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Illusive Target (2)

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.

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, p. 47) 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.

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.

continued in part 3