Seventy-six years ago today, on January 20, 1945, the 7th Bomb Group reported B-24L 44-41438 and its crew of 9 missing in what would prove to be one of the most unusual stories from the air war over China.

Throughout 1944, the situation in China had been quite bleak; half a million Japanese troops cut through the center of the country in what they called the Ichi-go offensive, capturing Changsha and all the Allied airbases in the Xiang River valley and decimating the Nationalist Army in the process. But Chinese troops managed to hold a pocket of territory in Jiangxi Province cut off from the rest of Free China. General Chennault sent two squadrons of P-51 Mustangs there: the 74th Fighter Squadron and the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Completely surrounded by enemy territory, the airbases at Suichuan and Ganzhou had to be supplied from the air. B-24 tankers from a detachment of the 7th Bomb Group flew in fuel, munitions, and other supplies to keep the “guerrilla squadrons” in operation.

While the ground troops of the Imperial Japanese Army had advanced with impunity in 1944, the Japanese Army Air Force had fared far worse. Aided by the Chinese warning net and equipped with increasingly advanced fighters and experienced pilots, the Fourteenth Air Force had savaged any enemy planes foolish enough to attack Allied airbases in daylight. The Japanese switched to night bombing, continually harassing American and Chinese airmen with strings of bombers dropping explosives haphazardly from the dark sky. Though a very few succeeded, night interceptions proved too risky and too costly for day fighters like P-40s and P-51s. So on October 5, 1944, the 426th Night Fighter Squadron arrived in China with its compliment of Northrop P-61A Black Widows—America’s first purpose-built night fighter. The P-61 had a radar unit in the nose and four 20mm cannons slung under the belly and had already proven itself in night fighting over Europe.

Fourteenth Air Force parceled out pairs of Black Widows to its frontline airbases. On the night of October 29/30, Captain Robert Scott and his radar operator, Flight Officer Charles Phillips, made the first night intercept over Chengdu. According to Glenn Jackson, another P-61 pilot watching from the ground, Scott and Phillips “presented a beautiful sight for all in the valley to see, as they sent [the Japanese plane] spinning to earth through the overcast in a large ball of flame.” The night fighters eventually shot down 5 enemy intruders, winning air supremacy for the Allies around the clock.

However, for most airmen in the Fourteenth Air Force, the Black Widow stands out in their memory for a different reason. On December 25, 1944, a detachment from the 427th Night Fighter Squadron arrived in China to augment the 426th. Two of the 427th’s aircraft forward-staged to Suichuan and one took off on the night of January 20 in response to a report from the warning net of unknown aircraft inbound. Meanwhile, 1Lt Richard Embury and his crew had taken off from Luliang at 4:50 pm, destined for Suichuan in a B-24L full of fuel. As they approached the field around 8 pm, the tower turned off the runway lights and notified them that the airfield was under attack.

By this time, the Black Widow was aloft and talking on the radio to the fighter controller at Suichuan. Most of the time, controllers on the ground would have to vector night fighters within 4 miles of a potential target before the onboard radar could pick it up. The weather was poor and the Black Widow crew poked around in the overcast until the radar operator reported a contact.

“Tally ho!” the pilot reported as he closed into range. “Hey Control,” he said a few moments later, “this looks like a B-24. What’ll I do?” By this time in the war, all American plans carried an IFF (identification friend or foe) device. The controller did not see one broadcasting from the P-61’s contact.

“There are no American planes in your area,” the Controller announced on the radio. “Blow it out of the sky.”

“Wilco. Here goes,” the pilot responded. The sky lit up in flash of light. “Man oh man,” the Black Widow pilot radioed. “I don’t know what he was carrying, but when my twenties hit, it made one great big explosion and fireball. We had to fly through some of the stuff!”

As it turned out, 1Lt Embury and his crew were not familiar with the new IFF technology and had never switched on their device. The P-61 had shot down a friendly aircraft—one of only a few cases of friendly fire in China. Somehow, two crewmembers survived: 1Lt Billy H. Ingram, the navigator, and SSgt Julian Zdep, the assistant gunner. Chinese rescuers brought the badly-burned Ingram into Suichuan two days after the shootdown. He had no memory of the incident after the P-61 turned his airplane into a fireball and had no idea how he managed to bail out.

Despite the Black Widow’s success at stopping Japanese night raids, the friendly fire incident left an indelible mark on its reputation in China. “I never had any use for P-61s after that,” said Carl Fritsche, another B-24 pilot in the 7th Bomb Group.

Chinese civilians buried the remains of the other 7 crewmembers. The US government exhumed them and reinterred them at Little Rock National Cemetery in Arkansas after the war.

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

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