Seventy-six years ago today, on December 19, 1944, the 23rd Fighter Group reported Colonel Edward F. Rector missing when his P-51B Mustang failed to return from an offensive reconnaissance mission to the Japanese-occupied port at Xiamen, Fujian Province. Rector was a veteran of the American Volunteer Group—the original Flying Tigers. He remained in China after the group disbanded in July 1942 and led the 23rd Fighter Group’s 76th Fighter Squadron. He had just taken command of the group on his second combat tour in China a week before he went down.

He and Major Philip Chapman, commander of the 74th Fighter Squadron, had taken off from Ganzhou at noon that day. They planned to hit the airfield at Shantou and then fly north up the coast to the port of Xiamen (Amoy). “We gained total surprise on our initial pass on the airfield,” Rector later reported. “A total of three strafing passes each was made on parked planes in the revetted areas. It is assumed now that these planes are very realistic dummies as they have been attacked before without success in burning any of them.” Rector and Chapman then proceeded to Xiamen, where they strafed an oil barge in the harbor. “As we crossed a small hill and came in sight of the airfield,” recalled Rector, “I saw a lot of A/A flashes around the perimeter of the field. I started jinking immediately and swung wide of Major Chapman’s flight path so that my strafing pass would not follow his. Lining up on an administration building and a parked plane (subsequently identified as a dummy) I fired a three-second burst. As I passed over the dummy my plane received several hits. The windshield was covered with coolant and there were two large holes in my right wing and one in the left wing, presumably from 20mm fire. I headed north immediately, attempting to gain as much altitude as possible as the engine was detonating badly.”

His plane hemorrhaging smoke, Rector jumped clear two thousand feet above the ground, landing two miles from a small village in Tong’an District. He was delighted to find that the US Air-Ground Aid Service (AGAS) had recruited an agent in the village by the name of Mr. Choon, who did not speak any English, but secured a pony for the American to ride and handed him off to David Chen, a former university student, later that day. Chen brought him to the mouth of the Nan River the next day, where he met Lieutenants Newell and Roberts, USN, who brought him by motor launch to their riverine base at Zhangzhou. From there it was three days by sedan chair and truck to the AGAS area headquarters at Yong’an. Lieutenant Hopkins, an AGAS officer, and Lieutenant Bolger, USN, drove him to Ganzhou from there by truck, finally arriving back where he had started on December 30.

Rector was happy to be back in action. “During the entire trip the AGAS had anticipated every need,” the AVG alum reported enthusiastically. “The Chinese representatives hired coolies and chair cars, prepared food, and called ahead for overnight reservations. Lt Jones and Lt Hopkins had hired trucks where possible, which greatly facilitated our travel. I was agreeably surprised to find this organization operating in such a competent manner.”

You can preorder Fallen Tigers: The Fate of America’s Missing Airmen in China during World War II now from the University of Kentucky Press.

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