This May, a memorial service was held marking the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on board the historic USS Hornet aircraft carrier docked in Alameda, California. Among those invited to attend was Chu Cheng, 86, a former pilot from Taiwan, who was there to receive a citation for saving the lives of the Doolittle crew during WW II. Until 1992, his story was relatively unknown.
Unsung heroes behind the film Pearl Harbor
Today, the history of the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 is required reading in American schools and has been retold in various films. Yet much of what followed Pearl Harbor has not made it into the textbooks or onto the silver screen. On April 18, 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25 bombers led by US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle flew from the USS Hornet, then at sea in the western Pacific Ocean, to bomb Tokyo and the main islands of Japan. Although the raid caused minimal damage, it was deemed a success for boosting American morale and for serving as a wake-up call for Japan’s military leaders and civilians.
Part of the raid was included in the Hollywood movie Pearl Harbor (2001) with Alec Baldwin playing Doolittle. Missing from the film was the fact that after completing their mission and, while flying over China’s coastal province of Zhejiang, Doolittle and his crew were forced to land when they ran out of fuel. They were rescued by the then 16-year-old Chu and other guerrillas from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. With the help provided by Chinese civilians, the Americans were able to escape the Japanese and eventually return to the US.
Chu’s ties with the US Air Force did not end there. Failing to capture Doolittle and his crew, the Japanese launched several attacks to crack down on Chinese guerrillas, killing tens of thousands of Zhejiang civilians. Chu fled the then Japanese occupied region and joined the Air Force in 1948. In 1949, Chu followed Chiang Kai-shek’s government to Taiwan and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1952. He went on to study advance flight training on an air force base in Texas before becoming a pilot in the famous Black Bat Squadron.
Warriors of the Cold War
The end of the Korean War in 1953 saw East-West tensions evolve into the Cold War. The US was eager to collect military intelligence on the Chinese mainland while the government in Taiwan desperately needed American aid and military assistance. In order to maintain relations with the US, President Chiang Kai-shek sent his son Chiang Ching-kuo to Washington D.C. to sign a contract with the Central Intelligence Agency to set up an organization called the “Western Enterprise Company.” Under the cover of this company, the US provided military aircraft and surveillance equipment to Taiwan’s Air Force with the main purpose of gathering intelligence for the United States. Established in June 1953 and known as the 34th Squadron, it took part in air-drops of psychological warfare leaflets, relief supplies, and occasionally flew agents to the Chinese mainland.
The squadron was also responsible for the electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions over China. Just like bats, they few at night and rested during the day. And since their aircraft were painted black, they were given the nickname the “Black Bat Squadron.” This squadron was distinct from the subsequent establishment of the 35th Squadron in February 1961, which was nicknamed the “Black Cat Squadron.”
The Black Bat Squadron was responsible for gathering electronic intelligence in order to help plan US air defense strategies. The squadron’s main task was to fly at low altitude over mainland China in order to trigger the air defense radar system of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and to record the radar frequency positions of the air defense systems. The Black Cat Squadron was responsible for high altitude reconnaissance, flying to a height of about 70,000 feet, to take photographs of important military facilities. In the early period of the Cold War, the military intelligence gathered by the squadrons was extremely valuable to the US.
The Black Bats used mostly propeller-driven aircraft, including B-17 bombers and Lockheed P2V patrol aircraft with a 14-man crew. Other missions used B-26 bombers, C-123 and C-130E transport aircraft, while the Black Cat Squadron flew the single-seat U-2C and U-2R reconnaissance aircraft.
In the early days, the Black Bats flew into undefended air space because the PLA’s air defense systems were so outdated. In November 1957, a B-17 flew a nine-hour low altitude mission over nine Chinese provinces, dropping leaflets, clothing, and toys. The PLA launched 18 aircraft sorties, but were unable to intercept the B-17. Another Black Bat crew flew a reconnaissance P2V aircraft over nine Chinese provinces, and landed in South Korea, and exposed the defensive incompetence of the PLA forces.
Fu Jing-ping, an expert on Taiwan’s air force history, said Beijing began buying advanced Soviet Union-made air defense radar systems to counter a perceived threat from the squadrons. With the combination of Soviet Ilyushin IL-28 and MiG-17 fighter aircraft, the PLA developed night interception tactics, with the former launching projection flares as the Black Bats entered radar range and the latter trailing to intercept. Later, the Black Bats suffered severe losses of aircraft and personnel.
In the mid-1960s, the Black Bat Squadron halted electronic intelligence gathering operations over mainland China, and began operations over Vietnam. After the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1975, the Black Bats were disbanded.
Overall, the Squadron conducted 839 missions, with 15 aircraft shot down or crashed. A total of 148 crew members died performing their duties. Wang Li-jen, the author of several books on Taiwan’s air force history, points out that the Black Bat Squadron was the unit which suffered the highest causalities in Taiwan’s Air Force history.
Lives sacrificed for US aid
In an interview with the World Journal in San Francisco, Chu Cheng said the purpose of the Black Bat Squadron’s low level flying served to lure counterattack measures by the PLA’s anti-air artillery and so expose the enemy’s communication signals, to collect radar launch locations, and to analyze the ground command deployment of the PLA. “Each member of the Black Bat Squadron faced death without fear. In each mission, everyone was determined to live or die with their aircraft,” he said.
When Chu joined the squadron, he was only in his 30s. In the dozen years that followed, Chu flew more than 100 missions, among which 32 were over the mainland for the purpose of electronic surveillance. After retiring from the air force, Chu worked as a captain for Taiwan’s state-run airline, China Airlines, flying passengers around the world. He said he is really lucky to be alive. “Peace and tranquility are the greatest happiness in my life,” he said appreciatively.
Wang noted that the Black Cat Squadron first detected China’s development of nuclear energy equipment in Lop Nur, western Xinjiang in 1962. The US was shocked by the news that China had successfully conducted nuclear test explosions in Xinjiang in 1964. The United States then launched a secret action named “Heavy Tea Project” (code-named “Operation Magic Dragon” within Taiwan’s Air Force). In May 1969, a C-130E transport aircraft with pilots from the Black Bat Squadron took off from Thailand, via Burma, entering Chinese air space in Yunnan province, and dropping air analysis and earthquake sensing instruments in Gansu province (near the nuclear test site in Xinjiang). This was done in order to detect the raw materials and power of China’s nuclear test explosions. Wang stressed that Taiwan’s Air Force was key for Washington to understand China’s development of nuclear weapons.
Fu Jing-ping notes that after China successfully launched the first satellite in 1970, the second Operation Magic Dragon was canceled. Five years later, the Black Bat Squadron was officially disbanded when American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975.
During the Cold War, Taiwan sent elite Air Force personnel to work for the United States so that Washington was fully aware of China’s military deployment, while the United States gave economic aid and military assistance in return. The intelligence collected by the Black Bat Squadron and the Black Cat Squadron was far more important to the US than to Taiwan.
The home of the Black Bat Squadron was the Hsinchu Air Base, Hsinchu County (northern Taiwan). Each mission route was determined by the United States. Crew members always started their missions after sunset, and given the extreme confidentiality of their missions, they were not able to say good-bye to their families. On return from their missions, they were always met by American personnel at Hsinchu. Upon landing, the Americans would board the aircraft to remove the intelligence detection recorders, sending them directly back to the US for analysis.
In his memoirs, the director of Taiwan’s Air Force Intelligence, General I Fuen, pointed out that the Chiang Kai-shek government fleeing to Taiwan in 1949 felt particularly helpless, especially when President Harry Truman issued the White Paper setting out his intention to abandon the Nationalist government. But, with the sacrifice of the Black Bats and Black Cats, “Taiwan secured diplomatic support and economic assistance when the island’s survival was at stake. Without risking their lives to collect such intelligence information, the US would not have paid so much attention to Taiwan,” he said.
Keeping the memory alive
Taiwan’s government lifted the ban on traveling to China in 1987, turning a new page in relations with the mainland. However, until 1992 the missions of the two Black squadrons were kept a military secret by the Taiwan government, along with the nature of the missions and death of the pilots involved. That year, Fu Yi-ping, then deputy editor-in-chief of the United Evening News and the daughter of a Black Bat Squadron officer who died on duty, began researching the missions of the Black Bats and wrote an article about it. In it, she revealed the secret cooperation between Taiwan and US military intelligence for the first time. Subsequently, survivors of the squadron would join together in a visit to China to search for the remains of their fallen crew members. At the end of 1992, the first set of remains of the Black Bat Squadron members were sent from the mainland to be buried in Taiwan. They were welcomed at the airport with full military honors from the government, with a flag draped coffin as a symbol of glory.
In 2009, the popular Hong Kong singer Andy Lau released a CD entitled A Better Day, to commemorate the Black Bat Squadron. The stories of these heroes now live outside locked dusty confidential documents and have become household stories.
By the end of 2009, the Museum of the Black Bat Squadron was established in Hsinchu City, at the location of the military dormitory where the crew members stayed while on duty. One item on display is a washing basin made with melted aircraft fuselage wreckage, recycled since the local residents were so poor and lacked basic supplies.
On February 23, 2012, a gift exchanging ceremony was held at the Republic of China Air Force Academy in Kaohsiung (southern Taiwan), in which the U.S. Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum (near Portland, Oregon) donated a B-26 and P-2V used by the Black Bat Squadron in exchange for a F-5 E/F and J-85 engines no longer used by Taiwan’s Air Force.
Addressing the attendees, Roger Kelsay, founder of the Classic Aircraft Aviation Museum said, “The Black Bats’ job was to fly secret and extremely dangerous airborne missions. Not everyone returned to the safety of home. Many flight crews perished. Because these were highly secretive missions, in most cases, the losses were not publicized or even acknowledged. Families and friends would have been told that the crewmember was lost on a training mission or perhaps in a non-descript accident. That is simply the way it was.”
“After so many years, some of these facts have started to come to light. It is time now, to give these heroes, and their often forgotten families, recognition for the sacrifices they made and long endured. As an American and as a military veteran, I salute you. Your contributions to our freedom have not been forgotten and all of us here will endeavor to keep your memory alive.”
On hand was Major General Tien Tsai-mai (Mike), the former superintendent of the Republic of China Air Force Academy who worked to make the aircraft exchange possible. In speaking of the heroic sacrifice of the Black Bat and the Black Cat Squadrons, said he wanted to let “the spirit of the Republic of China Air Force live on forever, and that this historical Taiwan-US military cooperation won’t be covered by dust or forgotten over time.”