Fourteenth Air Force

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14th Air Force B-24, China, c. 1944.

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Newly arrived Fourteenth Air Force B-24 Liberators on the line at Kunming Airport.

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B-25s in China.

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The Japanese were unable to defeat Nationalist China before they had commitments to their Pacific War, from December 1941. Now with Allied aid supporting China, even if in limited quantities, the Chinese were getting stronger as the Japanese were weakening. A stalemate now existed in China and the Japanese Imperial army no longer had the will to try and defeat the Chinese. At the same time, the Nationalist and Communist forces could not hope in the short term to defeat such large Japanese forces stationed in China. Japanese tactics had also changed since 1941 with the emphasis now on holding onto what they had gained rather than trying to conquer more territory. When they went out on operations the main aim of the Japanese was to take food and other supplies from the population. As time went on, the Japanese Imperial army was less willing to confront Chinese forces, whether regular or guerrilla. At the same time, the average Chinese soldier had lost their inferiority complex towards the Japanese army and its soldiers.

Although the Chinese theatre was still important to the Japanese, the situation with the Allies was to take on more significance. Their struggles in the Pacific from 1942–5 and with the British in Burma from 1943–5 became more important. Much of their heavy equipment had, however, been transported to other theatres and in particular the Pacific Islands. Because of their weaknesses the Japanese Imperial army had now to concentrate on trying to control the guerrilla threat in China until 1945 (see Chapter 6).

In one final desperate effort to reverse their decline in China the Imperial army launched a large-scale offensive. In April 1944, the ‘Ichi-Go’, or ‘Number One’, offensive was begun and was to be one of Japan’s last major operations in China. Huge Japanese forces were marshalled for the offensive with 400,000 men, 1,500 artillery pieces and 800 tanks taken from all over China. Ichi-Go was divided into two separate operations with the first, ‘Ka-Go’, aimed at destroying all Nationalist forces still north of the Yangtze River. One of Ka-Go’s aims was to surround and destroy the Nationalist army that held part of the Peking–Wuhan railway. This objective was easily achieved, although the Japanese advance was limited by lack of supplies once they out reached their supply lines. A second phase, known as Operation ‘U-Go’, was to be launched once Ka-Go had got underway. The aim of U-Go was to knock out the airbases of the US 14th Air Force which were being used to bomb the Japanese mainland. After destroying these airbases the combined Japanese force was to advance into Szechwan province with the ultimate aim of capturing the wartime capital Chungking. Nationalist divisions facing the offensive were made up of poorly trained and armed conscripts who were soon demoralized and fell back in front of the advancing Japanese. U-Go was a great success and the US air bases fell in quick succession as the Nationalist forces retreated in confusion. On 8 August the city of Hengyang, to the east of the Chinese capital, fell to the Japanese and it seemed that an advance on Chungking was now inevitable. As the campaign in southern China dragged into November 1944, however, the Japanese began to run out of food and other supplies. Vital air cover was also lost when the Japanese had to send its fighters to Japan to defend their homeland. Over the next few months Ichi-Go ground to a halt and the Chinese finally began to make some successful counter-attacks. Chiang Kai-shek had been proved right when he said that ‘The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground’.

In April and May 1945 the Japanese launched what was to be their last offensive in China with the aim of capturing a US air base at Chihchiang. The Chihchiang Offensive was launched from territory recently taken during the Ichi-Go operation. Large Nationalist forces were stationed to halt the advance and after being reinforced to a strength of four divisions they threw back the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese Imperial High Command had already introduced plans to consolidate their positions in China. By withdrawing units from outlying garrisons in southern China they intended to concentrate them in central China in the region of Wuhan. Other formations would be gathered in the Canton region and in the Peking region, where they faced less opposition from guerrilla forces. As the Japanese tried to move their forces into these fastnesses they came under attack by Chinese guerrillas.

Fourteenth Air Force

By the time the land route to China had been reopened, the Chennault air plan had already come a cropper. Even Roosevelt finally accepted the conclusion his military chiefs had reached long before: the Chinese Nationalists would do little to defeat Japan. Within China, signs of shirking were only too clear. Inflation and corruption, fueled by American supplies and money, became rampant. Chinese military casualties fell below 300,000 for the first time since 1937. The American military mission in Chungking, now directed by Major General Albert C. Wedemeyer, believed that only the Communist Eighth Route Army and the OSS-supported Chinese-Mongolian partisans were real fighters.

The decline of the Nationalist Army did not reflect any lack of effort by Tenth Air Force’s air transports in flying “the Hump.” By August 1943, C-46s were delivering 5,000 tons of supplies a month to China, an unthinkable figure when Chiang had demanded that support a year earlier. By January 1944, Tenth Air Force effort reached 15,000 tons a month. The commitment took a heavy toll. The transport force lost at least one aircraft for every one of the 500 air miles between India and China; more than 1,000 aircrewmen perished along the route. At its peak strength, Tenth Air Force had 650 aircraft in the air every day, around the clock. This effort made it possible for Chennault to mount Operation Matterhorn, the strategic bombardment of Chinese and Formosan targets with B-24s and B-29s based in China.

