CHENNAULT’S FORGOTTEN WARRIORS — THE SAGA OF THE 308th BOMB GROUP IN CHINA
One of the great delights in reading aviation history is finding a book that covers a brand-new subject, one virtually unknown to you, but so gripping that when you’ve finished reading you wonder why it took so long for someone to write it. Chennault’s Forgotten Warriors–The Saga of the 308th Bomb Group in China (Schiffer Press, Atglen, Pa., 1995, $29.95) is just such a book. Veteran author Carroll V. Glines has a particular feel for the subject, since he flew for the U.S. Army Air Forces during the same time period.
One of the great qualities that Glines imparts to this book is immediacy. It stems from research done not by pawing through boxes at the National Archives (as much fun as that is), but by interacting directly with the veterans of the 308th in face-to-face discussions. The 308th was fortunate to have had the best sort of historian, one of its own, Colonel Howard H. Morgan, a pilot with the 375th Squadron. Morgan flew 79 combat missions, spent 410 hours in combat with the 308th, and took it upon himself to rally the survivors of the outfit to document its history.
Morgan interviewed more than 600 former members of the 308th and combined their recollections, letters and photographswith the official reports and papers from the U.S. Air Force archives. Author Glines built upon this treasure-trove of researchwith further interviews and research of his own. Much of the quoted correspondence is from Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault himself, giving a better insight into the man than many of the books about him.
The result is a superb compilation of the records of a tremendous fighting outfit whose activities have been completely overshadowed by the nominally more glamorous story of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the Flying Tigers, and its Fourteenth Air Force successors. The story of the 308th is equally thrilling–yet almost unknown. In many respects, the 308thwas more demanding of its members, because it undertook missions over the widest geographic area of any bombing group in World War II. Weather forecasting was primitive to nonexistent, and the concept of air-sea rescue was reduced to emergency kits and the wistful hope that someone on the ground would help. The Consolidated B-24 Liberators, normally in their element when sent in vast formations as high-altitude precision bombers, were cast by the 308th in the role of marauding solo night attackers, creating low-level hell for the Japanese merchant marine and navy.
Getting to the combat zone was just the start of the challenge; the next task was to turn the B-24 bombers into cargo planes sothat they could haul the fuel and bombs over the Himalayan “Hump” for the last 500-mile leg of their 12,000-mile-long supplyline. To drop a ton of bombs on the Japanese in Shanghai, the 308th had to convey 18 tons of supplies from an Indian port.On the dangerous flight over the Hump bringing bombs and fuel, the B-24s also brought cold beer and Spam, the latter adelicacy in the land of water-buffalo meat.
The 308th was blessed in having an excellent group commander, Colonel Eugene H. Beebe, who led the men on their first combat mission on May 4, 1943. Twenty-four Liberators made a daylight precision attack on targets that would become infamous 25 years later–Hanoi and Haiphong.
Although the 308th continued to attack a wide variety of targets, from airfields to railroad yards, the unit soon specialized in knocking out Japanese shipping. On April 22?23, for example, four B-24s hit a harbor at St. Jacques, near Saigon, knockingout six large vessels for a total of 40,000 tons of shipping.
Almost incredibly, at a time in the late spring and early summer of 1944 when Japan was in retreat all across the Pacific, the Japanese army began a tremendous offensive in China, aimed at capturing American air bases and hopefully knocking Chinaout of the war. After the war, Japanese commanders attributed at least 75 percent of the total resistance to their drive to the Fourteenth Air Force. The irony was that the Fourteenth had been starved for supplies, receiving less during that time than asingle infantry division might have. Had it been supplied on even half the scale of the Fifth or the Eighth air forces, the Japanese drive would probably have been defeated, rather than merely delayed.
Yet victory was approaching by January 1945. The 308th’s Liberators sank 395,342 tons of Japanese shipping in the previous nine months, and probably sent another 109,315 tons to the bottom. But it was not one-sided; the 308th suffered heavily from combat casualties and accidents as the aging Liberators operated under increasingly difficult conditions. Glines carefully evaluates the testimony of crash survivors, both those airmen who made it back through the help of friendly native tribesmen,Chinese natives or a British underground system, and those airmen who became prisoners of war.
Unit histories are sometimes dull reading because they tend to focus on a mission-by-mission recounting; Glines gives you all the missions, but he packs them with human interest. Chennault’s Forgotten Warriors is an exciting, informative read, well worth the price of purchase.
Walter J. Boyne