On the east bank of the Min River, near the ancient Chinese town of Hsinching, a B-29 airfield named A-1 served as the 40th Bomb Group's forward base. From this field, and from its three sister B-29 bases nearby, strike missions were launched against Japanese targets during World War II. These four airfields were produced by a marvel of engineering and labor that compares favorably with such great construction projects as the Grand Canal linking the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, and the intricate irrigation system of the Chengtu plains in the Szechan Province.
The runway at A-1 was 8,000 feet long with an unpaved surface that supported B-29s weighing 136,000 pounds. Even more astounding, was the fact that the runway was constructed entirely by hand in only five months. At one time, more than 200,000 Chinese chipped rocks by hand in the riverbed, carried the pieces in baskets to the airfield, and fitted them by hand in a bed of clay to form the runway. The rock used came from a blue-colored glacial deposit. The resulting gravel was spread in alternating layers with sand and tung oil to hold down dust from airplane prop wash.
In late April 1944, my B-29 aircrew made its first flight from our home base at Chakulia, India, to deliver bombs and fuel to A-1. As we approached the A-1 area, we passed the Ipin Homer, and descended to fly up the Min River with our radio compass showing we were exactly on course. When we passed the last check point, a mountain on the west bank, we could not see the airfield, but instead, we saw a gigantic, rectangular-shaped field of blue surrounded by the green of rice paddies. A few moments later, we realized the blue color was the work uniform of a huge mass of people working on the runway and adjoining taxi strips.
Someone in a small tower located near the edge of the field flashed a green light that was a signal for us to land. When we entered the traffic pattern, it was as if that someone announced to the coolies OPEN SESAME. The blue mass suddenly separated down the middle and the two sections quickly moved apart to the sides of the runway.
When we turned onto the final approach, the two separate armies of blue uniforms were standing in closely-packed ranks. Talk about airport watchers -- we literally had two armies of people watching us. As we landed and rolled down the runway, we passed between two unbroken lines of grinning coolies with their right hands held high, and their thumbs extended which signified DING HAO. They were calling us Number One!
By the time we turned off the runway and looked back, the separate armies were merging into one, and resuming their work. Our landing had interrupted their labor for less than three minutes. When we reported to Base Operations, we learned that lookouts stationed along the landing strip used a system of gongs and horns to relay instructions from the tower to clear the runway for incoming traffic.
While ground support personnel unloaded our bombs and fuel, our crew was assigned quarters, then we went to the mess hall for a delicious dinner of GI food prepared by Chinese cooks. After dinner, we checked our B-29 to make sure it was ready for our flight back to India. Our take off the next morning interrupted the blue-clad army for only three minutes.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *