Seventy-six years ago today, on November 23, 1944, the 11th Bomb Squadron reported B-25H 43-4601 and its crew of five missing on a counter-shipping sweep over the Gulf of Tonkin. What followed was an incredible tale of survival, intrigue, and secret agents in wartime Vietnam. The colonial authorities in Hanoi had aligned themselves with the Vichy government after the fall of France in 1940 and soon found themselves effectively occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. But the Resistance was alive and well, especially after the liberation of France in 1944…

Maj Charles Willes was the flight leader for the two-ship of cannon-armed Mitchells, bombing and strafing a Japanese freighter near the port of Hai Phong. Willes encountered intense, accurate fire from several shore batteries as he made his run and radioed for 1Lt Bennie Kelley in the other bomber to break off his attack. Kelley did not answer. Willes’s crew saw Kelley’s warplane make a bombing run on the ship from west to east and then immediately dive for the deck to escape the anti-aircraft fire. That was the last they saw of them. Willes circled the area and climbed, calling out on the radio for ten minutes until he had to head back to China, low on fuel.

On December 7, 1944, the French Military Mission in China informed Fourteenth Air Force that anti-aircraft fire had downed a B-25 near Hai Phong. The Japanese captured one of the airmen, but gravely wounded, he died just days later. Enemy soldiers found three other airmen dead in and around the wreck and buried them in a nearby ditch. French authorities exhumed the bodies the next day, took them to the morgue in Hanoi, and photographed and fingerprinted them for later identification.

The fifth crewmember, 1Lt Elmo B. Hessler, the bombardier-navigator, somehow miraculously survived. “We came in low on the target,” he later reported. “Immediately after releasing the bomb load we were hit hard by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and the engineer’s compartment burst into flame. Fighting my way back through the smoke and flame I saw the cannoneer, SSgt Hatfield, come up between the pilot’s and navigator’s seats to escape. The engineer, SSgt Gaines, in moving up to release the upper hatch, caught his clothes on something and I freed him. He was able to get the hatch loose. I noticed the pilot look back at me and he appeared uninjured. The flames were licking at my back and I stood up in my seat, preparing to get out. The ship was making a right-hand turn into the ground. Then everything went blank…”

Ly Truong, a local civilian, watched Hessler bail out only thirty feet above the ground. The airman’s parachute did not deploy. Truong found him, his back broken, lying waist-deep in water and mud. Truong quickly called the municipal police and then worked with several other locals to bury the aviator’s parachute and gear. A French colonial policeman soon arrived: Agent No. 11, as it turned out, recruited by the US Air-Ground Aid Section (AGAS) to assist in the recovery of downed airmen from behind enemy lines. Agent No. 11 arranged for Hessler’s transport to a hospital in Hanoi, which began treating his wounds in secret. Aided by another French AGAS agent who went by the alias “Oscar Meyer,” Hessler and Knight, another Fourteenth Air Force airman who had been rescued, disappeared into a series of safehouses until they recovered sufficiently to make their escape. It was a long and painful healing process for Hessler. “Today I took my first steps unassisted,” he journaled on December 23.

AGAS agents kept Hessler and Knight constantly on the move, always one step ahead of the Japanese. Finally, on January 25, 1945, three French officers smuggled them across the border near Cao Bang. The Nationalist Army and China-based AGAS agents brought them to the grass airfield at Bose, from which they were finally airlifted to Kunming. Hessler’s rescue demonstrated the careful preparation put into building ratlines throughout Japanese-occupied territory. But the Japanese took notice too and did not intend to idly allow the French Resistance to continue to grow.

You can preorder Fallen Tigers: The Fate of America’s Missing Airmen in China during World War II here:

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