiang's political demise.

The team consisted of T.V. Soong, Chiang's brother-in-law, Minister of Finance and also head of the Bank of China; Gen. P.T. Mow of the CAF; and, Claire Chennault, air advisor to Chiang, but on the payroll of the Bank of China. All were competent and, Chennault not the least, had forceful personalities.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

In Washington the team met, individually and collectively, with high government and military officials. The mission obtained a substantial loan for China as well as a commitment to provide significant numbers of airplanes. One result of the mission was the diversion of 100 Tomahawk II fighters from a British contract to China. A Chinese request for American pilots to fly the Chinese fighters and train Chinese pilots later resulted in an agreement to permit American military pilots to leave the service and go under contract to a company that would front for their service in combat in China. This eventually resulted in the organization of the "First American Volunteer Group" (AVG) of the CAF which, with Claire Chennault in command, gained fame as the Flying Tigers.

The story of the Flying Tigers is well known. Another aspect of China's Washington mission is less well known. It will be revealed in detail in a forthcoming book by Alan Armstrong, Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented the Attack on Pearl Harbor. What is recorded here is merely an outline of a fascinating story of the desire of senior U.S. Government officials to bomb Japan before the United States and Japan were at war.

By early December 1940 the Tomahawk fighter deal was agreed in principle. Discussions continued on Chinese requests for a total of 350 fighters and 150 bombers plus trainers and transport planes. T.V. Soong interjected the idea that some of the bombers might be four-engine B-17s. On December 21st at the home of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, details of how the B-17s might be delivered to China were discussed. This discussion involved the utilization of American pilots (paid by China) and transit through the Philippines. The discussions eventually led to the idea of attacking Japan. Morgenthau suggested using incendiary bombs to attack inflammable Japanese cities. Chennault concurred. Daniel Ford (Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group) has summarized this discussion: "U.S. planes and U.S. pilots, in the employ of China, [would] set the Japanese home islands on fire." Subsequently, President Roosevelt was made aware of, and endorsed, the ideas discussed at that meeting.

According to Ford the heavy bomber plan ended when Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, objected to providing heavy bombers to China. Marshall did object. No B-17s were allocated to China and some B-17Cs were subsequently sent to Britain. The Chinese, however, continued to believe they might receive B-17s as late as spring 1941. Moreover, Japanese intelligence was aware of this Chinese belief and the potential for the use of B-17s against Japan.

Ironically Marshall's articulated reasons for objecting to sending B-17s to China was based on the belief that the Chinese had lost a "Group" of Martin bombers on the ground before they could get into action. In fact China received only nine Martin bombers (roughly a squadron not a group) and while several had been lost on the ground two of them had raided Japan. Even more ironic is the fact that, less than a year later, the majority of B-17s deployed overseas by the United States were lost on the ground at Hawaii and in the Philippines before they could go into action. Moreover, the B-17s sent to Britain flew only a few bombing missions before being relegated to sea patrols and non-combat missions.

Morgenthau may have overstepped his bounds by getting too deeply into military matters and after Marshall's objection to sending B-17s to China; he ended his advocacy for the bombing project. The idea did not die, however. President Roosevelt's assistant Dr. Lauchlin Currie pressed forward with the idea and seemed to get results. Currie authored a strategic vision of the use of airplanes requested for China. In July 1941 the joint Army-Navy board responsible for aircraft allocations not only approved aircraft allocations for China amounting to nearly 500 aircraft (P-43s, P-66s, Lockheed Hudsons and Douglas DB-7s) but also endorsed Currie's plan that included the bombing of Japan. The plan also called for an additional contingent of American pilots and mechanics to ensure efficient operation of the aircraft sent to China. Even as American pilots and technicians of the First AVG departed for China what might have become the "Second American Volunteer Group" was approved.

It should not be thought that General Marshall was absolutely opposed to the bombing plan. His objection seems to have been primarily based on his understanding of American's own defense needs and his belief that if heavy bombers were to be diverted from his own forces, it made more sense to send them to Britain rather than China. In July 1941, General Marshall outlined a plan to train Chinese pilots in the United States. Training was to begin by 1 October 1941. The plan included the training of twenty heavy bomber crews; however, their training was not to begin until 1942 by which time Marshall hoped to have sufficient aircraft and personnel above his own requirements available.

The Currie plan adopted by the Joint Board envisaged getting aircraft and American aircrews to China by October 1941. Late in July 1941 Currie cabled Chennault via Madame Chiang Kai-shek advising him of the approval of 66 Douglas DB-7 and Lockheed Hudson bombers to be delivered by the end of the year with 24 Hudsons to be delivered immediately.

The Lockheed Hudson was no B-17 but it was an efficient aircraft. Its general characteristics were not dissimilar to the Martin bombers flown over Japan by the CAF. It was, however, somewhat larger and considerably more modern. Its performance reflected its more recent vintage. It was faster and could fly farther than the Martin bomber. Flying from Chekiang Province the Hudson could reach Kyushu as well as many targets on Japan's main island of Honshu.

The exact basis for Currie's assertion to Chennault that 24 Hudsons could be delivered immediately is not known. However, Hudsons were available in large numbers in July 1941. Many were parked at the Lockheed plant at Burbank, California, awaiting delivery to the British. Most likely Currie had worked out a deal similar to the Tomahawk deal where China would get current machines and the British would make up the difference from a later production run.

As soon as the prospect of immediate delivery of bombers appeared, it dissolved. Britain was pressing the United States for transport planes and the suggestion had been made that aircraft from U.S. airlines could be commandeered to meet British needs. This did not go over well with the U.S. airline industry which questioned why the British could not convert some of their backlog of Hudsons into transport planes (the Hudson design was based on the Lockheed Super Electra transport plane). A photograph appeared in a magazine closely associated with the airline industry showing more than 150 Hudsons sitting outside Lockheed's Burbank plant. Within a week all the Hudsons had been moved to Canada! It seems likely that this incident put an end to hopes for "immediate delivery" of bombers to China in the summer of 1941.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

The Hudsons allocated to China remained at the back of the production queue. About a dozen had come off the production line by December 7th, 1941. They and others produced later in December and January 1942 were caught in the temporary freeze on aircraft exports after the out break of war. Likewise personnel of the 2nd AVG were halted en route to China in Australia or at the U.S. west coast. After many months most of the Hudsons eventually got into the hands of the CAF but they never bombed Japan and in fact saw little combat action.

Hudson transport
Hudson converted to a transport in U.S. markings

What if? What if Hudsons had gotten to China in the summer and autumn of 1941? It seems unlikely they would have been in action over Japan immediately. On the other hand, Japanese troop convoys proceeding along the China coast toward the Philippines and Malaya in December 1941 would have made tempting targets. Had they been attacked, would the task force en route to Hawaii have turned back knowing hostilities had commenced? Would the U.S. defense posture in Hawaii and the Philippines have been different? Had the joint board plan to get American bombers and crews to China in 1941 been carried out, it seems possible events in the opening phase of the war in the Pacific might have been quite different.

III. American Bombing Plans and Japanese Worries

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, among other Japanese leaders, fretted about the possibility of bombing attacks on the Japanese homeland even before Pearl Harbor (Gordon Prange et al, At Dawn We Slept, p. 17). While Yamamoto's concern probably related to a carrier attack, he may have been aware of a possible attack from China as well. As if to confirm that bombing Japan had been on the minds of high officials of the U.S. Government and Military before Pear Harbor, not long after Japan's attack on Hawaii planning for an attack on Tokyo began at the behest of President Roosevelt. Most famous of the bombing projects and the one that actually took place was the Doolittle mission.

In December 1941 President Roosevelt emphatically stated to high military leaders that he wanted a bombing raid on the Japanese home islands as soon as possible in order to raise the morale of the American people and the Allies. Despite many military disasters befalling the United States planning immediately went forward. By mid-January 1942 the basic concept of launching Army medium bombers from a Navy aircraft carrier had taken shape.

