ANKANG, AIRFIELD OF LAST RESORT
In November 1944 at Hsinching, China, my Lead Crew was briefed to lead a B-29 strike against an Omura, Japan aircraft factory. A Group Intelligence Officer listed four airfields in China as being available for emergency landings during the mission: Sian to the north, Liang-shan to the south, Lao-ho-kou close to the Japanese lines northwest of Hankow, and a small field at Ankang. Ankang Field, near a village on the banks of the Han River in Shensi Province, figures prominently in this story.
The briefing officer then ticked off reasons why landing at any of these fields would be a hazardous operation. During this mission, Lian-shan, an excellent field, would be shrouded by low ceilings, fog, and intermittent rain. Sian, a good field north of the rugged Peiling Mountains, was reporting strong surface winds bearing loess dust out of Mongolia that reduced visibility to less than one-fourth of a mile. Lao-ho-kou, also a good field, was always vulnerable to strafing and bombing attacks by Nippon fighters based at Hankow. Ankang posed serious problems for all types of aircraft because it had two short runways, and was ringed on three sides by steep mountains. Lao-ho-kou and Ankang were considered to be last resort fields.
After our formation bombed the target, we turned and headed for Hsinching, some 1,200 miles to the West. Three planes had been damaged during the bomb run and were forced to descend to a lower altitude when we reached temporary safety over the Yellow Sea. Since I was the mission's Lead Pilot, I had the Alternate Leader take over the formation and I descended with the three crippled planes. A plane from another squadron soon joined us to make a formation of five. Our small formation entered China well north of Shanghai in an area where B-29s had previously been attacked by fighters. I called the planes into a tight formation even though three of them had control problems.
While flying at 7,000 feet altitude, we ran into severe turbulence. My Navigator called me on the intercom and said, "Pilot, we are bucking a forty-knot headwind. I suggest we climb to 15,000 feet and try to get above this wind. If we don't, we will never make it to Hsinching." I replied, "Stand by. I"ll check with the other Pilots. Two of them have an engine out and may not be able to climb to that altitude."
I broke radio silence long enough to learn that three of the four planes were having a hard time holding 7,000 feet and an indicated airspeed of 180 miles an hour. They were unable to climb to a higher altitude. I called over the intercom, "Pilot to Navigator, three of our buddies are unable to climb, and although we still have to pass several fighter bases near Hangkow and Nanking, we have to continue at 7,000 feet. We will keep the formation in tight or we may all get picked off."
Almost three hours later, we crossed the Hankow-Peking rail line into friendly territory. Our luck had been unbelievable. While we flew through enemy territory, only one fighter intercepted us, and while making a pass from one o'clock high, it received such an unwelcome hail of .50 caliber bullets that it broke off the attack and disappeared in the direction of Hangkow.
As if to offset our good fortune of escaping fighter attacks, the headwinds increased as we approached the rugged mountains of Central China and our ground speed dropped to 120 miles per hour. Unless the adverse winds decreased very soon, none of us would have enough fuel to reach our base at Hsinching. I had our Radio Operator get the current weather and forecasts from Liang-shan and Sian. Both of those good airfields reported their visibilities were below minimum, and their forecasts were even more discouraging. That narrowed our choice of a landing base to the two most dangerous emergency fields -- Lao-ho-kou and Ankang.
Before passing abeam of Lao-ho-kou, I called each Pilot in our formation and was told that no one would land there knowing that before sunset his plane would be destroyed by fighters based at Nanking. So we continued westward toward Ankang despite our terribly slow ground speed and low fuel supplies. Then the jagged peaks of the Peiling Mountains caused a turbulence that scattered our formation. Soon, each B-29 was on its own and our five planes became widely separated.
"Pilot from Navigator," came over my intercom, "we have checked and double checked our fuel. The Engineer says we will arrive over Ankang with less than thirty-minutes of fuel remaining." I tried to conceal my sinking spirit when I replied, "Roger, I'll check with the other Pilots." I learned from four radio calls, that no one had enough fuel to reach Hsinching, and that we all agreed to land at Ankang. I called over the intercom, "Pilot to crew, Ankang is the choice of all Pilots. We will be there soon, so everyone make preparations to land, and standby to take your crash landing position."
