On September 14, 1944, the Chinese XXth Army Group finally captured Tengchong. After fifty-one days of siege, assault, and house-to-house fighting, Chinese soldiers pushed the Japanese into the walled city’s eastern corner. In the final days of the battle, the enemy soldiers ran out of food and ammunition. Several committed suicide and a group of about two hundred attempted to escape into the countryside. The majority of the almost two thousand Japanese troops fought to the death. It was the greatest triumph of the Chinese Expeditionary Force. It was a costly victory. The XXth Army Group lost 8,671 killed, including 1,234 officers. Colonel Li Yi, a regimental commander, died on the last day of the battle. He was one of the two highest ranking Chinese officers to die on the Salween Front.
On September 8, 1944, twenty Japanese Ki-43 Oscars from the 64th Sentai attacked the airfield at Baoshan, China. Air Transport Command had been airlifting soldiers from the Chinese 200th Division to the field to reinforce the Chinese Expeditionary Force on the Salween Front. While most of the Japanese fighters strafed the field, Sergeant Toshimi Ikezawa broke formation and shot down an ATC C-47. The crew managed to crash-land, but one of the Chinese soldiers aboard died. Shortly after the Japanese attack began, four P-38 Lightnings from the 449th Fighter Squadron arrived overhead on their way to the front. Despite the five-to-one odds, Lieutenant Stuart Rea led his flight straight into the middle of the Japanese formation. He shot down one fighter on his first pass and damaged another on his second. One of the Oscars hit his right engine, but he was able to return to Yunnanyi. The timely intervention by the American fighters kept losses relatively light; ATC lost one C-47 in the air and two on the ground. The 200th Division lost two soldiers. The Japanese lost one fighter to the Lightnings. Four more crash-landed on their way back to Burma.
This week I had the opportunity to visit the grave of Lieutenant Colonel George B. McMillan at Arlington National Cemetery. McMillan was one of the original fighter pilots with the mercenary American Volunteer Group, Flying Tigers, in 1941-42. He shot down three Japanese bombers over Burma and one over China during the darkest days of World War II. When the AVG disbanded in July 1942, he volunteered to stay an extra two weeks to help stand up the new 23rd Fighter Group. After returning to the States he accepted a commission in the Army Air Forces and went to the AAF Proving Ground at Eglin Field, Florida. There he flew every fighter in the inventory. He honed his skills as a combat pilot and under the mentorship of David Lee “Tex” Hill, honed his skills as a leader. He returned to China in October 1943 and took over command of the 449th Fighter Squadron. The 449th was in a bad way. On October 30, they got caught in a Japanese ambush and lost four airplanes. Two pilots managed to make it back, but two were killed – including the squadron commander.
Even though McMillan was an experienced fighter pilot, he eased his way into the squadron. He let other pilots who had been there for several months lead the missions, while he flew their wing. On the 14th Air Force’s most famous mission, a raid to Xinzhu, Taiwan, on Thanksgiving Day, 1943, he let Sam Palmer and Ryan Moon take the lead. His attitude and experience were just what the squadron needed. Over the next several months, he added four more kills to his personal score and turned the 449th into a unit feared by the Japanese. The squadron flew out of Suichuan, the 14th Air Force’s most forward airfield. Father Joseph Cosgrove, the squadron’s chaplain, remembered him as a man who led by example. He was, “first to roar down the runway and first to turn into enemy fighters when sighted. I never saw a pilot who so relished combat with the enemy.” According to Lieutenant David Williams, “I could not say more and mean more than to say … I would ride his wing any day, any where.”
When the Japanese launched the Ichi-go Offensive in April 1944, the 449th was at the front. Almost half a million Japanese troops pushed into Central China. With the Chinese Nationalist Army melting away, the airplanes of the 14th Air Force were all that stood in the path of the enemy campaign. The front lines blurred as enemy troops advanced faster than intelligence sources could report. Brigadier General Casey Vincent, commander of the 68th Composite Wing, believed the only way to pinpoint the Japanese vanguard was by sending out patrols of fighters. He flew into Suichuan on June 24 to confer with McMillan. The 449th was preparing to evacuate the base. When Vincent arrived, McMillan was about to takeoff on a bombing mission. Vincent told him to cancel the mission. He wanted him to check out reports of an enemy column north of Pingxiang. The weather was not good. The low cloud ceiling meant the squadron’s P-38s would meet a murderous reception from Japanese small arms. McMillan told Vincent the mission was asinine. Vincent flew into a rage and the two of them had a heated argument on the flight line in full view of the rest of the squadron. Finally, Vincent threatened to court martial him. Frustrated, he threw up his hands and said he would “fly the damn thing!” The armament crews unloaded the general purpose bombs and loaded the Lightnings with frags.
McMillan was not the type of leader that would ask his men to do something he would not do himself. Despite his reservations, or maybe because of them, he led the mission personally. Arriving over Pingxiang, he could see soldiers in the town. He could not tell whether they were Chinese or Japanese. As it turned out, the Japanese were well south of where Chinese intelligence thought they were. They shot at the Lightnings, hitting McMillan’s fighter in the radiator. He dropped his fragmentation bombs, but as he departed, his right engine began smoking badly. He told Lieutenant Arpin, his wingman, that the coolant in his right engine was leaking and the left engine oil pressure was dropping fast. Ten miles out of Pingxiang he decided to ditch in the Lu River. “How do these things land on water?” he asked his flight. “Climb out of your parachute,” one of them responded. According to Arpin, “Right after this I started overtaking him and saw that he seemed to be removing his parachute shoulder straps. I passed him and saw that his left engine was froze and was losing altitude. When I looked back from about 500 feet the ship had crashed in flames about 200 yards south of the river bed. I saw no parachute in the area.”
McMillan was dead. The 449th’s best commander died leading his men from the front. The squadron was crushed, but there was no time for grieving. The Japanese were closing in on Suichuan. Only two days later, the squadron evacuated the field. The Chinese found his body and after the war, he was re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. There he lies today, surrounded by thousands more of his generation and others who died for this country.
On September 5, 1944, the Japanese begin a counteroffensive at Longling. Though the Chinese XIth Army Group had surrounded the city, General Song Xilian could not be persuaded to attack. He continued to overestimate the strength of the enemy and told his superiors he needed more men. His inaction left the initiative to the Japanese. The Burma Area Army sent its 2nd Infantry Division, plus one regiment of the 49th Division, north to help the 56th restore its hold on the Burma Road. Twelve thousand soldiers crashed against the Chinese lines north of Longling. The Honorable 1st Division fought stubbornly to hold its ground, but without reinforcements, the situation appeared desperate.
On August 20, 1944, American engineers detonated two mines filled with six thousand pounds of explosives under Japanese positions on Songshan (Pine Mountain). The Japanese 113th Regiment, 56th Division, had thoroughly fortified the mountain, from which it could rain down artillery on the Burma Road. The Chinese 8th Army had been fighting to take it since the end of June, but the Japanese offered stiff resistance. Finally, with most of the Japanese trapped near the summit, American engineers suggested mining underneath. The explosion at 0905 hours on the twentieth buried alive at least forty-two Japanese soldiers and allowed the Chinese to resume their advance, though the battle continued until September 7.
On August 18, 1944, Major Toyoki Eto, commander of the 64th Sentai, led twelve Ki-43 “Oscars” in two attacks on the Huitong Bridge. The Allies had only recently rebuilt the bridge where the Burma Road crossed the Salween River. Major William Moore, the chief engineer, was actually hammering the last planks in place when the Japanese fighters arrived overhead. The first raid began at 0830 hours. The Oscars made a dive-bombing attack in the steep Salween gorge. Anti-aircraft fire brought down Warrant Officer Kazua Shake on his run. None of the bombs hit. Three P-40s from the 25th Fighter Squadron intercepted the raiders on their way back to Burma. After a sharp fight, one of the American fighters made an emergency landing at Baoshan. The Japanese were back that afternoon. Again, they failed to hit the bridge, but Sergeant Toshimi Ikezawa shot down a transport returning from an airdrop mission over the front, killing all seven aboard.
On August 2, 1944, American warplanes breached the walls of Tengchong. Six B-25s from the 22nd Bomb Squadron flew through the valley at tree-top level, sending their 1,000-pound bombs into the ancient stone wall. The bombs opened up five breaches, the largest of which was just over fifteen feet wide. Chinese troops charged forward, but the Japanese fought back savagely. It was days before the Chinese were able to move through into the city and months before they finally pushed out the Japanese.
On July 26, 1944, Chinese soldiers of the XXth Army Group attacked Laifengshan, a mountain rising five hundred feet above the southwest corner of Tengchong. The Japanese had stationed their artillery on the mountain, making its capture an essential prerequisite to action against the city. At 1200 hours on the twenty-sixth, the first of four waves of American fighters arrived overhead. Airplanes and artillery pounded Japanese positions. Demonstrating what they had learned in months of hard fighting, the Chinese advanced quickly in the wake of these attacks. They advanced as whole regiments instead of piecemeal. They did not stop to loot the dead. They reached the summit by nightfall and repelled a counterattack the next day. Brigadier General Dorn called it the best-coordinated attack of the entire Salween Campaign.
On June 28, 1944, Japanese aircraft arrived over the Salween Front for the first time in the campaign to resupply their besieged troops as Songshan. The Japanese Army Air Force had been preoccupied by the Allied offensive in Burma and the Ichi-go Campaign in central China. By late June, however, the supply situation of the garrison at Songshan was becoming increasingly desperate. Six Ki-43 Oscars escorted four Ki-36 Idas which dropped bamboo containers filled with bullets and grenades. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese did not have a lot of experience with air drops. They made hasty drops to avoid anti-aircraft artillery and the threat of interception. Most of the supplies fell into Allied hands.
The Salween River raged through a narrow canyon at 2,100-feet above sea level. Once across this dangerous, rapid river, however, the Chinese Expeditionary Force had to cross the Gaoligong Mountains. Rising up to twelve thousand feet above sea level, this monolithic range was the highest battleground of World War II. Captain Kenneth Scott, an American surgeon with the Chinese troops commented that on the Salween Font, he had “more walking to do than ever before in my life, and over tougher country … Going over some of those mountains would make Pikes Peak look like a child’s playground.” The defending Japanese troops had built bunkers and arranged fields of fire to take advantage of the forbidding terrain. The Chinese took grievous losses, but they pushed through. With the 14th Air Force supporting them and supplying them from the air, they made it into the Shweli River Valley on the other side of the range. By June 22, 1944, the Japanese abandoned the Shweli Valley. In forty-two days of brutal fighting, the CEF conquered the Gaoligong, captured the Shweli Valley, and liberated over four thousand square miles of territory. They were well on their way to the legendary city of Tengchong.