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Republic P-43 Lancer and China's Air War

Richard L. Dunn © 2004


Seversky P-35

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and confrontation in Shanghai in 1932 were the opening rounds of bloody conflict between China and Japan that burst into open war in 1937 lasting until 1945. Those same events also marked a decline in U.S.-Japan relations that ultimately led to war.

By U.S. estimates the Chinese had an air force of eighty combat planes and eighty pilots in August 1931. In a preview of problems to come only 10-12 pilots were "first class combat pilots" [1 notes follow the text]. The Nationalist Chinese Government's quest for modern aircraft was evident at that early date as included among its aircraft were a number of new Junkers K-47s [2].

Attempts to build up military aviation in China were buffeted by many winds. The unofficial American air mission (1932-1935) led by John H. Jouett (Lt. Col., U.S. Army, retired) apparently did good work in cutting through the maze of "money, family, [and] political power" in Chinese aviation, but diplomatic or political pressure brought the mission to a premature end [3]. A variety of countries sought to sell warplanes to China and various aerial soldiers of fortune sold their "skills" to the Chinese Air Force as well. By July 1937 the Chinese Air Force numbered 600 aircraft according to one Chinese source [4].

The story of the air war in China 1937-1941 has been told with varying degrees of specificity in a number of works available in English [5]. The P-43's earliest connection with China stems from that period. It was a period when the Soviet Union was the dominant supplier of combat aircraft to China [6]. The U.S. was among the many other countries seeking to sell aircraft to China. U.S. companies sometimes engaged in "cut-throat" competition among themselves while some U.S. airplane manufacturers engaged agents to deal with the Chinese rather than "dirty their hands" with the kickbacks routinely expected in Chinese Government transactions [7].

Cutthroat competition reportedly resulted in the cancellation of a contract ("Patterson contract") that included an order for 54 Seversky P-35 fighters (predecessor to the Seversky/Republic P-43). Col. Claire Chennault had recommended the P-35s (along with other aircraft) to the Chinese government [8].

The Chinese Air Force was repeatedly rejuvenated with an influx of new aircraft only to suffer disaster. The introduction of the Japanese navy's Type Zero carrier fighter in 1940 increased Japanese air superiority. The Soviet fighters supplied to the Chinese at the end of 1940 clearly were not able to reverse this superiority [9].

By the end of 1940 the idea of creating a "special air unit" of American planes and pilots was being discussed at a high diplomatic level between China and the U.S. [10]. The "special air unit" eventually became the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) or Flying Tigers. In addition, the quest for modern aircraft for existing Chinese air units and effective training for its pilots continued [11]. Relatively modern P-40 Tomahawks that were supplied to the A.V.G. might have been destined for regular Chinese units in the minds of some Chinese [12]. In the summer of 1941 the Tomahawks went to the A.V.G. as planned. Hopes for regular Chinese Air Force (C.A.F.) units to replace their obsolescent Russian fighters rested on the arrival of P-43s, Vultee 48C (P-66) fighters and such P-40s as might be allocated to China at a later date.

Flying Tigers


The P-43 was the first production aircraft of the Republic Aviation Corporation, Farmingdale, New York, the company that emerged from the Seversky Aviation Corporation after its reorganization in bankruptcy proceedings and the ouster of the legendary Alexander de Seversky as its head. In its waning days Seversky Aviation redesigned its P-35. Fitted with a mechanical two-stage supercharger, it became the XP-41. A more ambitious privately funded project was the AP-4. This was an entirely new aircraft equipped with a turbo-supercharger. While under re-organization, Seversky received a limited production order for thirteen AP-4s, designated YP-43 for service tests, in March 1939. Republic Aviation eventually performed the contract and the aircraft were delivered between September 1940 and May 1941.

The new Republic Aviation Corp. received larger production orders in late 1939 and early 1940. According to some sources these orders were in large measure an expedient to keep the new company solvent until it completed design and production plans for the P-47 [13].

Production for the U.S. Army Air Corps included orders for 54 P-43s (coincidentally the same number of P-35s in the cancelled Chinese order) and later 80 P-43As (in lieu of 80 cancelled P-44s; some were converted to P-43B and P-43C photo reconnaissance aircraft). In 1941, while the initial production models were still coming off the production line at Farmingdale, 125 P-43A-1s were ordered. These were purchased with newly authorized Lend-Lease funds for China. Eventually 108 were actually assigned for shipment to China. Several of the remaining seventeen went to the Royal Australian Air Force as photo reconnaissance aircraft [14].

P-43s were fitted with the reliable Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine. The P-43A-1 was powered by the R-1830-57 version. It mounted four fifty-caliber machine guns. Despite its thick appearance the P-43 was of medium size (span 36', length 28' 6", maximum weight 8,480 lbs.). It was fast (nominally, 356 mph at 20,000'), featured a good climb rate, and had a service ceiling in excess of its officially credited 36,000'. On paper the P-43 appeared roughly equal to the P-40B being supplied to China for the A.V.G. in 1941, and its turbo-supercharger made it clearly superior at high altitude.

Published sources conflict concerning whether the P-43A-1 was equipped with pilot armor and fuel tank protection [15]. The P-43s in the C.B.I. were fitted with pilot armor. The P-43 did not have self-sealing fuel tanks, and because of its thin wings and the tanks' integral design there was not space to retrofit them [16]. The tanks had seams and rivets capable of becoming loose and leaking. The tanks had not generated any "unsatisfactory reports" in U.S. operations but proved troublesome once the aircraft arrived in Asia and nearly ended its combat career before it started.

Republic P-43 Three-view


Chinese interest in the AP-4/P-43 came as early as May 1939 when Dr. H.H. Kung, president of China's Executive Yuan ("head of cabinet", or, "premier", a position often held by Chiang Kai-Shek), queried John H. Jouett (former head of the unofficial U.S. air mission to China, then serving as President of the U.S. Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce) whether the "Seversky guarantee [of] 320 mph [is] correct" [17]. A few weeks later Kung apparently brought up the issue of the new Seversky fighter with U.S. diplomats in Chungking. The primary subject of that meeting was the "Patterson contract" and difficulties arising from its cancellation. In the aftermath of that meeting Kung received a letter providing additional information.

The letter started with normal diplomatic niceties but went on seemingly to tweak the Chinese for canceling the P-35 deal while denying any prospect of obtaining new P-43s. In part, the letter read:

"On what seems to be the best authority I learn that in 1936 the American War Department purchased a number of Seversky planes of the type P-35A - EP1, that they are still in service, and that they have been entirely satisfactory. Just recently the War Department has contracted with the Seversky Company for some pursuit planes of the type YP-43 - AP-4A, similar to the ones mentioned but with later developments that make them unavailable for export, because these developments are regarded as military secrets [18]."

This letter seemed to end the possibility of P-43s going to China.

The Only War We've Got

Even as U.S. diplomats and export control officials were chiding China for its handling of the Patterson contract, U.S. foreign policy, including export control policy, was changing. In 1938 the State Department approved more export sales of "arms, ammunition or implements of war" for Japan than for China. In 1939 licenses valued at about $5 million were approved for China while export approvals for Japan, at under $800,000, were one tenth of the previous year's approvals [19].

With the outbreak of the war in Europe the U.S. reaffirmed its policy of neutrality (at least formally), though President Roosevelt's sympathies were hardly hidden, and almost immediately the policy began to shift. President Roosevelt's public statements reveal the evolution.

On September 3, 1939, F.D.R. said: "This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even as a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or his conscience."

Only weeks later (September 21st) the President appealed to Congress to amend the Neutrality Act: "I regret that Congress passed that Act. I regret equally that I signed that Act.. I seek a greater consistency through the repeal of the embargo provisions, and a return to International Law."

The negotiation of a bases for destroyers deal with Britain in 1940 showed U.S. "neutrality" had become more rhetorical than real. In September 1940 Japan associated itself with Germany and Italy in the Tripartite (Axis) Pact. After winning a third term in November 1940 F.D.R. declared in a Fireside Chat on December 29, 1940: "We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would were we at war."

That same December Brigadier General Mow Pang-Tsu and other representatives of the Chinese Purchasing Mission met with Joseph Green of the State Department's Division of Controls and presented a list of fighter planes desired by China including the Republic P-43. Green recorded his response to General Mow: I assured General Mow that it was this Government's desire to enable the Chinese Government to purchase as many arms as possible for delivery as rapidly as possible, and that I felt certain that all the interested agencies of the Government would exert themselves to that end [20]."

Britain was the primary beneficiary of F.D.R.'s "arsenal of democracy" non-neutrality policy. The reaction to General Mow's mission shows China also became a beneficiary (later so did the Soviet Union, both cases considerably stretching the concept of democracy).

The Lend-Lease Act was introduced in Congress in January 1941 and enacted in March. Britain's reserves of hard currency were depleted and "lend-lease," allowed the continued provision of war materials absent immediate payment. In April 1941 President Roosevelt authorized China for lend-lease and by June 1941 the War Department was administering $125,000,000 in aid for China [21]. The P-43 was one of the first contracts for China funded by lend-lease.

During 1941 U.S. neutrality became outright belligerency against German submarines in the Atlantic, and economic embargoes of key goods aimed against Japan were stiffened [22]. War clouds darkened fast during the course of 1941.

The U.S. and Britain retained top priority for advanced weapons including fighter planes. There was considerable interest in seeing "Allies" including China contribute effectively to what was becoming a common cause. Another shift in policy encouraged foreign defense contracts that would lead to the enlargement of U.S. munitions plants [23]. The approval of the P-43 lend-lease contract took place in this context.

In June 1941 the contract for 125 P-43A-1s funded under lend-lease was executed. Farmingdale was still busy with U.S.A.A.F. P-43 contracts, and production for the Chinese contract began late in 1941. The last P-43A-1 was delivered in March 1942. In the meanwhile events on December 7, 1941 assured the U.S.-China alliance.

Early in 1942 the first P-43A-1s were shipped to China via Karachi, India. Thirty arrived at Karachi on March 20, 1942. As of April 1, 1942 in addition to the thirty at Karachi, 57 P-43A-1s were at sea but still in the Atlantic, and twenty-one others were at various stages in the pipeline, some at ports ready to sail [24].

Once at Karachi the fighters had to be transported to an airfield (Malir), taken out of their crates, assembled and test flown. This process did not proceed rapidly. Karachi was a beehive of activity in March 1942 as Burma was being invaded and about to fall to the Japanese. It was April before the first P-43s were flight-tested and turned over to Chinese pilots for ferrying to China [25].

The C.A.F. 4th Group was selected to receive the P-43 and most, if not all, the Chinese pilots assigned to ferry duty were from that group. A.V.G. pilots also helped in checking out Chinese pilots and ferrying P-43s. Full details of what happened in the ferry effort are obscure but clearly it did not go well. We know that on April 24th Wu Zhenhua, deputy commander of the 4th Group's 24th Squadron was killed en route between Karachi and Kunming [26]. The Americans kept no records of these C.A.F. flights and if the C.A.F. kept detailed records this author has not discovered them. According to one source 50% of the P-43s flown by Chinese pilots were lost en route [27].

The Greater America

As of April 29th sixty-nine P-43s had been received at Karachi and eleven of these had been delivered to the Chinese and flown east. About this time two Chinese ferry pilots landed their P-43s at an air transport base in Assam (Dinjan), the last stop in India before crossing Burma and arriving in China.

According to Col. Robert L. Scott, the P-43s had developed fuel tank leaks that combined with the turbo-supercharger beneath the fuselage made them great fire hazards. "So the Chinese left the P-43As with us and went back to China [28]." The Americans made temporary repairs to the aircraft. Scott flew the fighters on familiarization flights, scouting missions and escorted transport planes over Burma during April and May. Scott even found time to fly over the Himalayas and take motion pictures of Mt. Everest. The leaks recurred and the P-43s were grounded. These and other P-43s probably retained American national markings prior to arriving in China.

P-43 under maintenance in China

Despite the death of Wu and the abandonment of some fighters along the ferry route in late April, other fighters arrived in Kunming by early May. Evidence of this unfortunately comes from the report of the death of Chen Lokun, a flight commander in the 24th Squadron, who crashed into a tree during a landing attempt after a training flight at Kunming on May 12th. About the same time three A.V.G. pilots and seven Chinese pilots arrived in Kunming delivering ten P-43s from a flight that originally numbered sixteen [29].

A June 4th U.S. status report advised the Chinese that eighty-seven P-43s had been received, fifty-eight assembled, fifty-four tested, and the same number delivered to the Chinese at Karachi [30]. Two P-43s had been lost during test flights. The same report stated that twenty P-66s had been received but none yet delivered to the C.A.F.

In July 1942 the P-43A flown by 4th Group commander and renowned fighter pilot Cheng Hsiao-Yu caught fire and he was killed. Accidental deaths during transition to new type aircraft were, however, not uncommon in the C.A.F. and they were not unique to the P-43 [31].

The troubles on the ferry route and in training at Kunming apparently caused General Mow (then serving as commander, C.A.F.) to declare the P-43s "unsuitable for combat use [32]." On July 2nd the senior U.S. aviation officer in the China, Burma, India (C.B.I.) Theater (Brigadier General Clayton Bissell) wrote to Chiang Kai-Shek about the P-43. His letter recounted General Mow's opinion about the P-43 as well as the willingness of the U.S. to have China relinquish the P-43s and have them replaced by more suitable aircraft. According to Bissell China received 125 P-43s from the U.S. as requested. Some were in Karachi and some in Kunming. Others were on the ferry route "some crashed, some damaged, some flyable." Bissell professed not to know the details because "movement of the P-43 aircraft from Karachi was under the control of the Chinese Air Force." Bissell asserted to Chiang that sending "unsuitable" aircraft to China would not further the war effort. Bissell went on to point out that the P-43's R-1830 engines could be used to "put in commission both C-47 and C-53 type transports urgently needed to move supplies to China." Bissell recommended all P-43s and spares in India be turned over to the U.S. to re-engine transports. He sought removal of the P-43s from Kunming to reduce congestion and free up revetments for P-40s and finally recommended the P-43s be grounded to conserve aviation gasoline.

An undated reply memorandum advised Bissell that the Generalissimo approved his recommendation regarding the P-43s still in India. Bissell was also advised that an order to move the P-43s from Kunming would be forthcoming. The Chinese reserved to themselves the decision on how to best use the P-43s already in China [33].

Additional light is cast on the situation at Kunming in early July by a report to the State Department from the U.S. Ambassador in China:

"Summary of the P-43 situation on July 5th: Colonel Wang commander of the 5th Air Force reports 35 arrived Kunming of which 4 crashed with a total loss, 17 damaged in landings, need repairs, 14 in flying condition. Drummond Republic Aviation Corporation representative has just completed repairs to gas tank leaks on the 14 now serviceable planes using Fairprene cement of which supply wasting and reordered from the United States. Damages ascribed to rough landings, jarring rivets and seams of tanks and by reflection on wings, also to over filled tanks in sun. I saw 12 P-43s flying in formation and practicing ground strafing at the field on the 6th [34]."

Apparently a few additional P-43s reached Kunming after this report and before the order requested by Bissell went into effect. Chinese sources indicate they received a total of forty-one P-43s during 1942 [35].

On August 3rd the 4th Group's deputy commander, Chen Sheng, was killed when he crashed in P-43 No. 1222. Despite this tragedy the group's transition to the P-43 was soon completed and the group transferred to Chengtu to continue training and prepare for combat operations [36].

Not all the serviceable P-43s remaining in India were salvaged for their engines. Ten were turned over to Chennault for use in China and two (possibly the same two used by Scott during April-May) were destroyed on the ground at Dinjan during a Japanese raid in October 1942 [37].

Flying Tigers


After being battered by the Japanese in 1941 ("the most difficult year for the Chinese Air Force" [38]), the C.A.F. was used sparingly in 1942. Some events, such as the Changsha offensive in early 1942, however, demanded an attempt be made to support Chinese ground forces.

On January 8, 1942 Col. Chin Wen led nine unescorted SB-3 bombers of the 2nd Group over northern Hunan. Here they encountered eight Type 97 fighters of the Japanese 54th Flying Regiment (FR) led by Capt. Hayashi Yachiro. The Japanese claimed five bombers destroyed. Five Chinese bombers went down, two shot down outright and three others listed as "force landed" [39].

Despite this setback, the 1st and 2nd Groups under Lt. Col. Yang Chung-an mounted eighteen SB-3s to bomb targets in Indo-China on January 22, 1942. On this mission they had a fighter escort provided by the A.V.G. A similar mission was flown on the 24th [40]. Chinese fighters were hardly to be seen. According to one account, eleven I-153s from the 17th Squadron were used in the Burma campaign. Their stay was apparently brief and their activities unclear [41]. In the closing stages of the Burma campaign SB bombers flew several missions as the Japanese threatened to cross the Salween River and enter western China. Later in the year they were used in operations against opium lords in Suichuan Province [42].

C.A.F. operations during the first half of 1942 had been few. Generally, regular C.A.F. units demonstrated a lack of "combat efficiency" and overall proved a "washout", while the A.V.G. covered itself with glory [43]. June and July brought great changes. Chennault, now a U.S.A.A.F. Brigadier General, transitioned A.V.G. operations to the newly formed 23rd Fighter Group, which in turn became the core of Chennault's new command the China Air Task Force (C.A.T.F.). Meanwhile P-43s were arriving in Kunming for the Chinese Air Force and P-66s and A-29s seemed sure to follow. Was the C.A.F. about ready to take on the Japanese on equal terms?

On July 26th, 1942 Brigadier General Bissell (now Commander of the 10th Air Force as well as senior aviation officer in the C.B.I.) wrote General Stillwell, the theater commander, giving him an assessment of the aviation situation in the theater. The C.A.F., reported Bissell, "consists of something less than 50 pursuit and 50 bombardment aircraft - antiquated, worn-out, totally without spare parts.and can be considered of negligible combat value [44]." Bissell went on to point out that the C.A.F. was anxious to obtain A-29s and also desired to operate a "group of fighters to consist of 80 P-66 airplanes." No mention was made of the P-43s then in Kunming. It seems likely that Bissell thought that General Mow's pronouncement that the P-43 was not combat worthy was the final word on the subject as far as the C.A.F. was concerned. Possibly Bissell was not aware that successful repairs had already been carried out on the fuel tanks of a number of P-43s.

On August 6th Chennault provided Stillwell with his assessment of the air units needed in the theater in which he made some comments about the C.A.F. [45]. According to Chennault the A.V.G. and C.A.F. had agreed to divide responsibility for air operations along the Yangtze River. The A.V.G. was responsible for operations south of the river as well as the defense of Chungking. The C.A.F. was responsible for operations north of the river. Chennault considered this general division of responsibility continued to be sound. He also commented that the C.A.F. "operating north of the Yangtze will be available for joint operations with American units as well as for maintaining strong defensive operations in its area." Chennault recommended the C.A.F. be built up to 150 pursuit and 50 medium bombardment aircraft.

Japanese air power in China was strong but hardly overwhelming and was heavily weighted with reconnaissance and army cooperation aircraft [46]. Its combat power vested in a regiment of Type 97 heavy bombers (62nd FR at Hsingyang and Wuchang); one regiment of Type 99 twin-engine light bombers (90th FR at Licheng and Peiping); and, one regiment of single-engine light bombers (65th FR at Shanghai and Hangchou). Fighter strength consisted of a regiment of Type 97 fighters (54th FR at Hankou and Nanchang); an independent Squadron of Type 1 model 1 fighters (10th at Hankou); and, a similarly equipped regiment (24th FR at Canton). This force was spread from far north (Peiping) to the south (Canton) but a substantial fraction was concentrated along the central Yangtze River.

At this time (beginning of August 1942) the C.A.T.F. consisted of fifty-six operational fighters (P-40Bs, P-40Es and a few P-43A-1s) in four squadrons (16th, 74th, 75th and 76th) and eight B-25Cs (11th Bomb Squadron) at Kunming, Kweilin, Hengyang and Yunnan-yi [47].

In the C.A.F. the only new aircraft that were operational were the P-43s of the 4th Group. They were joined in the defense of Chengtu by the I-153s of the 17th Squadron and the I-16s of the 29th Squadron [48].

Rising Sun Over Burma


During July and early August 1942 there is little record of activity on the part of the P-43s turned over to the 23rd Fighter Group. It seems likely these aircraft needed repairs to their fuel tanks that required Fairprene cement that may not have been immediately available. As of August 13th Chennault had received five P-43s with five more promised [49].

On August 17th the P-43 entered combat for the first time. The 75th Fighter Squadron (FS) was at Kweilin en route to its new base at Changyi when a Japanese intruder was reported by the warning net. Two P-40s and two P-43s scrambled. The P-40s were unable to intercept but both P-43s made contact. Lt. Phillip B. O'Connell got within range only to have his guns jam and then his radio fail. Lt. Burrell Barnum then followed the speedy Japanese craft in a lengthy chase involving climbs, dives and straight runs. Barnum fired from long range but never got close enough to inflict serious damage. Barnum reported the "I-45" to be equal in speed to the P-43 at 20,000 feet [50]. Barnum most likely encountered a Type 100 Headquarters reconnaissance plane of the 18th Independent Squadron, an airplane credited with a maximum speed of 375 mph. at 19,000 feet [51].

The P-43's next air combat came on September 3rd when Lt. Martin Cluck of the 75th aborted a reconnaissance mission with mechanical trouble. At low altitude near base attacking Japanese fighters jumped him and riddled his P-43. Cluck landed safely and escaped from his aircraft but the P-43 was destroyed by strafing. A P-40 was also destroyed on the ground. The 24th FR and 10th Squadron claimed ten aircraft destroyed on the ground [52].

During a meeting with Stillwell in early September 1942 the subject of P-43 logistics was among the items discussed. Chennault's memorandum from that meeting clearly shows that both C.A.F. and C.A.T.F. P-43s would remain operational and needed to be supplied with spares. It also shows that the prior decision to divert P-43 engines to transports remained in effect and no spare engines would be available for P-43s [53].

During the September meeting the American's acquiesced in China's refusal to allow crated P-40s at Karachi destined for the C.A.F. to be diverted to the U.S.A.A.F. Logistics arrangements for Chinese A-29s and P-66s were also discussed during the meeting. The day when the C.A.F. could replace much of its old Russian equipment with new American planes seemed close at hand.

On October 13th a crowd of 50,000 people was ferried across the Yangtze to Chungking's commercial airport to observe the dedication of twenty of the new fighters. In two formations of ten the planes took off and put on an aerial demonstration before returning to their base. This public display was followed by a flurry of combat activity that began on October 24th when two P-43s flying from Nancheng claimed a Japanese reconnaissance plane [54]. Formations of P-66s of the 3rd Group flying from Peishiyi attempted similar interceptions on the 25th, 26th and 27th without success [55].

On October 27th no less than twelve P-43s flying from Taipingsu escorted nine A-29s in a raid on Yungcheng in Shansi, Province. One aircraft was claimed destroyed on the ground without loss to the Chinese [56]. P-66s flew another mission in November. A-29s flew two additional missions in November on one of which they were joined by old SB bombers. An A-29 and three SBs were lost in bad weather [57]. This mission on November 27th was the C.A.F.'s last of 1942. The C.A.F. filled the rest of 1942 with training as additional P-66s were received and P-40Es arrived to supplement the P-43s of the 4th Group.

