Wings For The Dragon

by Leonard Engel

Three months ago, immediately after the Casablanca parley, Chief of Army Air Forces Arnold and Field Marshal Sir John Dill, the ranking British member of the Anglo-American strategy board in Washington, the combined Chiefs of Staff, flew to Chungking to confer with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on Allied help for China. Out of their ten days of discussion came an agreement for the dispatch of more American planes to the Generalissimo's forces.

There has never been any official statement concerning the quantity, or even the form, of this increased air aid. Nevertheless, during the last few weeks — not, however, without "unofficial" encouragement from some in high office — newspapers, magazines, and radio have vied with one another in roseate statements that American bombers and fighters will soon be driving the Japanese army from China, thus relieving the pressure on our hard-pressed ally and paving the way for the early defeat of Japan.

Such predictions, however, are irresponsible and unjustifiably optimistic. For we haven't offered China — supposing airpower could do these things without support from a simultaneous drive on land, for which the Chinese are not prepared — anything like enough planes for such an offensive. That many, in fact, can't be operated in China for want of gasoline. On the other hand, we haven't even offered as many as can be used. We are still quite niggardly in our help to Japan's first enemy. Under the Chiang-Arnold agreement, we have promised several hundred only, not all of which, if past experience is any guide, will actually be delivered. Moreover, more than aircraft, even in unlimited quantities, are needed to solve China's problems and strengthen her effectively for the struggle against the Japanese invader.

As a matter of fact, the United Nations as a whole are in a serious predicament in the Far East, which contributes to and is itself compounded by Chinese difficulties. Since last June, the Japanese have made no significant advances, and, in addition, have lost several battles. On the other hand, we have made no gains of real importance either, and China, the only one of Japan's present enemies geographically in a position to come to grips with the main Japanese forces, has suffered from the idle passage of time. There is, furthermore, no prospect of any immediate change for the better.

The unfavorable trend of Allied affairs in Asia results from a complex combination of circumstances, of which the most important by far is Japan's conquest of all Southeastern Asia, Indonesia and the western Pacific islands. As a consequence of the way in which we and Britain bungled the defense of the Far East, the enemy is now in possession not only of a vast and rich empire, but of every area or the approaches to every area in which it may be profitably attacked.

The most valuable of the approach areas we have lost is Burma, the key to China. Owing to lack of industrial facilities and, in the provinces still clear of the Japanese, of raw materials, our Chinese allies depend on imports for most of the prerequisites of modern warfare, especially heavy weapons, explosives and gasoline. Only in small arms and similar items are they more or less self-sufficient. Until last spring, these supplies came via the famous Burma Road, 726 miles from Lashio, in Upper Burma at the head of a railroad from the great port of Rangoon, to Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province, and thence to Chungking. The Burma Road was the only serviceable link between China and the arsenals of the United Nations.

In its best month, the Burma Road, largely because of inefficient management, transported only 100,000 tons of goods to the embattled Chinese army. Little as this is, however, it is incomparably more than the airline from India to Chungking, started as a substitute for the enemy-captured highway, has yet carried or can carry in a like period. The India-China air route, which terminates in Sadiya, the end of a rail line from the ports of Calcutta and Chittagong, and which is flown both by the Army Transport Command and Pan American Airways' China National Aviation Corporation, has been greatly handicapped by US Army indifference, manifested by the Army's long refusal to assign planes to the route in adequate numbers. For several months, the number of planes available for India-China service was less than twenty. Even when working at maximum efficiency, these planes were able to carry barely 1% of the traffic that had flowed over the Burma Road in its 100,000-ton month.

Last summer, the Army Transport Command in Washington finally assigned an additional forty craft to the run. Army commanders in India, however, requisitioned twenty-five of the ships before they cold be put to work on the India-China route. Consequently, the ferry's capacity remained below 2% of the Burma route. The Army finally sent another and much larger batch of transports, just after Gen Arnold's visit to Chungking. But even so, planes are bringing China less than 10% of the war goods she received over the tortuous mountain highway from Lashio.

Needless to say, the decline has affected China adversely. Gasoline particularly became scarce in the territory of our eastern ally, immobilizing part of the little motorized equipment the Chinese had. It must also be reported, however, that the Chinese themselves did not make the best possible use of what little cargo capacity was available. For several months last year, the second largest item of cargo carried by the India-China planes was, of all things, paper money.

It should certainly prove possible to double or triple the capacity of the Sadiya-Chungking line, and every little bit of additional war material helps. On the other hand, the air route can probably never equal the Burma Road's record. Because of China's lack of gas, planes must carry their own return-trip fuel, cutting their inward payload by 15% to 20%. For this and other reasons, it would take in excess of 1,200 DC-3s to move 100,000 tons monthly. The pre-war fleet of all US domestic airlines was only ¼ as large. It is doubtful that such a number of aircraft can be efficiently operated over a single route. Five hundred DC-4s could probably do the job and would be manageable, perhaps; it will be many, many months, however, before Douglas turns out its five hundredth C-54, let alone the five hundredth which can be spared from more pressing duties elsewhere. Furthermore, 100,000 tons of supplies months are not enough to permit effective offensive operations by US and Chinese air forces in China and the Chinese army. The minimum is estimated to be 150,000 tons.

It is thus apparent that a prerequisite to a real offensive against Japan is reconquest of Burma, and reopening of land communications with China. That, however, is easier said than done. For the Allies haven't the offensive strength to retake Burma and invade Europe at the same time, and, because Germany has the greater offensive strength and is the more immediate threat, invasion of Europe, comes first.

In practical terms, owing to the time needed for preparing the expeditionary force, whether British, American or both, this means that we won't be ready to invade Burma before late 1944 or perhaps after the rainy season in 1945. There is, of course, a speedier means of coming to grips with the Japanese: securing Russian cooperation. Some United Nations leaders are even now attempting to pressure the Soviet Union into war against Japan, hoping to strike a bargain: a second front in Europe for a second front against Japan. Attempts to pressure the Russians into anything, however, are foredoomed to failure, as we should have learned when the Russians signed a pact with Germany in 1939 rather than accept an unsatisfactory treaty offered by Britain and France. Moreover, wars are not fought by log-rolling. We're not invading Europe to do Moscow a favor. The purpose is defeat of our strongest enemy. The Soviet Union will go to war with the Japanese empire some day, but not before Germany's fate is settled.

In the meantime, however, measures must be taken to keep China fighting effectively. Whether or not Russia comes in, the heroic Chinese army, whose struggle against Japan began 4½ years before we were bombed into ours, represents one of the United Nations' greatest assets. The military air aid we have extended our ally is no more generous than our contribution of cargo planes. While detailed information is restricted, the number of fighters and bombers China has been able to obtain from the US during the last three years, by purchase, lend-lease or assignment of US Army Air Forces units, is less than 300 altogether. These include the planes of the two Flying Tiger squadrons; Allied fighter plane strength in China, moreover, is currently less than when the Tigers were in the air. Furthermore, the planes which China has obtained are generally of older type. Fighters have been chiefly Curtiss 75s (export P-36s) and the earliest model of the P-40. Only a nominal number of the not-quite-so-obsolescent Vultee Vanguard have been delivered. Bombers are B-25s almost exclusively. The number of Chinese pilots trained at much publicized Thunderbird Field, Arizona, is also comparatively small.

The basis of our slowness to aid the Chinese is more simple neglect, based perhaps on an unconscious "white superiority" complex and not the physical difficulties of sending the aid, as is claimed. The proof of this is quite simple: last spring China sent to Washington a mission of distinguished Chinese soldiers, headed by a lieutenant-general, all veterans of nearly five years of fighting the Japanese, to place the vast Chinese fund of knowledge of the Japs at our disposal. The mission was in Washington for six weeks before anyone from the War Department had the common courtesy to come around and say "hello," let alone take advantage of a rare opportunity, and then the War Department approached the Chinese only because Time magazine made a vigorous public protest at the slight to an ally. In the months after that, however, the Chinese continued to be ignored, being called only to an occasional meeting of no consequence. The mission finally became disgusted and returned home last January at its own request.

The Chiang-Arnold agreement represents a step in the right direction, but not a long enough one. For the fountain of good will toward us which Wendell Willkie found in Chungking has been drying up under our neglect. Let us be frank. China is very much like the United States: although the overwhelming majority of the people support the war with Japan, there are those in China who would just as soon make peace with our enemy and go to war instead with the famous Eighth Route Army, the Chinese Red army which survived a ten-year civil war with Chiang Kai-shek and was a powerful influence in turning China toward resistance against Japan and is now one of Free China's bulwarks. The pro-Japanese forces in China are quite strong and every day that we ignore our ally they become stronger.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 5, pp 8-11, 42.
The original article includes 9 photos and a map.
Photos credited to Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, European, North American Aviation, Wide World, Pictorial Publishing Company, Gordon Sear Williams;
Air News map by Robert Lindgren.

Photo captions: