The China Air Task Force was a scrappy but beleaguered fill-in that fought both the Japanese and supply shortcomings until the Fourteenth Air Force was formed.
At midnight on July 4, 1942, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers, ceased to exist. They were replaced by the China Air Task Force (CATF), a group that was, in the words of Tiger founder and leader Brigadier General Claire Lee Chennault, “patched together in the midst of combat from whatever happened to be available in China during the gloomy summer of 1942.”
The Flying Tigers were a hard act to follow. The AVG had been formed to defend the Burma Road and Chinese cities from Japanese air attack, and its fliers had won spectacular victories over the Japanese since December 1941.
The Flying Tigers’ replacement–the CATF–had few resources with which to fight a powerful enemy deployed across a vast front. But in the nine months of its existence, between July 1942 and March 1943, the group achieved a combat record that proved it to be a worthy successor to the AVG.
The Flying Tigers had started out flying Curtiss 81A-1s–export versions of the P-40B Tomahawk–in December 1941. Using tactics developed by Chennault, they shot down 297 Japanese aircraft, plus 153 probables, in only seven months of combat, from December 1941 to July 1942. They lost only four pilots and 12 Tomahawks in combat. “For a time, the Flying Tigers provided the only victories against the Japanese anywhere in the Far East,” Duane Schultz, author of The Maverick War, wrote. “This handful of men had shown that the Japanese were not invincible.”
As early as December 30, 1941, the U.S. War Department in Washington, D.C., had authorized the induction of the Flying Tigers into the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). Chennault was opposed to inducting the Flying Tigers into the Army. He believed that turning his group into a regulation military unit would mean the loss of its effectiveness “for a minimum of four months while the change was taking place.” Chennault also believed he would be put on the sidelines and would sit out the war in the United States.
Chennault lobbied against induction with the help of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. With the United States in the war, however, the U.S. Army had no intention of supporting a private air force that functioned outside of military channels. “The Army’s excuse for induction was that the paperwork involved in supplying a non-regulation organization was too difficult,” Chennault recalled. “I felt it was criminal to sacrifice the spirit and experience of the group for a mere change of uniform.”
Chennault was also concerned about who would command the new air force units in China. Chiang Kai-shek insisted that Chennault be appointed senior air officer in China–and Chennault certainly wanted the job. “I believe I was not immodest,” Chennault wrote, “in assuming that my long experience in China, coupled with the AVG combat record, entitled me to primary consideration for the post.” He lobbied powerful friends in Washington, D.C., to get the appointment, but his maverick reputation worked against him. Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, by then chief of the USAAF, insisted that the post be given to Colonel Clayton A. Bissell.
Chennault was called to Chungking, China, on March 29, 1942, for a conference to decide the fate of the AVG. Present at the conference were Chiang Kai-shek; his wife, Madame Chiang; Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, commander of U.S. forces in China; and Bissell, who had arrived in early March.
Stilwell and Bissell made it clear to both Chennault and Chiang that unless the AVG became part of the U.S. Army, its supplies would be cut off. “Unless the AVG fought in Army uniforms they were to be denied the privilege of fighting at all,” Chennault wrote. He agreed to return to active duty but, as he later wrote, “I made it clear to Stilwell that my men would have to speak for themselves.”
Chiang Kai-shek finally agreed to let the AVG be inducted into the USAAF, after Stilwell promised to replace it with a complete fighter group that Chennault would command. Stilwell and Bissell wanted the AVG dissolved by April 30, 1942. Chennault, wanting to keep the Flying Tigers going as long as possible, proposed the group disband on July 4, when the AVG’s contracts with the Nationalist Chinese government expired. Stilwell and Bissell accepted. “And so it was agreed,” Chennault recalled, “with smiles and handshaking from all but me.”
Chennault returned to active duty in the USAAF on April 15, 1942. He was promoted eight days later, on April 23, from colonel to brigadier general. Chennault was told that he would have to be satisfied to command a “China Air Task Force” of fighters and bombers. Its mission was to defend the air supply route over the Himalayan mountains between India and China–called the “Hump”–and to provide air support for Chinese ground forces. The task force would operate as part of the Tenth Air Force, stationed in India, which would control supplies, personnel and operations. Bissell, also newly promoted to brigadier general–senior to Chennault by one day–would command all American air units in China. Chennault would be a deputy commander, subject to Bissell’s orders.
