A FLYING TIGER’S STORY
By Dick Rossi, Pilot, American Volunteer Group
The unplanned and unforeseen circumstances of my early years shaped the entire future of my life and contributed immensely to the improbable fact of my becoming a Naval Aviator. The direction of the rest of my life was based on the earning of my Navy wings.
After graduating from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco in 1933, I put in one semester at San Mateo Junior College. After one term of hitchhiking from San Francisco to San Mateo each school day (approximately twenty miles down the bay) then hitchhiking back to downtown San Francisco where I had a job, then going home to study, I decided it was not practical. My best bet, I figured was to work full time for awhile and save enough money to have a nest egg for college.
In 1934, in the middle of The Depression, I started pounding the pavement looking for a full time job. In April I finally landed a job in the Merchant Marines and spent my 19th birthday at sea off the coast of Central America. It was very difficult to get a job aboard ship in those days but once you were in the union, it was relatively easy to go from one steamship line to another. For most of the next five years I was able to travel the world, taking off enough time to complete four semesters at the University of California at Berkeley.
R.O.T.C. at Berkeley was mandatory for all male freshmen and sophomores in those years. Since I was taking electrical engineering, I automatically was assigned to the Signal Corps. I used to see the notices on the R.O.T.C. bulletin board about flight training, but never really dreamed I would be able make it. I was underweight and our family doctor told me I could never pass the physical.
One of those unforeseen but fortunate circumstances happened in late 1938 as I was sailing on the S.S. President Garfield on an around-the-world trip (coincidentally, the same ship on which Claire Chennault sailed to China one year before), I became acquainted with a Navy captain and a Navy commander on their way back to New York from Manila. I mentioned to them how I would like to go to Pensacola. When we docked in New York I was pleasantly surprised when each of these officers gave me a letter of recommendation.
Back in San Francisco in early 1939 I had managed to put on about ten pounds, but I was still underweight. I submitted my application to the Navy, along with the two letters of recommendation. Not being very optimistic about my chances, I applied to Pan American Airways for a job as purser on their Clippers.
August arrived and I had heard nothing, so I went over to Berkeley and signed up for the fall term. Just before school was to start, I received a notice from the Navy to report to Oakland Reserve Base for a physical. The mail also brought a notice to report to Pan American on Treasure Island. I set my priorities. I would try first for Pensacola; if that did not work out, I would go to Pan Am; failing that I would go back to school.
I reported for my Navy physical and, although still underweight, I was given an N.C.D. (not considered disqualified). However, I was ordered to report to the dispensary after every meal to drink an ounce of cod liver oil. I took a lot of ribbing from the other aspiring cadets about that. Our Elimination Training started in September.
Our class reported to Pensacola the last week of December 1939 and we started our flight training in January 1940 as class 134-C. After getting my commission and wings, I was ordered to the newly opened Saufley Field as an instructor at Squadron 1-C. I remained there until August 1941 when, in the old San Carlos Hotel, I signed up to go to China with Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company in the American Volunteer Group, which would become known to history as the Flying Tigers.
We were required to resign our commissions due to the covert nature of the job and the relations with Japan. The contract was for one year with assurance that we could return to the Navy in our old slot with no loss of seniority. The Pearl Harbor attack would alter the future plans of all the volunteers in our group.
After checking out of Pensacola, we were all instructed to report to the CAMCO representative at San Francisco for passage to China. We were told that we would be a fighter group flying P-40s and that our mission would be to protect the Burma Road; that we would be followed by a bomber group and then another fighter group. Our group was named the First American Volunteer Group. We did not have much information and really didn’t know what we were getting into. I have been asked many times why I volunteered. There are several reasons, here are some: I had been instructing at Pensacola for over a year and I wanted to get into flying fighters; I felt that it would further my career in the Navy to go out to China and fly for the one year of the contract; the pay they offered was good; it seemed like a good thing to do for the US and China; and the adventure of it appealed to me.
In San Francisco the Pensacola contingent of eighteen pilots was joined by more Navy and Army pilots plus some ground support personnel. Most of the FAVG had already departed which made our group the last contingent of pilots to arrive in Rangoon. Several additional ground support people arrived on a later ship.
We sailed from San Francisco on 24 September 1941 on the Dutch ship, M.S. Boschfontein, arriving in Rangoon on 12 November. That afternoon we boarded the train for Toungoo, Burma, which was to be our temporary training base. With our arrival, the FAVG was essentially complete except for the half dozen support people behind us.
We arrived in Toungoo, about 170 miles north of Rangoon, at 2200. Some of the volunteers who had arrived before us came down from the base to meet us. We all saw some people whom we knew, but had no idea they had joined the AVG also.
Those who arrived before my group had already been formed into a headquarters section and three pursuit squadrons. Pursuit was the Army designation at that time for what the Navy called fighter squadrons. We were immediately assigned to one of these units. I was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Squadron.
Having been raised in an Italian ancestry family of ten children I thought I was pretty used to chaos. I later realized that we had been fairly well organized in comparison to some outfits I later joined. Things in Toungoo did not run too smoothly.
Since our group of pilots on the Boschfontein were the last to arrive, we were way behind the first arrivals. They had already had months of lectures from Chennault and many hours of indoctrination in the P-40, plus gunnery, formation and dogfighting practice.
Many things had happened before our arrival including a couple of fatal accidents, resignations, and various training accidents, resulting in the loss of quite a few of our P-40s. The first few of our group to get P-40 flight time managed to have a couple more accidents. Chennault was upset about this and cancelled P-40 checkouts for new arrivals until they had an indoctrination flight in the group’s BT-9 (or SJN as we Navy called it). Unfortunately the SNJ was out of commission so our checkouts were delayed.
