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- chiang mai thailand map
PEARL HARBOR PAYBACK
The AVG''s surprise raid on Chiang Mai
THE MARCH 24, 1942, American Volunteer Group (AVG) raid on the Japanese Air Force at Chiang Mai in northern Thailand was one of the Flying Tigers'' most significant actions. The attack deep inside Japanese-controlled territory by 10 P-40s that came from China caught the Japanese off-guard. Despite the loss of two AVG pilots, the mission was deemed a great success. Although the destruction of Japanese aircraft was important, the victory also came at a time when Americans back home badly needed a boost.
The war in Southeast Asia was three months old, and Japan''s conquest of the area seemed inevitable. Singapore, Malaya and Thailand had fallen, and the Japanese were marching through Burma (now Myanmar). Rangoon fell on March 6, 1942, and Japanese forces headed north toward India. Renowned for its fierce defense of Rangoon, the AVG was forced to evacuate its P-40s to an RAF base at Magwe in central Burma. From there, the AVG and what remained of the RAF there mounted raids against Burmese airfields controlled by the Japanese. On March 21, Japan''s air force struck back. Three waves of twin-engine bombers, dozens in every wave, pounded Magwe. When they had finished, fighters went down to work the airfield over with machine guns. Most of the RAF''s remaining Hurricanes and almost all of its Blenheim bombers were destroyed. Two AVG personnel were killed, and all AVG P-40s at the field were hit. The Japanese returned the next day to finish the job, and the evacuation of Magwe began.
At his headquarters at Kunming, China, AVG Commander Claire Lee Chennault watched the situation evolve. Early on the morning of March 22, he met with the two AVG squadron leaders then in Kunming: Robert H. Neale of the 1st Pursuit Squadron and John Van Kuren Newkirk of the 2nd. Chennault laid out a plan: an airfield at Chiang Mai in northern Thailand was one of the bases for the aircraft that had attacked Magwe. With a surprise attack, the AVG would catch the Japanese on the ground. Chiang Mai was more than 150 miles inside Japanese-controlled territory, and that was beyond the range of the P-40s, so the Japanese would not expect a visit by the AVG. The P-40s would fly from Kunming to Loiwing, China, refuel and then fly to a small airstrip in Nam Sang, Burma, that would put them within easy range of Chiang Mai. The pilots would stay overnight and strike Chiang Mai early the next morning. Chennault chose a secondary target-Lampang, 45 miles southeast of Chiang Mai-where the Japanese reportedly based heavy bombers. Neale would command the mission and lead six P-40s to Chiang Mai. Newkirk would take four P-40s to Lampang, strike the airfield there and then rejoin Neale''s flight at Chiang Mai.
The pilots chosen for this mission were among the AVG''s best. Press coverage of his actions in defense of Rangoon had made squadron leader "Scarsdale Jack" Newkirk an American hero; he was credited with 10 victories by the AVG and 25 by The New York Times. In Newkirk''s flight were Frank L. Lawlor, Henry M. Geselbracht and Robert B. "Buster" Keeton. With 12 victories, 1st Squadron leader Bob Neale was the AVG''s top scoring ace. In his flight was another AVG double ace, William "Black Mac" McGarry, with 10 victories. The other pilots were Charlie Bond, Bill Bartling, Edward F. Rector-all AVG aces-and Gregory Boyington, who was later known as "Pappy" when he commanded the Black Sheep and was credited with 28 victories and awarded the Medal of Honor.
The 10 P-40s took off from Kunming at noon that same day. Newkirk was to lead them to Loiwing, but he got lost en route. Neale, Bond and Bartling struck off on their own and got to Loiwing first. Newkirk and the rest turned up, but they were well behind schedule. The flight to Nam Sang was postponed until the next day; that was not a hardship for the pilots. Loiwing was an AVG mainte-"'' nance depot that had an American club, a well-stocked bar and a hostel where the pilots slept.
Morning arrived with a low ceiling, fog and rain. Takeoff for Nam Sang was set for 1500 hours. The idea was to land there at dusk when the threat of marauding Japanese fighters was low. Takeoff was on time, and the flight to Nam Sang was uneventful. The P-40s landed as the sun was going down, and their pilots refueled in the dark.
Before turning in, Neale called the pilots together to review the mission. Takeoff would be at 0545 hours. All 10 aircraft would rendezvous over the field at 10,000 feet, and Neale would lead both flights to Chiang Mai. There, Newkirk would break off and take his flight to Lampang. If he didn''t find any aircraft there, he would turn back to join the attack on Chiang Mai. For the main attack on the Chiang Mai airfield, Neale would lead four aircraft down to strafe while two would fly top cover.
It was still dark when the P-40s took off, the runway marked by lanterns and the headlights of parked trucks. Neale was the first off at 0555 hours, and Charlie Bond was a minute behind. Boyington was next, and then Bartling, who had never flown at night. Rector and McGarry, who were to fly top cover, took off after the other four. Newkirk''s flight took off right behind.
There was no moon; it was pitch-black. The pilots couldn''t see anything but the glow of their own exhaust stacks, and they had to rely on their instruments to guide them as they climbed. A few minutes after taking off, Bond saw Neale''s aircraft above. He followed Neale up, worrying about how the others would find them. At 10,000 feet, Neale and Bond circled and waited. Bartling slid in next to them and then dropped back to join Boyington. Rector and McGarry appeared, and Neale''s flight was complete.
The six aircraft circled Nam Sang and waited for Newkirk and his flight to join them. After 20 minutes, Neale decided that a rendezvous was not likely. It was 0630 hours, and dawn was breaking over the mountains to the east. Neale turned his flight to a heading of 150 degrees-a direct line to toward Chiang Mai.
The sun was starting to light the sky. Below, it was dark with "ground haze and smoke," as Rector wrote in his combat report. Charlie Bond was the only pilot who had flown in this area before-a recon flight. Neale was navigating, but Bond followed along on his map and tried to make out landmarks through the haze. He at last recognized the deep gorge of the Salween River. Knowing where he was on the map, he determined his ground speed and calculated how long it would take to reach Chiang Mai. They would be over their target at 0712 hours.
Minutes before 0712, Bond saw a "large mountain" to his left and recognized it as Doi Suthep (he had flown over it on his rccon mission). The airport was to the southwest. Radio silence was essential, so Bond edged closer to Neale, who was looking forward and probably hadn''t seen the mountain off to his side. Bond waggled his wings and pulled ahead. Neale understood. He dropped back and let Bond take the lead.
Bond started a gradual descent to the left. It was still dark on the ground, and he couldn''t see much. He was not certain exactly where the airport was, but he was sure that it was close.
Back in the fifth airplane in line, Ed Rector started down. "Beneath our port wings, at a fifty-degree angle, lay the city of Chiang Mai, with the airport at the southwest corner." Rector spotted the airfield, but "... At a glance, the field seemed barren of planes." As he got down to 5,000 feet, where he and McGarry were to fly top cover, he suddenly saw "... numerous planes... lined up on the field."
Passing through 4,000 feet, Bond made out "... the outline of the airport: a square shape about 4,000 feet on a side." Seconds later, he saw the airplanes. At 1,000 feet, he fired a long burst from his guns. He wanted to be sure that they would fire and let everyone behind know that this was it! Ahead was their target: one of the biggest concentrations of Japanese warplanes in Southeast Asia.
What Bond could not see was all the activity below. Newkirk''s flight had reached Chiang Mai minutes earlier. While Neale''s six P-40s circled over Nam Sang, waiting for him, Newkirk formed up his flight right after takeoff, climbed to 6,000 feet and headed directly for Chiang Mai. He approached the city along its eastern side and, as Bond noted in his diary, "For some reason or other, while flying down to attack Lampang, they decided to strafe the Chiang Mai railroad station." That alerted the Japanese, and although Bond could not see it, Japanese pilots were in their aircraft and the antiaircraft gun crews were ready.
Bond''s dive carried him from south to north across the field''s east side over a line of aircraft closely parked together. He opened fire, concentrating on one big group. Then, past them, he aimed toward several other single-engine aircraft that he thought were light bombers or modern fighters.
