Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers


AVGs on Dianchi
Dick Rossi and Peter Wright on Dianchi (Lake Kunming) November 14, 2003, the day before the downed P-40 was originally scheduled to be raised. Bob Layher was also present. Other AVGs had planned to make the trip but canceled when the raising was postponed.

Recovering that P-40 from Lake Kunming

Updated: Sixteen years on, there's been no movement whatever toward recovering Blackburn's P-40E. Here's an official translation of the Chinese news-agency story:

BEIJING, July 29 [2003] (Xinhuanet)—A fighter plane from the World War II Flying Tigers squad that crashed in the Dianchi Lake in Southwest China's Yunnan Province may be salvaged next August. There are many planes at the bottom of the lake, so the work to try and locate the exact plane will begin in early August, said Ji Changchun, secretary-general of the China Association for Expedition. "We will start with one that is most probably the fighter, which is in the northern part of the lake," Ji said....

On April 28, 1942, the plane, possibly a P-40 fighter, crashed into the lake during a training exercise. The body of the pilot was recovered soon after. After years of preparation, the China Association for Expedition and the US-based Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation started to work on retrieving the plane last August.

After it is reclaimed, the fighter will be sent to the US for repairs. The best case scenario will see the plane back in the air, Ji said, adding that it will also be exhibited across the US.... Finally, the plane will return to China, Ji said.

On April 28, 1942, John Blackburn took off from the Kunming airport in a Curtiss P-40, almost certainly one of the "E" models that were beginning to reach China to replace the Tomahawks destroyed and worn out in Burma. Blackburn, originally hired as a check pilot for the Chinese Air Force, was the first of the instructors to transition to an AVG combat squadron. He and Robert Raine did a practice session on the air-to-ground gunnery range, and on their way back to the airfield they got into a mock gunfight, in the course of which Raine lost sight of Blackburn.

John Blackburn Later that day, Chinese fishermen reported that they had seen the P-40 crash into Dianchi (Lake Kunming) and that they had marked the spot with the long poles they used to push their fishing boats around the shallow lake. The plane was in about twenty feet of water, and on the second attempt to reach Blackburn, his body was retrieved by Carl Quick. (Significant to the shape the P-40 was in after the crash, Blackburn's body was out of the pilot's seat and jammed down among the rudder pedals.)

Then as now, Dianchi was extremely turbid, but in recent years an airplane was located by sonar and reached by Chinese navy divers. The chances are very good that this is Blackburn's plane, though another AVG aircraft--identified as Tom Cole's No. 40--was later crashed into a lake near Kunming by a pilot (identified only as Lieutenant Mikeworth) of the 23rd Fighter Group.

100 Hawks for China

Here's another story, from the People's Daily on August 19, 2003:

Deep in the Dianchi Lake in Southwest China's Yunnan Province for 61 years, a fighter plane belonging to the World War II Flying Tiger Fleet will soon be showered in light.

Work to remove the silt from the plane will start in early September and last about 30 to 45 days, according to Yan Jiangzheng, chairman of the China Association for Expedition, who is in charge of the operation.

The Flying Tiger Fleet, led by the late American General Claire Chennault, consisted of American volunteer pilots who fought Japanese invaders during the Second World War....

The plane, possibly a P-40 fighter, crashed into the lake on April 28, 1942, during a training exercise. The body of the pilot was recovered soon after.

After a careful mission to again locate the plane, it was found lying 5 metres beneath the surface in the northern part of the lake.

On November 15 or 16, a ceremony will be held at the lake during which the plane will be brought to the surface, Yan said Monday.

Two commemorations will be held following the ceremony -- one in Kunming, the location of the lake and other in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, at which renowned performers from both China and the United States will perform.

The fighter will also be transported to the United States, where efforts will be made to repair it, Yan said. The best case scenario will see the plane back in the air.

Yan said some experts in the US believe it is possible that it can fly again because according to former members of the Flying Tiger Fleet, it was not seriously damaged.

After being exhibited across the US, the fighter plane will be sent back to China, he added.

Given it is the only existing fighter that was used by the Flying Tiger Fleet, whose fame continues to grow long after the war, it is of great historical significance.

With due allowance for the centralized (and increasingly dictatorial) form of government in China, the Association is the rough equivalent of the National Geographic Society in the U.S. That the plane should be under 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) of silt is amazing when you consider that the lake was only 20 feet deep in 1942. A Chinese-language version of this story also mentioned that the plane itself is filled with silt--or mud, it can also be translated.

All the written evidence I have seen (notably Don Rodewald's unpublished diary and Charlie Bond's journal that was edited and published as A Flying Tiger's Diary) say that the plane was a P-40E, or Kittyhawk as some AVG pilots called it. Bond's recollection is particularly clear: "Blackburn took off for his check ride in a P-40E and never returned. We fear he may have mushed into the lake on a gunnery dive, for he was supposed to do a little of that during the flight." This tracks Rode's diary: "He was testing the guns for me on one of the new E's." In his facsimile diary, Tale of a Tiger, R.T. Smith says the same, though in a sentence added in 1986: "He was flying a Kittyhawk, practicing gunnery runs on a floating target in Lake Kunming."

Still, there's an outside chance that Blackburn was indeed flying a Tomahawk, or even that this is the war-weary that crashed in September. Let's hope so. It would be a great thing to see an actual AVG Tomahawk restored to museum display or even to flying condition.

Blackburn's funeral
John Blackburn's funeral in Kunming, presumably at the cemetery near Wu Chia Ba airport. That would be Chaplain Paul Frillmann with the open book.

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