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Chinese fighter pilot Gao Chi Hang is still revered 75 years after his untimely death in a Japanese bombing raid.

For China, he was an improbable hero. At a time when most officers came from the upper class, his family was impoverished. On his first try at flight  training he was rejected for being too short. He had a bad leg and a Russian wife. He was a Christian. Despite all those obstacles, Gao Chi Hang became an accomplished pilot and a respected squadron leader. The first Chinese pilot to shoot down an invading bomber, he led his squadron to an unprecedented victory over the formidable Japanese navy air force. He became China’s first aviation hero—for Nationalists and Communists alike—and remains a hero to this day.

Gao was born on May 14, 1907, in Liaoning Province, Manchuria. After graduating from a Catholic school, he was accepted as an artillery cadet by China’s Northeast Army Academy. An air corps was being established at the time, and the general in charge wanted candidates to send to France for flight training. Initially rejected because of his height, Gao wrote a letter—in flawless French—that earned him a spot.

On his return in 1927, Gao was posted to the Northeast Army’s “Flying Eagles” squadron. He soon found an old airplane and had it rebuilt. During his first flight in it, a control rod broke and he crashed, suffering a badly broken leg. When it healed, his injured leg was shorter than the other—effectively grounding him. But after he asked to be allowed to demonstrate his flying ability, he so impressed a general that he was returned to flight status. Gao then adopted a new name, Chi Hang. His full name could now be translated as “high aviation ideals” or “high aviation ambition.”

After the Japanese army occupied Manchuria in September 1931, Chinese aviators in the northeast were expected to serve with the Japanese. Gao fled, taking his Russian wife with him, but was soon caught. When he tried again—without his wife—he managed to reach Chinese Nationalist forces at Nanking. They sent Gao to the Chinese Air Force (CAF) Central Flying School near Hangchow, where he became an instructor. Soon after Gao learned that CAF officers weren’t allowed to marry foreigners, his wife arrived in Nanking. She was forced to return to Manchuria, and Gao was ordered to divorce her.

In July 1937, looking for ways to grab more of China, the Japanese engineered an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Peking, which they used as a pretext to occupy the city. The Chinese chose to fight back in the south, in the Yangtze Valley, where the large foreign commercial presence in Shanghai would highlight Japanese aggression and perhaps lead to intervention by the Western powers.

Retired U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Claire L. Chennault—whose fame as commander of the American Volunteeer Group “Flying Tigers” was then still years in the future—had just arrived in China as an adviser to the CAF. On the books the CAF had a total of 500 operational aircraft, but Chennault found only 91 to be actually airworthy. Most were biplanes, and the best of the bunch were probably Curtiss Hawk IIs, with fixed landing gear, and Hawk IIIs, with retractable gear. There were also Vought Corsairs, Boeing 281 Peashooters, Italian Breda 27s and Fiat C.R.32s. Obsolete Junkers and Capronis served as bombers, in addition to export versions of the Martin B-10 and the Northrop A-17.

In early August 1937, the head of China’s aviation commission, Madame Chiang Kaishek, advised Chennault that the Japanese were preparing to occupy Shanghai, telling him to warn the U.S. embassy there. The embassy personnel were unconcerned, believing that the fighting was confined to the north. The next day Chennault watched 26 Japanese warships steam up the Whangpoo River and anchor in front of Shanghai, and on August 13 they shelled the city. The Chinese sent Northrop light bombers to attack the Japanese flagship, the light cruiser Idzumo, the following morning. Although the pilots were ordered not to fly over Shanghai’s international settlement, Idzumo was berthed right in front of it. Two 1,100-pound bombs fell on Nanking Road, in a crowded shopping area. One failed to explode, but the other killed 950 Chinese and foreigners, and injured more than 1,000—the highest casualty toll in an air attack up to that time.

That same day would bring the CAF’s first victory over the Japanese navy air force. Eighteen Mitsubishi G3M2 heavy bombers of the Kanoya Kokutai (air group) took off from Matsuyama airfield, on Formosa, for their first attack against China—and the first transoceanic bombing raid in history. Nine of the bombers were to strike the CAF flight school airfield near Hangchow, and the other nine were to hit a second airfield nearby. Waiting at the flight school for his CAF 4th Pursuit Group to arrive was its commander, Colonel Gao Chi Hang.

Gao had arrived in advance of his group, which was ferrying its Hawk IIIs there from another base but had been delayed by bad weather. As a few Hawks landed and were being refueled, warning came of the incoming Japanese. Gao’s aircraft, IV-1, had just been flown in by another pilot, and was not yet refueled. But Gao took off in it anyway, just before the Japanese bombers arrived.

The G3Ms came in low, not much over 1,000 feet, and dropped their bombs, which did little damage. Gao had by then joined up with another Hawk III, flown by Lieutenant Tan Won, and together they attacked one of the bombers. Tan fired first, but was outside effective range. Gao got in close and concentrated his fire on the G3M’s left engine until its left wing burst into flames. The bomber, China’s first victory in the Sino-Japanese conflict, crashed not far from airfield.

Gao then attacked a second G3M, again damaging its left wing. But before he could finish it off he ran out of fuel, and was forced to make a dead-stick landing. His second target reportedly made it back to Matsuyama on one engine, so badly riddled with bullet holes that it had to be written off. Three other 4th Group Hawks sent a second G3M crashing near the airfield, and another bomber was damaged and ditched in the sea before it reached Formosa. The CAF claimed a total of six G3Ms that day, for the loss of one Hawk III in a takeoff accident.

That evening Japanese radio boasted of the Hangchow raid, saying that Nanking would be next. On the morning of August 15, several American newsmen joined Chennault in his observation post on the roof of Nanking’s Metropolitan Hotel. They had just finished lunch when the air raid sirens wailed.

The attackers came from the north,“eighteen twin-engine single tail planes [G3M2s],” Chennault wrote. They approached the city one by one, flying under the clouds, below 2,000 feet. After bombing the empty airfield, they climbed into the clouds. CAF headquarters reported that seven enemy bombers had been shot down. As Chennault and the newsmen raced to the airfield, they saw the burning wreckage of three bombers along the way. By day’s end, Chennault would count the wrecks of eight Japanese bombers.

Early that same morning, Gao had led the 4th Group Hawks from Hangchow on a mission to intercept a dozen Mitsubishi B2M2 torpedo bombers that had taken off from the Japanese carrier Kaga. Gao shot down two of the biplanes, but was hit in the right arm and had to return to base. His group acquitted itself well: 11 of the torpedo planes were downed and the 12th was damaged, but returned to Kaga.

The Japanese attacked Nanking three more times within the next five days, raids that cost them 54 aircraft and crews. Forty wrecks littered the ground, and the rest fell into the sea, brought down as a result of battle damage.

Stung by their losses, the Japanese didn’t return to Nanking until September 19, this time with 12 Mitsubishi A5M fighters escorting the attacking bombers. Sixteen CAF fighters went up to meet them; 11 were shot down and four pilots killed. China’s obsolete airplanes now stood little chance against the swarms of Japanese fighters that accompanied the bombers.

Gao’s injury grounded him for a time. By October, when he was ready to fly again, the CAF had only a single squadron of mixed aircraft types with which to defend Nanking. On October 12, Gao led six Hawk IIIs, two Peashooters and a C.R.32 against an incoming raid on Nanking, nine G3Ms escorted by 11 A5Ms.

Gao, with several of the Hawks, went after the A5Ms, while the other Chinese aircraft engaged the bombers. The A5M was an agile open-cockpit monoplane, far superior to anything the Chinese had. “The Chinese pilots are most properly afraid of them,” Chennault wrote. In the ensuing melee, Gao drove one down, then was jumped by three others that engaged him in a lengthy contest. Two of the A5Ms broke off, but the third flew on, making loop after loop, its pilot dead at the controls. Gao was credited with two A5M kills, an impressive achievement.

After Shanghai fell, the Soviet Union sent China four squadrons of fighters and two of bombers. In November Gao’s 4th Pursuit Group was to be reequipped with Polikarpov I-16s. Gao went up north, where the aircraft were delivered by the Russians, and led a flight of I-16s back to Nanking. During a refueling stop in Honan Province on November 21, Japanese bombers hit the airfield without warning. Gao was trying to get his I-16 off the ground, with bombs falling all around him, when one exploded close to his plane, killing the 31-year-old pilot.

Today, 75 years later, China’s ruling Communist Party considers Gao a hero, even though he flew for the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government. Premier Chou En-lai once said that Gao Zhihang (as the Communists spell it) belonged not only to the KMT but to the Chinese nation. Every year the Chinese commemorate the achievements of Gao and the other 4th Group pilots on August 14, China’s Air Force Day.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.