Bob Neale was right behind Bond, and he fired on the same row of aircraft on the field''s east side. To Neale, the Japanese airplanes looked to be "... parked two and three deep." Greg Boyington was next over the line. In his combat report, Boyington noted, "... The aircraft on the field were parked mainly in two long lines. All enemy planes were turning up, and the pilots and crews were running about their planes." Boyington wrote that, after this first pass, because of poor visibility, he was not able to follow the others.
Bartling was the last in line and had a good view of what was happening. "All four of us strafed a very closely packed line of fighters with three twin-engine ships in the center. At the end of our first pass, I could see a fire that had all three transports in it." Bartling counted three additional fires. He also saw Japanese pilots sitting in their cockpits, "... props turning up ... and quite a few men laying [sic] flat in front of the planes." Boyington had also seen the fires and the three transports "... making one large fire about 1,000 feet high." At the end of his pass, Bartling climbed steeply to 500 feet where he flipped the P-40 around in a wingover and came back over the line he had just strafed.
Pulling away from his first pass, Bond made a low turn to the left. Just then, he recognized the only friendly aircraft he saw during the entire action, "... Another P-40 pulled away to my left in a climbing turn." It was Bartling, who was starting his wingover. Aware of the ground fire, Bond stayed low in a wide turn that brought him sweeping back across the airfield-from west to east this time-over a line of closely parked I-97 fighters. He now saw propellers turning, and pilots jumping out of their cockpits to run for cover. He strafed the line by "porpoising" his airplane up and down as he tried to line his machine guns up and hit every airplane in the line. At the end of the row of I-97s, he turned to the right. He counted three fires on the airfield, and they included the "... huge one" that engulfed the three transports.
Neale''s second pass was also west to east and over the same line of aircraft as Bond had just strafed. At the end, Neale turned to make a north-to-south run over the line of Japanese airplanes that all four P-40s had strafed on their first pass. Trying to describe the damage he inflicted on this third pass, Neale wrote that it was "... impossible to tell, as many of the planes were already burning from the previous attacks."
Boyington made his second pass over the second long line of aircraft. At the end of it, he estimated that there were at least 10 fires. In his book, he writes, "I could see blurred forms jumping off wings, out of cockpits and scurrying all over the field like ants. I made two more passes, witnessing fires all over the Chiang Mai airfield."
When his wingover brought him back over the aircraft he had strafed on his first pass, Bartling strafed the second line of aircraft. He counted seven fires among the aircraft now: five in the first line and two in the second. He identified two Model Os in each of two fires in the second line and another riddled with machine-gun fire but not burning. He turned to the other side of the field and saw four I-97s on fire. He riddled another. As he broke off his attack, he saw two P-40s above him at about 2,500 feet, and he climbed to join them. As he started his climb, he noted AAA bursts above. At 1,200 feet, antiaircraft shells were bursting around him. "I immediately started making violent turns while climbing." When he reached the P-40s, he recognized them as Rector''s and McGarry''s.
Bartling became aware of the antiaircraft fire only as he pulled away from the attack, even though the Japanese guns had actually opened up early in the raid. From where he was flying top cover at 5,000 feet, Ed Rector watched the first attack by the four P-40s unfold. He saw the fires below. "Three planes were burning in one big fire," he wrote, and then "... AAA and MG nests had opened fire by now, and I counted at least five MG posts around the field throwing tracers at the four strafing planes. AAA shells were bursting in ever increasing numbers at mine and McGarry''s level, so I began to fly a zigzag course, as some were bursting uncomfortably close."
Neale became aware of enemy fire early in the raid. He wrote that he stayed at a low altitude and made his turns sharp to evade the ground fire. At the end of his third pass, he found the ground fire was so heavy that he rolled his wings to signal the three other P-40s to break off the attack. Then he turned away from the airfield and flew to a point five miles southwest. He circled there at 5,000 feet and waited for the others to rendezvous. Eventually, Boyington joined up with him.
Boyington also experienced heavy ground fire on his last passes. In his combat report, he notes that there was ground fire from antiaircraft machine guns and artillery, but he didn''t add any detail. In his book, he wrote, "By the time we made the last couple of passes, the air was so full of black puffs of antiaircraft fire that it was difficult to determine whether the Japanese had launched any aircraft or even to see our other P-40s."
Charlie Bond was the last to break off the attack. After his second pass over the line of 1-9 7s, he made a third pass from northwest to southeast, "... concentrating my fire on single targets in the southwest area of the airfield." He watched his bullets hit one fighter for several seconds. At the end of that pass, he saw antiaircraft bursts at 1,000 to 2,000 feet at the southwest end of the field. The antiaircraft fire was "very thick." He made a low left turn and started a fourth pass back down the same line of targets as he had just strafed, concentrating his fire on a single-engine aircraft at the beginning of the line that he thought might be a bomber. Then he "porpoised" and went after a fighter at the end of the line. By this time, he noted that few propellers were turning.
As he flew past the edge of the airfield, Bond realized that he had a hail of machine-gun fire all around him. He turned sharply to the right and was about to start his fifth pass when he looked up and saw three P-40s. He had been lucky to get away with four passes; another would have been really pushing it. He climbed to join the three P-40s-Rector, McGarry and Bartling. Bond looked at his watch. The attack had lasted from 0716 to 0724-eight minutes.
The four P-40s turned away from the airfield and headed northwest around the mountain. Bond took the lead, and Bartling joined him. Rector and McGarry were close behind. Bond looked back and saw five distinct fires but noted that "much smoke hid the farthest part of the field from my view." Off to the southeast, where he circled until Boyington joined him, Neale watched "... eight or nine fires burning on the field-two of them very large." Bond''s flight of four P-40s and Neale''s flight of two separately set their courses back to Nam Sang.
Ed Rector first noticed McGarry falling behind. When McGarry rocked his wings, Rector circled back and tried to get alongside, but McGarry was flying so slowly that he flew right by. Up front, Bond looked back repeatedly just in case the Japanese had gotten aircraft off to pursue them, and he noticed that McGarry was having a problem. He and Bartling turned back. Rector was circling now. There was smoke coming from McGarry''s engine, and he was losing altitude.
The Salween River was just ahead. If McGarry could get to the Burmese side of it, his chances of survival would improve. Suddenly, the P-40 rolled over, and McGarry dropped out. He was about 1,000 feet above the trees when his parachute opened. The P-40 nosed down, crashed into the side of a hill and burst into flames. McGarry landed in a clearing 200 meters away, got to his feet and waved.
The three P-40s circled slowly overhead. With flaps and gear down, Rector made a slow pass over McGarry to drop a candy bar that he kept as an emergency ration. Bartling flew over and dropped a map. Bond put a circle on his map to mark McGarry''s position and wrote the time. He flew over McGarry one last time and dropped it. All that could be done for "Black Mac" had been done. The flight of three P-40s turned on a heading for Nam Sang.
Later that day, eight of the Chiang Mar raiders landed at Loiwing. "Scarsdale Jack" was missing. His flight never reached Lampang. Newkirk''s plane had been struck by ground fire while he was strafing an armored car south of Chiang Mai, and he hit the ground at high speed. There wasn''t a chance that he had survived.
In his diary, Charlie Bond reflected on the events of the day. He was sure that at least 50 Japanese aircraft had been lined up on the field and that the AVG had destroyed 25 or 30. "Indeed, this was a great success for the AVG and the Allies," he wrote. The next day, March 25, 1942, The New York Times headlined the victory: "U.S. Fliers in Burma Smash 40 Planes." It was the one bright spot on a front page on which other headlines spoke of Japanese bombers pounding Corregidor and of the loss of two U.S. destroyers off Java. The official AVG tally for the Chiang Mai raid was put at 15 Japanese aircraft destroyed.
William "Black Mac" McGarry survived the War. He wandered through heavy jungle until he was found by Thai police. He was turned over to the Japanese, who held him in a compound in Bangkok. In early 1945, when Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers were infiltrating Thailand, Chennault asked them to find him. With the help of the Free Thai (Thailand''s anti-Japanese resistance), McGarry was found, freed and taken by boat to the Gulf of Siam, where he was picked up by a PBY Catalina flying boat. He was flown to China and reunited with Chennault. Among those at the Kunming airport when he arrived was Ed Rector, who last saw him waving from a jungle clearing in Thailand on that March day.
Copyright Air Age Publishing Apr 2005
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