Aces for China

by George H Copeland

US Army instructors are making China's air force into a deadly aerial spear pointed at the Japanese.

The Japs in China who now find tough going against General Stilwell's "Sky Dragons" will soon have to contend with another group that may be even tougher — the young Chinese flyers who have been training under American instructors in southern Arizona. These men, the pick of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's armed forces, came here from half way around the globe to learn better methods of knocking off more Japs. I visited them in training at Luke Field and talked with their American commanding officer, Maj C J Kanaga.

Most of these young aviators had served nearly two years in China's flying forces before they came to America, but they flew and fought under tremendous handicaps. Their airfield was 7,000 feet up, at the eastern end of the Burma Road and back in the mountains where air currents were treacherous and emergency landing fields few. They were always greatly outnumbered by Jap flyers, hence had to carry out their missions in stormy weather while the enemy hugged the ground.

So, in spite of months of service under combat conditions, most of the Chinese had actually chalked up only about 100 hours in the air. To get more flying under better conditions, a chance to practice maneuvers undisturbed, to study navigation, English, meteorology, bombing — all the latest methods of operation with modern equipment — they came to the US.

When on combat duty in China the flyers used Russian planes, mostly two-engined light S-bombers. These ships, the students told me, "answered all the elementary requirements of combat, and their speed and maneuverability were quite satisfactory." However, since arriving in the United States, the Chinese cadets have found that American planes are all they expected them to be.

The cadets, on their arrival in the United States, are assigned to the same types used by American students. These are the Stearmans for primary training at Thunderbird Field; Vultees for basic training at Williams Field; and North Americans for advanced training at Luke. These training centers are grouped in the southwest.

At primary ground school, the Chinese lads have courses in the theory of flight, airplane structure and design, engines, and technical English including flying expressions. They use books printed in English. In basic training they tackle meteorology, navigation, plane armament, gunnery, start work with the Link Trainer, and begin night flying. The advanced school brings more of the same, plus tactics, cross-country, flying by instruments, and gunnery from a plane. They get a total of about 200 hours in the air in the three schools.

Recently a cross-country flight, starting from Luke Field, almost brought trouble. A Chinese cadet lost his way above the mountains west of Phoenix and had to make an emergency landing near Kingman, AZ. The sheriff of that town watched him land and when he saw the oriental face appearing out of the cockpit thought the Japs had started an invasion and drew his gun! Identification papers, quickly produced, prevented a possible tragedy.

The first class won their wings in about 20 weeks, whereas the ordinary American cadet — without of course the combat experience of the Chinese — takes about 35 weeks to go through the three flying schools. Then this class went on to other fields, such as Dale Mabry at Tallahassee, FL, for tactical training. Most of these men are now probably back on the battlefront.

As flyers, the cadets leave nothing to be desired. Naturally full of fun when off duty, they are deadly serious in the classroom and on the field pay close attention and take copious notes.

Most of them know little about engines so their mechanical ability does not compare with that of American cadets. Also, in the case of some, their methodical flying and close attention to directions may bring a loss in individual initiative.

To help me learn about their flying characteristics, Major Kanaga called in Capt Fergus Fay, American flying instructor. Captain Fay, a husky redhead from Texas, with a wide, almost handle-bar mustache, talked emphatically about their good points.

"The Chinese have tenacity, alertness and work like the devil," he said. "Their powers of observation are remarkable; show them something and they know it forever. They watch the instructor closely, and learn things that way. Their general attitude is excellent; they are very attentive, and don't get tired on long flights. They're especially good on formation flying, as they are naturally methodical.

"The men have no fear of a plane," the captain went on, "and they don't break any regulations deliberately, but sometimes they don't pay any attention to them. Probably it's just because they're so eager to finish training and return to the fight."

"Are they superstitious?" I asked. "Do they carry charms?"

"No, they laugh at our 'Friday the 13th' and stuff like that. They are well educated, you know."

I talked with Capt Lee Hsueh-Yen, Chinese commanding officer, and the interpreter, David-Tseng, a graduate of the University of Shanghai. The captain was short and slim; he couldn't have weighed much more than 100 pounds. He was dressed in olive drab trousers, shirt and officer's cap with American aviation insignia. He seemed to know English fairly well, but I put my questions to both men, with Major Kanaga listening in to help.

David-Tseng spoke without hesitation in slightly stilted but good English. "The cadets here," he said, "are what you would call the cream of the crop. They are all graduates of China's ‘West Point,' the Central Military Academy established by the generalissimo in 1926. In 1938, this school was moved from Nanchung, capital of Kiangsi Province, to Chengtu, in Szechuan Province, and the cadets had to hike the 600 miles.

"They are paid $50 a month, American money, plus $1 a day for food. China allots them $100 for uniforms. When they finish the three stages of flying training they become sub-lieutenants, what you would call third lieutenants, if you had them. After a year's service, they become second 1ieutenants."

Captain Lee is 28 years old and had served for nine years in China's army. At 15 he left his home in Kwantung to join the military, but instead landed at a school at Nanking. From there he went to the Central Military Academy, studying aviation under American instructors. He graduated with the second class; the other cadets at Luke, considerably younger men, were members of the 12th class. Captain Lee fought against the communist army, took part in the Sian-Fu coup d'etat when Chiang Kai-shek was captured, and flew against the Japanese in a Russian S-bomber.

I wondered what part of the course was most difficult for the Chinese, and all three — the major, the interpreter, and the CO — agreed it was trouble with the new language.

The cadets spend one hour a day studying English, for the instructors know no Chinese. If any American thinks learning to fly is a tough job, he ought to try it under the same conditions as face these lads at Luke Field — under a Chinese instructor, for example. The command "taoi-san!" wou1dn't mean much to us, but to a Chinese it says "jump-umbrella!" and that means it's time to bail out. "But," interjected Captain Lee, "when one of our flyers is in trouble he makes an emergency landing. He's too scared of cactus to bail out." And no one who's seen the tough sharp spikes of cacti would blame him.

An airplane is "Fei-Chi," or "flying-machine." "Give her the gun" is "Kai-Yu-Men," or "open gas door." "Chee- Fei" is "start flying"; while "Loo-Tee" is "drop, land."

The language difficulty is further complicated by the fact that some of the youths, coming from different provinces with varying dialects, had to learn the basic Chinese tongue, Kuo Yu, before they could take instruction.

Chinese is, of course, a sign language, with thousands of characters. The symbol for peace, tranquility, contentment, for example, is a roof with a woman under it. Put another woman under the roof and you get just the opposite — trouble, jealousy, or even war. A gateway with a mouth in the middle is "to ask"; put an ear in the gateway and you get "to listen."

In order to get the various aviation words and phrases, some of them slang, lined up for the students, a loose-leaf dictionary has been compiled under the direction of Major Kanaga. New terms are constantly being added. The burden of understanding instructions is on the Chinese; all the American instructor has to do is say "Up flaps" and the student must know — through study of a long sequence of complicated characters — what he is to do, at once.

Captain Lee and David-Tseng took me around to have a quick look at the quarters of the Chinese group. At the door of the wooden barracks a soldier called "Li-Chen!" our "Tenshun," literally "Stand straight!" and the few cadets present jumped to attention until they were put at ease by the captain.

In the building the little cots were lined up, small steel trunks at the base, blankets nicely folded. Officer's caps, bearing the blue Kuomintang (political party) star; blouses with high-neck collars of American old-style, decorated with big wings. The arrangement was much the same as in the other airfields throughout America where British flyers are training, as at Falcon or Gunter fields, or where our own young men are going through the mill at 100 or more schools. The Chinese lads I saw, many of them clad only in trunks, were all short but solid and muscular. The men from Southern China, they told me, are generally short, but among the flyers were a few six-footers from the North.

Captain Lee introduced me to the officer of the day, Cadet Hsiang I-Hsueh, and Cadet Captain Chung Chu-Shih. Something puzzled me, and I put it up to David-Tseng. "How do the American instructors keep track of the names of their pupils?"

The interpreter grinned. "They can't. Certain family names are all pronounced alike. For example, Chang, Chung, Tsung, Chiang, Tseng, Cheng, Chen — are all Tschung!" The word seemed to explode from his mouth. "So the instructors simply call the cadets by their numbers."

It seems a long, dangerous, and costly process, bringing those lads 15,000 miles or so for a few months training. I expressed these thoughts to Major Kanaga on returning to his office.

"The role these Chinese students have to play will go far beyond the war," he explained. "They are being trained as liaison men who will bring together the United States and China in closer bonds than ever before, after the victory. They will know both Chinese and American languages, customs and peoples. They will know aviation, which is going to have a tremendous and vital part to play in the remaking of the postwar civilization. This is one of the greatest, most hopeful and most enduring features of this entire program."

But their immediate and most important job — that of beating the Japs — was brought before them dramatically on the day the first class at Luke Field graduated. The ceremonies, though brief, were most impressive. High officers and officials were there, among them Maj Gen Ralph P Cousins of the West Coast Air Training Center, Maj Gen T H Shen of the Chinese Aeronautics Commission to the United States, and Lauchlin Currie from Washington, representing President Roosevelt.

"Take back to your people," General Cousins said, "the message of how fully we feel bound to them in this fight. Tell them how we are hurrying to join their ranks, that they will not fight alone any longer .... From now on until victory, war is our business — the business we have been trained for. There can be no other business, no other motive which will turn us back from that definite objective.

"Go back and give 'em hell!"

This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 3, pp 26-27, 114, 118.
The original article includes 4 photos.
Photos are not credited.