More than a week passed before I was able to get a couple of hops in the SNJ and then try my hand in the P-40. Our P-40 cockpit checkout and instructions came from an ex-Navy pilot, Edgar Goyette. After almost a year instructing in N3Ns, the P-40 was quite an experience. One of my main motivations for joining the AVG was to get into combat-type planes. The P-40 definitely fulfilled that desire. It required full attention to keep it under control.
The RAF squadrons at Mingaladon Airdrome in Rangoon had Brewster Buffalo planes. Many of our Navy types thought these would perform better than the P-40 Tomahawks. Chennault thought differently and so arranged for the RAF to send up a pilot in a Buffalo to have a dogfight with one of our P-40s. RAF Squadron Leader Brandt flew the Buffalo, he was an Ace from the Battle of Britain and we were quite in awe of him. Erik Shilling flew our Tomahawk and soundly defeated the Buffalo. That was a morale booster for us.
The Sunday edition of the “Times of India” carried a color photo in its magazine section of an RAF plane in North Africa with the shark mouth painted on it. It was an instantaneous hit with our whole group and within days all our planes were adorned with it. It fit the P-40 perfectly.
I was able to get about ten hours in the P-40 and was really getting to enjoy it when we were hit with a slowdown in our flight time. With a few exceptions, all the pilots from the Boschfontein were put on hold and the flight time was being given to the earlier arrivals. I got a lot of duty and loafing time for the next ten days. There was a lot of hangar flying and “acey-deucy” games in the flight line tent. Each of the three squadrons had its own alert tent on the field. There was a lot grumbling from those not getting any flying time.
Our whole group was now getting ready to make the move to Kunming, China, which was to be our main headquarters base. Several truck convoys had started up the Burma Road. Most of our ammunition was in the convoy which turned out to be unfortunate.
On Monday morning, 8 December, (we were on the other side of the international date line) as we were showing up at the flight line, first came rumors and then confirmation of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We were both shocked and excited. We were aware of the danger of a Japanese attack on the United States, but it was a big surprise that the first U.S. target was Pearl Harbor. Now our presence had a much bigger purpose. We would be fighting directly for the United States as well as our allies.
We all seemed to get more serious and intense. There had been Japanese observation planes over our Toungoo base several times, so we were expecting immediate action. With only part of our planes in commission, a shortage of ammunition since most of it was in transit over the Burma Road, and planes being prepared for the trip to China, we were in a vulnerable situation.
Chennault immediately ordered a couple of planes to fly patrol over the field. The other planes ready to go were warmed up periodically so that takeoff would not be delayed.
That night we instigated a blackout which was kept up for the duration of our stay. News was very limited and all we heard about were allied disasters. The Japanese taking of Thailand meant we were only one hundred miles from enemy fields. Pearl Harbor had now made our move into China from Toungoo uncertain. We were hoping for some good news to come out. We certainly didn’t know that we would be the ones supplying it.
We were issued gas masks and steel helmets and everyone wore their sidearms. At night, six pilots were on alert. Barbed wire was going up everywhere, slit trenches were dug in case of a bombing, the place was a beehive of activity.
There was an alert about 0300 on 10 December and the six night standby planes took off. It was a false alarm and unfortunately, one of our planes crashed on landing in the dark, but the pilot got out okay.
The same day we received the news of Pearl Harbor I started to get more P-40 time. I soon discovered that dogfighting, while very exciting, was a lot of physical work. I was enjoying it, but after only getting eleven hours of flight time, we were back on the bench with lots of day and night guard duty.
With most of our baggage already on the way to Kunming, low on ammunition and planes sitting around waiting for props and wheels, we were pretty frustrated. Chennault conferred with the British and Chinese and it was decided to send the 3rd Squadron to Mingaladon Airdrome at Rangoon on 12 December, and that the 1st and 2nd Squadrons would move up to Kunming as soon as possible. The 3rd Squadron would operate with the RAF.
More of our truck convoys were sent up the Burma Road and on 18 December, the flyable planes of the 1st and 2nd Squadrons left for Kunming with a couple of take-off accidents taking place. More pilots than planes were available, so some of us joined Chennault in a Chinese National Aviation Corporation DC-3 for the trip to China, with a stopover in Lashio, Burma. We arrived in Kunming in the evening to find out that it had been bombed that day.
Quarters and food in Kunming were a big improvement over Toungoo. A good supply of flight gear was available, including the Navy leather jacket. I had brought mine from Pensacola, so did not take a new one.
The headquarters staff and the 2nd and 3rd Squadrons were housed in a converted university at the far side of town. The 1st Squadron was placed in new adobe-type barracks close to the entrance to the airport.
On 19 December 1941, I had my first P-40 flight time in a week and it felt good to get in the air. Because of the surplus of pilots, the 20th was my day off, but it turned out to be our first combat with the JAAF, which I had to watch from the relative safety of the local graveyard.
The JAAF had been making bombing runs on Kunming without opposition so they didn’t bother with a fighter escort. This time we had a surprise in store for them. Newkirk, leading the 2nd Squadron, made a pass at the bombers as they turned to head for their homebase at Hanoi. He returned and reported that when the bombers spotted them they had run away. However, the 1st Squadron which had the top cover assignment dove on the bomber formation and in a running fight, brought down four of them and reported damage to most of the others. Several of our planes were shot up, but all the pilots returned uninjured. We were a jubilant bunch, and the Japanese did not return to Kunming again during our stay in China.
We now had a gunnery range and one day I got in a couple of practice hops. With all six guns firing, the P-40 is a pretty potent weapon. It was a real confidence-builder.
On 23 December, the citizens of Kunming came out and thanked us for the action of the 20th and for saving Kunming from another bombing. They brought flowers, fruit and decorations.
Our Christmas Eve spirit was depressed by the news of the loss of three or four of our pilots. With the communications we had, the reports were pretty vague. The 3rd Squadron had been engaged in a massive attack by the Japanese against Rangoon, and a flight of three CW-21s from Toungoo bound for Kunming got lost, ran out of gas and crashed short of Kunming. Later reports verified that we had lost two pilots in Rangoon and one was killed in a crash about fifty miles west of Kunming. The good news was that we had great success in shooting down many of the Japanese planes.
On Christmas Day the Japanese returned to Rangoon with an even larger armada of bombers and fighter escorts. Again, the AVG and RAF went up to meet them with even greater success. This time the AVG lost no pilots and managed to bag nineteen enemy aircraft.
There were a few false alarms prior to Christmas in Kunming, but all was quiet on Christmas Day. We were then issued our much publicized “blood chits.” These were the silk scarves that had the message in Chinese stating that we were an American flier and they should help us in returning to our outfits. Some members of the group had them sewn on their flight jackets or flying suits. Others, including myself, just folded them up to carry in our shirt pockets. The reason to keep them in this manner was to be able to have them with us regardless of what we were wearing.
The 2nd Squadron in Rangoon asked Chennault for additional help and the “Old Man” decided to send eight planes and pilots from the 1st Squadron to reinforce the 2nd Squadron. The 2nd had replaced the 3rd in Rangoon in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Bob Neale was to lead the 1st Squadron detachment and I was lucky enough to be one of those selected to go. We were set to leave Kunming on 12 January 1942. The plan was to fly to Toungoo to refuel and spend the night. Then we would leave Toungoo early with enough fuel to handle an alert condition on our arrival at Rangoon if it was necessary.
Bob Little’s plane needed some maintenance so our takeoff was delayed a couple of hours. Our flight consisted of Bob Neale, “Pappy” Boyington, “Black Mac” McGarry, Bob Little, Jack Croft, Bill Bartling, Frank Schiel and myself. Quite a few of us had requested the duty.
Upon takeoff my engine began to backfire and it cut out just as I was getting gear up. I immediately put the gear control in the “down” position and made a 270° turn and landed across the field. We didn’t have an actual runway at that time as it was under construction, we just had a large grassy field.
The loud noise of my engine had alerted the ground crew causing a crew chief to immediately jump into another plane and start it up. By the time I could roll to a stop, they were taking my baggage to the other plane. I crawled out of the cockpit, grabbed my parachute and ran over to the other plane. By this time, the other seven planes were out of sight. Bob Neale had the only map; however we had been given a mimeographed sheet that showed a couple of rivers, a tall mountain and some magnetic headings.
As I was securing my parachute, our squadron leader, Sandell, jumped up on my wing and said I could either take off and try to catch up or cancel the trip. I was not about to miss out on this chance to get into action. He reminded me that I had better not get into any trouble as it would be his “butt” if anything happened to me or the plane. I did not see the logic of this and his “butt” was not my primary concern.
I had gone to Kunming from Toungoo in CNAC’s DC-3, so I had not seen much of the terrain. The “map” proved useless. There were really four good-sized rivers before our point to turn in a southerly direction. After I crossed the first two rivers my dead reckoning told me it was time to take the turn south, but the high mountain checkpoint was not in sight. In 1941 nobody knew anything about the jet streams, and I must have been bucking about a seventy-knot wind
I flew on for another thirty-five or forty minutes getting more and more apprehensive. Still no tall mountain, no railroad tracks and only extremely rough terrain below. It felt pretty lonely up there. I was hesitant to turn to our planned southerly heading, not having seen any of the anticipated checkpoints. With a dwindling gas supply, I was hoping for at least a smooth area to try for a gear up landing if necessary.
I decided to refigure all my dead reckoning and try to at least get some general idea of where I should be. I was in the process of making a 360° turn and as I put my left wing down I saw an airfield right below me. I immediately throttled back and started a descent for a landing. On final approach, with gear and flaps down, I suddenly thought that this might be a Japanese field, but with only fifteen minutes of fuel left, there were not many options.
There was a small shack about midway down the field and as I rolled to a stop and began taxiing back, I had an eerie feeling. There was no one in sight. Then I noticed some movement in a machine gun nest off to one side.
Not knowing what to expect, I rolled up to the shack and cut the engine. It was a huge relief to see a young British officer step out of the door of that shack. He was an engineer and had overseen the construction of the field. He told me that he thought I was a Japanese photo ship, hence his machine guns were manned and ready. He said it was a relief to see the American insignia on the plane, although it was actually the Chinese insignia.
Fortunately, he had a supply of one hundred-octane gasoline. It had to be filtered through a chamois to clean it and he gave me enough to get to Toungoo, which was only 165 miles southwest. While my plane was being fueled he showed me our location. He had a fine map of Burma on his wall. While I studied it, he had tea served along with a shot of Red Label Scotch. He was the only Anglo at the station, which was called Nam Sang.
With the fueling and social visit complete, I took off for the flight over the hills to Toungoo. As I parked the plane at Kyedaw, our first base, the first question I got was, “Where are the other six planes?” When I replied that there should be seven more, I was told that one had already been reported lost.
Their transmitter was out of commission at the base causing communication problems but they were able to monitor some of the other AVG transmissions so we learned that the flight of seven had only made it as far as Lashio due to strong headwinds. Because there was some maintenance required, they would stay overnight and go on to Rangoon in the morning.
Having their proposed take-off time and figuring they would give our old base a “buzz job,” (which I later found out they did) I planned to join them for the trip to Rangoon. When they had not arrived after I had sat at the end of the runway for five minutes with my engine starting to overheat, I took off for Rangoon. I had just taxied to a parking spot at Mingaladon when they arrived. They had given me up for lost so were a bit shocked to see me there on the welcoming committee.
After a bombing raid that night and a couple of intercept flights which turned out to be false alarms, I was scheduled to go on an escort mission on the morning of 19 January. Frank Lawler and I, along with two RAF pilots in Brewster Buffaloes, were to escort three RAF Blenheim bombers across the Gulf of Martabon to Tavoy. We were to fly cover for the bombers as they went in to evacuate some British personnel. One RAF fighter and Lawler were flying on the left side of the bomber formation and the other RAF fighter and I were on the right side in an open formation.
More than halfway across the gulf the haze suddenly turned to fog and I lost sight of all the other planes. We were flying at 2,500 feet, so I just held my course and altitude, checking my ETA for the coast. Very soon I emerged from the fog bank and came out into bright sunlight with the coast a short distance ahead, the RAF plane to my left was just a short distance ahead, but there were no other planes in sight. I joined up on the RAF fighter and proceeded directly to the airport at Tavoy. On reaching the airfield, we dropped down to 1,000 feet and started to circle the field on opposite sides to await the others.
We had been there about five minutes and I was heading on a leg toward the coast with the RAF pilot flying in the opposite direction on the other side of the field, when straight ahead I saw six bombers suddenly appear over the hills just a little north along the coast heading for the airfield. Since we had been escorting only three I had to assume they were the enemy. The RAF pilot was flying with his back to them, so I immediately spun across to alert him and at the same time turned on my gunfight and switches, then pulled around to attack the bombers. That’s when I got my first sight of a Japanese fighter (red ball and all) as he passed directly underneath me. He had made a run on me but did no damage. At the same time I saw a fighter with a red ball on its side making a vertical dive on the bombers. That meant that the bombers were RAF and we were being attacked by Japanese fighters.
What had happened up to this point was that the RAF had sent an additional three Blenheims on the mission; they had made a course change slightly to the north and joined up with our three and all were proceeding to Tavoy. Unknown to us was that the Japanese had captured the airfield during the night. All the Blenheim bombers dove out to the coast and into the fog bank and returned to Mingaladon.
I turned my attention to the fighter that had attacked me. He did a quick 180° turn and we were closing head-on. He dove underneath me and I could not get a bead on him. He immediately flipped over on my tail, but with my high speed I had plenty of room to go out and do a fast 180° turn and come back for another pass. I saw the RAF fighter as I came around for another head-on pass. I figured if I went into his area, he could pick the enemy plane off my tail. I concentrated on the Japanese plane and we made the same maneuvers once again. When I turned around for another pass I was pretty much into the morning sun. I figured that if I started firing real early, he would have to fly through my line of fire to dive under me. All of this action was taking place at about 1,500 feet, so there was a limit on how low he could dive. Once again he dove under me and I used my speed to get some distance between us. As I started to turn around for another attack I saw smoking tracers all around me. The Japanese fighter had maneuvered me into the trap I had tried with the RAF plane. I never did know if there were more than two fighters in the ambush and I never saw the plane I had been fighting against after that pass. I then immediately put my nose down and headed for the fog bank over the beach.
I leveled off at about 300 feet, flew for a couple of miles and then started to climb for altitude. I was low on fuel and almost out of ammunition and knew I could not get back to Rangoon safely. Knowing the RAF had a field north at Moulmein, I headed in that direction and climbed to 15,000 feet. Soon I saw the field at Moulmein and was about to start my descent when I saw four fighters approaching. I was reluctant to lose my altitude but I was almost out of gas and very low on ammunition. As they got closer I was able to recognize them as P-40s (much to my relief).
I quickly landed at Moulmein and started to refuel for the return to Rangoon. The gasoline had to be filtered through a chamois, so it was about a two-hour process. I had two bullet holes through my propeller but didn’t find any other damage.
At Moulmein I saw the second RAF fighter from our original mission. He had climbed to 4,000 feet with Lawler after hitting the fog bank and had come over Tavoy at that altitude. He was engaged in some skirmishes at that altitude and did not see Lawler again. He was unaware that the first RAF pilot and myself were engaged below with the Japanese planes. He and the Japanese had broken off contact but his aircraft had a bullet through his oil tank and the falling pressure sent him scrambling for Moulmein.
While the RAF people were refueling our two planes we did a few repair jobs. I filed off the rough, splintered metal on my prop (which had been caused by my own 50 cal. gun) and the RAF pilot plugged up the hole in his oil tank. He fashioned a plug out of a tree branch, wrapped it with some cloth and used it to plug up the hole. We tied strips of rags around the tank to hold the plug in place.
Rather than fly directly across the gulf to Rangoon, the RAF pilot wanted to follow the northern shore in case the oil tank repair did not hold up and he would have to make an emergency landing. He asked me to fly along side him so I could report his position if this should happen. Luckily, it held up and we arrived at Mingaladon without any problems but several hours late, causing an air raid alarm.
Since I arrived back hours after my normal gas supply would have been exhausted, I was reported lost to Chennault. My fellow squadron mates laughed that they had already divided up my belongings!
The next day they were changing the prop on my shot-up #18 and I had a day off. Robert “Moose” Moss had to bail out near Moulmein but was reported to have arrived at the field okay. We also heard via Japanese radio that Charlie Mott, who was shot down in a strafing raid, had been captured. He was the first AVG POW.
On the 21st of January, I went on an escort mission to Tak, about a 400 mile round trip. We had our fighter planes at several altitudes but met no enemy aircraft. We ran several more escort missions, which finally managed to stir up the Japanese.
A pattern developed where each time we went over and hit their fields, we would be in for a series of attacks. Taking off so many times a day for many days seemed to make it all blend into a blur of action, false alarms and real alarms throughout the day, one scramble after another, one fight after another.
On 25 January, Chennault sent the 1st Squadron Leader, Sandell, down from Kunming to our base at Mingaladon with twelve more pilots and planes. They arrived about dusk and we were glad to see the new arrivals. The RAF was also bringing some more Hawker Hurricane fighters to Mingaladon. All this raised our morale. Unfortunately, the next day during another big fight, we lost “Cokey” Hoffman. He was a former enlisted Navy pilot and our oldest and most experienced pilot. We all felt the loss deeply.
The rest of the month continued with the fast paced action interspersed with annoying night raids. The night raids were an irritation and sleep interruption problem but did little actual damage and lost them a few of their planes in the process. On the first of February the Japanese were in control of Moulmein, having taken it during the night. That meant we lost another outlying field to use for emergencies and refueling.
In Kunming we had a lot of trouble with our Squadron Leader, Sandell. Some of the members had gone to Chennault to see about having him removed. The “Old Man” did not remove him but gave him a good “chewing out.” But with Sandell and most of the 1st Squadron in Rangoon, Sandell seemed to be a changed man. After his first combat encounters with real bullets and a couple of victories, he became downright likeable.
In one of our bigger battles on 28 January, I was flying Charlie Bond’s plane, #5. He was a little piqued when I brought it back with a few bullet holes, the antenna shot off and one rudder cable severed. I was perfectly satisfied to get down in one piece. It did not take our ground crew long to have the plane ready to go again.
On 3 February, Chennault ordered the 2nd Squadron to start moving back to Kunming from Rangoon. They started moving out a couple of days later and the rest of the 1st Squadron started to arrive in Rangoon. During these few nights we had consistent night bombings by the Japanese. They scored some good hits on the airfield and in the residential area, where most of our pilots were living. No one was hurt but a couple of people were knocked out of bed by the bomb explosions. We had become lax about heading for the air raid trenches so this served as a good wake up call to us.
The early raids on Mingaladon had knocked out the barracks on the field and damaged all the buildings. The RAF took care of our billeting and put us up with local British residents. We had breakfast and dinner with our hosts for which the RAF compensated them.
By 7 February the last of our 1st Squadron was in Rangoon and the last of the 2nd Squadron left Rangoon for Kunming on the 8th. We were glad to see all the fellows now in Rangoon but it was a bad day for us. Sandell was up testing his plane when it dove into the ground, killing him. He had already shot down five planes to become an Ace and was doing a good job running the squadron. His plane had been shot up a bit in a previous engagement and he had made a forced landing on the airfield. A Japanese pilot followed him down and tried to make him crash. However, it was the Japanese plane and pilot that were strewn all over the landscape, but he did manage to ruin the empennage of Sandy’s plane. It had been repaired and Sandy was giving it a test hop.
Sunday the 8th was my day off and I was a pall barer for Sandell. With our small group these losses hit us pretty hard. Chennault immediately wired down orders making Bob Neale our squadron leader and Pappy Boyington the vice squadron leader. The 1st Squadron was now the representative of the AVG in Rangoon.
With the fall of Moulmein, and the Japanese army advancing on Rangoon, many of the civilians were evacuating to India. There was a lull in the Japanese day attacks and we flew quite a few bomber escort missions, with no enemy aerial contact. But the Japanese ground forces kept advancing. Our big worry now was how we would get our ground people out if the enemy cut the Burma Road north of Rangoon. There were so many rumors flying around that we did not know what to expect.
We got the news that Singapore had fallen on 16 February and the Japanese would now be able to concentrate their attacks on Rangoon. We were flying a lot of escort missions to aid the front line Chinese troops, but did not seem to be accomplishing much. We heard rumors that the Japanese would be parachuting into Rangoon. On the 20th, all the civilians were given orders to evacuate within forty-eight hours. The exodus was really getting under way.
On 22 February we were told to be ready to leave on an hour’s notice. Our baggage had been sent up the Burma Road and our unit had been reduced to a skeleton ground crew. Then came a revision to the order saying we should be prepared to leave on a twelve-hour notice. A couple of our pilots were ordered to go up to Magwe to be able to fly patrols to protect our ground convoys.
The British had begun burning supplies on the docks and in the warehouses so they would not be captured. The bombers were leaving and all criminals, the insane and lepers were released. They could be seen wandering around the city in a daze. The Japanese sympathizers were getting bolder and even firing on British officers. It was crazy and dangerous. Our food consisted mainly of what canned goods we could gather from abandoned stores and warehouses.
On the 24th we were told to hold Rangoon at all costs. With the new orders, Chinese soldiers were sent to town to shoot all looters. We were told to increase our strafing missions and search out enemy ground forces.
The future looked dismal due to the lack of spare tires and a dwindling oxygen supply. Our strafing raids aroused the Japanese Air Force, and their attacks on Rangoon were renewed with a vengeance. Communications had really deteriorated and when we received any, they were usually mixed up.
Climbing out on an alert, my flight leader Ed Liebolt, motioned for me to keep climbing and that he was descending. We were at about 11,000 feet and I assumed he had failed to turn on his oxygen. It had to be turned on in the baggage compartment before takeoff. He disappeared and was never seen again. That day, the Japanese Air Force sent wave after wave against Rangoon. Between the AVG and the RAF, we gave them a pretty hard time of it. We then received word that we would be relieved on the first of March.
On 26 February, Bob Neale planned a morning strafing raid on Moulmein. He believed the Japanese would be staging there because of all the sorties they were sending against us. Eight planes were to go on the mission. Before we could take off we received an alert that “bandits” were inbound. We scrambled, but one plane had trouble and did not get off. We climbed to 18,000 feet but it was a false alarm. So Bob Neale decided to go on the previously planned mission. I was flying on Bob’s wing and since George Burgard’s wingman did not get off, he joined up with us.
As we approached Moulmein we dove down to a low altitude and got below the level of the hills and approached from the south. At an auxiliary field a few miles from Moulmein we saw two planes sitting on the ground, which we set afire and pulled up over the hill to Moulmein. We made an attack on the field just as three Japanese fighters were getting airborne. I shot down the leader of the three and swung around to come back as others were taking off. I shot down another head-on and saw a Japanese plane flying toward me on a collision course. I pushed over violently and headed for the water. I was at 1,500 feet and leveled off at about 20 feet, only to see that I was heading for a ferryboat carrying troops. I was able to get in a burst with all six guns from about 200 yards before pulling up over the boat. Enemy troops were diving off the sides as I flew over. As I was turning around to see what damage took place, I noticed two fighters heading south. Thinking they were heading for their field in Tavoy, I gave chase hoping to sneak up on them, but after five minutes I was able to identify them as British Hurricanes. I checked my fuel and ammunition and headed back to Mingaladon.
