Monday, August 25, 2008

Pappy Boyington escorting the Cheks

Another excerpt from Pappy's Baa Baa Black Sheep - during his Flying Tiger days:

As we scrambled into our P-40s, with their hideous shark-faces painted on their noses, we could see a farewell reception gathering next to the DC-2 transport waiting for the famed couple.

A jeep messenger came up to us at the last minute with some instructions from good old Harvey, but not enough of them. The instructions were merely that we were to circle in sections of two at three thousand feet and then put on a demonstration, and "make it good." It was this last phrase in the order that helped cause the havoc, for when pilots are told in addition to "make it good," then believe me, they usually will take up the stinging sort of challenge and everybody else had better watch out.

Off we went in the shark-faces, and as we circled the field, climbing, we could see the official cars stop and let out Madame and the Generalissimo. Much bowing and handshaking could be detected in the tiny forms down on the field, the official party next to the transport.

At a signal from the leader the shark-faces moved into a Lufbery column. In turn each of us dove at the far side of the field at full throttle. Each pilot leveled out just off the ground. As the planes approached the official party, they started to roll, so that by the time they arrived over the transport each plane was on its back.

And this is where we overdid it. The lead planes were so low that all the figures on the ground - and this included the famous pair and our own boss - threw themselves flat on their faces, and stayed that way. And we knew then what Chennault and his dignified guests must be thinking about us, or saying about us, as they lay there. But it was too late.

One pilot with very limited flying experience told us afterwards that he had rolled quite naturally to the upside down position by merely following the P-40 in front of him, but when the time came to roll right side up again, he was a total loss because the P-40 in front of him had left his vision by pulling up. He said the only thing that saved him was remembering: center the needle and then the ball, which was taught him in instrument-flying school.

With this novice, and another pilot whose baggage door flew open, the distinguished pair Had only a Higher Power protecting them from their own airplanes. Yet all this was but the beginning of a long series in what could be termed a "comedy of errors" - except that the comedy was lacking, at least at the time.

No sooner had we finished "making it good" in regard to the demonstration, and were back up in formation, than the formation leader saw that he couldn't continue with his open baggage door and motioned for me to take over for the escort mission.

As I recall, one other plane dropped out of formation, too, leaving only six of us. The tired old P-40s were weak from lack of spare parts and from other ailments.

Finally the DC-2 transport was loaded with the dignitaries and took off. And now it was my turn, as leader of the escorts, to wish that I had been informed of where we were going. I just simply did not know, and neither did the other escorts. It had all happened so fast. But on top of all this my compass was not working, and I couldn't hear anything on my radio. As the trip progressed, I divided my time between scanning the sky for Nip fighters and trying to pick out some landmark, any landmark at all, on this unfamiliar, rugged terrain of interior China. We had, for all practical purposes, just arrived in this interior country, it must be remembered, and had not had a chance to fly around much. What few charts any of us had were virtually worse than useless.

We had flown for about two hours when it finally dawned on me that the precious load in the transport might be bound for Chungking. Thick, billowy clouds were forming rapidly, and no longer were the rugged mountain peaks visible at all. We were flying through a windstorm, and this would never do, for our little fighter planes did not carry enough gas for much of this. And what a storm it was we were to learn later, when told that the wind in this particular locality often reached the velocity of a hundred miles per hour. And we were in such a storm now, with cross winds.

Knowing that no Japs could possible find a DC-2 in that cloudy weather, I wobbled my wings good-by to the transport pilot and started my own fighters back from home or some landing place. But with my compass not working, and my radio not working, and no familiar landmark anywhere, all I could do was to try to guide our way back out of the thick clouds and be able to see something. The whole thing became a race between the clouds and our remaining gas.

The gas finally won, but only by ten minutes. This is all the supply of gas I had left when at last we broke out of the heavier clouds and I spotted what appeared to be a tiny field in a valley between rugged peaks. On flying by for quick inspection the field turned out to be not a field at all but a hill with the top flattened off. In reality it turned out later to be a Chinese cemetery way up there in the mountains. But it would have to do, even though it was much too small to land anything as fast as a P-40, and especially at the distance above sea level, six thousand feet. Yet this cemetery was our last and only chance.

So one by one we dropped over the edge of this tiny clearing, and each landing was disastrous to the plane, for all feet of drop-off, and we had to set our planes down with the gears retracted. A couple pilots tried it the conventional way but were far worse off than those who didn't.

Each plane, on being stopped in this manner, would skid along on its belly, damaging the landing gear even though it was retracted, and either one or the other wing tip in some cases. But what surprised us after that was the speed with which we immediately became surrounded by a horde of Chinese. All of us had not yet had a chance to drag ourselves from the damaged planes before the Chinese began pouring in around us. We did not know at the time where so many could be coming from, but it turned out that they were coming from a neighboring village and there were hundreds and hundreds of them. None of them seemed to understand English, but they stood there and stared back at them.

Finally a young Chinese came up to me and in very broken English explained that he was the only man who could speak our language. Among other things he tried to tell us, while all the horde stood round jabbering, was that the nearby village was Wenshan and no white man had been there for more than ten years. This man had learned English from missionaries when he was a boy.

The village, we further found out, was only a few miles from the Japanese-occupied border. In other words, I had barely missed becoming a captive of the Emperor of Japan two years before I finally did become one.

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