Aces High – The Last Of The Flying Tiger Raiders

13 Aug

Charlie Bond, "Tex" Hill and Ed Rector

Charlie Bond, one of the last pilots of a covert World War Two fighter squadron, died recently, but the heroics of the US servicemen who took on the might of the Japanese air force in Burma will never be forgotten

Originally published: Bangkok Newspaper
October 25, 2009
Spectrum Section

Charlie Bond, one of the last surviving pilots of the legendary World War Two 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG), dubbed the “Flying Tigers”, died in Dallas, Texas, on Aug 18, at the age of 94. Major General Charles R Bond, Jr, served 30 years in the US Air Force, retiring in 1968.

His life was intertwined with Thailand for a period spanning more than 60 years.

In the early days of World War Two, when the Japanese were invading Burma from bases in Thailand, Bond was part of a force of 10 Flying Tigers that made a surprise dawn attack, on March 24, 1942, against the Japanese 64th Hayabusa Sentai (Falcon Group) based at Chiang Mai airfield.

Although the squadron commander was Robert Neale, Bond led the attack because he was the only pilot who knew the target, having flown over the airfield as part of a reconnaissance. Ed Rector, one of the 1st squadron pilots, in the documentary film Fei Hu: The Story of the Flying Tigers, said: “Visibility was just terrible and with the sun coming up and with all that haze, it wasn’t possible to identify anything. And Bob Neal is weaving back and forth. I think Bob was just about to turn around and go back, and with that, Charlie Bond flew by him, rocked his wings and in effect said ‘follow me’.”

In his diary, Bond wrote: “As the haze thinned, I saw the field and outlines of the hangars. I flipped on my gun switch, and another 1,000 feet lower I fired my guns in a short burst to check them and let the other guys know this was it, seeing a line of parked Japanese I-97 fighters. I pulled back slightly, preparing to strafe the entire row. Now it was clear we had caught them flat-footed without any warning.”

Neale, commander of the 1st squadron, and the Flying Tiger’s top ace, recounted in a 1962 interview: “When we got there the Japs were climbing into their planes and their engines were turning over. It was just breaking daylight then and the planes were so tightly packed that the first line had to take off before the others could get out, because they were locked wing to wing there. There were a few big transport ships in there. They had 10 or 11 fighters burning on the field itself. The anti-aircraft fire was intense. I never saw anything like it in my life. From a military point of view, it turned out to be one of the best raids and did the most damage of any [Flying Tigers raids].”

Three days before, on March 21, a Japanese force of 151 bombers and fighters, the largest air armada Southeast Asia had seen, bombed the last Allied airfield in Burma, at Magwe. The Japanese planes were seen returning to northern Thailand, in the direction of Chiang Mai.

The Japanese had 14 air regiments, about 400 to 500 planes, stationed in southern Burma and Thailand, including Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang and Tak.

Col Tateo Kato, himself a fighter ace celebrated in Japan and commander of the renown 64th Sentai (air regiment), was not expecting Allied planes to attack. After the bombing of Magwe, the remnants of the RAF in Burma retreated to the eastern border area in India, and the Flying Tigers returned to Yunnan province in southern China – out of range of the Japanese air bases in Thailand.

At their headquarters in Kunming, Gen Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers, was determined to hit back at the Japanese in retaliation for Magwe. He ordered 10 Tomahawk P-40s to fly from Kunming via northern Burma. Refuelling at the small RAF base at Namsang, Burma, they would be able to launch a pre-dawn attack on Chiang Mai.

Six P-40s led by Neale would attack the 64th Sentai at Chiang Mai airfield. Four P-40s of the 2nd squadron, led by Jack Newkirk, would attack Lampang, headquarters for General Obata Eiryo’s 5th Hikoshidan (air division) with three regiments, including Mitsubishi Ki-21-II heavy bombers, and Mitsubishi Ki-46 reconnaissance planes. Lampang was also the headquarters of the Royal Thai Air Force Northern Combined Air Wing (Kong Bin Yai Phasom Phak Payab) and the Thai Northwest (Phayap) Army Group’s command.

The Chiang Mai Raiders were credited with destroying 15 enemy aircraft on the ground, the single worst loss in one day the 64th Sentai would suffer throughout the war. The news of the raid had a tremendous morale-lifting effect for the Allies, who were reeling from the huge defeats the seemingly unstoppable Japanese forces were inflicting on them in Southeast Asia. The day after the raid, major US newspapers, including The New York Times, ran the story, bringing world attention to Chiang Mai, perhaps for the first time in the city’s history.

Two pilots were lost on the Chiang Mai raid. William “Black Mac” McGarry of the 1st squadron was hit by ground fire over Chiang Mai airfield. Attempting to make it across the Salween River, to Burma, he bailed out just before his plane crashed in Mae Hong Son province. He was taken prisoner, and held as a prisoner of war until 1945, when the Seri Thai (Free Thai) helped him escape.

Newkirk’s 2nd squadron did not find any planes that morning. As the four P-40s were returning to Chiang Mai, following the railway through Lamphun, an anti-aircraft gun at the Mae Kuang River railway bridge opened fire. Newkirk circled to return to the bridge.