The Flying Tigers’ war ended on July 4, 1942, and the China Air Task Force’s war began. Chennault had received little help from the U.S. Army in putting together the CATF. The Army supplied only a dozen green pilots, plus 20 clerks and mechanics. “Everything else…was AVG equipment bought and paid for by the Chinese,” Chennault remembered. “The Army provided no fighter planes, no trucks, no jeeps, no radios, no administrative or maintenance equipment, not even an extra pair of uniform pants or an experienced group commander.”
The CATF had 51 fighters in July 1942–31 81A-1 and P-40C Tomahawks, and 20 P-40E Kittyhawks. Only 29 were flyable. The 81A-1s and P-40Cs were from the original 100 fighters China had purchased for use by the Flying Tigers; the P-40Es had been flown from India to China in May 1942. Both fighters were good medium-altitude day fighters, with their best performance between 15,000 and 18,000 feet, and they were excellent ground-strafing aircraft. Chennault also had seven B-25C Mitchell medium bombers, which came from India.
The American Volunteer Group became the 23rd Fighter Group. The three original Flying Tiger pursuit squadrons–1st (Adam and Eve, “the first pursuit”), 2nd (Panda Bears) and 3rd (Hell’s Angels)–became the 74th, 75th and 76th Fighter squadrons. A fourth fighter squadron for the 23rd Group was obtained by subterfuge. In June and July 1942, Chennault got the Tenth Air Force in India to transfer the 16th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Major John Alison, to his main base in Kunming, China, to gain combat experience. When the last 16th Squadron Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawks arrived in Kunming in July 1942, Chennault took them into the CATF–and never returned them.
Robert Neale, senior AVG squadron leader, commanded the 23rd Fighter Group until July 19, 1942, when he was replaced by Colonel Robert Lee Scott, Jr. Before taking command of the 23rd Group, Scott had borrowed a P-40E from Chennault in April 1942 and had flown missions against the Japanese. “Scott’s enthusiasm and good humor appealed to us all,” James Howard, an AVG and CATF veteran, wrote.
The 11th Medium Bombardment Squadron, consisting of the seven B-25s flown in from India, made up the other half of Chennault’s command. “After a bad beginning,” Chennault wrote, “The 11th Bomb Squadron became the spearhead of the China air offensive.” Colonel Caleb V. Haynes, an experienced bomber pilot who Chennault said “looked like a gorilla but flew like an angel,” commanded the CATF’s bombers.
With only a handful of fighters and bombers, the CATF faced a force of 350 to 450 Japanese army aircraft, deployed along a 2,000-mile front from occupied China through Indochina to Burma. While Chennault’s pilots used P-40s as their principal fighter aircraft, the Japanese came out with one new fighter type each year. Those included the Nakajima Ki.43 “Oscar”–which the Americans invariably misidentified as the Japanese navy’s more famous Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero–and the twin-engine Kawasaki Ki.45 “Nick.” “The Japanese had so many aircraft,” author Martin Caidin wrote, “that the complement of fighters and bombers at a single Japanese base exceeded all the planes in the China Air Task Force.”
Chennault knew the CATF’s only hope for survival was a good offense. While the summer monsoons kept Japanese planes in Northern Burma grounded, Chennault would take the offensive in eastern China. He kept the 11th Bomb Squadron and Major Frank Schiel’s 74th Fighter Squadron at Kunming, and moved Major Edward F. Rector’s 76th Squadron to Kwelin field, Major David Lee “Tex” Hill’s 75th Squadron to Hengyang field, and Major John Alison’s 16th Squadron to Lingling field. Throughout mid-July 1942, the Japanese launched sporadic attacks, trying to learn the true state of the CATF’s defenses. Chennault retaliated by launching B-25s from Kunming and P-40s from the eastern fields on strafing and bombing attacks against Japanese targets at Hankow, Nanchang and Canton.
The 16 Flying Tiger pilots who remained in China flew in many of those attacks. One Tiger, John Petach, was killed on a mission against Nanchang, China. The rest finished their voluntary extra combat tour on July 18, 1942, and then all but five left China for good. Some returned to the United States to work in civilian airlines, while others went to work for the Chinese national airlines. A few rejoined the U.S. military.
In late July 1942, the Japanese massed fighter and bomber squadrons, including a crack fighter group equipped with the Ki.43 Oscar fighter. They were preparing to mount a major effort to wipe out the CATF.
The Japanese campaign began on the night of July 28, 1942, when night bombers attacked Hengyang field, damaging the 3,000-foot-long crushed-rock-and-mud runway. Chinese coolies had the bomb craters filled in by dawn. Tex Hill, along with Major Gil Bright, John Alison and Captain Robert “Ajax” Baumler, made preparations to deal with another night raid by Japanese bombers, using a plan that Chennault and Hill had worked out.
At 0200 hours on July 29, 1942, Alison and Baumler, alerted to the approach of Japanese bombers, took off from Hengyang in their P-40Es. Hill and Bright stood by on the ground near their Kittyhawks. Alison climbed to 13,000 feet, while Baumler circled at 8,000 feet. Flying “up moon,” so they could see the Japanese bombers silhouetted in the moonlight, Baumler and Alison circled over Hengyang. Alison sighted five Mitsubishi Ki.21 “Sally” bombers as they approached Hengyang field from the north.
Hidden in the darkness, Alison homed in on the bombers’ blue-white exhausts and closed to point-blank range. As the Sallys began their bomb run, Alison went after the lead bomber. “Watch the fireworks!” Alison radioed, and then opened fire. The lead Sally burst into flames, rolled on its back and spun into the ground. Tail gunners on the remaining bombers spotted Alison’s Kittyhawk in the moonlight and returned fire, riddling its fuselage, engine and propeller. Alison blew up the second bomber, damaged a third, then broke off his attack. The remaining aircraft turned back without dropping their bombs. Baumler finished off the third bomber and destroyed the fourth north of Hengyang. Despite the damage to his P-40, Alison, knowing how short the CATF was on spare parts, tried to land at Hengyang field. At 2,000 feet, the Kittyhawk’s engine caught fire, but Alison nursed it toward the Siang Kiang River. “He skimmed over the Chinese junks on the river,” Colonel Scott wrote, “and I saw the splash as the P-40, with its wheels up, hit the Siang Kiang.”
After seeing Alison’s crash, Hill was convinced that his fellow major was dead. A short time later, Alison, having swum clear of his Kittyhawk after landing in the river, returned to Hengyang in a sedan chair carried by Chinese peasants. He suffered only minor burns and a gash on his forehead where it had hit the Kittyhawk’s gunsight. When Scott asked why he’d gotten so close to the Japanese bombers, Alison replied, “I was scared I’d miss one of them.”
On July 30, 1942, the Japanese sent 120 bombers and fighters to knock out the CATF once and for all. Thirty-five Ki.43 Oscars attacked Hengyang, and Hill led 10 P-40s against them. They broke up the attack and shot down 15 of the Japanese planes.
The Japanese continued their efforts to destroy the CATF with more attacks on July 31, mixing night bombing with daylight fighter sweeps. The badly outnumbered CATF P-40 pilots shot down 17 Japanese bombers and fighters, losing three P-40s in combat. The Japanese dispatched 30 Ki.43s on August 5, in yet another effort to smash Hengyang. They were intercepted by eight P-40s led by Alison. During the ensuing dogfight, CATF pilots downed four Oscars, losing one P-40, flown by Lieutenant Lee Minor–the first USAAF pilot killed in China.
Following the August 5 raid, the Japanese, stung by their losses, broke off the attacks. Taking advantage of Japanese inactivity, Chennault sent his B-25 bombers and P-40 fighters on attacks from Lashio, Burma, to Hankow, China. They destroyed Japanese supply dumps, docks, airfields, ships and other vital targets. “We never had to sit on the defensive and worry,” Scott recalled. “We liked it.”
