They found the Earthquake, Jim McGovern has come home
By Ed Marek, editor
Lt. James B. McGovern, Jr., fighter pilot, 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Army Air Force, China, 1944-1945
December 16, 2008
Editor's note: I have completely re-accomplished this section from my original report of November 2006. That report was largely incorrect. I am quite confident about the accuracy here, though corrections are always welcome. The story below will be contrary to other renditions you read elsewhere. Thanks to all who helped me, especially Bob Bourlier, Wayne Johnson, and Chris Davis.
Aviation Cadet James B. McGovern, US Army Air Corps.
James Bernard McGovern, Jr. was born in February 4, 1922 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, trained as an aircraft maintenance technician at Casey Jones School of Aviation, and worked at Wright Aircraft Engineering Co. in Patterson, NJ. His life-long ambition was to be a pilot. He spent much time watching airplanes and built many model airplanes starting as a young boy. He enlisted in the aviation cadet program in early 1942, at the beginning of WWII. The aviation cadet program in those days is most interesting. I wrote an article about one pilot, Gerald Wergin of Wausau, Wisconsin, who went through it, entitled, "From Wausau High to fighter pilot wailing a Banshee over Burma, Training to be a fighter pilot for WWII," December 15, 2005. It is amazing how many different aircraft these cadets had to learn to fly.
McGovern completed all his flight and Army training in the US and was commissioned a second lieutenant, Army Air Force.
Following his training in the US, 2nd Lt McGovern was sent to the China-Burma-India (CB) theater of WWII, arriving in India in the fall 1944. It was normal procedure for these pilots to get some flying and familiarization training time at Landi Field, Karachi, India before going to their operational unit. Landi hosted the CBI Air Forces Training Command and the CBI Fighter Replacement Training Unit.
Following his training in Karachi, 2nd Lt. McGovern was assigned to the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) in China, arriving there in early November 1944.
Liuchow Airstrip as it looked when Chinese troops recaptured the airfield from the Japanese, 1945. Note large craters in runway. Presented by US Army.
The combat echelon of the squadron at that time was based at Liuchow, China while the command elements were located more to the rear at Chengkung.
That part of WWII that was fought in the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) is fascinating, complex, and not well known or understood by many. There is a lot to learn about the CBI, and there is intense political intrigue and jousting through which to delve. The study is fascinating. I have written some articles about it, perhaps the one with the best historical perspective being "Burma Banshees, 'Angels on our Wings,' the call of death to the enemy." This is told, however, from the vantage of a fighter squadron operating on the other side of the Himalayas in India and Burma.
I do not want to get bogged down in too much history here, but I have found two maps presented by the US Army Military History Institute that I want to use to give you a general perspective of what McGovern and the many other US Army Air Force (USAAF) airmen were working against.
This map is nice because it reflects the Japanese invasion and occupation plan in 1941. The main war between China and Japan began in 1937. The Japanese came into China from Manchuria, which they had taken in the 1930s before WWII started. So the area marked by "A," which included Beijing, Nanking and Shanghai were very important to them. All of them were in Japanese hands by the end of 1937. the Japanese High Command was content to hold the northern areas. But its generals in China wanted more, so in 1938 then began moving into central China to secure the Yangtze River, shown by the area marked "B." Next, they wanted to occupy Canton, Hong Kong and Hainan Island, which they did by 1941.
I'm next going to focus you in the following map. You'll see this map a few times as we walk through the 118th TRS movements. I want to focus you on the area originally of low Japanese interest, the area between Area "B" and French indochina, roughly along a line from Hankow to Kweilin into French Indochina.
By 1944, the Japanese had for the most part achieved the previously described objectives, as shown by the broken red lines. Note the locations of the Chinese airfields, from which the USAAF flew against the Japanese. Beginning in April 1944, the Japanese launched their ICHIGO Plan with the objective of taking the Allied airfields in the southeast. USAAF fighters and bombers were wreaking havoc on Japanese ground forces and the Japanese decided they had to take them.
The point I wish to make here is the USAAF had to fly against the Japanese and at the same time jump from base to base depending on what kind of successes the Japanese had on the ground. I'll highlight several of these bases as we move ahead.
I need to introduce the organizations in which Lt. McGovern was involved.
23rd Fighter Group, 14th AAF
23rd FG P-40 Warhawk. Artwork by Jim Laurier. Taken from the cover of 23rd Fighter Group: Chennault's Sharks, by Carl Molesworth.
The 23rd FG started as the 23rd Pursuit Group on December 17, 1941. It was redesignated the 23rd FG in May 1942 and was activated on July 4, 1942, largely from remnants of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) “Flying Tigers”, flying the P-40 Warhawk. I'll try to make this brief and simple. I can assure you that the political maneuvering and challenges of war were anything but brief and simple. Just about every paragraph I write is a study unto its own. A fascinating study I might add.
The AVG was a non-military, non-government flying unit contracted to the Nationalist Chinese to fight against the Japanese invasion of China. Most of its men were Americans.
Claire L. Chennault with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In 1937, with China at war with Japan, he accepted an invitation by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Secretary of the Chinese air force, to build the Chinese air force. Photo presented by the Secretary of State, Louisiana, "Delta State Museum.
Following the 1938 Japanese invasion, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the chief of the Chinese Air Force, hired American Claire Chennault, a former USAAF captain, to train Chinese pilots and build an air force. You see Chennault seated in this photo wearing a Chinese Air Force uniform with the rank of colonel. He grew very close to this family, something that did not endear him to his superiors when he later came back to the US Army.
Chennault's efforts to train the Chinese to fly and fight did not go well. By 1940 the Chinese Air Force was effectively a non-entity. Madame Chiang, the head of the Chinese Air Force, urged Chennault to go back to the US and get help. The US at the time was officially neutral to the Sino-Japanese war, but President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) wanted to help the Chinese, so he arranged for Chennault to get some P-40 Warhawk fighters. The US also allowed Chennault to visit air bases and recruit pilots. The US military leadership was not hot on this adventure at all, but because of FDR, the US quietly sanctioned it. The AVG is one of the more famous flying units in American aviation history.
Five AVG Flying Tiger Curtiss P-40s in formation on patrol over China. Original presented by Flying Tiger Public Relations. There is a distinctive Flying Tiger emblem on the fuselage just forward of the number 68 on the first aircraft, a little hard to see in this photo. This photo presented by History of Air Cargo.
On December 8, 1941 the US declared war against Japan, following the attack on the Hawaiian Islands a day earlier.
As you might expect, a succession of events unfolded fairly quickly throughout the Pacific and CBI theaters of war.
AVG pilots continued their attacks, with great effect, receiving considerable favorable publicity in the US at a time when WWII in all theaters looked grim.
That said, rumors spread that the AVG was going to be disbanded in favor of the 23rd Pursuit Group. The 23rd would be part of what came to be known as the China Air Task Force (CATF). As the rumors swirled through AVG circles, pilots not wanting to join the Army started going home.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was named the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in China, headquartered at Chungking in the southwest. Already Stilwell had another problem --- he was located in China and his only forces, 10th AAF, were in India.
The AVG did a great deal of damage to the Japanese war machine in China through their flight operations into the first half of 1942. That said, as you can see from the map, the Japanese just kept on moving and by 1942 held all of Southeast Asia, including Burma and were knocking on India's doorstep. Many don't realize this, but the Japanese committed overwhelming ground forces to the CBI, far more than they committed to fighting in the Pacific. The Japanese considered China to be of paramount importance.
Chennault returned to active duty with the USAAF on April 15, 1942 at the rank of colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general as promised on April 23. He was informed he would command the China Air Task Force (CATF), which on paper was to replace the AVG. The plan was to subordinate the CATF to the 10th AAF.
A huge blow occurred in May 1942. The Japanese captured the Burma Road, the only ground route available to supply Chinese forces. General Stilwell commanded two Chinese armies to defend the road along with the AVG, but they failed.
As a result, transport units assigned to the 10th AAF aircraft had to fly over the Himalayas from airfields in India to China, known as "Over the Hump." This required fighter escorts. Tenth AAF assigned fighter squadrons to provide those and to attack Japanese forces in Burma from their bases in India. AVG fighters met them on the Chinese side and escorted them to Kunming and continued attacking Japanese forces on the ground in China.
The AVG pilots and aircraft were worked to death, and attrition started dwindling their force. As a result, 10th AAF was put on notice that it would have to send fighter units to China, assigned to Chennault but still under 10th AAF control.
The first task was to get some aircraft for the CATF. The 11th BS had already arrived and was at work.
Chennault deployed his scarce fighter resources to the bases as shown on the map above. These three squadrons came with only 31 AVG aircraft, consisting of Curtiss Hawk 81A1s (export version of the P-40) and P-40Cs. The AVG had started with about 100 fighters. This is all that was left. These particular aircraft were arguably Chinese aircraft, obtained under lend lease. About 16 AVG pilots remained for a short while and continued to fly, but all but five left following the end of their contracts on July 18. A few would later come back and join up.
Chennault sweet-talked the 10th AAF to transfer the 16th FS to China as a means to get some good combat experience. They brought 20 P-40Es. So now Chennault had 51 fighters. The 16th arrived in July, first deploying to Kunming.
This is a China Air Task Force (CATF) P-40 assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group (FG). It is an AVG P-40 with the new CATF logo painted on. The photo is said to have been taken on September 15, 1942. Presented by Hawk14 at flickr.
All together, the CATF was vastly outnumbered by the Japanese, and flew more modern aircraft. The Japanese observed what was going on and immediately set out to destroy the CATF. There is awesome aerial combat history here which I will have to skate over. As a broad statement, the Japanese had nice aircraft but lousy pilots. The AVG pilots who remained brought their green newbies from the states up to snuff fast. Between the fighters and the bombers, the CATF did a number on the Japanese in the air and on the ground. The CATF in almost all instances took the offensive. They took losses, but nothing like the Japanese. They did have to pull back the 75th and 76th squadrons to Kunming, but this would be the name of the game throughout the war. The CATF then received 20 more experienced fighter pilots from Panama.
At about this same time, I believe in August 1942, the 11th was reorganized out of the 7th Bombardment Group (BG) and assigned to the newly constituted 341st BG. The 341st officially activated in September 1942, first flying over Burma through June 1944, then over China through the end of the war.
The 11th BS (M) flew its final mission in southeast China against shipping in Hong Harbor on October 16, 1942, with a P-40 escort. They destroyed a 350 ft. and a 400 ft. freighter, a 350 ft. and 200 ft. merchant vessel, and damaged two more freighters. I believe the squadron then went to India to join the 341st BG for Burma operations. If true, then there was a time here that the CATF did not have bombers assigned to it organically.
"The CATF was probably the smallest American air force ever to be dignified by the command of a general. It certainly was the raggedest. Its paperwork was poor, and salutes were scarce, but when the signals were called for combat, it never missed a play."
From an AAF standpoint, the organizational relationships in the CBI finally started to take some form. At a top level, the 14th AAF flew mostly from China and over China, while the 10th AAF flew mostly from India and Burma over Burma. The Himalayan Mountains were seen as a general dividing line between the two air forces.
The original mission of the 23rd FG, now assigned to 14th AAF, was to provide air defense for the Chinese terminus of the Hump air transport route over the Himalayas from India. It quickly acquired more missions, many of which were offensive in character: conduct a campaign against Japanese aircraft, both in the air and on the ground, strafe and bomb Japanese forces, installations, and transportation; escort bombers, and fly reconnaissance missions. Its area of operations extended beyond China to Burma, French Indochina, and Formosa, though most of its operations were in China.
A B-24D Liberator of the 308th Bomb Group passes P-40K Warhawks of the23rd FG. Photo credit: MFA Productions LLC.
In March 1943, the 308th BG was transferred from the US to China flying the B-24D Liberator, assigned to the 14th AAF. In August 1943 the 68th Fighter Wing (FW) was constituted and the 23rd FG was assigned to it. At that time, the 68th FW had two squadrons assigned, the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) and the 449th FS, the latter of which was attached. Then, in December 1943 the 68th FW was redesignated the 68th Composite Wing and both the 23rd FG and 308th BG were assigned to it. From a fighter standpoint, then, the 23rd FG had six fighter squadrons, the 74th, 75th and 76th FS, the 118th TRS, and the 449th FS attached.
