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Fly Boys of the Generalissimo

70th Anniversary of the Chinese Air Force Day

By Samuel Hui
(Photos courtesy Ray Wagner)

Although the air battles between the Chinese and Japanese pilots above the sky of China from 1937 to 1941 was considered by Westerners a forgotten war, it was still too important for the people to deny. For the Japanese pilots, those were their first chance to earn experiences about fighting other pilots in the air. As for the Chinese pilots, those were absolutely deadly struggles for them to protect their motherland from the invaders.

Even for the Americans, it was their only chance to observe and learn about the planes and tactics used by their future enemy in the Pacific Theater. In order to understand how the war began, we should all look back on August 14, 1937 when everything started in Shanghai.

Creation of the Chinese Air Force

American adviser with Chinese cadets
Chinese flying cadets with E. D. Shannon, probably at Hangchou

Officially, the Republic of China Air Force under the Chinese National Government was formed in April 1931 when the Chinese Aviation School was founded in Chienchiu near the city of Hangchou. For China, it was a chaotic period when the Central Government was facing both internal and external challenges. The Japanese had occupied Manchuria on September 18, 1931, and then soon was in conflict with the Chinese Army in Shanghai on January 28, 1932. Flying early aircraft such as Junkers K-47 built by Germany, Blackburn Lincock built by Great Britain and Waco 240A built by the United States of America, the Chinese Air Force took off and began their first limited air war with the Japanese. Unfortunately, this war ended too fast before the Chinese pilots had any chance to shoot down Japanese planes. Notice that alone American pilot named Robert Short flying a Boeing 218 biplane, attacked a Japanese bomber formation from aircraft carrier Kaga on February 22, and killed their officer. Then Short was shot down and killed by the Japanese, but he was still considered the very first pilot who took action against the Japanese invaders in the sky of China.

After the First Shanghai incident ended, the Chinese Nationalist government realized it was time for them to reform its air force to prepare for future conflict with the Japanese. The first step Chiang Kai-Shek took was to hire a group of American advisors consisting of 17 men led by retired Major John H. Jouett of the United States Army Air Corps. Their mission was to create a modern Chinese Air Force with the American system.

On September 1, 1932, the Chinese Aviation School was renamed Central Aviation School, which is considered the first time for China to have a national aviation school against those formed in different provinces by various warlords. In 1933, the Chinese also hired Roberto Lordi to lead a group of Italian advisors to train Chinese pilots at the Luoyang Campus of the Central Aviation School. By this time, there were both American and Italian training systems inside the Chinese Air Force, which later brought many problems in the early phase of the war.

Beside the external challenge brought to China by the Imperial Japanese Army, the Chinese Central Government faced various internal problems. For China's top leaders during that period, the threat of Japan was really like a "problem of the skin" compared to the challenges from different local warlords and Communists, who were considered the "problem of the heart" by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. In some points, this kind of concern was true for China because it obstructed the Central Government effort to form a united national military force to defend China from any outside invaders.

Chinese Air Force Fleet
American-built Fleet trainer of the Chinese Air Force

China never had a united air force until 1936 when the pilots from Canton and Kwangsi Provinces defected to Nanking, the Nationalist capital. After that, the Chinese finally had a chance to establish the Central Aviation Committee to organize and command all Chinese air force units. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek became Secretary of the Aviation Committee, while General Chou Chih-Jou was appointed the Chief Advisor. With this process, the Chinese Air Force became totally under the Generalissimo control.

Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Communist Party temporarily agreed to unite against the Japanese. Full-scale war between China and Japan began even though both sides refused to declare war officially against each other, on July 7, 1937, in Peiping (Beijing).

After the war outbreak, the Chinese Air Force consisted of 9 Groups and 4 independent squadrons (each squadron with 9 aircraft). When the Chinese 29th Army began to resist the Japanese Army in North China, the Chinese Nationalist soon ordered all flight units to get ready to fly ground support missions for the army in the North. The 2nd Bomb Group with Northrop Gamma light bombers and the 4th Pursuit Group with Curtis Hawk-III biplanes soon moved to Chou Chia-Kou Air Base in Honan Province. By this time, all the Chinese pilots were waiting for their first chance to show the Japanese what they had prepared for those years.

Japanese war plans

While the Japanese Army advanced in the North, Japanese marines in Shanghai were also in conflict with the Chinese Nationalist Army. But this time, they were facing Chiang Kai-Shek's best forces, three divisions of Chinese Central Government Army trained by the German advisors. On August 13, 1937, the leaders of both nations realized that they were in a war of no return that was far different from any limited clashes they had before in Manchuria, North China and Shanghai.

Now the Chinese decided to fight a major battle to defend this international city of Shanghai in order to attract the attention from the international community in the hope that other nations would eventually pressure the Japanese to give up their ambition. As for the Japanese, they planned to punish the Chinese resisting the Japanese Empire. They claimed that they would capture Shanghai and force China to submission in three months. While the Japanese Army was fighting in the North, the Japanese Navy was in charge of the fighting in Central China.

The Japanese Navy Air Force realized that the Japanese troops in Shanghai were outnumbered by the Chinese regular troops in that area. With the air support provided by the Chinese Air Force from Nanking and other air bases located in the coastal areas, the attempt by the Japanese marines to hold up the Nationalist Chinese troops would eventually fail. In order to prevent the Chinese army from wiping the Japanese out, the primary goal for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was to totally destroy the resistant morale by the air supremacy.

continued in part 2