Major Rector led three P-40s of his 76th Squadron on an August 12 mission to escort six B-25s in an attack on Haiphong, in northern Indochina. The B-25s bombed the docks, setting fire to huge coal piles awaiting shipment to Japan. Rector’s three P-40s, each carrying a 500-pound bomb, dive-bombed the Haiphong wharves after the bombers finished their run. All aircraft returned safely to Kwelin.
The CATF’s bombers and fighters had launched 50 attacks against Japanese targets during July and August, and had beaten back several waves of Japanese fighters, losing only four P-40s. The unit’s supplies of fuel, spare parts, bombs and ammunition were badly drained, however, and only a trickle of supplies was coming over the Himalayan mountains into China.
After mounting an unsuccessful strike into eastern China in early September, Chennault reluctantly pulled Rector’s 76th Squadron, Hill’s 75th Squadron and Alison’s 16th Squadron back to Kunming. There, they would be closer to the supplies coming over the Hump and could rest and refit. By then, the CATF had only 34 flyable P-40s for 38 pilots, with a two-day gasoline supply. “The China Air Task Force,” Chennault wrote, “unbeaten in combat, was facing death from acute starvation.”
Supplies from the Hump airlift began to accumulate in the CATF’s depots in late September. Reinforcements of both men and aircraft also arrived–more B-25s for the 11th Bombardment Squadron and P-40K Warhawks for the 23rd Fighter Group.
The CATF also got 20 fighter pilots from the 6th Fighter Command in Panama. The “Panama pilots” had considerable experience in navigation, gunnery, formation flying and divebombing–which was not always the case with the replacement Army pilots. Many Army pilots sent to the CATF had no experience in navigation, formation flying or air gunnery, and had not flown a P-40 before coming to China. “Green pilots were a double liability,” Chennault said. “We had neither the time, gas, or planes to spend training them in China.” The greenest pilots were concentrated in Major Schiel’s 74th Squadron, which was at the CATF’s operational training school, at Kunming.
Flying accidents soon weeded out the worst pilots, and the summer’s fighting turned the rest into veterans. With the arrival of the Panama pilots, the CATF “smacked less of a primary training school and more of a combat group,” Chennault wrote. “The Japanese soon felt the difference.”
The monsoon season ended in early October, and the CATF detected signs that the Japanese were moving bomber squadrons into Burma for attacks against the Hump bases in India. There were also signs of a renewed ground offensive on the Salween River, where the AVG had repelled a Japanese offensive in May 1942. On October 3, Chennault radioed an urgent warning to Bissell in Delhi: “Possibility enemy air attack on Dijan [and] other bases supporting ferry route in India…Kunming and western Yunnan bases as well as ferry route itself in making….”
Chennault, however, did not intend to wait for the Japanese to attack. Fighters from the 74th and 16th squadrons at Kunming, along with the 76th and 75th squadrons based at western Yunnan, began attacking the Japanese-held Burma Road and its network of mountain trails. P-40s, operating in groups of two or six, dive-bombed supply dumps and strafed Japanese truck convoys. Meanwhile, B-25 bombers from the 11th Squadron hit supply dumps, airfields and bridges as far south as Lashio, Burma. These missions were short in duration, which helped the CATF maintain the pressure despite increasing gasoline shortages at the Yunnan fields. “With a relatively small effort, the CATF was able to keep the enemy supply system sufficiently disjointed to make it impossible to accumulate enough materiel in advance positions for a major offensive,” Chennault recalled. “The air as far south as Lashio belonged to us.”
While his planes hacked away at the Japanese in the west, Chennault sent a few P-40s back east to Kwelin and Hengyang to keep an eye on the Japanese strongholds in eastern China and to provide data on targets. “As the CATF grew strong enough to venture east again,” Chennault said, “Hong Kong seemed to be our best bet.” With its huge harbor and well-equipped docks, Hong Kong was a staging area for Japanese convoys, as well as a major Japanese navy repair yard.
Chennault and Colonel Merian Cooper, his chief of staff, planned a series of swift, sharp blows at Hong Kong, mixed with feints toward nearby Canton to keep the Japanese guessing. By October 15, the planning for the attack was completed, but the raid was delayed for nine days because of bad weather.
