World War II – A Living Chronology

Reflections on WW II Day-by-Day

The Nationalist Chinese Air Force

There is a book waiting to be written – perhaps it has been but I haven’t seen it- on the Nationalist Chinese Air Force in World War II. The story of the official Chinese Air Force begins with an American training mission in 1932.  The American mission ends in December 1934 when the contract expires. Although the Japanese apply pressure to end the American connection – rumor has it that Chiang makes a show of conciliating the Japanese while retaliating against the Americans for failing to engage in combat to help Chiang  put down an attempted coup by a warlord in Fukien province in 1934.

Whatever the real reason, the American mission is superseded by an Italian one. The Italian mission’s flying school boasts a 100%  graduation rate. Chinese pilots, it seems, never wash out under Italian tutelage. The  Italians also sell aircraft to China and establish  a badly run factory for producing Italian aircraft in China.

When war with Japan begins, the nominal Chinese air force is 500 aircraft and 350 pilots. However when you subtract the planes that are either trainers, mechanically unserviceable or existing only on paper it amounted to about 100 combat aircraft and perhaps 150 pilots able to fly them in combat.

For airplanes, the Chinese had a mix of  types including Curtis Hawk biplanes, Boeing P 26s, Vought Corsairs, (the biplane) as well as Heinkel, Breda and Fiat fighters.  For bombers they had some Junkers, Capronis and Savoia Marchetti 81s and a few Martin 139s and Northrop attack planes – a single engine light bomber type.

So the Nationalist air force began with a very mixed bag of planes for a limited supply of pilots. However, their most important air asset was acquired in a semi-fortuitous way. There was always a faction of the Nationalist leadership that regretted the departure of the Americans and wanted to bring them back. In 1936 a Chinese general traveling in America observed an American army aerobatic team led by a Captain Claire Chennault. The Chinese offered Chennault more money and – more importantly – more freedom, responsibility and authority than he could ever hope to have in the American Army Air Force to serve as adviser to the Chinese on air force matters. Before the Flying Tigers, Chennault devoted his efforts to getting the best out of China’s mixed bag of dubious air assets including new foreign aid – most notably two bomber and four fighter squadrons provided by the Soviet Union in late 1937.

When the war with Japan began, Chiang committed his air force to the battle for Shanghai where the Chinese developed a reputation for weak flying skills and great courage and devotion. Their attacks were pressed home ferociously. They even raided Japanese bomber bases on Formosa. However, their attacks achieved little except the exhaustion of the Chinese bomber force.

Chinese fighter pilots were more effective defending Chinese cities against Japanese bombing raids. Using tactics developed by Claire Chennault, the Chinese inflicted heavy losses on unescorted Japanese bombers, refuting the theory that bombers would always get through and could only be countered by even more powerful bombing attacks. Even when the Japanese changed tactics and started sending strong fighter escorts the Chinese pilots held there own.

Of course it could not last. The Chinese effort was not sustainable. What saved the Chinese from the Japanese air force was the Japanese need for more aircraft for the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Soviets stopped helping the Chinese first because of their nonagression pact with Japan’s ally Germany. Then because they needed every plane to defend themselves against those same Germans. The Americans felt their own industrial and logistical resources were best spent establishing an American air presence in China.

Still, there is a fascinating story here. Has anyone told it? Is it available in English? If not, here is an idea for some aviation enthusiast’s book project. If someone writes it, I’ll certainly read it.

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November 7, 2007 - Posted by | essays, the air war

17 Comments »

  1. My uncle was one of the Chinese jet fighters at that time. He died in October 1943 somewhere in Himalaya, apparently on his way back from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. I have obtained a photo of him while at the Base. I am contemplating a book about him and the history of the Chinese air force. Your article appears to have a lot of interesting and helpful information. Could you please let me know where you have obtained the information? Your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

    I am a practicing attorney in PA and DC., currently taking a sabbatical leave to explore the subject. What I have heard from family members about him often appeals to me, as you indicated, a story that must be told. Thank you in advance for your assistance.

    Sincerely,

    Ji-zhou Pedersen

    Comment by Ji-zhou Pedersen | March 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Dear Ji-zhou, It must a typing error in your comment because there was no jet fighter at that time. My late father, a Chinese Air Force pilot, was trained in 1944 at Thunderfield, Phoenix, AZ. He was transported across the Pacific Ocean when the war ended with the A-bomb, thus he did not see action.
    I am interested in reading a book about this piece of history.

    Anchi Wu

    Comment by anchi wu | January 30, 2010 | Reply

  3. Dear Ji-Zhou,

    my father also in the air force trained in AZ, then in Montgomeny, Alabama. before he finished training, the war is already over, he did not see action. really like to read the book that you wrote about chinese air force.

    David Yang

    Comment by david yang | June 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. My father in law served in the ROC Air Force from 1943 to 1973 rising to the rank of captain. Born in Xian (Sian), China, he began as a radio repair student, later serving as an English language interpreter and translator. He has strong remembrances of the American allies and their contribution, as well as the difficult task the Chinese aviators faced in defending their people. With few planes, insufficient technology, and poor logistics, they gave what support they could to their nation. I’d love to see a book about their history, which now may be possible as historians are investigating China with new insights on the Contributions of Gen. Chaing and other nationalists.

    Comment by T Waldron | July 5, 2010 | Reply

  5. My father was captain in the Chinese Air Force in Washington DC during WW2. As an aeronautical engineer graduate of MIT he was part of the CAF group trying to source aircraft from US manufacturers to be sent to China. Recently I began looking for articles about the activities of that group but haven’t found much.

    It also turns out that my father-in-law (my wife’s side of the family) was recruited from an airframe manufacturing company in Patterson NJ to go to China ( Kunming) as part of the US “volunteer” crew to service the aircraft used by the Flying Tigers.

    Comment by Charles Tsiang | August 7, 2010 | Reply

  6. I was most touched in the Nanjing war memorial, it tells of a Japanese bomber raid on Nanjing with only one operating plane on the field and a WWI ace ran to the plane. Someone tried to stop him because he was so far outnumbered that it was suicide. His response was that if he stopped only one bomber , he might save hundreds of Chinese citizens in Nanjing. That is a tale that must be told. That is what started me on thinking about the Chinese Airforce and looking for more information.

    Comment by Richard Trombly | January 13, 2011 | Reply

  7. My father was recruited as a cadet in Guilin (Guangxi, China)in 1943, and was sent, by way of India, to the USA for pilot training, at the Carlsbad airfield in New Mexico (a school publication, Bombs Away, chronicling classes 45-225 and 45-325, with his photo, was found recently, after he passed away recently in January 2011). He finished his bombardier training in 1945 and spent an extra year qualifying as a navigator. Back in China in 1947 in the Kuomindang regime, he took part in two bombing missions to Yen An, the refuge Mao Zedong took after a ’25000- mile march’. He was then deployed to Taiwan.
    He had told facets of his experience in his training and it was interesting, oftern mentioning about ‘bombsight’ but did not go far into the subject. And I did not think of asking, nor have I thought of looking up in the Internet for information on that period, until too late, and the chance is forever gone. My Mom said he flew in B-25 in his bombing missions. Could anyone tell me what version of B-25 he might have flown in, given the many different versions of the plane. I mean to put models of the training plane Beech AT-11 and a B-25 in his grave. Thanks for the information. I agree with all comments about that period of history definitely needs to be told. The publication, with all the US and Chinese pilots pictured side-by-side, is a poignant record. But while the US pilots have their home town address all recorded, the Chinese pilots only have their names, and hardly any other photos on their social life in the airfield. Thank you for any help anyone can offer.
    Pui

    Comment by Pui TSUI | May 5, 2011 | Reply

    • I have only seen three photographs of any Chinese personnel – two were generals and the other was unidentified and disembarking a plane. I have a scan of a roster of Chinese cadets, and supposedly there may be a microfilm of the cadets’ pictures, possibly at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. I have a scan of a chart with English and Chinese labels on it as well.

      I found a little bit of information on the Chinese cadets that were at the Carlsbad Army Airfield. They were trained as bombardiers and dead-reckoning navigators. The bombsight used at that stage in the war was most likely the Norden bombsight, which was heavily guarded throughout the base’s activation.

      Primarily, the Chinese cadets were a separate class, but their training occurred at the same time and under the same conditions as the other cadets. According to a local historian in Carlsbad, a leading lady of Carlsbad hosted several parties for the Chinese cadets and she was eventually invited to China by some of these cadets and their families. Because of changes in the base’s mission, some of the cadets did not finish their training and were sent to another base to finish.

      I’ll try to find more information in the documents I have. Please post any more questions you may have.

      Comment by barney | June 21, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Mr Pui TSUI, I just read your comments regarding your father and Chinese air Cadets training in USA during WWII, my father did the same thing too, but he died long time ago and didn’t mention much about this incident. I am researching articles and photos relating to this event. Please if you have any photos or information, I would really appreciate if you can scan them and email to my address, thank you very much!