The story of the Doolittle raid has been the subject of many books and a well known motion picture. This article will not attempt to duplicate previous efforts by recording the mission in detail.

Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle was a renowned aviator. He left a career in the military, obtained an engineering doctorate, gained fame as a racing pilot, and participated in important technical developments during the 1930's. He had been recalled to active duty in 1940. By the end of January 1942 Doolittle was placed in charge of the secret "B-25 special project".

The B-25s were to take off from an aircraft carrier 400-500 miles from Japan, "bomb and fire" Japanese industrial centers including Tokyo, and, land in China. The bases to be used for landing were Chuchow, Lishui, Yushan, and Chienou. After landing at these forward bases the bombers would assemble at Chungking and eventually go to India for use in operations in the newly created China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of operations.

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

Some of the bases to be used had received modern communications equipment to support the original CAF leaflet raid on Japan. Others, specifically Chuchow, had lengthened runways and modern facilities installed to accommodate the B-17s the Chinese thought would be coming to China in 1941.

The East China bases

The "special project" was scheduled to take place before the end of April to avoid the kind of weather problems encountered by the CAF raid in May 1938. The Chinese were not to be informed of the mission until the last moment since it was assumed that any information given to the Chinese would end up in the hands of Japanese intelligence. Finally, it was hoped the Russians might be willing to accept the B-25s as lend-lease supplies at Vladivostok. This latter point (which did not come to pass) was deemed important in an attempt to avoid interference between the Doolittle mission and another plan to bomb Japan from bases in China.

In addition to the Doolittle mission, by February 1942 there were two additional projects in the works to bomb Japan. The two plans are often lumped together under the term HALPRO (Halvorson Project). They were similar in that they involved using heavy bombers to attack Japan from bases in China. The two missions differed in that they involved two separate forces using different types of aircraft under different commanding officers.

The first of the three forces to leave the United States to raid Japan was not Doolittle's carrier-borne B-25 contingent but a force of heavy bombers commanded by Col. Caleb V. Haynes. Originally conceived as the advance echelon of the newly formed Tenth Air Force, Haynes' force was also given the mission of attacking Japan. Twelve B-17Es and a B-24 flown by Haynes departed in the last week of March 1942. The last to depart, B-17E No. 41-9031, left Florida on March 31, 1942. Carrier Hornet with Doolittle's B-25s on board left San Francisco on April 2, 1942.

In Air Corps circles, if not among the general public, Haynes was nearly as renowned as Doolittle. He twice (1938, 1939) won the MacKay Trophy. He flew the XB-15 in record setting flights and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a much publicized flight to Chile transporting relief supplies to earthquake victims.

In addition to raiding Japan, Haynes had been led to understand he would be given command of a bomber group in the CBI. Haynes was to be disappointed on both counts.

The Haynes contingent is sometimes referred to as FORCE AQUILA but it is doubtful this was ever an official designation. It was also apparently referred to as HALPRO but as already pointed out it was separate from the Halvorson detachment.

Flying the South Atlantic ferry route (Florida - Puerto Rico - Trinidad - Brazil - Liberia - Nigeria - Sudan - Aden - India), Haynes arrived at Karachi on 7 April 1942 in his B-24. The B-17Es arrived over the next several days. Haynes flew on to headquarters in New Delhi to get his final orders for the mission.

Events now conspired against completion of the mission. Allied resistance in Burma was collapsing and Japanese task forces were ravaging shipping off India's east coast and attacking British bases in Ceylon. Unexpectedly and most importantly - Chiang Kai-shek objected to bombers using China's eastern bases for attacks on Japan!

The B-17s at Karachi sat idle for nearly two weeks except for a few missions flown over the Arabian Sea in search of a Japanese naval force allegedly operating there. Haynes returned from New Delhi to announce that the bombing mission against Japan was permanently cancelled. Haynes and his deputy, Col. Robert L. Scott, and a few other personnel were assigned to the Assam-Burma-China Ferrying Command. The bombers and most of the crews went to other units of the Tenth Air Force.

Poland's Daughter

The arrival of FORCE AQUILA in India coincided with Chiang Kai-shek belatedly being advised about the forthcoming raids on Japan. On April 11, Washington learned Chiang objected to the use of eastern bases but at first thought this related only to "HALPRO." It soon became apparent Chiang's objection related to the Doolittle mission as well. Chiang's objection was based on the fact that Chuchow with its expensive and modern improvements was not covered by his troops. He feared the loss of the airfield to the Japanese if it was used by American bombers.

Several tense days followed. On April 13, Col. Clayton L. Bissell, the CBI's senior aviation staff officer, was informed that the Doolittle project was too far along to be cancelled. However, the "second mission" to take place at a later date would come under the control of General Stilwell (CBI commander) and would be coordinated in accordance with Chiang's desires (apparently the Haynes mission was immediately sacrificed but hope maintained for HALPRO).

It was not until April 16, two days before the Doolittle raid that Chiang reluctantly agreed to the use of Yushan, Lishui, Kian, Kweilin and Hengyang. The Generalissimo continued to insist that Chuchow not be used.

On April 18, the Doolittle raiders hit their targets and headed for their destination in China - Chuchow! None of the B-25s made it. They were forced to launch from Hornet earlier than planned due to being sighted by Japanese picket boats and then ran into darkness and bad weather over China. All the B-25s crashed. Chuchow was not aware that the B-25s were en route and did not broadcast a directional signal. In fact when aircraft were heard overhead lights on the field were extinguished and an air-raid alarm sounded. Some of the bombers crashed within several miles of Chuchow. Many of the surviving crews passed through Chuchow during the course of their rescue.

Chiang's fears proved far from groundless. In May the Japanese began a campaign to wrest key airfields from Chinese control. On June 6, 1942, Chuchow, with its modern hangers and facilities, fell to the Japanese.

The Doolittle raid inflicted some damage including scoring a direct hit on an aircraft carrier under construction. It apparently had at least a temporary adverse affect on Japanese morale. Most importantly it confirmed the Japanese in their plan to take Midway Island in the central Pacific. That decision led to a major Japanese defeat and was a turning point of the Pacific War.

HALPRO left the United States late in May 1942 with their mission to bomb Japan apparently confirmed despite Chiang's earlier objections. Col. Harry A. Halvorson led 23 new B-24D aircraft along the ferry route from the United States to South America, across the Atlantic, to Africa. Bulk supplies and spare parts for the mission had been sent to Karachi by ship but the bombers also carried supplies and equipment. The Liberators were loaded with a three months supply of food and double issues of most equipment. For example, each navigator had two sextants. A spare nose wheel was carried in each bomber.

In addition to their normal crews the bombers also carried the detachment's two-man intelligence section, one of whom spoke Mandarin Chinese. Also on board the bombers were Gen. P.H. Wang of the CAF, and, none other than Dr. Lauchlin Currie, President Roosevelt's special assistant for China.

The bombers were bound for Chengtu one of the bases the Chinese had specially prepared for B-17 heavy bombers in 1941. From there they would fly to forward bases in Chekiang Province for their actual attack missions against Japan. There was a sense of urgency since a Japanese ground offensive threatened to overrun some of the advanced bases the B-24s were expected to use.

Meanwhile a crisis had arisen in the Middle East where forces commanded by German General Erwin Rommel were threatening to take Tobruk and invade Egypt. The HALPRO B-24s were "temporarily" diverted to Egypt from where on June 11-12 thirteen of them took off to bomb Axis oil installations at Ploesti, Romania. A few days later several of the B-24s bombed elements of the Italian fleet. Some of Halvorson's B-24s were lost on operations and others might go unserviceable given the lack of adequate maintenance and spares. Halvorson requested to continue with his mission. Halvorson's bombers remained in the Middle East. There they were joined by most of the serviceable heavy bombers (reportedly 11 B-17Es, 6 B-24Ds, and an LB-30) in India. Together they formed the nucleus of the Ninth Air Force.

There were no attacks on Japan from China in 1942. In fact B-24s flew only one mission from China in 1942. In October six B-24s of the 436th Bombardment Squadron flew 1,100 miles from Chengtu to strike the power plant that kept the Linsi coal mines in north China in operation. Had this strike been fully successful the Japanese would have lost a major source of their coking coal used to produce high quality steel.

The Japanese fully understood the implications of such a long range strike. Flown from eastern China, a 1,100 mile mission could hit many important cities and strategic targets in Japan. Japanese apprehension was raised higher when B-24s of the 308th Bombardment Group began flying regular missions from China in May 1943. A raid by escorted B-25s against Shinchiku on Formosa in November 1943 made it clear the Americans were prepared to extend their attacks beyond the interior of China. Japanese anxiety about a possible attack on Japan continued to rise through 1943 and into early 1944.

In order to operate heavy bombers from China stores of supplies had to be accumulated. The only way to do this was to fly fuel and other supplies to China from India over the mountainous "Hump." The bombers themselves often had to act as transports before they could carry out their bombing attacks. This necessarily reduced the number of bombing missions they could accomplish. Moreover, Japanese fighters operating in Burma periodically harassed the transport route and sometimes were successful in destroying transports or heavy bombers. Occasionally the Japanese bombed the terminus of the transport route at Kunming, China, or the jumping off point at Dinjan, India.

Within China the Japanese response to the bomber threat was to repeatedly attack Chienou and other airfields from which attacks on Japan might be launched. As often as the Japanese holed these undefended airfields they found them repaired in short order. When Japanese intelligence suggested something unusual might be brewing, Japanese reconnaissance planes flew patrols along the Chinese coast as a kind of early warning system for the home islands.

Something unusual was brewing! The United States planned to debut its super bomber, the B-29, by attacking Japan from China.

The Lady and the Tigers

IV. Super Bomber, Mediocre results

The question of using heavy bombers in China came up repeatedly. In May 1942 Dr. T.V. Soong pointed out that considerable production valuable to the Japanese war machine was going on at Shanghai. He suggested bombing Shanghai's power plants to disrupt this production. One suspects this might have been a "camel's nose under the tent" approach to introducing heavy bombers into China for eventual attacks on Japan. General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, promised to have his staff study the feasibility of staging bombers from India through China to bomb Shanghai. The Middle East crisis discussed above undoubtedly put an end to this idea.

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt overruled the objections of his military advisors and told Chiang Kai-shek that efforts would be made to bomb the Japanese homeland from China. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, General Arnold submitted a tentative plan to send a wing of B-29 bombers to the CBI by the end of 1943 to begin an air offensive against the Japanese home islands. By the time of the Cairo Conference in November 1943 it was clear that the B-29s would not be ready for employment by the end of 1943. The basic commitment to operate B-29s from China (as well as from the Marianas once they were captured) was, however, confirmed at Cairo. The British agreed to build a complex of bases capable of supporting B-29s near Calcutta. The Chinese made a similar commitment to build and improve bases near Chengtu. Chinese construction would rely on manpower (coolies in the thousands) and primitive tools.

The B-29 Superfortress first flew in September 1942 and was a technological marvel. It could cruise at over 300 m.p.h. and its pressurized crew compartment allowed it to operate for extended periods at 30,000 feet. With a 5,000 pound bomb load it had an operational radius of 1,600 miles. Unfortunately its powerful turbo-supercharged R-3350 engines encountered problems that delayed the bomber's operational deployment and later plagued it during early operations.

By the end of 1943 the original date projected for B-29 operations, nearly 100 B-29s had left the production line but less than twenty were operational. Lack of available aircraft for training also delayed the qualification of crews to man the new bombers. In January 1944 General Arnold had to inform President Roosevelt that the first B-29s would not be ready to leave the United States for China until mid-March 1944 and would not be ready for combat until mid-May.