At dawn on October 25, 12 B-25s from the 11th Bomb Squadron, led by Caleb Haynes, and 12 P-40s from the 75th Fighter Squadron, led by Scott, took off from Kunming for the 500-mile flight to Kwelin. There they would refuel before proceeding to their target. Five P-40s turned back because of engine trouble; the rest reached Kwelin at 0800 hours. Chennault briefed the pilots while their planes were being refueled.
The Hong Kong strike took off from Kwelin at 1145 for the 350-mile flight to its target. Haynes led his 12 B-25s to 18,000 feet, while Scott took his seven P-40s to 20,000 feet, waiting for Japanese fighters. Once over the South China Sea, the formation flew up the coast to Macao, across Hong Kong’s west channel, and came to its turning point north of the Kowloon Peninsula. Then they turned south onto their bomb run, Scott’s P-40s weaving above Haynes’ B-25s.
Up front, Lt. Col. Harold “Butch” Morgan, the 11th Squadron’s lead bombardier, lined up the waterfront in his Norden bombsight. The B-25s dropped their 500-pound bombs onto the Hong Kong docks. Haynes led his B-25s across Victoria Harbor, then turned on a course back to Kwelin.
“I was fumbling now with the mike button on the throttle…,” Scott wrote. “Then I was calling: ‘Bandits ahead–Zeros!–At eleven o’clock….Fumbling for the throttle quadrant, shoving everything as far forward as I could, I marvelled at the steepness of the climb the enemy ships were making….I called: ‘Zeros at twelve o’clock….’ I heard Tex Hill reply, ‘Yes, I see ’em.'”
Scott dropped his Kittyhawk’s 50-gallon bamboo belly tank, armed his guns and aimed at the lead enemy fighter (which, in fact, was probably a Ki.43). Before he could fire, Hill cut in front of Scott and shot down the Oscar. Scott attacked a second plane. “My tracers entered the cockpit,” Scott wrote, “and smoke poured back, hiding the canopy, and I went by….”
While fighters from the Japanese airstrip on Sanchau Island tangled with Scott’s P-40s, other Ki.43s attacked the B-25s. Haynes put his planes into a steep, diving turn, concentrating the fire from the Mitchells’ gun turrets on the attacking fighters.
The Japanese were unable to penetrate the bomber formation and lost two fighters to Haynes’ gunners. One B-25 lagged behind and was attacked by six Oscars, which forced it to crash-land. The pilot and navigator were captured, but the rest of the crew escaped.
The Hong Kong raid was a great success for the CATF. They had bombed the docks and downed 19 Japanese fighters, for the loss of the one B-25 that crash-landed. Chennault was happy, but it was only the beginning. He planned to attack ships and docks around Hong Kong the following afternoon, and to continue until the CATF’s gas and bombs were exhausted.
That night, at 0100, while Chennault monitored the progress of bombing raids against Hong Kong and Canton from Kwelin, an urgent message arrived from Bissell. “Bomb Lashio and Myitkyina airdromes until further notice beginning at dawn,” it said. Bissell’s order was brought on by a surprise Japanese attack on the Tenth Air Force’s base at Dijan, India, where 12 P-40s and 10 Douglas C-47 transports had been destroyed on the ground. For Chennault, the order could not have come at a worse time. Half of his bombers were in the air and the rest were fueled and ready for another attack on Hong Kong.
“I was so angry I could barely contain myself,” Chennault recalled. “My staff later told me they expected me to bounce off the ceiling in my rage.” Chennault knew from CATF reconnaissance that Lashio and Myitkyina airfields were empty. “I could readily understand Bissell’s chagrin at being caught flatfooted by the attack,” Chennault remembered. “But the logic of his decision to bomb empty airfields still escapes me.” Chennault ordered the lone 11th Squadron B-25 Mitchell at Kunming to attack Lashio at dawn, while the rest of the squadron returned to Kunming and joined in.
But Chennault wanted to launch another attack on Hong Kong. On October 26, every P-40 in Kwelin was loaded with a 500-pound bomb and sent to attack Japanese ships in Victoria Harbor. Despite heavy flak and Japanese fighter attacks, they sank one tanker and damaged several freighters. One P-40, flown by Captain P.B. O’Connell, was lost.