My Copilot and I checked the China Airfield Directory for information on the Ankang Airfield. It contained little that was encouraging. This is what the directory told us:
Sod surface; east-west runway 3,000 feet; northwest-southeast runway 1,600 feet; no lights; 50 watt homer daylight only; limited fuel stored in drums; located in box canyon; steep mountains up to 7,200 feet within half mile of field to south, east, and north; all landings from the west; all takeoffs to west or northwest; VISUAL FLIGHT RULES ONLY; use extreme caution due to prevailing westerly surface winds; 40 foot village wall at west boundary; both runways soggy near river. FIELD OFTEN STRAFED AND BOMBED WHEN ALLIED PLANES REMAIN ON THE GROUND FOR EXTENDED PERIODS.
After studying the directory, I told the crew that if the wind was out of the west, we would have to make a rough, downwind landing. When we were a few minutes from Ankang, I told everyone, except the Navigator and Radio Operator, to take their crash landing positions and to report when they were in position. As the Bombardier moved aft, he patted me on the shoulder in a gesture of encouragement. After he was seated behind me next to the Flight Engineer, he reported to the Copilot that he was in position. Soon, everyone was in place.
When Ankang Airfield came into view, we saw smoke and dust streaming from the west across the field. We would be landing with a strong tailwind. I told the Copilot to start the Before Landing Checklist and the Navigator and Radio Operator to go to their crash landing positions. They removed their parachutes and carried them through the tunnel to join the Radar Operator and the blister Gunners in their compartments. The Tail Gunner, who had moved forward to the aft bulkhead near the rear entrance door, started the auxiliary power unit.
I called over the radio, "Able One to formation, I will land first. Watch for turbulence from the plane ahead of you while on your final approach. Try to land as close to the wall as possible. Good luck!" Four replies revealed no emotion: "Roger Two." "Roger Three." "Roger Four." "Roger Five."
I made a final approach to the 3,000 foot runway with full flaps, nose high, hanging on the props at minimum speed, and our prop wash blasting the village roofs. After barely clearing the forty-foot wall, I pulled back all throttles and we landed with a solid thump. The Engineer cut the inboard engines and the Copilot and I stood up on the brakes. The plane slowed down, but not fast enough to keep from going into the soggy area near the river if we continued straight ahead. While full brakes were being applied, I gunned number four engine to whirl the plane into a left turn onto a small, gravel-surfaced area where we skidded to a stop in front of the Base Operations shack. We cut the outboards engines and scrambled outside.
A tattered Nationalist China flag flapped briskly over the roof of the operations building, and its walls showed evidence of enemy air attacks. A Chinese Captain dashed out of the shack to meet us. His face showed much concern. He told us we were in great danger of Japanese fighter attacks, and requested that we take off immediately after refueling. We agreed. As if on cue, an ancient truck loaded with rusty fuel drums and grinning coolies rumbled up to our plane. Several coolies carried large chamois skins and crude funnels onto the B-29's wings. Our four Gunners joined them to supervise the refueling. The gunners, coolies on the wings, and coolies on the ground, formed four bucket brigades that poured fuel from the drums into cans and passed them to be dumped into the four wing tanks. The Tail Gunner called down to me that the chamois skins were catching a great amount of debris that came from the cans of fuel.
When Able Two made its approach, it was high and came in too fast. It touched down almost halfway down the short runway and skidded to a halt in a spray of mud and water near the river. All three landing gears were mired in mud up to their axles. While the Chinese Captain and coolies carrying ropes ran toward the bomber, the crew piled out and appeared to be unscathed.
Able Three approached with its number one prop feathered. As it neared the wall, its left wing dropped dangerously and the Pilot applied power, retracted the landing gear, and veered sharply to the left in a very slow climb. My crew was frozen in disbelief as someone shouted, "He'll never make it!"
The crippled B-29 headed directly toward the tiers on a steep mountainside behind the operations shack. Suddenly, its power was cut, its nose was pulled up, its wings were leveled, and it pancaked on a mountain terrace. It skidded a short distance in a great cloud of dust. At first, only its tail fin was visible, but soon we counted 11 figures running down the terraces away from their plane to escape an explosion and fire hazard. They all ran straight for my plane that was receiving the last few cans of fuel needed for our flight to Hsinching.
Able Four had not yet entered the traffic pattern, so my Copilot and I turned our attention to the runways. The main runway was partially blocked at its soggy east end by Able Two. The Chinese Captain had organized two groups of coolies who pulled on ropes tied to the mired B-29's main gear struts. My Copilot and I ran across the main runway to inspect the short strip, and found that its surface was firm almost to the edge of the river. A gusting wind was blowing straight down the runway, and what was even more encouraging, the centerline of the strip was aimed to the right of the village wall.
This 1,600 foot long northwest-southeast runway provided our best chance to depart before Japanese fighters had time to attack. We dashed back to our plane and arrived just as the coolies completed the refueling. They climbed down from the plane's wings and scrambled aboard their old truck. As they drove off, they shouted "Ding Hao" with their right thumbs raised high in the Chinese signal of good will.
My crew completed a hurried preflight inspection of our plane while the 11 crew members of the crashed Able Three took their places aboard. We cranked up our plane's engines, and as we taxied out, Able Four passed low over the wall, made a perfect landing, and slowed down enough to turn and park on the spot we had vacated. I planned to make a turbo-ten, full emergency power, short field takeoff. We taxied fast to the southeast end of the runway so we could make a running takeoff. The Bombardier called over the intercom, "I see mud and water ahead, you better turn!" I whirled the fast-moving plane to the centerline of the runway, jammed on full throttles as the Flight Engineer squeezed the engine cowl flaps full closed.
Normally, closing the cowl flaps for takeoff would be a dangerous procedure because it would probably result in overheating the engines. But in this emergency, it reduced air drag and improved our chances to lift off this tiny runway. Just before reaching the end of the strip, I pulled back on the control column and called out, "Gear up!" The lightweight B-29 zoomed skyward at a 45 degree angle, literally hanging on its props. Once we were clear of all nearby rooftops, I pushed the nose down to let the airspeed increase. We were safely airborne, but straight ahead was one of those 7,200 foot high mountains. Our lightweight B-29 quickly accelerated to normal climb speed, so I made a climbing left turn to 8,000 feet and began to circle the field to watch Able Five land.
When he was convinced that things were under control, our Bombardier turned to me and showed a broad grin like the grins that must have been on the faces of our crew and the 11 passengers from Able Two. Our jubilation was short-lived. We watched Able Five, with its number two prop feathered, fly in over the village wall, touch down fast, and veer off the runway and head toward Able Four parked in front of Base Operations. All those involved in refueling Able Four, jumped from the B-29 and the ancient truck, and fled toward the operations shack. They were safely out of danger when the out-of-control plane crashed into the parked B-29. A blinding orange fire ball erupted to mark the funeral pyre of 11 brave airmen in Able Five. Now, at Ankang, there were 22 men and one mired B-29.
In a stunned state, I circled the field unable to fully grasp the total impact of the dreadful calamity we had just witnessed. A voice jogged me back to reality. "Pilot from Navigator, turn to a heading of 230 degrees or we will not reach Hsinching with this light fuel load. Climb on course to 12,000 feet." After I turned on course and established a climb, I offered a silent prayer for the crew of Able Five. Then I prayed for my crew and passengers and gave thanks for our being spared a similar fate.
For a long time, the intercom was completely silent as everyone thought about the loss of 11 comrades and 3 B-29s. Then I imagined a much worse scene. What if Able Five had landed earlier and crashed into our plane after we were loaded and still parked in front of Base Operations? Instead of 11, there would have been 33 lives lost in a fiery crash!
We leveled off at 12,000 feet and flew west. The Bombardier reached back, tugged at my flight suit, and pointed toward a setting sun, and above it, the faint outline of a new moon. I thought, "Could the sun represent the end of this ill-fated day, and the new moon represent the promise of a better tomorrow?"
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *