A handful of American pilots in war-weary P-40s took on 32 Zeros over Nanning, with surprising success.
As he neared the Allied air base at Nanning on April 5, 1944, Japanese navy pilot Ippei Yoshida grew uneasy. Yoshida’s air group and two others had been ordered to dive bomb and strafe the air base that afternoon. Above them at 6,000 feet he saw a layer of hazy clouds—perfect cover for enemy fighters. Just as the airfield came into view, he spotted a shadow moving through those clouds. Yoshida and his comrades were about to receive a warm welcome from the Americans.
The detachments of Fourteenth Air Force fighters at Nanning—in southeastern China, about 75 miles north of the Gulf of Tonkin—were a thorn in the side of Japanese forces in the region. During the first week of April, the base was occupied by the 51st Fighter Group’s 26th Fighter Squadron, flying Curtiss P-40K Warhawks. The unit had recently adopted the nickname “China Blitzers.”
The Fourteenth Air Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault, had mounted two particularly successful missions in early March to Japanese-occupied Hainan Island, which forms the Gulf of Tonkin’s eastern boundary. On March 4, 10 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers and eight P-40s made a low-level attack on the airfield at Haikou, on the island’s north coast. They shot down three enemy airplanes, including two Mitsubishi A6M Zeros of the Japanese navy’s 254th Kokutai (air group), destroyed 11 aircraft on the ground and killed or wounded about 100 personnel. The attackers—members of the Chinese-American Composite Wing’s 8th Fighter Squadron, then based at Kweilin—mistakenly claimed the two Zeros as “Oscars” (Nakajima Ki-43 army fighters).
When the B-25s returned to Haikou on March 13, this time escorted by Warhawks of the 26th Fighter Squadron from Nanning, the P-40 pilots were credited with downing three Japanese army Nakajima Ki-44 “Tojos” and probably destroying three more (they were in fact all Zeros). The Japanese navy also reported seven of its aircraft were damaged on the ground.
Hainan’s commander, Vice Adm. Masukichi Matsuki, decided to mount a retaliatory raid using two operational fighter training units, the Sanya and Haikou kokutais, as well as the 254th, which was also based at Sanya, on the island’s south coast. All three groups were equipped with late-model Zeros. The training units included several experienced combat veterans, who were serving as instructors. Among them was 23-year-old Mitsuo Hori of the Sanya Kokutai, an ace with some 10 victories to his credit.
Shortly after noon on April 5, 12 Sanya Zeros— three flights of four aircraft, each carrying a single 60-kilogram bomb—took off under the command of Lt. j.g. Tsuneo Nakahara, whose wingman was Chief Petty Officer Yoshida. Over Haikou they rendezvoused with a dozen more planes of that base’s air group, led by Katsuhiro Hashimoto, and nine escort Zeros of the 254th Kokutai. The 254th’s leader, Lieutenant Hiroshi Maeda, served as the overall mission leader for the 33 Japanese fighters, which then headed for Nanning, 250 miles to the northwest. En route, one pilot aborted the mission.
As the Zeros approached Nanning, the base’s operations officer, 1st Lt. Lyndon O. Marshall, led four other 26th Squadron pilots above the clouds. They were flying the only serviceable Warhawks on the base (the rest were away on a mission to Indochina). His flight comprised 1st Lt. Alexander R. Duncan and 2nd Lts. Sam L. Brown, Lloyd E. Mace and Allan G. Putnam. Mace later recalled that he took off in a P-40 “which had some minor ground fire damage from a previous mission and was not scheduled to fly.”
Some 50 years later,“Lyn” Marshall described the action in detail:
The Chinese Early Warning Net informed us of the approaching Japanese aircraft from the direction of Hainan Island. We immediately took off….We climbed up through the dense haze and had reached 18,000 feet, where we received the radio message, “They are approaching the field.”We couldn’t see them or the ground because of the haze as we dove toward the general area of Nanning Air Base. When we broke out of the haze, there they were. We passed through their formation. I am sure we were as surprised as they were! From then on it was a real air battle.
The speed that we had built up in the dive was definitely to our advantage, as we could use that speed during the early stage of the fight. A P-40 could not out-climb or turn inside a Jap fighter, but it could out-dive it.
I got my plane and sights lined up on a Jap plane almost immediately and shot him down in flames. I soon spotted another and shot him down in flames. Of course, there were many Jap planes around, so in the early stages of the fight it wasn’t hard to locate them. They hadn’t scattered to any great extent. This continued until I realized I must get back some altitude. While attempting to regain altitude three of the Jap fighters got on my tail. I kept looking to my rear so that I could maneuver to some extent when they were shooting at me, to avoid getting hit—at least part of the time.
When in an emergency such as this the throttle was pushed all the way forward to a position we called “War Emergency Power.” While I was climbing and concentrating to avoid getting hit by the Japs I was gradually losing speed, until my plane lost air lift. The plane immediately flipped over on its back, and I went into an inverted spin, falling toward the ground. I had experienced an inverted spin in a P-40 during tactical training. When this happened, if the pilot cut the throttle/reduced power he had a good chance of getting out of the spin….
I don’t know what altitude I was at when this happened, but…I neglected to reduce power. I remember fighting the controls as I was spinning down. Somehow, I came out of the spin. Why? I don’t know. Not knowingly, did I finally cut the throttle? Anyway, to my amazement there were no Japs on my tail. I think they thought they had shot me down. I nearly hit the treetops as I leveled off. It was much less hectic as I climbed back to altitude. I didn’t see any more Jap planes.
Meanwhile, after spotting the shadow in the clouds above, Yoshida had signaled to his leader, Nakahara, who indicated he would leave that potential problem to their escort. The Sanya pilots flew parallel to the airfield, turned right and dived on it from west to east. Yoshida dropped his bomb next to Nakahara’s, after which they flew straight and level. When they again turned right, preparing to strafe the field, Yoshida thought it odd that he couldn’t see the two Zeros of his flight’s second element. Then he spotted five or six enemy planes beneath the clouds, with a Zero below them being shot down. He believed the victim was the third member of Nakahara’s flight, Asagoro Ishioka.
As two P-40s dived on his own element, Yoshida turned into them head-on, and they broke away. He lost track of Nakahara when another Warhawk attacked them. Yoshida chased one P-40 and scored some hits, causing it to belch black smoke, but he couldn’t confirm its destruction. By that time running low on fuel, he joined up with Hori, whose plane was also smoking (he would claim to have shot down a P-40 before his Zero was hit). The pair made it safely to the Japanese airfield at Ishu. During the course of the fight, Yoshida had seen five or six Zeros shot down.
Hashimoto jettisoned his bomb after he saw the P-40s diving on the Sanya Zeros ahead of him, and the other Haikou pilots followed suit before joining the dogfight. Hashimoto later claimed that he shot down the American fighter that had just downed Ishioka. After running out of ammunition, Hashimoto managed to escape from the Warhawks at low altitude. He reportedly counted 16 bullet holes in his plane when he returned to Haikou.
By the time the escort Zeros of the 254th Kokutai finally arrived on the scene, the air battle was pretty much over—although they would later report they had had an inconclusive encounter with 10 P-40s! The 254th’s pilots also claimed to have destroyed a B-25 and a P-40 on the ground in strafing attacks.
According to the official 26th Fighter Squadron history, the enemy aircraft approached “the field in two waves. Dive bombed auxiliary runway from 3,000 ft causing slight damage. Second wave strafed from deck level destroying one P-40 on the ground and severely damaging another. No further damage. Enemy [made] numerous strafing passes.”
Lyn Marshall remembered: “After the fight, and as long as we had some fuel left, the four of us flew cover over the base until the other planes had returned from their mission. When I landed, I ended up in the ditch alongside the grass-covered runway. The tire of my left landing gear had been shot out. My plane had a few other punctures, but nothing serious. According to my logbook, I was in the air one hour and 20 minutes. This included the takeoff, climb to altitude, combat and patrol over the base.”
The reason only four of the P-40s were patrolling over the field after the air battle was that Sam Brown had been killed in a collision with one of the Zeros (according to the squadron history, Brown’s P-40 “locked wings” with the Japanese fighter). Brown, 24, was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and officially credited with destroying the Zero.
J. Roy Brown, a pilot of the 51st Group’s 16th Fighter Squadron who had known Sam Brown (no relation), later recalled a significant conversation he had with him at Nanning in early March:“He quizzed me again about Zero pilots ramming on head-on passes. He asked if it was really true that Zeros could out-turn P-40s as he was told back in the States. I told him I suspected that most Zero pilots had no more interest in head-on collisions than I did, but that I suggested he blow the other guy down in head-on passes if he ever got into that situation and not let him try to ram. And that trying to turn with Zeros could get one in trouble. He was very definite—even belligerent—that he would not break first in a head-on pass, and he doubted that a Zero could out-turn him. I shrugged it off as just new fighter jock big mouth. The next I heard he had collided with a Zero in a head-on pass over Nanning.”
The American pilots had again misidentified the navy Zeros as army fighters—“mostly Oscar Mark 2’s, with some Tojos.” Marshall, who was credited with four destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged, received the Distinguished Service Cross. He was one of only five pilots to achieve ace status with the 51st Group, having scored his first victory during the March 13 B-25 escort mission to Hainan. Allan Putnam got two destroyed, one probable and one damaged; “Lex” Duncan scored one destroyed and one probable; and “Pinky” Mace was credited with one destroyed. Marshall recalled that “ground forces found all Japanese aircraft, substantiating claims.”
Duncan was also awarded a DFC, while the other two Americans received Air Medals. Like Marshall, Duncan was already an air combat veteran prior to this action. He had shot down an Oscar and probably two more over Kunming on December 22, 1943, and was also credited with one Tojo destroyed and another probable on the March 13 raid.
The Japanese naval pilots claimed seven P-40s destroyed and two more probably destroyed over Nanning, plus three more Warhawks and two B-25s on the ground. In fact, the American losses amounted to just one P-40 and its pilot in the air and another one on the ground, although at least two more were damaged.
In all, nine Zero pilots of the two training units were killed, a figure that matched the American destroyed claims. Among the dead was Sanya Kokutai leader Nakahara. In spite of a more than 6-to-1 numerical advantage, the Japanese pilots had been badly beaten by a single flight of Americans in obsolescent P-40s.
Commenting on the locals’ reaction to the air battle, Marshall said: “The people of Nanning were so elated to see the Japanese get whipped they wanted to show their appreciation. Thus, many of the people, including the governing body of Nanning, came to the air base with a banner showing the date of the fight, a ‘Flying Tiger’ scrapping with a Jap plane and Chinese characters [expressing] their thanks to us.” More celebrations—a parade, fireworks, a banquet with speeches and toasts—followed in Nanning, and the local theater guild put on a production at the base.
Promoted to captain, Marshall flew 25 more missions in P-40s and North American P-51 Mustangs, for a total of 73. He and Duncan completed their combat tours and returned home in mid-1944. Pinky Mace and Allan Putnam would score additional victories in P-51s, though both were eventually shot down. On June 18, Mace was credited with a Ki-43 destroyed and Putnam with one damaged during a dive-bombing mission from Lingling. Eight days later Mace got another confirmed Oscar kill.
On July 5, while Mace was based at Liuchow, his Mustang was hit by groundfire during a B-25 escort mission, and he was injured when he struck its tail while bailing out. Chinese partisans, under fire from enemy troops, rescued him after he landed in the Hsiang River. Following a harrowing 138-day journey, Mace finally made it to Kunming at the end of November.
Putnam was also shot down by anti-aircraft fire, during a sweep of the Xi River from Nanning on October 1. Like Mace, he bailed out and was rescued by Chinese guerrillas, who kept him safe during a 250- mile trek through Japanese-controlled territory.
The 51st Fighter Group fought on in China until war’s end. Its 16th and 25th squadrons exchanged their battle-worn P-40s for Mustangs shortly after the 26th had done so. By V-J Day the group had run up a score of 179.5 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air plus many more probably destroyed and damaged—a total that doesn’t include another 68 victories by the 16th Squadron while it was attached to the 23rd Fighter Group. The 51st contributed at least as much to the Allied victory in the ground attack role, destroying a tremendous amount of enemy materiel.
Steve Blake is the editor of the P-38 National Association’s publication, Lightning Strikes; the co-author (with John Stanaway) of Adorimini (“Up and at ’Em!”): A History of the 82nd Fighter Group in World War II; and the author of The Pioneer Mustang Group: The 354th Fighter Group in World War II. He recommends for further reading: P-40 Warhawk Aces of the CBI, by Carl Molesworth; Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45, by Henry Sakaida; and Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II, by Ikuhiko Hata and Yasuho Izawa.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.