Flying Tiger Ace, The Story of Bill Reed, China’s Shining Mark by Carl Molesworth is a moving biography of Lt Col William Norman Reed, a World War II fighter ace who fought with the Flying Tigers and died in defence of the two nations he loved. In today's blog post, Carl shares the details of the mission Bill undertook on October 27, 1944.
The pilots in the 7th Fighter Squadron of the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW) in China during 1944 used to say they believed their commander, Lt. Col. William N. “Bill” Reed, could “smell Japs.” That’s because experience had shown them that there was a good chance of encountering the enemy whenever “The Boss,” as they called Reed, was leading a mission. Whether it was a patrol of enemy fighters, an airfield crowded with parked bombers, a long freight train, or some other lucrative target, Reed always seemed to know where to find the Japanese.
By the fall of 1944, Bill Reed had nearly 150 combat missions in his logbook, more than half of them flown in the 3rd Pursuit Squadron of the American Volunteer Group over Burma and China during 1941–42. He had returned to China in early 1944 with the CACW, and since then he had reached “ace” status while establishing himself as perhaps the most revered combat leader in the wing. Reed’s second combat tour had been a tough one, spent flying missions in opposition to the massive Japanese Ichi-Go ground offensive that threatened to take China out of the war during 1944. He had been shot down once behind enemy lines, but he escaped the Japanese with the help of Chinese guerrilla forces to return to his squadron and resume flying missions. He epitomized the Flying Tiger legend – often outnumbered, but never outfought.
Heavy rain severely limited the operations of the CACW during October 1944. So when the weather broke on October 27, Reed was ready to get back in the fight from his base at Liangshan. During the afternoon of that day, he led 16 P-40s drawn from all four squadrons of the 3rd Fighter Group on a sweep of the railroad between Hankow and Puchi. Alternate targets were the airfields at Ichang, Kingmen and Tangyang.
Reed led four planes in the strafing flight, with one flight at intermediate cover and two flying top cover. They flew to a point about 20 miles south of Hankow and turned south above the railroad. Just beyond Tutitang they found a train of 12 to 15 cars heading south at about 25 miles per hour. Bill swooped down and fired a burst of .50-caliber slugs into the engine, which was hit in the boiler and spouted steam in all directions as the train slowly rolled to a stop. The strafers then proceeded to make 11 passes over the train, attacking it from 90 degrees to lengthwise. Their gunfire set three or four tank cars afire at the back to the train and killed a considerable number of Japanese troops who were riding in coal cars farther forward. Some of the soldiers jumped off the train and escaped, but many could not. The gasoline fire spilled down the tracks for about half a mile, where it set a single-span wooden bridge on fire.
Leaving the train, Reed led the formation farther down the tracks but saw no further targets and turned the P-40s northwest toward Kingmen. There is no way of knowing if it was Bill’s long experience in air combat over China or just plain luck that led him to Kingmen, but when the pilots arrived over the enemy airbase they found a sight that must have made their hearts leap with anticipation. Nine twin-engined “Lily” bombers and eight to ten “Oscar” fighters were in the landing pattern, and several bombers were already on the ground. Apparently, they were planning to stage through Kingmen for a bombing raid that night.
Bill again led the attack, firing the last of his ammunition into a “Lily” that caught on fire and crashed into the ground. Then he circled up to provide top cover while the rest of the P-40s pounced on the enemy. When the smoked cleared, 16 Japanese aircraft were confirmed shot down and four more destroyed on the ground by the P-40 pilots. The only loss was Capt. Armit “Bill” Lewis, whose plane developed engine trouble while strafing the train. He broke off from the attack and headed for Enshih, but his engine failed near Lienyang and he bailed out.
Bill, who was now the leading ace of the CACW with nine confirmed victories, briefly described the mission in a letter to his mother:
“We really caught the Japs napping, and it was like shooting fish in a rain barrel. I only got one, but he was a bomber and really made a most merry blaze when he hit. All in all we got 15 or 20 of them, and my old boss [General Chennault] wrote us a swell wire of commendation. The very next day, a change of tactics and targets got us four locomotives.”
Despite the jaunty tone of that description, the strain on Bill caused by his long months in combat was now beginning to show in his letters. In one, he listed old friends from high school and college who had been killed in action, and in another he asked his mother to write to letters of condolence to the mothers of his pilots Burch, Guthrie and Lewis, who had all been listed as Missing in Action in the past few months. Bill Lewis, the most recent to go down, was in fact on his way back to his squadron, though Bill didn’t know it at the time. He told his mom that Lewis, his roommate, had completed 75 missions and was Bill’s “best pilot and right-hand man.” He closed a third letter with the sad observation, “If this war isn’t over soon, I won’t have any friends left.”
Less than two months later, Bill Reed died in a desperate night parachute jump when his P-40 ran out of fuel in the dark skies near Liangshan. By that time he had been promoted to command of the 3rd Fighter Group and was the most highly decorated pilot in China. He was just shy of his 28th birthday.
It has been my distinct honor to record the full story of Bill Reed’s life in my new book for Osprey, Flying Tiger Ace, The Story of Bill Reed, China’s Shining Mark.