The Air Battle above Jianqiao[i], China
August 14, 1937
Witnessed by Chang Kwang Ming[ii], a 102-year-old centenarian and pilot in the 22nd Squadron of the 4th Pursuit Group of the Chinese Air Force during the War of Resistance
July 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese Surrender
Los Angeles, CA
Over 77 years ago, I was a pilot in the 22nd Squadron of the 4th Pursuit Group of the Chinese Air force. I took part in this renowned air-to-air battle on August 14, 1937 against the Japanese Air Force. Over the past 70+ years, I have read many articles on this air battle by people reporting on or recalling this event. And these accounts vary. Why? I believe the answer is that none of these writers had personally engaged in that air battle. Due to the mishandling of documentary data, there are some accounts that use hearsay, guesswork and exaggeration. Some may have even concealed some facts, resulting in gaps in the truth.
The value of history is its truthfulness. As time passes, I feel, as a centenarian, a sense of duty to give a firsthand account of the facts through my experience in hopes of providing a correct historical record.
I. After the Marco Polo Bridge[iii] Incident of July 7, 1937
Missions and Activities of the 4th Pursuit Group
The Marco Polo Bridge incident near Beijing[iv] on July 7, 1937, ignited an all-out Chinese War of Resistance against Japan. In mid-July, the 4th Pursuit Group (PG) of the Chinese Air Force, stationed at Nanchang[v], Jangxi Province, received orders to secretly fly to Zhoujiakou[vi], Henan Province and to stand ready for further orders. At the time, they had three combat missions:
1. To bomb the command post of the Japanese barracks in the Nankai District in the city of Tianjin[vii].
2. To bomb the six Japanese airplanes at the Bailingmiao Airfield[viii] in Sueiyuan Province, now a part of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous District.
3. To safeguard the new defense line around Baoding[ix], Hebei Province by coordinating with the Chinese army to support the ground troops.
We were on a high alert status, awaiting instructions to attack. The whole nation was in a dynamic, ever-changing military combat situation. Yet, we had not received any orders, so we did not carry out the above three potential attack missions.
After attending a military conference in Nanjing[x], then the capital of China, on August 13, 1937, Gao Zhihang[xi], the Commander of the 4th Pursuit Group, telegrammed our Pursuit Group at noon. He ordered the whole Group to immediately fly to Jianqiao Airfield (near Hangzhou[xii] city, in Zhejiang Province) to await further orders while the commander himself flew directly from Nanjing to Jianqiao. All three squadrons under the 4th Pursuit Group, Nos. 21, 22 and 23, followed the order, taking off in sequence toward the destination.
It was a stormy afternoon, with heavy rain blurring visibility. Despite the risk, we flew at a very low altitude. My squadron No. 22 zigzagged the route in order to stop for refueling at Guangde Airfield[xiii], Anhui Province. On the way, we spotted unknown airplanes. Fight Leader Lo Yiqin[xiv] and I wanted to verify and be ready to fire if they were enemy planes, but held up because of the poor visibility. In addition, the unidentified airplanes quickly disappeared into the clouds after they saw us. And so, we continued on, flying to Jianqiao.
Before reaching the airspace above Jianqiao, I saw an inferno from distance and realized that Jianqiao had been bombed. I followed Flight Leader Lo Yiqin. We broke away from the team and flew eastward searching for the invading planes. Our effort was to no avail due to the inclement weather conditions so after reaching as far as the area above the Qiantang River[xv] Estuary, we turned back.
Commander Gao, Squadron No. 21 and Squadron 23 planes landed at Jianqiao before our Squadron No. 22. They had encountered four invading Japanese planes bombing the airfield. Flight Leader Lo Yiqin and I were the last two planes of Squadron No. 22 to land. We hurried to join the post-battle review session called by Commander Gao with all of the 4th Pursuit Group members. In the session, he described how he had shot down one Japanese Air Force Model 96. We were thrilled and filled with admiration over this exciting news. Then, he gave us instructions and the formation to fly for our mission the next day, and ordered us to fill up our fuel tanks and get our planes ready to fight. The time was around 5:30 p.m.