After refueling and rearming, Charlie Bond and I went out to see if we could find any sign of Ed Liebolt. We searched for an hour with no results. As we were preparing to land we saw all our planes starting to take off. By the time we got our altitude the bombers were pretty far east, high-tailing it for home. Fritz Wolf and I found a small cluster of fighters east of the field and went after them. I shot one, which burst into flames and then raked another from the side, but it went by so fast I did not see what happened to him. Some of my guns had quit firing so I pulled up for altitude to clear the gun jams. Then we got a call to land for fuel and ammunition, as they wanted to keep us as ready as possible. Later that afternoon we went back over Moulmein and found that the Japanese had deserted it.
Our living accommodations in Rangoon had deteriorated so most of the pilots had moved out to the “18 mile farm” where our ground crews were staying. We had a fried chicken dinner and went to bed, but there was a lot of night bombing going on at Rangoon.
At 0200, Neale informed us that the Japanese had closed the Burma Road south of Toungoo and that the RAF had evacuated the radio detection finder, so we would not be getting any more warnings. He said he was going to try to get our ground crews out via the Prome Road, the last route of escape.
Because of the night bombings, we always dispersed our flyable P-40s to the outlying fields as a way to protect them. There was one plane at Mingaladon, #78 that was badly shot up but it was repairable. Harry Fox and his crew went to Mingaladon to fix it. They were back by sunup to tell us it was ready to go. Bob Neale took me to the field in the squadron station wagon. Sure enough, Fox and his crew had the P-40 back in flyable condition. It had taken a shrapnel hit, but was otherwise okay. I took off in it, the last AVG plane to leave Mingaladon, and flew over to our dispersal field. About the time we finished refueling, we heard Japanese bombers approaching.
As preplanned, our flight of six P-40s immediately took off for Loiwing with Bob Little leading. Others went to different bases. Little got lost but Fritz Wolf took over and we finally landed at Lashio. Bob Prescott was down to four gallons of gas. After refueling, having lunch and a beer, we took off for Loiwing.
We were out of oil, oxygen and Prestone leaving Rangoon. I was low on Prestone leaving Lashio and my engine overheated and began to backfire, then it cut out. The terrain was too rough for an emergency landing so I started to bail out. As I put my leg out of the cockpit the engine caught on, so back in the seat I went. This routine happened one more time until I caught sight of the Loiwing field in the distance. Easing the power and starting a slow descent, I was able to reach the field safely.
After two days at Loiwing with no action and one standby (because Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek was at a meeting in Lashio), we were ordered to Kunming. We arrived without incident, to be congratulated by Chennault. Both he and Harvey Greenlaw told us to rest, so we had one day off!
Arvid Olson’s 3rd Squadron had now gone to Magwe to take over the defense there. Five of their squadron pilots had left for Magwe, got lost and cracked up their aircraft in emergency landings. Two aircraft could be repaired to fly out. They wanted more planes at Magwe so Prescott, Wolf and I requested to fly the planes there and then to stay in Magwe so that we could be where the action was.
The final decision was to send three P-40s with Olson, Prescott and Wolf to Magwe, and Frank Swartz and I would go there in an Army C-47 with our ground crew and all their tools. That turned out to be one of the wildest rides I had ever had.
The pilot in command of the C-47 was ill, so they recruited a Chinese pilot. Harold Chinn from CNAC was to ride as copilot for the newly promoted Army captain second-in-command. The plane had been stripped – there were no seats, no safety belts and heavy toolboxes sitting all over the deck. All of us passengers were sitting on the deck.
The C-47 was three quarters of the way down the field and the tail was still on the ground. We all edged up toward the front to lighten the tail. We ran out of airstrip and began bouncing along the rough ground before we finally made it into the air at a very slow speed. The plane got up to about twenty feet and we felt a lurch as the plane passed over some trees about fifty feet tall. Then came the horrible feeling as the plane was mushing toward the ground. We saw one wing suddenly rise and a house passed under it.
We later found out that the Chinese army co-pilot flying the ship had just graduated from cadet school and had only two landings in the C-47. The CNAC pilot, Chinn, had taken over the controls as we ran out of field. Slowly we gained about 1,500 feet altitude above the ground (airfield was at 6,500 feet), but could not gain enough altitude to get over the west mountain. They were trying to fly around it and fly in the valleys. We went up to the cockpit and said we all wanted to go back to Kunming. The starboard engine was vibrating badly and throwing oil. They returned to Kunming and got the plane on the ground and we happily disembarked.
The next day Swartz and I, with our eighteen ground crew, boarded a CNAC DC-3 flown by H. L.“Woody” Woods, an experienced Pan Am and CNAC pilot. We proceeded to Magwe via Lashio. The next day Woody took the rest of the 1st Squadron back to Kunming.
On 13 March, three B-17s came in to evacuate women and children. One of the navigators was a fellow named Svaboda who had washed out of Pensacola while I was instructing there. What a place to meet. The next day I went on a strafing mission near Kyaikto with the 3rd Squadron Leader, Arvid Olsen. We stopped at Toungoo for refueling and lunch on the way back.
For the next week I had alternating days of strafing missions. The 21st was a bad day. It started out fine with the British sending nine Blenheims with Hurricane escort to Mingaladon where they did a lot of damage to the enemy and shot down eight fighters. We were listening to their story when we got an alert. I was flying #38 and its starter was out, so I was late getting off. It was a false alarm. I was relieved for lunch by Frank Swartz and as we were returning to the field, we found our planes taking off. By the time we reached the alert tent they were all in the air except for #38. We called operations and were told the enemy was approaching from the southeast. Swartz had decided #38 was not fit to fly.