The 68th Wing was a command and control wing. The photo above shows a 308th B-24 taking off above some 23rd FG P-40s. You can see the 23rd retained the original Flying Tiger nose art.
I regret going through so much organizational stuff. If there is a point to to remember, it is that you can pull your hair out tracking the rapidly changing organizational arrangements made by the AAF during this period. Part of that was due to the fact that the US as a whole was not prepared for this war, the AAF as a warfighting entity was fairly new, its resources were scarce, and Europe had the priority. I can recall reading that General Chennault pulled out a lot of his hair over all this --- he understood well he was assembling an air warfighting machine from scraps and using scrappy guys.
118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th AAF
At long last, we have reached the squadron to which our man, 2nd Lt. James B,. McGovern, Jr. was assigned. Bet you thought I forgot about him!
The 118th Aero squadron was organized at Kelly Field, Texas on August 31, 1917. The unit moved to France in January 1918 and was later demobilized at Mitchell Field, NY in June 1919. The unit was assigned to Connecticut in 1923 and activated as the 118th Observation Squadron at Brainard Field in Hartford on October 26, 1923.
Lt. George Kutsher and a P-39 of the 118th TRS, Aiken, SC, 1943. Note the "Flying Yankee" door insignia. Photo courtesy of Robert Bourlier. Presented by WWII In Color.
After June, the squadron was notified to train for overseas combat duties. The P-39 was a controversial aircraft in the US and with the RAF.
P-51B used by the 118th TRS at Meridian, Mississippi while undergoing low level Tactical Reconnaissance training in 1943. Photo contributed by Bob Bourlier and presented by ArmyAirForces.com
Whatever the case, the squadron's pilots now began to train with the P-51 Mustang, understanding they would be flying the F-6C photoreconnaissance variant.
I've said this in other quarters, but the greatest attribute of the American warrior is the ability to adapt and make do. They always figure out a way, and always will.
Initially the 118th pilots flew local air base defense missions for B-29 bases in India.
While I suspect that the 118th TRS pilots were not hot on flying airbase defense missions, defending B-29 bases in those days was huge. There bases were in India, but remember that the Japanese were knocking on India's door. The B-29 is a marvelous story. She was General "Hap" Arnold's baby, America's first long range heavy, strategic bomber. He raised this aircraft from drawings in the late 1930s to beast in the mid 1940s. He had the foresight to save it for the Japanese, which was unusual since Europe had the priority. In 1943, he presented a plan to deploy the B-29 to China and defeat the Japanese from there. General Arnold had the vision to see that it was going to take such a long range heavy bomber to bomb Japan's home islands. He felt our other bombers had the legs to handle a far smaller European area.
Her arrival in the CBI theater in April 1944 surprised the Japanese. The first aircraft came by way of Africa and landed at the Indian air base at Kharagpur, in southern West Bengal a bit west of Calcutta. The 58th Bomber Wing flew its first bombing missions on June 5, 1944 against Bangkok, Thailand.
Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata following B-29 raid. Presented by North China Marines.
The 58th flew its first mission against Japan's home islands on June 15, 1944. The target was the Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata. To get to Japan, the B-29s had to recover at bases in southwest China, refuel, and then fly on to Japan and Manchuria, recover in China, refuel, and return to India. This was tough on the scarce fuel resources in China, and you can believe that General Chennault complained that this route was depleting fuel he needed for his fighters. Only the Marines' capture of the Mariana Islands in the Pacific would provide relief. The B-29s went there and then could fly round-trip from there to the home islands.
In late May 1944, the 118th was released from airbase defense duties and on June 12, 1944 the squadron was sent to China. The 118th arrived between June 12 and 16. It was attached to the 23rd FG and, with its other fighter squadrons, began flying P-40 combat operations in China.