II. The Air Battle at Dawn August 14, 1937
Because of the bombing at Jianqiao, the Jianqiao ground crew had evacuated to take shelter. Only a few men had returned. Therefore, we had to arrange and prepare everything for our upcoming mission without the usual ground crew support. The rail fueling car from the depot was bombed in the afternoon, which was what caused the inferno I saw. Without the proper facilities to refuel the planes, each of us had to make many trips carrying 5-gallon containers of gasoline on our back to our individual planes. With little on hand to use as tools, we resorted to using stones to pry open each container. Then we carefully assisted each other, two as a group, to cautiously pour the fuel into the planes’ tanks, all the while getting drenched in the ongoing pouring rain. It was a time-consuming effort and took us about six hours. By the time all the preparation tasks for the next mission were done, it was about 1:30 a.m. on the early morning of August 14. None of us pilots had eaten since noon the day before, August 13. We were hungry and cold, soaked with rain, and totally exhausted.
We each then randomly chose the instructor’s dormitory of the Chinese Central Aviation Academy and changed into whatever clothing was available in the room and grabbed a bit of rest. (The dormitory building was vacated, and all the instructors and cadets of the Academy had evacuated to the southwestern part of China.) Little time had passed when around 3 a.m., we were awakened by the shrill sound of the air raid siren. We scrambled and dashed toward our planes.
In the darkness, we made an emergency take-off. The clouds hovered at around 3,000 feet and visibility was bad. To avoid colliding with my colleagues’ planes above the airfield, I decided to fly southwards toward the south bank of the Qiantang River scouting the area south of Hangzhou and Jianqiao, in anticipation of where the enemy planes were heading in from.
At dawn, I spotted a tiny, wiggling black line emerging from the southeast horizon. It was far away but it was gradually getting closer. Then, instantly, this small black line loomed large. It was a group of airplanes. I pulled up higher and could identify that they were enemy planes. I quickly switched to attack mode.
I observed that these enemy planes in formation were four large biplane bombers, with the red sun emblem painted on their wings and fuselages. Immediately I set my sight on the lead plane, aimed directly at its front cockpit and fired. Success! The plane was hit. It exploded into a ball of fire and took a nosedive. After this attack, I peeled away from the scene, turned my plane around and returned for the second attack.
Meanwhile, in the same airspace, Flight Leader Zheng Shaoyu[xvi] (Plane No. 2204) also shot down another enemy bomber. Then almost simultaneously, my other 3 colleagues’ planes attacked, hit and destroyed two other enemy planes. Within just about three minutes, a total of four Japanese bombers were set ablaze and plummeted downward.
Upon review, after the attack, verifying the enemy’s airplane models, we discovered that the planes that had been shot down, were large model biplane bombers. They looked to be nonmetal Model 88, which had fuselages that were fragile and flammable once attacked.
After our engagement with the Japanese bombers, I flew my plane (no. 2205, a Curtis Hawk III) to get closer to Flight Leader Zheng Shaoyu’s plane. We then flew in formation toward Jianqiao. After daybreak, I saw a large formation of Japanese planes in the distant southwest flying toward Jianqiao. I could see that they were being chased from behind and attacked by our planes. The enemy headed northeast, hurriedly jettisoned bombs in the outskirts of Jianqiao, escaping eastward, disappearing in the clouds. During this encounter, the Japanese suffered the loss of another two planes.
Flight Leader Zheng and I tried to intercept and attack these invaders by flying in a straight line due east from the northern banks of Qiantang River into Pingshan[xvii] airspace. However, we detected no enemy planes when we reached the airspace between the Qiantang estuary and Jinshanwei[xviii] , so we turned back to Jianqiao.
After landing, I learned that Commander Gao had suffered some shrapnel wounds in his left arm, so he was sent to the Hangzhou Guangji Hospital, and that all my other colleagues had flown back, landing safe and sound! While looking at each other, we noticed that some were barefoot, some were wearing pajamas, some were in their underwear, and others were soaking wet in their flying uniform. Everyone was pale, blue in the lips, and shivering in the cold! Now, the time was around 6:00 a.m..
This August 14, 1937 aerial battle marked the beginning of the 4th Pursuit Group’s engagement in dogfights with the Japanese planes, which then began to occur around the clock. We supported the ground troops and naval combat units in the areas above Shanghai[xix], Nanjing and Hangzhou.
Three weeks after this decisive air battle, at the Daxiaochang[xx] Air base at Nanjing, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek[xxi] pointed out, “The Chinese Air Force in the past three weeks routed the Kirasuru[xxii] Air Force. As a result, their Commander committed hari-kari/suicide. This resounding victory was because of the fighting spirit of our Air Force. They gave their all!”
