The China Air Task Force performed brilliantly in action against the Japanese, yet it was unable to win the struggle for supplies and weapons. “The CATF had to fight, scream, and scrape for every man, plane, spark plug and gallon of gas,” Brig. Gen. Claire L. Chennault wrote. The Japanese were only part of the CATF’s many problems. The other enemies were distance, disease and lack of supplies.
Chennault’s planes operated at the end of a long supply line. CATF supplies had to come 12,000 miles from the United States by ship to the ports of Karachi or Bombay, India. Then they had to be taken 1,500 miles by rail to Assam, where they were loaded onto Douglas C-47 Dakota transports for the 500-mile flight over the Hump to Kunming, China. From there, the supplies were delivered by trucks and donkey carts to the CATF’s forward bases, a 400 to 700 mile journey.
The CATF never had enough of anything. What it could not get over the Hump had to be obtained in China. “The CATF lived off the land like a pack of hungry mastiffs,” Chennault recalled. “We used anything and almost everything we could find in China.” They dipped into Chinese gasoline and ammunition dumps, and used bombs and bullets made by other countries. There were not enough aluminum belly tanks for the P-40s, so they improvised belly tanks out of bamboo and fish glue.
The men wore any clothing they could find, including Chinese coolie coats, castoff British gear, American military issue and civilian clothes. With no food coming in from the outside, the CATF’s personnel existed on a Chinese diet of rice, bean sprouts, chicken, eggs and pork prepared by Chinese cooks. They drank tea instead of coffee.
Disease was a big problem, causing more casualties than Japanese bombs and bullets. Many pilots, mechanics and aircrewmen suffered from malaria, jaundice, dysentery and other illnesses. None of the CATF bases had a flight surgeon. The sick and wounded were cared for by Catholic missionaries.
Administrative equipment also was in short supply, and paper was as scarce as spare parts. For months, combat logs, notes and other information were kept on the backs of envelopes, letters, rice paper, even matchbook covers. Major David “Tex” Hill’s 75th Squadron had only a Chinese pencil, a pad of rice paper and a missionary’s ancient typewriter to keep the squadron’s records.
Working conditions at the CATF’s fields were bad. They had no hangars, maintenance shops or revetments for the planes. CATF mechanics, often assisted by the pilots, were forced to work on the fighters and bombers in the open, exposed to the weather, from dawn to dusk. Spare parts and tools–even wrenches and pliers–were in short supply. Hill’s squadron at Hengyang had only two sets of hand tools left over from the AVG to service the squadron’s P-40s. Most spare parts came from wrecked aircraft.
Colonel Robert Scott’s P-40E Kittyhawk Old Exterminator, when it was too damaged to fly, was used as a source of spare parts for other P-40s. “The landing gear was put on another ship,” Scott recalled. “The instruments were scattered throughout the group; the armor plate was taken out to use as a hot-cake griddle for the mess. All parts of the fighter were cannibalized, and in a month were spread out over 18 P-40s in the organization.”
Despite their hard work and ingenuity, the CATF’s mechanics had a great problem maintaining the aircraft because of a lack of supplies. The Allison engines on the CATF’s P-40s ran 300 hours without an overhaul. The mechanics were forced to reuse old engine oil, and clean and reuse spark plugs. There was no Prestone coolant, new tires or carburetors. Early in September 1942, when Chennault tried another strike into eastern China, only eight out of 15 P-40s were available, because of inadequate maintenance.
Despite all the shortages, the CATF’s fighters kept intercepting Japanese fighters and bombers, strafing Japanese ground targets, and escorting B-25 bombers on raids over China. It was a make-do, can-do operation. W.B.A.