The opportunity cost to the Chinese Nationalists was high, too, since 90 percent of the cargo tonnage in 1943–44 was aviation gasoline and ordnance, not Lend-Lease arms for the Chinese Army. This imbalance exacted its toll all too soon. As the airlift over “the Hump” provided more logistical support, Arnold sent more operational wings to China and created a new command for Chennault, the Fourteenth Air Force, which included one B-29 bombardment wing. When Churchill and Roosevelt met Chiang Kaishek on their way to Teheran in November 1943, they promised Chiang, awash in self-importance, a great air war from China against Japan. Their meeting coincided with the first American bombardment of Formosa. They also promised to push operations in Burma to open the Ledo-Burma Road and increase Lend-Lease aid. In return for recognition of his role as Allied Generalissimo in Asia, Chiang promised to use his army to the best of its limited ability to support the American and British offensive.

In the latter half of 1943, the effect of the mounting Allied air raids from inland China against Japanese communications, port facilities and merchant shipping forced the Japanese to launch a radical campaign to neutralize Allied forward airfields. Unable to destroy Allied air power with their own air forces, the Japanese Army untertook a land expedition to capture the airfields directly. In the spring of 1944, two Japanese armies operating from north and south opened a corridor from Hankow to Hanoi. The success of this campaign forced a· major change in Allied planning for the China-Burma theatre. For the first time, the Allied tactical air forces in China received the manpower and equipment to take the fight to the Japanese on equal terms. The Flying Tigers struck back …

On Thanksgiving morning, November 1943, a raiding force of 14 Mitchell bombers escorted by 8 Mustangs and 8 Lightnings departed their forward bases in China to strike at Japanese airfields on Formosa.

Flying at wave-top level over the Formosa Strait to avoid radar detection, the pilots of the 14th Air Force (joined en route by aircraft of the Chinese-American Composite Wing) struck a completely unprepared target. Forty-two Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Not a single Allied airplane, not a pilot, was lost.

It was this raid, and what it heralded for the future, which convinced the Japanese High Command of the necessity to eliminate Allied air power in China.

In December of 1943, Lieutenant-General Shunroku Hata, commanding officer of the China Expeditionary Army, ordered an immediate aerial offensive against American installations to be followed by a massive land offensive in the spring of 1944. The Flying Tigers were to be exterminated!

Operation /chi Go, the code-name for the planned spring campaign, was expected to realise several purposes. Chennault’s airfields would be neutralized by the novel approach of capturing them with ground forces, a reliable land transport route would be established from northern China to Indochina, potential bases from which B-29 bombers could strike the Japanese mainland would be destroyed and, finally, Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government could well be overthrown by a substantial military reverse.

The poorly led Chinese armies were no match for regular Japanese troops. Attacking from north and south, the Japanese forged a corridor along the old railway route from Sienning through Changsha, Hengyang and Lingling to the ancient capital of Kweilin.

A great part of the Chinese army simply vanished. The surviving remnants were pushed back either side of the corridor. By the beginning of December, 1944, the railroad from Hanoi to Hankow was operating again. The Japanese army was reorganizing in preparation for the final drive on Kunming and the Nationalist capital at Chungking. Detached forces were steadily mopping up the few remaining Allied bases in the mountainous eastern pocket.

The very low priority accorded the ChinaBurma theatre by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington restricted the Allied response to the Japanese offensive to a more or less ineffective air interdiction of supply lines.

It was not until General Albert Wedemeyer replaced General Stilwell that the principal Allied focus shifted from Burma to China.

Claire Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force, at last found a commanding officer receptive to his perception of the proper employment of US air power. He argued vigorously that with sufficient aircraft and supplies he could sever enemy supply lines, weaken and demoralize their ground forces and provide such air support as would allow the ·numerically huge Chinese armies to best their hated foes.

The first task facing Wedemeyer on assuming command was to halt the Japanese advance and, if possible, seize the initiative with a determined counter-offensive. Wedemeyer and Chennault worked well together; the fruit of their joint planning became known as Operation Alpha.

Air operations in China were completely reorganized. After lengthy debate, Washington agreed to close down the strategic bombing offensive of the Japanese mainland from the bases around Chengtu. The tremendous cost of lifting supplies over the hump did not produce a comparable result. Nor did it aid one whit in the defense of China; furthermore, the Marianas offered a much better site for the mighty Superforts.

Wedemeyer was given permission to make some use of the B-29’s before they departed for the Pacific.

On the eve of the start of Operation Alpha, the 14th Air Force mustered some 700 serviceable aircraft together with an adequate level of munitions, replacements and gasoline. They were at least on par with their adversary. For the first time in their operational history, the Flying Tigers could not use the chronic shortages of manpower and equipment as the excuse for their troubles. They had the tools to get the job done …

The Japanese did not look kindly on the growing U.S. Army Air Forces presence in China, however, and ordered the China expeditionary army to begin ICHI-GO (Operation One) in January 1944. For the next ten months the Japanese Army pushed the Nationalists back and overran base after base, forcing the forward-based Fourteenth Air Force fighters and bombers deeper into China, more than half of which remained unconquered. The Chinese Army’s resistance was erratic and ultimately futile, but Japanese casualties and the lengthening logistical tail of the Japanese divisions brought operations to a halt in January 1945. The Japanese generals in China cautioned Tokyo that they could not advance far enough to capture the bases of the new B-29s, which had a range of 4,000 miles.

The strategic bombing champions, however, had already concluded that an enlarged Matterhorn was too tall a challenge. With the decline of Fourteenth Air Force and military support of Chiang Kai-shek, operations in the China-Burma-India theater, divided into the Southeast Asia and Chinese theaters in 1944, reverted to a British Commonwealth effort to restore the British Empire, a goal the United States failed to support with any enthusiasm. The war with Japan would be won elsewhere.

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