Chinese Dollars?


The whole purpose of our B-29 forces was to destroy war-making capability of the Japanese. Bases in India were a very long way from Japan’s strategic industries.  Advanced bases in central China had been built to put us within range of many such targets. But bases were remote—fuel, munitions, and equipment scarce. Air Transport Command was flying supplies to General Chennault’s air forces in China, but did not have capacity to also meet B-29 requirements. To fly missions from advanced bases, B-29 combat units had to deliver and stock much of their own fuel, oil, ammunition, and spare parts. A hefty chore—essential to our mission—high priority. Kept us busy.

Air crews became competitive in how many gallons of 100 octane fuel they could download at A-5 in China and still return safely to Piardoba. Little margin for error. One had best stay on sharp alert—keep safe altitude above mountains—but not too high—consumes more fuel. Navigation aids meager—winds over mountains tricky—straying off course wastes fuel and increases danger. On return flight, reserve is minimal—hope for no mechanical troubles increasing fuel consumption—or instrument or radio failures making straight course to home base uncertain. Between missions, not much rest.

Now we were off for China again—second flight over Hump. Plane heavily loaded (above specified limit)—cloud cover dense. Over the high Himalayas one must expect sudden sharp up and down drafts from winds buffeting steep mountain slopes—more severe than most thunderstorms. Upon encountering updraft, air speed falls off sharply—with nose down to hold speed, plane still gains altitude rapidly, climbing as much as several thousand feet within minute or two. Then hit downdraft—plane in forced drop—much faster than free fall. Thank you, Boeing, for strong wings and sturdy seat belts.

Gunners ask permission to test-fire guns—OK given—takes several minutes to get set up. Meanwhile, attention returns to flying—eyes on instruments. Suddenly four 50 caliber machine guns blast off in turret overhead. The blast deafening—and jarring. Glad it was our guns and not a mountain side!

Crossing high peaks toward Chengtu valley, had to be confident of position when starting let down. As we lost altitude, encountered marked temperature inversion—outside air turning cooler instead of warmer. One engine running rough. Watched for icing—fortunately it was minimal (anti-icing gear had been stripped from planes in favor of added carrying capacity). Still in heavy cloud as we descended to 1,000 feet to cross Chungtu radio beacon. With low ceiling and poor visibility, decided to land at another Group’s base for engine check—closer and safer than ours.

While waiting for maintenance work, my navigator, Lt. Wofford Clayton, and I decided to visit nearby town. Rickshaw to riverside—ferry boat, pushed by long poles, carried us across fast flowing waters. Walked about a mile upstream to town. Air cool—wearing flight jackets. Crowd of curious Chinese gathered around, walking with us, watching everything we did.

Before long, someone tapped my shoulder—turned and saw a well-dressed Chinese man who spoke to us in English. Said he owned the building across street and invited us for tea. Led us into building to attractive room. Clapped hands—lady appeared with cups of tea. Chatted for a while. Our host turned to Wofford, “How much would you take for that 45”?  Wofford—surprised, “What 45”? “The one under your jacket.” (We had been briefed not to take weapons off base, but Wofford had his in shoulder holster under jacket—thought it would not be seen).

 Oh, I couldn’t sell that, its U.S. government property.” Our host, “How would $75,000 sound to you”? Wofford, “You mean Chinese dollars, of course.” (They were cheap compared to US dollars). “No, I mean U. S. greenbacks.” Wofford looked at me, then back to him, “You might not understand, but I am an Air Force officer. My integrity and my career mean more than money. I would not sell a government gun entrusted to me for any amount.” Our host shrugged—dropped subject. Soon we were on our way.

Arriving at A-5, we reported incident to intelligence officer. His response, “How stupid can you be? We told you never to take a weapon off base—for very good reason. There are outlaw bands living in mountains around here that prey on towns and villages. There is no source of guns in this whole part of China—they would gladly kill to get their hands on your weapon. You are darn lucky to be back here alive.” Wofford looked at me again. Don’t know what he was thinking—but here was this fine young American officer who had just turned down $75,000 offer for a GI 45, and was being chastised for the incident—under the circumstances, properly so.

When asked how Chinese man could offer that kind of money in U S dollars, the intelligence officer reminded us Japanese had captured many banks in their early advances, Singapore, Philippines, etc. They were happy to pay off agents and collaborators with greenbacks—sometimes handsomely. It should be expected much of that money had found its way throughout China.

Flying back to Piardoba, made sure to keep altitude over mountains higher than our first trip—didn’t want tail gunner to worry over seeing close-by mountain sides again—not to mention I prefer keeping my own bones intact.

Broke out of clouds upon reaching India flat lands. Spotted an Air Transport Command  C-46 ahead and below going our way. Put plane into dive to pick up significant speed—leveled off—feathered engine—whizzed past C-46, waving to its crew. We were probably the first B-29 they had seen—chuckled about what they might tell their buddies.

On to Piardoba. Weight now light—power cut way back—stretching out fuel. Easy sit-down—mission accomplished. Climbed from plane exhilarated.