Chengkung was used as the headquarters and support area while the fliers and their craft staged from Kweilin. By this time, the Japanese were not far away, located just to the northeast at Heng-yang, on their way to Kweilin. Chinese ground forces stood between the 118th and the Japanese moving to the southwest.
The 118th flew all sorts of missions. They escorted bombers, attacked enemy river and truck traffic, attacked bridges, airfields, troop columns, fought air-air battles, and conducted visual and photo reconnaissance, and others I'm sure I've missed. High priority was attached to attacking enemy troops in the Hengyang and Ling-ling areas and enemy supply lines as far north as Hankow. Pilots were flying 3-4 missions per day. While the squadron experienced good successes, the overwhelming numbers of Japanese forces on the ground enabled them to consolidate their hold on Heng-yeng and moved ahead toward Ling-ling and Kweilin.
The Chinese could not hold against the Japanese forward movement, so the 118th combat echelon fell back to Liuchow in September 1944. The Japanese moved against Kweilin shortly after the 118th left. Hengyang, Ling-ling and Kweilin were now the main targets for the squadron. They encountered little opposition in the air, but plenty from the ground. The squadron flew a significant number of close air support missions for the Chinese fighting the Japanese on the ground. The problem was that the Japanese just kept coming, from the north, the west and the east.
The 118th would have to leave Liuchow. The weather became the greatest limiting factor in trying to evacuate Liuchow as Japanese ground forces approached. The 118th had to get out, so on November 7, the skipper decided they were going to leave come hell or high water. A few aircraft and pilots were lost during the departure, but most of them exited safely. While the squadron was at Kweilin, Lt. Col. McComas had to be evacuated out because of illness. He returned while they were at Liuchow and proved to be a marvelous leader by example.
While at Liuchow, there was a major turnover in pilots.
The Japanese intensified their bombing attacks against the base, but they were not very accurate and did little damage. Chinese anti-aircraft fire against them was very heavy and effective.
As another sign that we American should love our GIs, with the Japanese approaching Liuchow, the men decided to take the name "Blue Lightning Squadron." They asked the rear echelon at Chengkung to get them some blue paint so they could get some nose art on their craft. As most GIs know, the headquarters is seldom able to respond to their needs and such was the case here. Blue paint was impossible to find, but black paint was plentiful, so they changed the name to "Black Lightning Squadron."
This is a drawing of a 118th TRS P-51C Mustang piloted by Capt. Ray Crowell, Chengkung, early 1945. I show so you get a sense for the Black Lightning nose art. Courtesy of Nick King. Presented by CBI History.
F-6C, 118th TRS, China. The source for this photo said this aircraft was the first to bear the "Black Lightning" markings designed by Lt. Phil Dickey. The red arrow points to the camera port. Photo contributed by Bob Bourlier and presented by ArmyAirForces.com
While the men of the squadron were working the nose art situation, they also fell back to Chengkung for a few days to get rest.
After just a few days, incredibly, in my view, with the Japanese moving on Liuchow on their way to taking out most of the 14th AAF's air bases in southeast China, the 118th TRS was ordered to hop right over the enemy and fly over to Suichwan, fairly far forward and quite a bit behind enemy lines.
I don't pretend to be a great tactician, but this move sure looks neat to me. The squadron history says:
"Basing at Suichwan put this squadron in one of the most unique positions in modern warfare. Staging offensive attacks against the enemy anywhere from 60 to 200 miles behind his lines brought in a new element of surprise."
The Japanese were moving southward and westward, and they were all around the 118th, but no problem, the 118th would now start attacking enemy supply line strongholds on the east coast, destroying much of their logistics supply lines. The Japanese had no choice but to switch their attention to the east with a view toward getting the Allies completely out of the bases located there.
118th TRS P-51C, Suichuan, China, January 1945. Photo contributed by Bob Bourlier and presented by ArmyAirForces.com
The 118th TRS arrived at Suichwan on November 14, 1944 and conducted an intense air campaign against the Japanese supply routes from the east coast.
You will recall that there was a major pilot rotation toward the end of the squadron's stay at Liuchow. To some of the old hands, the pilots rotating out were known as "the first group." The first group flew the P-40. Now came the second group, and with them came the P-51 B/C Mustang, which had longer legs and therefore greater range, and far better performance than the P-40.
