Gao Zhihang: The Soul of the Nationalist Chinese Air Force
Commander Gao Zhihang was a hero and a patriot. Combined with his fury about the Japanese occupation of his homeland Manchuria[i] in 1931 and the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, his ardent commitment to his country and his leadership as a military commander rightfully earned him the title of “The Soul of the Chinese Air Force.” As demonstrated by the first ever large-scale aerial battle in China, his leadership of the 4th Pursuit Group, which scored a resounding victory on August 14, 1937, truly embodied what came to be known as “Gao Zhihang Spirit.”
In 1936, the 4th Pursuit Group was initially established in Jianqiao, Zhejiang Province and subsequently moved to Qingyunpu[ii] Air Force Base at Nancheng, Jiangxi Province. Under Gao’s planning and supervision over a 6-month training period, each pilot received vigorous and continuous training. In addition to aerial fighting the courses included aerial target shooting, ground target shooting, on-water floating target shooting and bombing. All of these courses of instruction required a strict 90% success hit rate in order for the pilots to pass the course.
An example of Gao’s leadership is represented by the following anecdote. After an instructional lecture session was over, Commander Gao casually said, “If any one fails the shooting on water floating target, don’t think about going to lunch or taking a rest!” The results of that comment? Every one of the Group passed the test. And the only pilot who failed? Commander Gao himself. Displaying his determination and fortitude, Gao stayed on, practicing taking off, shooting and landing until, at dusk, he finally met his own requirements. In class the next day, he showed the object of his hit target to all of us. This was a man who truly set himself as a role model. There was no exception to meeting his strict training requirements, including and especially himself.
The 4th Pursuit Group became the main target for the Japanese Air Force. They were shocked by their ignominious defeat on August 14, 1937. From their internal intelligence investigations, they were made aware of the rigorous training of the 4th Group by Commander Gao and knew their main target was to rid the skies of the 4th Pursuit Group.
The Marco Polo Bridge incident ignited the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan. The 4th Pursuit Group received their orders and flew to their station at Zhoujiakou Air Field, Henan Province, to await their attack orders. Commander Gao conducted a strategy meeting on how to carry out the attack on the six Japanese planes at Bailingmiao Air Field in Sueiyuan Province. He then quizzed Zheng Shaoyu on how to attack. Zheng recommended, based on military tactic principles that they attack at dawn when the enemy planes would still be on the ground. Then Commander Gao sternly gave his instructions to the pilots of the 4th Pursuit Group. Before dawn, at three different altitudes, they would fly into the airspace above Bailingmiao. He himself would lead a group at the lowest altitude. No one was permitted to attack the Japanese planes while they were on the ground. Instead, the 4th Pursuit Group would only attack the planes after they had took off, one by one. To Gao, this would be the beginning of our way of letting the Japanese know the prowess of our Chinese Air Force.
The battle done, and after recovering in the hospital from his arm injury sustained in the “8.14” battle, Commander Gao reported for duty in Nanjing. By that time, the whole 4th Pursuit Group had moved to Hankou, then to Lanzhou[iii], Gansu Province, preparing to receive military aid from the Soviet Union. By then, despite our previous victory, our primary fighting planes had been decimated because of the constant battles and directed attacks by the Japanese forces while without any replacement. Only a few airworthy planes were available, making it hard to combat the much superior Model 96 planes of the Japanese. Commander Gao refused to take this assessment and prediction of failure. He asked to lead the dog fighting himself.
Commander Gao needed to reduce the plane weight in order to increase speed and improve maneuverability. He ordered the bomb rack, the secondary fuel tank and the cowl taken out. In an October battle over Nanjing, Commander Gao led a team of five Hawk III fighters, intercepting and engaging in a fierce dogfight with 12 enemy planes, before successfully chasing them away. Our team of pilots suffered no casualties. Once again, Commander Gao demonstrated that in the air the most courageous offense was the best defense.
Yet again, this battle showed Commander Gao’s valor, intelligence, exemplary flying skills and unwavering conviction that the underdog can win. He changed the prevailing notion that the Hawk III with its inferior performance ability was inadequate against the higher performing Japanese Mode 96. Gao Zhihang became known as the “Soul of the Chinese Air Force.” His heroism both inspired generations of Chinese fighting airmen and created a record of epic victories in a grand chapter in the Nationalist Chinese Air Force history.