B-29 training flight

Rising Sun Over Burma

In April 1944 General Arnold informed the President that the big bombers would not begin combat operations until June 1944. President Roosevelt expressed his frustration in a memo complaining that the U.S. had not made good on a single promise to China and wondering why attacks on Japan had to wait on the B-29s. We have other types of heavy bombers, FDR noted. Given that Roosevelt had heard of plans for, and at least tacitly agreed to, the bombing of Japan as early as 1941, his frustration is hardly surprising.

The first B-29 arrived in India early in April 1944 and five weeks later there were 130 B-29s in the CBI. Planning for the first shake down mission against Bangkok began in mid-April but did not actually take place until June 5th. Ninety-eight B-29s took off from Calcutta for the 2,260 mile mission. Over a dozen of the Superfortresses aborted en route to the target. Weather over the Bangkok was bad and few bombs hit the target. Five of the returning bombers crashed landed.

Despite this inauspicious start, B/G Kenneth L. Wolfe, commander of the XX Bomber Command, was ordered to initiate the bombing campaign against Japan by 15 June. Like the Bangkok attack this first strike on Japan since the Doolittle raid was a night mission. Eighty-three Superforts deployed to China and 75 were detailed for the mission. Sixty-eight B-29s got airborne from Chengtu to strike the steel works at Yawata. The B-29s were from the 40th, 444th, 462nd, and 468th Bombardment Groups. Each bomber carried eight 500-pound general purpose bombs. Planned bombing altitudes ranged from 8,000 to 18,000 feet. Only 47 B-29s made it to the target where 15 bombed visually and 32 bombed by radar. The steel works proved to be a poor target for radar bombing. Bombing results were even worse than at Bangkok. In this raid seven B-29s were lost. One loss was attributed to anti-aircraft fire and six to accidents. Type 2 two-seat fighters (Ki 45) of the Japanese army's 4th Flying Regiment (FR) intercepted this raid and claimed four victories, three by Warrant Officer Sadamitsu Kimura.

The attack results suggested that either the B-29s, the tactics used, or the crews' training left something to be desired. When Wolfe balked at ordering follow up attacks he was recalled to Washington. B/G LaVerne Saunders, commander of the 58th Bombardment Wing, and an experienced combat leader, took over the XX Bomber Command in Wolfe's absence. Saunders got off one B-29 strike against Japan in July. On the 7th eighteen B-29s bombed separate targets at Yawata, Sasebo, Omura and Moji with little to show for their efforts. No losses were suffered. A couple days later 81 B-29s bombed Anshan in Manchuria.

On August 10th 47 B-29s bombed oil installations at Palembang, Sumatra, losing four bombers. On the same date 23 B-29s carried out a night raid on Nagasaki losing a single bomber. A change of tactics occurred on August 20th when 75 B-29s left China in daylight and carried out a dusk attack on Yawata.

The B-29s were met by 87 Japanese army fighters. In addition to the twin-engine fighters of the 4th FR, these included Type 4 (Ki 84) fighters of the 16th Flying Brigade (51st and 52nd FRs), Type 3 (Ki 61) fighters of the 59th FR and a few Type 1 (Ki 43) fighters of the 48th FR. The Japanese navy was represented by 33 Zero fighters and four Gekko night fighters from Air Group 352. Japanese army fighters claimed 12 sure victories for two fighters lost. Navy fighters claimed four including two by Lt (j.g.) Sachio Endo whose Gekko went down in a crash landing with Endo surviving. A total of ten B-29s were lost to all causes. They claimed 15 Japanese fighters destroyed.

Flying one of the B-29s (No. 42-24474) that went down was Col. Richard H. Carmichael, commanding officer of the 462nd Bombardment Group. Carmichael was one of the pioneers of heavy bombers operations in the Pacific. He commanded the 19th Bombardment Group in 1942 when it was the sole B-17 Group in the Southwest Pacific. During that tour he personally flew many combat missions and more than once returned from raids in a damaged bomber with dead or wounded crewmen aboard. Carmichael survived and spent a year in Japanese captivity.

This mission was also notable for a ramming incident. Sgt. Shigeo Nobe of the 4th FR crashed his Type 2 two-seat fighter into the lead B-29 of the 468th Group bringing down the big bomber as well as a second B-29 hit by debris from the collision.

On 29 August 1944, M/G Curtis E. LeMay arrived in India to take command of the XX Bomber Command. LeMay was the youngest Major General in the Army Air Forces and had a reputation as a tough and intelligent bomber leader. Unlike Wolfe who was closely associated with the technical development of the B-29 and was a close associate of General Arnold, LeMay's credentials were solely those he had won on operations. After a quick tour of his new command LeMay found plenty of room for improvement and quickly began to implement changes.

No missions were flown to Japan in September. Two daylight missions to Anshun, Manchuria both encountered fighter opposition and during one of them two B-29s were lost. The first three missions in October were flown against Formosa in support of a U.S. Navy task force attacking Formosa and the northern Philippines. Fighter opposition was encountered on two of the missions and three B-29s were lost to all causes.

B-29 night attack
Type 2 two-seat fighter attacking B-29s

LeMay's stamp on the XX Bomber Command was first clearly seen on 25 October 1944 when 56 B-29s inflicted severe damage on the 21st Naval Air Depot at Omura. Fifty Zeros, 13 Raidens, and six Gekkos of Air Group 352 intercepted but claimed only one B-29 for certain. One crippled B-29 crashed in China and a second was listed as an operational loss. The B-29s claimed nine Japanese fighters destroyed.

During November five B-29 missions were launched by the XX Bomber Command but only two of them involved targets in Japan and on one of these (Omura, 11 November) bad weather caused most of the bombers to abort or attack targets in China and only 29 actually bombed the primary target.

The B-29s returned to Omura on the 21st. This time 61 out of 100 bombers made it to the primary target where unusually aggressive interceptors were encountered. These were Japanese navy fighters and most (69 Zeros, Raidens and Gekkos) were from Air Group 352 which claimed nine of a total of 12 sure kills recorded by the Japanese. Ten B-29s went down and gunners claimed twenty Japanese fighters in return.

December saw five more B-29 missions but in only one did a few B-29s actually attack a Japanese target. The final appearance of the XX Bomber Command over Japan came on 6 Janauary 1945 when 45 B-29s bombed Omura and secondary targets at Nanking, China. On the same day General Arnold announced that Curtiss LeMay would take command of the XXI Bomber Command and direct B-29 operations from the Marianas. The B-29s based in the CBI would also be shifted to the Marianas to join B-29s that had been attacking Japan from the Marianas since November 1944. The bombing campaign against Japan from China was over.

The logistical challenges of mounting air attacks from China had been understood from the beginning. The logistic difficulties had indeed been just as daunting as expected. The limitations involved in operating from a base deep in the interior of China had also reduced the utility of XX Bomber Command operations. Even with its long range, the B-29 could reach but few targets beyond Kyushu. Moreover, early operations had been handicapped by weak leadership, poor tactics, questionable target selection, and, continued teething problems with the B-29.

The initial attack on Yawata had been hailed in the Allied press and was a fillip to morale but the military effectiveness of many of the bombing missions flown from China had been mediocre at best. Once B-29s were established in the Marianas, there was simply no military reason to continue operations from China. With the B-29 and the Twentieth Air Force, American air leaders thought they had a weapon with which they could win the war and they intended to use it as effectively as possible. Bombing Japan might be the key to victory but it would not be bombing from China.

In the final analysis it is probably not too harsh a judgment to say that B-29 operations from China were a tactical failure. Even if that judgment be correct, the B-29 campaign in China had important results. The early operations may be viewed as experimental in nature and they certainly demonstrated how not to use the B-29. Technical adjustments as well as modifications in operating techniques worked out most of the kinks in the B-29. It should be kept in mind that initial B-29 operations from the Marianas encountered problems as well. In combining LeMay's leadership with B-29s operating from the Marianas a winning combination was eventually achieved.

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