III. Corrections to the Previous Accounts of August 14, 1937
Over seventy seven years ago, I was one of the pilots taking part in this “8.14” air battle and the one who first discovered, engaged, attacked and shot down the enemy plane. In the past many years, I have read many related articles on this event. There are so many different accounts, that I am compelled to make some clarifications.
In one account of the “8.14” air battle, it is recorded that the Chinese Air force destroyed six Japan Model 96 bombers with no loss of our planes.
Another account claims the battle shot down two Japanese Model 96 bombers with zero loss in a 2:0 triumph.
A third account states that the Japanese Air force suffered a loss of two planes while the Chinese Air Force lost one.
As an eyewitness and participant, I would like to correct these accounts.
1. The first account, while correct that the total number of planes shot down was six, inaccurately notes that all the planes were Model 96 bombers. Four of the six were large-scale model biplane bombers, most likely Model 88. Only two were Model 96. The reason for this deviation most likely was that people on the ground in the vicinity of Jianqiao only saw the two groups of invading planes in formation which were all Model 96 bombers. It is likely that they also saw the two planes shot down over the northwest hillsides and the southeast suburb of Jianqiao which were Model 96 bombers. As a result, people may have assumed that all the planes shot down were the same model aircraft. Very few people witnessed the battle at dawn on August 14 and the falling of those 4 slow, lumbering Model 88 biplane bombers. The recorded history that six Model 96 planes were shot down that day is erroneous, and needs to be corrected.
2. The second account of two Japanese planes being shot down could have resulted from people only witnessing the two planes which were shot down in the air space in the Jianqiao area, not knowing that the air combat had already broken out earlier above the south bank of the Qiantang River and that four Japanese biplanes had been shot down there.
3. The third version with the two Japanese losses to one Chinese loss was the official Japanese account, which concealed the actual military performance in order to mislead the Japanese people and Japan’s enemies. The single plane claimed to be shot down by Japan could be the plane of Liu Shufan[xxiii], which accidentally crashed on August 13, 1937 killing him. There were no Chinese Air Force plane casualties on August 14. On that day of battle, Commander Gao had his left arm injured. Both he and his plane safely landed at Jianqiao Airfield.
IV. “8.14” – Air Force Day of China
The August 14 battle was the first ever large-scale air-to-air battle in China. This 6:0 victory over the invading Japanese forces helped us to record in history a brilliant first chapter of the Chinese Air Force.
Early in the war, the Japanese Air Force had absolute superiority over us. In terms of quantity, the number of its airmen far outnumbered us by 12:1. As for quality, whether of aircraft capability, military training or caliber of people, the Japanese Air Force had significant advantage over us. Yet, our young airmen were undaunted by their disadvantages. These untested young pilots with their valor and intelligence, on that one day, shot down six attacking bombers. They emerged totally unscathed without any casualties.
Once the news was public, the whole country rejoiced over this morale booster. To commemorate this first air-to-air complete victory August 14 (“8.14”) was declared Air Force Day in China.
This “8.14” feat reinforced our conviction that, even as underdogs, we could win the fight by playing to our strengths, by picking our battles carefully and by concentrating our firing power. This air battle experience had a long-lasting impact on our hard-fought eight year War of Resistance, signifying the national unbroken fighting spirit of all the Chinese people against Japanese aggression.
The article was translated by Debbie Cheng, 寇蕩平 （臺北空小）
[i] Jianqiao: 筧橋
[ii] Chang Kwang Ming: 張光明
[iii] Marco Polo Bridge: 蘆溝橋
[iv] Beijing: 北京
[v] Nanchang, Jiangxi Province: 南昌, 江西省
[vi] Zhoujiakou, Henan Province: 周家口, 河南省
[vii] Nankai District of Tianjin: 南開區，天津市
[viii] Bailingmiao Airfield in Shueyuan: 百靈廟機場，綏遠省
[ix] Baoding，Hebei Province：保定，河北省
[x] Nanjing： 南京
[xi] Gao Zhihang： 高志航
[xii] Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province: 杭州, 浙江省
[xiii] Guangde Airfield, Anhui Provinc：廣德機場, 安徽省
[xiv] Lo Yiqin: 樂以琴
[xv] Qiantang River： 錢塘江
[xvi] Zheng Shaoyu: 鄭少愚
[xviii] Jinshanwei: 金山衛
[xix] Shanghai: 上海
[xxi] Chiang Kai Shek：蔣介石
[xxii] Kirasuru[xxii] Air Force；木更津航空隊
[xxiii] Liu Shufan: 劉樹藩