As he was completing the circle, Newkirk saw what he and the other pilots believed to be armoured vehicles just outside the west gate of Wat Phra Yuen. He dove to strafe. Flying too low, or not able to pull out of his dive, his wing clipped a roadside tree, and his P-40 crashed in a fireball. Tragically, the two vehicles were merely oxcarts, driven by farmers. One farmer and an ox were killed.

At the time of his death, Newkirk was aged 28 and was already well known in the US press because of his heroism fighting alongside the RAF in the Battle of Rangoon. Newkirk was buried on the edge of the rice field where his plane crashed. In 1949, his remains were repatriated for reburial in his hometown of Scarsdale, New York.

The AVG was a covert US government operation, approved by President Roosevelt, to provide military assistance to the beleaguered Republic of China. The US was not yet involved in the war in Europe, and officially neutral, but Roosevelt considered it essential to help China, who had been defending itself against a Japanese invasion since 1937.

The Chinese Air Force had no trained and equipped pursuit pilots to stop the Japanese bombing of its eastern cities, and to defend the Burma Road – the only route through which supplies could reach unoccupied China. Through the AVG, 109 active service military pilots and 186 ground crew volunteered to go to China, as highly paid mercenaries.

Under the command of Chennault, whose tactical understanding of Japanese fighter planes accounted for much of the AVG’s success, the unit was based in Kunming, Yunnan province, China. It served in combat from December 1941 until July 1942, entering the history books as the most effective and respected fighter plane unit in the history of warfare. The Curtiss Tomahawk P-40, with its iconic fierce shark teeth and glaring eyes, is one of the most recognisable fighters in aviation history. The AVG never had more than 50 combat-ready planes at a time, never more than 24 in the air at once and never more than 70 pilots ready to fly.

During the three-month Battle of Rangoon, which began on Christmas Day 1941, the outnumbered and outgunned AVG, fighting alongside the RAF, established their legend, outflying and outshooting superior Japanese planes at a ratio of 20-to-1, a record unequalled in the annals of aerial combat.

Short of equipment and supplies, and greatly outnumbered, the AVG, the only effective Allied air force in East Asia after Pearl Harbor, held the line against superior Japanese forces until the Allies arrived. Their defence of Rangoon kept the flow of desperately needed supplies to China going for 10 critical weeks.

At the Battle of Salween Gorge in May 1942, the AVG held back the crack Japanese 56th Red Dragon Division from crossing into China. For four days, Tex Hill led eight AVG P-40s, now equipped with bomb-racks, in dive-bombing the armoured column. After losing 4,500 troops, the Japanese retreated, ending their northward advance. Had the Red Dragon Division crossed the Salween River, the road to both southern China and India would have been open to them.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking of the Flying Tigers, was quoted in Time magazine on Feb 9 1942, as saying: “The victories of these Americans over the rice paddies of Burma are comparable in character if not in scope with those won by the RAF over the hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain.”

While flying with the AVG, Bond survived being shot down twice. He was shot down by Japanese fighters over Pao Shan in China on May 4 1942. He was shot down again on June 12 1942. Bond carried shrapnel, from the second attack, in his head, for the rest of his life.

When the AVG was disbanded in July 1942, Bond was one of five AVG pilots and 34 ground crew who remained in China with their commander, Chennault, becoming the nucleus of the AVG’s replacement unit, the 23rd Fighter Group of the US Army Air Force.

After World War Two, Bond remained in the US Air Force, attaining the rank of major general. In 1967, he was appointed commander of the 12th Air Force based in Waco, Texas. He retired the following year.

Bond returned to Thailand several times after World War Two. From January 1966 until mid-1967 he served in Thailand as deputy commander of the 2nd Air Division, 13th Air Force, and afterwards deputy commander of 7th/13th Air Force, both at Udon Thani in northeast Isan. Udon Thani was a front-line US Air Force base during the Vietnam War.

He wrote in his diary: “Often times while flying near Chiang Mai on some of my field visits, I would look down at that airfield and relive that attack by the Flying Tigers.”

Bond returned to Thailand twice more in connection with AVG memorial events. In November 1994 he was part of a delegation of AVG veterans and their family members who came to view the wreckage of McGarry’s P-40. The wreck had been found and recovered from Mae Hong Son province in 1992. It was brought to the air museum at Chiang Mai airport, located at the very spot the 1942 raid took place.

The AVG delegation also attended a memorial service, organised by the provincial governor and the mayor of Lamphun, at Newkirk’s former gravesite. On Nov 11 2003, Bond returned one last time to participate in the dedication of the Flying Tigers memorial at the Foreign Cemetery in Chiang Mai.

The wreckage of McGarry’s P-40 is available for public viewing at the Tango Squadron Museum, Wing 41, in Chiang Mai.

Although there is no marker, the villagers of Ban Wiang Yong continue to tend Newkirk’s former gravesite. The ricefield is located between a main road and Wat Phra Yuen, one of Lamphun’s most famous historic temples. Many people pass the site every day, with no idea of the events that took place there on March 24 1942.

Robert “Buster” Keeton, who flew with Newkirk’s 2nd squadron, is now the last surviving pilot of the Chiang Mai raiders, and one of only three surviving Flying Tigers pilots.em>Jack Eisner lectures in linguistics in the Department of Western Languages, Chiang Mai University.

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