With Fritz Wolf’s help we hunted up a screwdriver and crank. Crew Chief John Fauth came to help and we cranked up #38. Almost everyone else had already evacuated the field. I took off, but with multiple layers of scattered clouds and haze, I was unable to see any of our P-40s. I guessed that the enemy was now nearby and climbed for altitude northeast of the field. As I reached 23,000 feet our radio announced that Japanese were strafing the town and field.
I came rushing down to 2,000 feet to get under the clouds, circled the town and field and did not see another plane. I could see that bombs had hit the field hard. There were fires burning and one Hurricane on the ground was on fire.
I then headed south thinking I might find some enemy aircraft. After about ten minutes and not seeing anything, I figured it would be best to get back to the field in case anymore Japanese aircraft showed up. In that lapsed time they came again hitting the field, buildings and several of the Blenheims. More fires were burning.
With all the clouds and haze, they did a surprisingly good job of hitting our field. There were twenty-seven bombers in each wave plus about forty fighters. Almost one hundred enemy planes had come over, I had been in the air for almost two hours and I had not made contact. It was very frustrating.
The pilots who did make contact said the Japanese planes were all faster than those they had met before; no fixed landing gear fighters either. Ken Jernstedt was shot down but only slightly injured. It was one of our worst engagements. We destroyed only a few of them.
Bombs hurt several of our people. Swartz had part of his hand blown off and a bad gash in his throat. Two crew chiefs were injured. Will Seiple had a lung caved in from bomb concussion as he lay on the ground. John Fauth had most of his right shoulder and part of his face blown off.
The next day was to be my day off, so I sat up most of the night with the injured. Part of the time I had to hold a flashlight as “Doc” Richards worked on Fauth. He had already bandaged up Swartz. Fauth was really in bad shape. Prescott and I rotated between the two rooms where Swartz and Seiple were, and where Doc was working on Fauth. They were all conscious and suffering badly. I had known Swartz from cadet days when we were both editors on the cadet yearbook at Pensacola. Listening to them and trying to console them as they suffered, and watching Doc work on Fauth made me feel terrible. I was sure I never wanted to be a doctor. That was the worst night of my life. About 0430 Fauth died.
The next morning I was washing up about 0830 when I heard someone yell, “Here they come!” We had no warning and none of our planes got off. There were twenty-two bombers and a swarm of fighters. They really blew the hell out of our planes with their bombing and strafing. Luckily, all of our people got safely off the field.
About noon we got Swartz and Seiple on a DC-3 going to Calcutta. About ten minutes after they left another wave of enemy planes came over. There were fifty-three bombers and another swarm of fighters. Our warning system was non-existent, so everybody tried to stay clear of the field. After a reasonable wait, we ventured back to the airfield. Old #38 was as full of holes as a sieve, but did not burn. Some P-40s were burned right down to the ground. All of the Blenheims were destroyed.
We prepared to evacuate to Loiwing. Ed Overend and I each had a jeep and planned to travel together. The crew chiefs figured they could make four P-40s flyable and worked at the field that night with flashlights. Ed and I got up at 0330, had coffee and prepared to leave. Some of those driving had already left during the night. And, sure enough, the crew chiefs had four planes ready to fly. At 0430 we shoved off – destination Loiwing. We were on our own.
That afternoon we met up with Arvid Olsen and Parker Dupouy outside of Maymyo and sought out sleeping quarters. We ended up at the headquarters of the American Military Mission. There we found two reporters, Daniel DeLuce and Mr. Berrigan. Army Captain Jones was very helpful. I lucked out in a coin toss with Overend and got to sleep on a Simmons mattress out on the porch of the quarters.
The next morning we arose and had breakfast with General Stilwell. We told him how to win the war, but we’re not sure how much he listened. He didn’t have much to say. Ed Overend knew a missionary family there and they gave us a gallon of fresh strawberries to take on our trip. That was a memorable treat.
We drove in our jeeps for the next three days, up the Burma Road to Loiwing. It was an interesting and sometimes thrilling three days. There were washouts, hairpin turns, all kinds of logistical problems, food problems, fuel problems, but a great adventure. There were no planes at Loiwing, but eight 3rd Squadron planes came in the next day, so we were then back on schedule.
During the next several days Chuck Older shot down a Japanese observation plane and “Fearless Freddie” Hodges got married. We had a nice party for the bride and groom and even the Japanese joined the celebration, in that we had an alert in the middle of the party and we all ran for the slit trenches. Fortunately the Japanese never showed over the field, so we continued with the party.
On 8 April, in the morning, the Japanese sent an observation plane over. Then at about 1300, thirteen fighters arrived on a strafing raid. Just before they arrived, a Blenheim had landed and two P-40Es were brought in by Pan Am ferry pilots (one of the pilots named Dukelow had been in my cadet class at Pensacola). Our P-40E and the Blenheim were shot up and the other P-40E was burned to the ground.
It was my day off so I watched the attack from a slit trench. Our flyable P-40s had taken off and climbed to about 22,000 feet. The Japanese came in low and were having a real picnic shooting up the field when our gang pounced on them. Three new P-40Es flown by Olsen, Ken Jernstedt and Robert Little happened to arrive from Kunming at the same time and joined the action.
I was in the slit trench with Doc Richards and saw two Japanese planes fall in flames fairly close and two more go down a little further away. The fighters were the Zekes, very similar to the Zero. We got seven of them and did not lose any of our own aircraft in the air. The next evening ten planes of the 2nd Squadron arrived to join us. Then Chennault came in from Kunming to stay for a while.
On 10 April, as the alert crew was on its way to the field, I saw five Japanese fighters diving for the field. Some of the crew chiefs were sitting in the planes warming them up. We had about twenty-four planes all lined up like sitting ducks and they made run after run on them. Two of our crew chiefs were in their planes as they were hit but luckily there were no injuries to our men as they all dove for the slit trenches. Despite having lots of time and no opposition, the Japanese only damaged nine of the twenty-four planes. Four of the nine were patched up and ready to fly in about an hour, the rest were repaired later. The Japanese were back that afternoon with seven fighters but we wiped out five of them on that mission.
We had been flying regular patrols over the front lines to boost the moral of the Chinese ground troops. Bob Prescott and I got orders to go back to Kunming on the 20th. About thirty minutes after we took off, we were contacted by radio and recalled. Prescott was then sent up in the Group Beechcraft and I was told to wait for another P-40 that was being repaired. The next day I flew #59 up to Kunming which was an enjoyable trip. I followed the Burma Road all the way, sighting a couple of airfields. The next day I was back on alert duty.
Kunming was quiet on 26 April, and I was at the hospital visiting Bob Brouk who had been strafed while making an emergency landing at Nam Sang in Burma. He was hit in the thumb and leg. While visiting, I received a call from George Burgard to get back immediately as we were to leave on a CNAC plane at once. Burgard, Jim Cross and I were to go to Karachi, meet with thirteen Chinese pilots from the CAF, and ferry sixteen P-43s back to Kunming.
We gathered some baggage and boarded a CNAC plane for Calcutta, but were forced to return because of bad weather. We left the next day and had a very turbulent flight to Calcutta, but we didn’t mind because this was great R & R for us. We waited three days in Calcutta for a BOAC flying boat to Karachi.
We had to test fly and put slow time in on all of the P-43s. Eddie Goyette was checking out the Chinese pilots. After the usual delays and a great vacation, we left Karachi on 11 May. We were each leading a group of four, the fourth leader was a Chinese pilot, Y.T. Low. The trip to Kunming was filled with problems including bad weather just about all the way. We had to turn around several times but finally got to Dinjan, the last stop before crossing the “Hump” (Himalayas) into China. The trouble took its tool and our flight was down from sixteen planes to ten. We remained overnight there and Doolittle’s men came through on their way back to the States. They had had a really rough time. The next day the ten of us took off for Kunming. The weather was terrible but we climbed on top and flew over a solid overcast for more than 400 miles. Just short of Kunming the weather cleared and Burgard led us in a screaming dive for the airport. As our flight of ten cleared the hills west of the airfield, we caused a panic at the field. They had no word of our arrival and those P-43 radial engines made us look like Japanese planes.
At 1900 that night we were told to be ready to be transferred up to Chungking at 0700 the next morning. We all rushed around getting ready, however, the next morning the move was postponed. After a few escort missions, some patrols and a couple of false alarms, the 1st and 2nd Squadrons took off for Chungking on 9 June.
They had built nice quarters for us at the field outside of Chungking, but on arrival we were told we would be leaving for Kweilin the next day. Since we had several more pilots than planes, a few of us were to fly on a CNAC DC-3 with the “Old Man.” Next day the weather was pretty bad so the P-40 flights were postponed, but those of us on CNAC flew to our destination.
We awakened the next morning to the sound of bombs falling. The Japanese had been making raids on Kweilin for a long time and there was no opposition to fight them. They sent fighters and bombers to hit the city and airport – all civilian targets, with devastating effects. The rest of our P-40s arrived from Kunming that afternoon.
The Japanese had been routinely sending an observation plane over before the main attacks but the “Old Man” decided to put us in the air early without waiting. So 12 June we got up at 0300 to get ready to go to the field. We took off at 0520 and, sure enough, at 0600, about eighteen enemy arrived. We had a big surprise for them – us. We had fighters at three different altitudes and hit them hard. Some of the fighting got down close to ground level. For the first time we saw the Japanese twin-engine fighters. Our guys thought it was a light bomber. We got ten of their planes before they got away. No bombs fell on the city. The next night the grateful citizens of Kweilin came out and gave us a party. We gave them a flyby over the city the next day as a salute.
The 2nd Squadron moved to another field at Heng Yang. They went on a strafing mission and were followed back to the field by the enemy. So seven of us from the 1st Squadron were sent over to Heng Yang at dusk to cover them the next day as they returned from a planned mission. We were supposed to come right back to Kweilin. We had no baggage, the weather turned terrible and we were stuck there for ten days without change of clothes. I always carried a toothbrush in my shirt pocket, so I at least had that.
We were getting a lot of night bombing. When the weather broke, four of us were sent further north to a field at Ling Ling. There we were getting bombed again at night. At both Heng Yang and Ling Ling they hit very close to our quarters. We were on alert all day and in the slit trenches most of the night. At both locations the bombs landed close enough to splatter mud on me.
The Army Air Corp sent General Clayton Bissell out to sign up all of the AVG. Bissell was an old enemy of Chennault’s from his military days. Bissell’s speech to us was filled with demands and threats as to what would happen to us if we didn’t sign up right then. It didn’t go over well. The few who stayed on did so out of consideration for the “Old Man” who had become highly respected by us all.
The Flying Tigers were officially disbanded as of midnight on 3 July, 1942. That was the end of my combat, but not my flying, career.
The record of the AVG:
We were in actual combat for seven months; we had less than 300 people. As of Dec 2, 1941, there were 82 pilots and of the original 100 P-40s sent out to Chennault, 78 remained with 62 in commission, 68 with radios and 60 with armament. There were shortages of just about everything and no spare parts to speak of. The group has a confirmed count of 297 enemy aircraft destroyed with another 150 probable. Our losses were 4 pilots lost in aerial combat, 7 shot down and killed by anti-aircraft fire during strafing runs, 8 killed in operational and training accidents unrelated to enemy action. Four were MIA and of those 3 were found to be POWs. Three died from Japanese bombing raids. One was shot down and seen alive, but no word as to his fate. The American Fighter Aces Association confirms 20 AVG pilots as Aces with another 6 pilots achieving Ace status during the next few years.
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