The futile attacks on Lashio and Myitkyina ended in late November. Chennault then moved the CATF back to Kwelin for another series of attacks against targets in eastern China.
Despite its small size, the CATF was a highly mobile, hard-hitting airstrike force, able to attack any target in China within 48 hours. Even Chennault’s headquarters was mobile; it could be carried inside a C-47 transport and be ready for action an hour after landing.
CATF P-40s and B-25s took off from Kwelin on November 23 and attacked Japanese ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. They destroyed a transport, strafed a barracks in Haiphong, and set fire to coal piles at Hongay, China. Chennault’s bombers attacked Tien So airfield near Canton on November 24, destroying 42 Japanese fighters and bombers on the ground. After another attack on Canton, the CATF moved north to Hengyang. By shifting his tiny air force from one airfield to anther, Chennault kept the Japanese guessing where he might strike next.
Hill’s 75th Fighter Squadron joined the 11th Bomb Squadron in attacks from Hengyang against Japanese bases at Sienning, Yochow and Hankow on November 25. The next night, five P-40s attacked Hankow’s airfield and docks. The CATF shifted its aircraft back to Kwelin field after the Hankow raid.
The largest striking force in the CATF’s history, 14 B-25s and 21 P-40s, took off from Kwelin before noon on November 27. The force feinted toward Hong Kong, then swung south toward Canton, catching the Japanese flat-footed. While Butch Morgan’s B-25 bombers hit Canton’s docks, sinking two freighters, Scott’s P-40s attacked 45 Oscars taking off from Tien So airfield. “Flaming Jap fighters fell back onto their airdromes as fast as they reached the P-40s’ altitude,” Chennault wrote. “Fights raged all over the sky, but the conflict was one sided….” The final score was 27 to 0. “It was one of the worst lickings the Japs took over China,” Chennault recalled.
The CATF finished its sweep on November 28, with another strike at shipping in the Gulf of Tonkin. In six days, the unit had flown 11 missions, struck targets 800 miles apart, destroyed 71 Japanese aircraft, sunk three ships, and damaged docks, coal piles, supply depots and airfields without losing a single man, P-40 or B-25. Chennault later said, “It was a striking example of what could be done with a few airplanes, a little gas, some bombs, and determined air crews.”
After the November strikes, the CATF was deployed back to the airfield at Kunming. The fighter squadrons were sent to airfields at Chanyi and Yunanyi to cover the supply line.
December 1942 was a dismal month for the CATF. Items like soap, warm clothing and mail were in short supply; fighters and bombers were grounded for days because of bad weather and a lack of supplies. The Hump airlift failed to deliver all of the 1,998 tons of supplies Chennault had been promised each month. The CATF got only 300 tons of supplies over the Hump in January 1943, 400 tons in February and 615 tons in March.
CATF fighters flew a few strafing missions into Burma during January, despite a fuel shortage so acute that Chennault forbade victory rolls. The CATF’s gasoline supply was nearly exhausted after those missions, and its planes were grounded for 33 days.
On March 19, the CATF was disbanded and replaced by the Fourteenth Air Force, with Chennault, now a major general, still in command. “The CATF passed into history with its planes still grounded for lack of gas,” Chennault wrote, “and its personnel huddled around charcoal stoves all over Yunan, still cursing Delhi for the lack of supplies.”
In the nine months of its existence, the China Air Task Force shot down 149 Japanese planes, plus 85 probables, with a loss of only 16 P-40s. It had flown 65 bombing missions against Japanese targets in China, Burma and Indochina, dropping 311 tons of bombs and losing only one B-25 bomber.
“The CATF was probably the smallest American air force ever to be dignified by the command of a general,” Claire Chennault wrote. “It certainly was the raggedest. Its paperwork was poor, and salutes were scarce, but when the signals were called for combat, it never missed a play.” *
William B. Allmon writes from Jefferson City, Mo. For further reading, he suggests: Way of a Fighter, by Claire L. Chennault; God is My Co-Pilot, by Colonel Robert L. Scott; The Flying Tigers, by John Toland; and The Ragged, Rugged Warriors, by Martin Caidin.
This feature was originally published in the March 1997 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe today!