      John Yu

      Comment by John Yu | July 2, 2011 | Reply

      • Hi Mr Yu,
        Sorry to reply late as I have not been back to this site for some time (having lost track of where I have been) Good to hear from someone who is related to the Carlsbad base. My father did not mention much about his training either when he was alive. The copy that I have is one made of an original from a fellow cadet who lived in Taiwan, in 1982, so the quality is not too good. When I manage to have it scanned, I shall send it to you. THanks.
        Pui Tsui

        Comment by Pui Tsui | August 2, 2011

    • My uncle was a Chinese Air Force Sub Lieut. and died during flight training in Taxes. Last week I went to Fort Bliss National Cemetery, El Paso, TX, to see his tome. The Cemetery history record says a total of 55 Chinese cadets died during training in WW II, and were buried in the E-Area of the cemetery. I only found 50 tome stones there. What I have known about their death is a flight training accident, but cannot get any details. Do you have any information about this incident? Thanks!

      Comment by Raymond Li | December 8, 2013 | Reply

    • Pui Tsui. I am constantly looking for more Carlsbad Army Air Field class books and I hope some day to get a copy of the one that has your father pictured and mentioned inside. Please drop in on our Carlsbad Army Air Field facebook page from time ti time.. By the way, I have been asked to help design a brand new Carlsbad Army Air Field Museum and Interpretation Complex! There will be a separate exhibit for the Chinese Nationals that served at the air base during WW2.
      Best regards
      Bobby Lee silliman

      Comment by Boby Lee Silliman | December 14, 2013 | Reply

  8. Sorry I cannot add a thing to your comments. I am trying to find out when the trainees left Hong Kong on the American ship President Pierce or the Hugh L. Scott. The ship is the same, but a name change occurred. I don’t know which name it used to enter or leave Hong Kong; and am interested in knowing on what day it sailed. It arrived in Manila on Sept 16th.

    Comment by Jerry Asher | May 16, 2011 | Reply

  9. My father was a Nationalist pilot during WW11. I have photos of groups of young chinese pilots taken in San Antonio Tx (I think)while training and also with airplanes taken in India(?), China (?) and San Antonio Tx. I also have ID cards, certificates (in Chinese) with offical stamps, a map printed on fabric etc. Is there anywhere I can get these things authenticated? Is there a list of Nationalist Chinese pilots? I also had 2 uncles who were captains. My cousins have similar artifacts. I am not sure of my father’s rank. My 2 uncles where his superior officers.
    I would be very interested in reading a book about the Chinese airforce. Is there such a book?
    Geri Fung

    Comment by Geri Fung | November 30, 2011 | Reply

  10. Gentlemen: I have documentation that includes rosters in Chinese and English of the 8th Chinese Bombardment Group(H) which trained at the Pueblo Arumy Air Base in Pueblo, Colorado during WWII. Their experiences during training is included in my book “A Chronological History of Pueblo Army Air Base 1941-1946″. The book is available at the gift shop of the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum. They trained here in B-24 Liberator Bombers. My understanding is this was the only Heavy Bombardment Group in the Nationalist Air Force.

    Comment by Dr. Ray L. Sisson, Historian (Ret.) | January 17, 2012 | Reply

  11. Hello, Anchi Wu and David Young: Glad to read your comments. Sorry for being strayed from the site till now and indeed was somewhat surprised to see all the responding comments since then. It may not be a typo but a loose tern as I referred to “jet fighter.” I understand the jets were yet to come at that time. What I mean is my uncle was a fighter pilot v. bomber, or radio man or navgator, for instance. I heard from my grandfather before he passed away and my mother, and as far as I can understand, the fighter pilots were indeed few and the top caliber among all. This is not meant to downplay one and another among all the heros. I meant to use it to focus on my research. My uncle was one of the thirteenn group, trained in Kunming while Chenault was the air force adviser, also stationed in kunming. After Kunming and in light of the “Lease and Lend” treaty, he was one of the third class of pilots came and trained in Luke Air force base, and Thunderbird at his advanced fghter pilot training in 1942. I would like to talk with anyone who may have family members or close friends who served at this time. Thank you very much. Ji-zhou Pedersen

    Comment by Ji-zhou Pedersen | August 20, 2012 | Reply

  12. My father Marshall (Archie) Christensen taught Chinese, British and American pilots in Arizona and California during WW2. I would love to find some records, as he died in 1948 when I was 3.

    Comment by Pete Christensen | April 17, 2013 | Reply


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