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Illusive Target:
Bombing Japan from China

Richard L. Dunn © 2006

Early in the "China Incident" (1937-1941) Japanese bombers flying from Formosa bombed Chinese airfields inland from Shanghai. These raids covering a radius of more than 500 miles, much of it over water skirting the Chinese coast, have been referred to as the first "transoceanic" bombing attacks. Japan could attack China from Manchuria and other occupied territory as well as from aircraft carriers and other warships in Chinese coastal waters. The transoceanic bombings by their modern Type 96 (Mitsubishi G3M2) land attack bombers compounded the problems of the Chinese air defense.

Six months of air operations all but exhausted the Chinese Air Force (CAF) as it existed at the beginning of the "Incident." The Chinese sought modern aircraft from a variety of countries. An influx of Soviet aircraft and "volunteer" pilots in late 1937 and early 1938 promised to revitalize the CAF. As important as challenging the Japanese in the air over the front might be, even if done relatively successfully, it did not promise to bring an end to the "Incident" or stop the bombing of Chinese cities.

Perhaps if the Japanese populace itself felt vulnerable to bombing, a political solution and end to the conflict might occur. With this idea began the years-long quest to attack the Japanese home islands from China.

I. Chinese Bombers over Japan

For the CAF the idea of a "transoceanic" bombing attack on Japan from China involved immense difficulties. In February 1938 a group of SB-2 bombers with Soviet crews staged through bases in the coastal provinces of China, flew across over a hundred miles of open water of the Formosa Strait, and attacked Songshan (Matsuyama) airfield near Taipei, the same base from which some of Japan's "transoceanic" bombers had flown. A group of SB-2s flown by mixed Soviet-Chinese crews failed to find the same target, however.

In March 1938 encouraged (or at least not discouraged) by the bombing of Formosa, the CAF began planning an expedition to Japan. The SB-2 was available in considerable numbers but did not have the range to reach Japan. A handful of the longer range DB-3 bombers, which could reach Japan, had been supplied by the Soviet Union but most had been lost or damaged in operations or accidents. The CAF had acquired nine Martin 139WC bombers similar to the U.S. B-10B in 1937. Two of these remained serviceable and were chosen for the mission to Japan.

Martin B-10 bombers
B-10B version of the Martin 139 bomber

The availability of aircraft was only part of the puzzle. CAF crews lacked expertise in long-range over water operations. Air-ground radio was in its infancy in China. Communications held the key to navigation, operational command, meteorology, and, base-to-base liaison. The aircraft had to be equipped with direction-finders, short-wave receivers and transmitters. Ground stations had to be equipped with short-wave and other radio equipment. A ground communication line was established: Hankow-Nanchang-Chuchow-Ningpo; with an alternate, Hankow-Changsha-Lishui-Wenchow.

Preparation and training went forward. The mission leader was Capt. Hsu Huan-sheng, squadron leader of the 14th Squadron. Pilot of the second aircraft was 1Lt. Teng Yan-po, vice squadron leader of the 19th Squadron. The 14th Squadron designation had belonged to a squadron of foreign volunteers which disbanded in March 1938 but at this point the squadron had apparently incorporated pilots from the 30th Squadron familiar with the Martin bomber. The 19th Squadron had also flown medium bombers in 1937, in their case the Heinkel He 111A-0. Most likely Hsu and Teng were among the most experienced medium bomber pilots in the CAF.

By May of 1938 the small expeditionary unit was properly equipped and trained. The next problem was weather. Weather on the central China coast was very changeable beginning in May, going from fine to overcast with little warning. As for weather conditions in Japan these could only be surmised from an accumulation of general weather reports from around East Asia.

At 1400 hours on 19 May 1938, Capt. Hsu standing by at Ningpo/Lo-shi airport cabled CAF Headquarters at Hankow that weather at Ningpo was fine. At 1523 hours two Martin bombers took off from Hankow and were ferried via Nanchang and Chuchow to Ningpo arriving at 1755.

At Ningpo the aircraft were readied for the flight to Japan. They were loaded not with bombs but leaflets. The purpose of the mission was to drop leaflets "calling up the" consciousness of the Japanese people. A secondary mission was to conduct a reconnaissance of Japanese ports and airfields.

At 2348 hours Martin bombers Nos. 1403 and 1404 took off from Ningpo, headed for Kyushu. Not long after take off while flying in clouds near Tinhai Island searchlights from Japanese warships tried unsuccessfully to track the bombers by the sound of their engines. By 0042 hours the moon was obscured by clouds and the bombers flew in darkness for nearly two hours.

With the return of moonlight the bombers sighted the coast of Japan at 0240 hours and by 0245 were flying over Nagasaki at 3500 meters (about 11500 feet). The bombers stayed together until 0250 when they separated. The city was not blacked out and the bombers spent several minutes before dropping a flare bomb after which city lights were extinguished. They dropped leaflets and then proceeded to Fukuoka where visibility allowed the identification of land and seaplanes bases, factories and warships. Leaflets were also scattered at Kurume, Saga and other cities. At no time did they encounter interception of anti-aircraft fire.

The bombers rejoined at 0332 and less than half an hour later began their return trip. They soon encountered bad weather and lost contact with one another. At 0452 Changsha began broadcasting followed by Hankow at 0550. The bombers soon began receiving directional signals. At 0615 hours Martin No. 1403 announced sighting the China coast. A few minutes later No. 1404 reported it was flying near the coast. No. 1403 reported difficulty picking up the directional signal due to weak transmission.

At 0712 both bombers were over Sanmen Wan where they were fired upon at long range by Japanese warships at anchor. Neither bomber was hit.

The Chinese warning net was called upon to help pinpoint the bombers. At 0737 they were reported over Linhai. The planes were then directed over Ningpo and then landed at Yushan (No. 1404) at 0848 and Nanchang (No. 1403) at 0932. After refueling they joined over Wuhan and returned to Hankow by midday.

Chinese press reports stated that the planes dropped leaflets over major Japanese cities and that the leaflets contained a message of goodwill to the Japanese people. The leaflets told of Japanese atrocities committed against Chinese civilians and solicited moral solidarity from the Japanese people. According to Japanese press reports only one plane was involved. It was over Kumamoto and Miyazaki but not any major city. In the Japanese version of events, the leaflets were described as violently anti-Japanese in content.

Despite Chinese assertions that they dropped leaflets in lieu of bombs for humanitarian reasons, pundits suggested the Chinese had to carry extra gasoline on such a long mission and this precluded carrying bombs. The mission profile related above (bombers over Japanese territory well in excess of an hour) suggests the Chinese could have carried bombs rather than the gasoline necessary to cruise over Japan and drop leaflets on several cities. The American version (B-10B) of the Martin bomber flown by the Chinese had a combat range of 1,240 miles or 15 per cent longer than the round trip (1,080 miles) between Ningpo and Nagasaki and its ferry range was over 1,800 miles.

The report of the U.S. Military Attach in Chungking speculated whether the flight would cause apprehension among the Japanese population that a subsequent raid would carry something more lethal than leaflets or whether the failure to drop bombs would be taken as a sign of weakness. "The favorable reaction sure to be aroused in some foreign circles" the report opined "may, however, justify the risks involved in making such a flight."

continued in part 2