On September 12th Major Frank Schiel, commander of the 74th FS, flew a notable mission. This was a reconnaissance flown from Kunming to Hanoi. Three enemy fighters rose to intercept but Schiel avoided them and returned with information that led to a successful bombing mission a few days later. Schiel was awarded the Silver Star for this P-43 mission.

In late November 1942 F-4s (the reconnaissance version of the P-38 fighter) arrived in China and gradually took over the photo reconnaissance mission. Both P-40s and P-43s continued to fly visual reconnaissance missions as well. P-43s occasionally flew photo missions with a makeshift camera arrangement.

P-43s performed in the fighter role as ground strafers, interceptors, and along with P-40s as bomber escorts. Because of their small numbers and distribution among the squadrons seldom did more than one or two P-43s fly on any given mission. An exception occurred on December 14th when four P-43s joined fourteen P-40s in an escort mission to Hanoi covering the P-40s in a successful combat. On December 30th three P-43s gave top cover to six P-40s on a mission to Lashio, Burma, enabling the P-40s to claim one of six Japanese fighters encountered.


The C.A.F. celebrated New Year's Day by flying its first combat mission with three of its new P-40Es, an uneventful patrol searching for a Japanese reconnaissance plane [58]. On the 10th ten P-43s joined five P-40s in attacking Kingmen airdrome and targets of opportunity. Two P-40s were lost to ground fire [59]. Two days later two P-43s flew a reconnaissance mission along the west bank of the Han River. Near Itu (southeast of Ichang) the P-43s met two "Zeros" claiming one shot down in flames and one badly damaged [60].

As of the end of January 1943 the C.A.F. had three groups of bombers but only one squadron of A-29s and one squadron of SBs were rated combat capable. Its four fighter groups were deployed to defend Chengtu and the wartime capital of Chungking. Three groups were equipped with a mix of P-66s and I-153s but only two squadrons in each group were considered combat capable. The 4th Group at Taipingsu equipped with P-40s and P-43s was the sole group with four squadrons (21st - 24th) rated combat capable. It alone had an offensive mission ("attack enemy aircraft.active over the upper Yangtze") in addition to a defensive mission [61]. An American technical representative who spent three months with the C.A.F. estimated that as of February 1, 1943, the C.A.F.'s serviceable American equipment amounted to: nine A-29s, forty-five P-66s, 18 P-43s and 18-20 P-40s [62].

On February 1, 1943, the C.A.T.F. still consisted of just four fighter squadrons and one squadron of medium bombers. Serviceable strength was eighty-six fighters and twelve B-25s [63]. It is interesting to note that the operational strength of the C.A.F. (in new American equipment) and C.A.T.F. was virtually identical at this point. The C.A.F. was essentially inactive at this time while the C.A.T.F. was actively flying fighter missions and occasional bomber missions whenever weather permitted and targets were available.

The Lady and the Tigers

The Japanese Army Air Force (J.A.A.F.) line-up had changed since the previous summer. There was still a strong contingent of army cooperation and reconnaissance aircraft but the striking force now consisted of two regiments of Type 99 twin-engine light bombers (16th and 90th) and two regiments of Type 1 model 1 fighters (25th and 33rd), together constituting the 1st Flying Brigade (FB) [64].

The 1st FB carried out a series of raids on the advanced bases of the C.A.T.F. in early 1943 during which it encountered little aerial opposition. In late February part of the 1st FB supported ground operations in southern China while the bulk of the Brigade concentrated in the vicinity of Hankou to take on the C.A.F. as a preliminary to resuming attacks on the C.A.T.F. [65].

The Japanese were presented an opportunity when they discovered C.A.F. aircraft at Liangshan. The Headquarters of the 4th Group had moved to Chungking in mid-February but P-43s of the 22nd Squadron were based at Liangshan. On February 24th fifteen Type 1 fighters of the 25th FR escorted twelve twin-engine light bombers of the 16th FR to attack Liangshan. The 22nd Squadron scrambled four P-43s under its squadron commander Wang Tejian. The Japanese reported encountering three P-43s and claimed one shot down. The Chinese records confirm this [66].

The C.A.F. may have suffered other losses during this period but Japanese accounts suggest air combats were few during early 1943 [67]. Quite possibly the C.A.F. was under severe logistical strain. In any event, on March 19th General Chow advised Stillwell that the C.A.F. could no longer defend Chungking and requested U.S. support [68].

For the American P-43s the New Year began with a routine weather reconnaissance flight to Schwebo in Burma by a single P-43 of the 76th FS. A similar mission to Bhamo on January 2nd proved anything but routine. Capt. Jeffrey O. Wellborn was on his return flight when he encountered an "I-45." The Japanese aircraft was above the P-43 but Wellborn climbed on to its tail without being detected. Wellborn's first burst took the Japanese by surprise. The Japanese aircraft then attempted to escape by diving but Wellborn followed and shot the aircraft down in flames. Like Barnum in the P-43's first combat the previous August, Wellborn probably encountered a Japanese reconnaissance plane rather than an I-45 (Japanese designation, Type 2 two-seat fighter or Ki 45). It was quite a start to the New Year for the P-43 and Wellborn's only aerial victory.

Combat zone, May-June 1943

There was a lull in air operations for a few days while supplies of aviation gasoline were flown in to replenish stocks in China. When the pause ended the P-43s were back in action along with other U.S. aircraft. On January 9th two P-43s strafed Japanese trucks at Wanling and left two destroyed.

P-43s in the C.A.T.F. fighter squadrons continued to fly a variety of combat missions but because of their small numbers were often relegated to single-plane mundane functions such as weather reconnaissance and communications flights. Occasionally they flew as high-speed cargo or transport planes. A passenger could be crowded into the P-43's baggage compartment.

From January to March 1943 air combat was rare over China. February 1943 was the first month in which C.A.T.F. fighter planes made no claims for air victories. In March the C.A.T.F. was upgraded (largely for political reasons) and became the 14th Air Force.

Reconnaissance missions from Kunming to Hanoi seem to have been something of a P-43 specialty. Two 76th FS P-43s flew there on March 5th. During this mission photographs were taken. Two P-43s from the same squadron flew a similar mission on the 26th.

In the middle of March a series of raids was mounted against the phosphate mines at Lao Kay, Indo-China and supporting industrial and transportation facilities. The third and final attack in the series was a strafing mission mounted by one P-43 and one P-40K on March 21st that started many fires, burned out the cable station, and, killed ten and wounded many other personnel in the area. These raids were credited with causing an exodus of coolie labor and a demand for higher wages by those that remained.

On March 31st the 23rd Fighter Group sent part of its strength eastward to forward bases. The 16th FS, reinforced by flights of the 76th FS and 75th FS, went to Kweilin and Lingling. The same day six Type 1 fighters of the 33rd FR intruded into the region. Three P-40s and two P-43s of the 16th FS scrambled. The two formations sighted one another but no contact was made.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

The following day fourteen P-40K-1s of the 75th FS were joined by one P-43 (Capt. Groseclose) in intercepting twelve Japanese fighters of the 1st FB. The Americans held an altitude advantage as well as a numerical advantage and four Japanese fighters went down. One P-40K was shot down and another damaged. Two of the Japanese fighters were new Type 2 (Ki 44) fighters flying with the 33rd FR.

On April 8th P-43s and P-40Ks were involved in two joint missions. The 74th FS sent one aircraft of each type on a reconnaissance from Yunnan-yi to Schwebo in Burma. The 16th FS scrambled one of each in an attempted interception over Kweilin. These as well as many other examples show that combining these aircraft with differing characteristics could prove more symbiotic than disruptive.

A P-43 was lost when two were sent on a reconnaissance mission in marginal weather on April 15th. For unknown reasons Capt. William Miller bailed out of his aircraft about 50 miles south of Kunming. After a spell of bad weather over the eastern bases additional combat occurred during the last week in April. P-43s, though based in the area and flying patrol missions, failed to come to grips with the enemy.

The Japanese planned a ground offensive beginning in May. Advancing into the Tungting Lake area and along the Yangtze their intention seemed to be to secure their line of communication and capture China's "rice bowl" just at harvest season [69]. As the ground fighting intensified it became clear that Chinese land forces needed air support. Both the 14th Air Force and C.A.F. were called into action. This included the 4th Group flying P-40s and P-43s.

On May 14th Japanese reconnaissance covered Kweilin and Lingling and estimated the U.S. order of battle as twenty-four P-40s, eight B-24s, three B-25s, one P-38 and one P-43. At the same time it was noted that the Chinese had again advanced to Liangshan [70]. The 4th Group was at Liangshan [71].

After preliminary moves in early May ground clashes intensified in mid-May. The 4th Group went into action on May 19th. Eight P-40Es and four P-43s escorted A-29s over the battle area. The group's deputy commander Xu Baoyun, flying a P-40E, was shot down and crashed in flames, hit by anti-aircraft fire according to Chinese reports [72].

Early the following morning the Japanese bombed Liangshan. The surprise attack encountered no aerial opposition [73].

From May 19th to June 6th, according to one source, the C.A.F. flew 336 fighter and 88 bomber sorties over the battle zone and claimed 31 aircraft shot down but few details are available [74]. The 4th Group missed a chance to confront the Japanese on May 29th when it flew from Liangshan to cover Chungking due to a false alarm. While they were absent ten Japanese fighters strafed the field followed an hour later by an attack by nine bombers with fighter escort [75].

On May 31st nine P-43s escorted five A-29s to attack the ferry crossing between Ichang and Itu. In doing so they missed out on some of the most intense action of the campaign. Lt. Col. John Alison and two U.S.A.A.F. wingmen led seven 4th Group P-40s escorting nine B-24s to Ichang. This was Alison's last mission in China and the ace hoped to add to his record of kills. Instead his P-40 was badly shot up by Capt. Ohtsubo Yasuto, leader of the 1st Chutai (squadron) of the 33rd FR. Alison's life was saved by Lt. Tsang Hsu-Lan of the 4th Group who shot down Ohtsubo. Alison was able to identify "Bulldog" Tsang by the number "2304" on his P-40. Tsang was awarded the American Silver Star as well as China's highest decoration [76].

On June 6th the 1st FB hit Liangshan with fourteen Type 1 fighters of the 33rd FR and eight light bombers of the 90th FR [77]. Thirteen C.A.F. P-40s led by Col. Li Hsiang-Yang returned to Liangshan from a mission as the Japanese force approached [78]. The P-40s had just landed when the alert sounded. Capt. Chow Chin-Kai, commander of the 23rd Squadron and veteran of many years combat, directed ground crews to take care of his P-40 and then ran to a stray fighter, apparently a P-66, parked nearby. Without time to adjust his parachute, buckle the safety belt or check the fuel supply he gunned the engine. While Japanese fighters strafed the field "Fatty" Chow attacked the bombers and claimed three destroyed. Chow received the Blue Sky-White Sun award personally from Chiang Kai-Shek [79]. Despite Chow's heroics twelve P-40s and a Fleet trainer were destroyed on the ground.

In a separate raid on Enshih by eight bombers the Japanese reported encountering "seven P-43 fighters.and shot down one of them [80]." Their actual opponents were eight P-66s, apparently from the 11th Group, which shot down one bomber [81].

Ironically these most famous episodes of the "rice bowl" air campaign from the Chinese perspective involved two 4th Group pilots flying a P-40 and a P-66 rather than P-43s and a case of P-43 mistaken identity as far as the enemy was concerned. The P-43 did what it was called upon to do but simply wasn't involved in the most stirring actions.

The "rice bowl' campaign took its toll on the C.A.F. In addition to heavy losses in combat and on the ground suffered by the P-40s, many other aircraft must have suffered combat or operational damage requiring depot repair. Immediately after the campaign the C.A.F. units numbered (operational aircraft in parentheses): 7 (6) A-29s, 10 (5) SB-3s, 5 (3) P-40Es, 9 (6) P-43s and 46 (39) P-66s [82].

Fourteenth Air Force P-43s played little role during the "rice bowl" campaign, five were in factory repair and of the three with squadrons only two were serviceable. P-43s did take part in an unsuccessful interception at Hengyang and flew several reconnaissance missions. A typical mission was flown on June 15th. A lone P-43 inventoried vessels at Hongkong, Swatow and Amoy and verified the absence of aircraft on airfields at Amoy, Swatow, Namtu, and Saited. Altitude over the target was 32,000 feet [83].

Incident at Muc Wa

During May the 14th Air Force received about fifty new P-40s, models K and M. A phase out of the older P-40s soon started. With the arrival of the first high altitude P-38 fighters in July the days of the P-43s were clearly numbered. In the middle of July attempts by P-43s to fly reconnaissance missions to southern China were turned back by weather on three successive days. These are the last operational missions by the American P-43s mentioned in 14th Air Force intelligence summaries. A July 31st message detailing 14th Air Force fighter locations does not mention any P-43s and by August the P-43 had been dropped from the count of 14th Air Force combat aircraft [84].

With the ground front in Hupei stabilized about June 7th, the C.A.F. fighters withdrew to defensive dispositions in the Chungking and Chengtu areas. By the end of June the Japanese estimated the C.A.F. had eighty fighters in the Chengtu area and thirty-five defending Chungking [85]. The 4th Group defended Chungking aided by a detachment of P-66s. The continuing Chinese defensive posture is confirmed by the absence of any mention of C.A.F. operations in official communiques or Chinese press reports from early June to late August.

The Japanese developed a plan for an air campaign that would eventually bring about a confrontation with the 4th Group's P-43s. The first phase of the campaign (late July to mid-August) concentrated on American air bases centered on Kweilin; the second phase (late August/early September) targeted Chungking, Yangtze river traffic, and air bases in eastern China; and, a third phase (September) would resume attacks on Kweilin and also strike Yunnan and other targets [86]. The first phase operations (23 July-22 August) resulted in claims for about fifty American planes destroyed. None were P-43s. The Japanese detected the movement of only one P-43 into the Kweilin area during this phase [87].

The second phase operation opened with a strike against Chungking. China's wartime capital had been immune from attack for nearly two years. Though Japanese sources available to the author do not say so, it seems likely that this attack was meant to inflict damage to morale as well as material loss. An opening strike against Chungking might well paralyze the C.A.F. in their defensive posture at Chungking and Chengtu while the Japanese campaign hit Yangtze River ports and shipping targets not far afield.

As the Japanese campaign got under way in late July the C.A.F. had recovered its strength and numbered nearly 100 fighters with 52 serviceable and others soon to be in commission. This included nineteen P-43s of which seven were serviceable [88]. The Chinese had an efficient air-raid warning net and Chungking, being deep inside Chinese held territory, was not likely to be taken by surprise.

The Japanese had temporarily reinforced their air force in China with two heavy bomber regiments in order to conduct their air campaign. One of these regiments (the 58th equipped with Type 97 model II heavy bombers) was selected to make the Chungking attack. Twenty-one bombers and their seventeen fighter escorts from the 25th FR took off from Hankow at dawn on August 23rd. En route fourteen additional Type 1 fighters from the 33rd FR joined them [89].

The air raid warning was flashed to Peishiyi airfield. Twenty-nine C.A.F. fighters from the 4th and 11th Groups scrambled. Ten P-40s, eight P-43s and eleven P-66s took to the air. At about 1030 local time the Japanese bombers approached at a height of 7,000 meters (about 23,000 feet) but the Chinese had sufficient warning and some interceptors were able to exceed that altitude as the bombers neared their target. A flight of American fighters also scrambled from a distant base but was unable to intercept [90].

The Japanese formation flew past Chungking proper to attack their target, an arsenal, just west of the city. A reporter flying with squadron commander Capt. Kajikawa Kiyoshi saw him observing the bombing through binoculars and spring up as the bombs hit the target. The bombers then belatedly received anti-aircraft fire [91].

The reporter in Kajikawa's bomber "looked forward to the right and saw our fighters engaged in fierce air duels with the enemy fighters above us. White streaks of tracer bullets suddenly passed before my eyes indicating the enemy was tailing us. In an instant.our Hayabusa fighter flashed by in hot pursuit of the enemy fighter which was attacking us. Suddenly the enemy fighter burst out in flames and.went down at a furious speed trailing behind a long streak of black smoke. The enemy pilot bailed out and his parachute spread immediately." The aircraft shot down was almost certainly a P-43.

One Japanese bomber was shot down and others were damaged by Chinese fighter attacks. In Capt. Kajikawa's bomber one of the crewmembers (a Sgt. Ito) was wounded. The remaining bombers and their fighter escorts returned to base.

The Japanese reported encountering 10 plus P-43s, several P-40s and several unidentified aircraft. The 25th FR apparently was engaged in the bulk of the action. The Japanese claimed two P-43s (and three others uncertain), one P-40 and one unidentified aircraft [92]. It appears that the P-43s were able to climb swiftly enough to engage the Japanese but that some of the P-40s and P-66s that scrambled may have failed to make contact.

The Chinese lost four fighters. These appear to have been two P-66s, a P-40 and a P-43. The 4th Group lost Duan Kehui of the 21st Squadron. The 11th Group lost Su Rengui (41st Squadron) and Yen Guihua (42nd Squadron). The aircraft seen to be shot down with its pilot escaping by parachute may have been a P-43 claimed by Warrant Officer Seino Eiji of the 25th FR [93].

The Chinese communique reported three flights of their fighters intercepted the Japanese and claimed three fighters shot down and five bombers probably destroyed. They admitted little damage in the bombing and stated the C.A.F. "sustained damage which was slight." [94].

The Japanese knew their opponents were Chinese rather than American by virtue of their blue sky-white sun markings. They reported that the majority of the enemy planes were P-43s and that their fuel tanks were easily punctured making them much easier to shoot down in comparison to P-40s.

After this action the C.A.F. remained on the defensive at Chungking and Chengtu and did not challenge the Japanese as they attacked river traffic and ports along the Yangtze. At the end of August the Chinese reported they had lost two P-43s during the month including one in combat. They had nineteen on hand with eight immediately serviceable [95].

At the end of the summer the 1st Group (bombers) and the 3rd and 5th Groups (fighters) transferred to Karachi where they reequipped with B-25s and P-40s and trained under American supervision. These units of the C.A.F. became part of the Chinese American Composite Wing (C.A.C.W.) and began joint operations with the Americans late in 1943 [96].

The P-43s of the C.A.F. got into action one more time. On November 29th four P-43s of the 21st Squadron escorted a P-40M on a reconnaissance mission and ran into four fighters of the 25th FR. The P-43s claimed four for one loss. The Japanese claimed one Chinese fighter apparently without loss to themselves. In December 1943 the C.A.F. (other than the C.A.C.W.) numbered 19 P-40s, 22 P-43s, 53 P-66s and 14 A-29s. These aircraft seldom engaged in combat operations and essentially reverted to a training status. From December the P-43s were apparently retired from combat operations [97].

In May 1944 the Chinese had 20 P-43s on strength and a year later the number had grown to 28. However, by August 1945 the P-43s were no longer included in the strength of the Chinese Air Force [98].

A Vision So Noble


The P-43 did not play a major role in the air war in China. This was primarily due to the small numbers in which it was committed to combat. This study could not find an occasion when the C.A.F. employed more than twelve, nor the 14th Air Force more than four, P-43s on a single mission. A typical mission for the 14th Air Force involved only one or two P-43s. With the C.A.F., missions generally ranged from two to ten P-43s but the total number of missions flown was very small.

The P-43 was apparently a pleasant aircraft to fly and published accounts by pilots who flew the aircraft are generally favorable and do not highlight any particular flaw or deficiency in performance [99]. When the U.S.A.A.F. adopted self-sealing fuel tanks as standard in 1941 the P-43 became a non-combat aircraft in that service. Its fuel tank troubles in China found it temporarily consigned to non-combat duty with both the C.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F.

The data assembled in this study suggests the P-43 might have been highly successful if used more extensively. It demonstrated ability to effect interceptions when P-40s could not and to shoot down Japanese high altitude reconnaissance planes. It had good range capability and could fly both bomber escort and reconnaissance missions. Its high altitude performance made it a good complement to the P-40 on escort missions.

There is sparse evidence of how the P-43 might have fared in fighter versus fighter combat. Chinese P-43s did claim a Japanese fighter in January 1943 but lost one when heavily outnumbered in a fighter combat during February. The P-43s lost only one of their number in combat with Japanese fighters in August 1943 and may have been responsible for the Japanese bomber that was shot down over Chungking. A single P-43 was also lost during the November combat and the damage inflicted on the Japanese is unclear. Despite the absence of self-sealing fuel tanks this record hardly suggests the P-43 was unduly vulnerable.

The decision to designate the P-43 as a non-combat aircraft in the U.S.A.A.F., to limit the numbers sent to China, and to rule out its use in combat elsewhere may have been unwise. The P-43 showed it had the capability to play a useful role in the air war in China. The P-43 had exactly the qualities that were needed when Japanese navy Zeros outperformed P-40s and P-39s over New Guinea. A squadron of P-43s at Port Moresby in 1942 might have saved many American fighter pilots by giving top cover to the Allison powered fighters. There is also little doubt Chennault could have usefully employed more than the ten fighters he was granted.

In the final analysis the "what if's" will have to remain unanswered. The facts are that the P-43 was originally sought by China because it was an advanced, high performance fighter; its performance appears to have been sufficient to allow it a good chance of success in combat; lacking self-sealing fuel tanks, it was not as well protected as P-40s and other U.S. fighters. It is fair to conclude that the historical record probably does not show the full potential of the P-43 because its use was so limited.

This story closes with an ironic observation. Beginning in August 1943, the month of the P-43's most significant combat with the C.A.F. and the month it was retired from the 14th Air Force inventory, a litany of complaints about the inadequacy of the P-40 and requests for new, improved fighters began to issue from P-40 Squadron commanders in China. The apparent cause was the introduction by the Japanese of their Type 2 fighter (Ki 44) and a switch in tactics emphasizing combat above 20,000 feet. Examples: ".they come in above our P-40s and we are unable to get to their altitude" (Maj. Robert L. Liles, 16th FS); ".using their superior altitude they stayed out of range of the P-40s, dropping down.to make one or two passes then zooming for altitude." (Lt. Col. Norval C. Bonawitz, 74th FS); and, ".Japanese fighters.have both speed and altitude advantage over our P-40s" (Maj. Edmund R. Goss, 75th FS) [100]. The majority of Japanese fighters were still older Type 1 fighters so the high altitude tactics clearly embarrassed the P-40 squadrons. "From these reports it is clear that the Japanese were using new type fighters and improved tactics in every sector of the theater, for every P-40 squadron, regardless of its location, sent in appeals for new type aircraft" [101]. Unfortunately the high-altitude P-43s had just been retired from service after having been denied engine replacements in favor of transport planes. Dozens of others had been salvaged for the same reason. Declared a "non-combat" aircraft, the P-43 had been provided to the C.A.F. who made but relatively little use of it. Just as the Republic fighter's limited combat career ended, the 14th Air Force found itself in need of a fighter with qualities found in the P-43.

Click here for Rich Dunn's notes and citations

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