Also came a pilot named 2nd Lt James B. McGovern, Jr. Wayne "Whitey" Johnson, a squadron flier who arrived very shortly after McGovern, believes McGovern got there in mid November, since he was in place when Whitey got there later in the month. McGovern also shows up on the squadron roster in November. So McGovern was in the infamous "second group," with lots of work to do and some history to make.
These guys might have been newbies. But during the 95 offensive raids involving 484 combat sorties that would ensue through the end of January 1945, the squadron sunk, probably sunk or damaged a total of 130,000 tons of enemy shipping, and destroyed, probably destroyed or damaged 180 enemy aircraft. In addition, they perfected the technique of skip bombing. All of this was done by a group of pilots with little combat experience. They attacked Japanese targets in the Anking, Kiukiang, Hankow, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong areas. December and January fighter sweeps against Hong Kong and Shanghai were especially effective.
I would like to highlight missions flown on December 23, 1944, in which Lt. Colonel McComas shot down five enemy aircraft in one day, becoming an "Ace in a day," and January 20, 1945, during which time McGovern got his two aerial kills. I understand that McGovern was part of the raid during which McComas did his thing.
Lt. Colonel Edward O. McComas, commander, 118th TRS
Edward O. McComas, "EO" for short, of Winfield, Kansas, the 118th TRS commander, led a skip-bombing mission against the Hankow-Wuchang ferry and ferry installations on December 23, 1943.
Hankow-Wuchang is now known as Wuhan, located on the intersection of the Han and Yangtze Rivers, west of Shanghai, and about 250 miles northwest of Suichwan. This urban complex has long been a main transportation hub in the region. A ferry ran between Wuhan (Hankow) on the Han River and Wuchang just across the way on the Yangtze) .
McComas led a 16-ship formation of P-51s, fifteen of which were flown by his lieutenants, one of whom was James McGovern. The plan was to flow at minimum altitude from Suichwan directly to the target. The weather was good. All together, they carried 9,250 rounds for their .50 caliber machine guns and twenty 500 lb bombs with delayed fuses. One P-51 had to abort due to landing gear problems, so 15 P-51s went in to the target area. Fourteen returned home safely. Lt. Boernke bailed out east of Suichwon and was lost.
Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar, Japan. Presented by Aviation History.
They encountered 15-18 Ki-43 Oscars while over Hankow and fairly intense anti-aircraft (AA) fire.
The 15 P-51s broke up into three groups, two bombing flights, one for the Hankow side and one for the Wuchang side. One combat air patrol cover flight orbited above, just a bit to the north.
The bombing flights inflicted good damage against both sides. They attacked unopposed by enemy aircraft, but encountered heavy AA. Following these attacks, enemy Oscars were spotted. Lt Williams came off his bomb run and saw 12 of them above and behind, so he turned at them and shot down one at about 6,000 ft. He then did some strafing below. Lt Grover all pulled off his bomb run and climbed to about 10,000 ft. and took down an Oscar from astern. He was then attacked by two Oscars. Grover escaped and pulled back at his attacker and shot him down. Other pilots conducted strafing runs against airfield damaging and destroying enemy aircraft on the deck.
McComas was in the cover flight, conducted some strafing runs and, pulling off, saw six Oscars above. One Oscar trailed him, hit his wing with fire, McComas dove to escape and then pulled up to 7,000 ft. and chased after one Oscar from astern. McComas fired and took him down. Kill number one for the day. Two more Oscars came at him so he headed away. He passed over an airfield, nine Oscars were preparing to take off, he circled about, shot down one on takeoff which in turn crashed into another also taking off. Numbers 2 and 3. McComas then hit the throttle and approached two more Oscars from behind, firing into each, killing both. Numbers 4 and 5 for the day. An "Ace in One Day."
Lt. McGovern was McComas' wingman, and conducted several strafing runs damaging several aircraft on the ground.
During their debriefing, the crews identified eight Oscars destroyed in the air, one probably destroyed in the air, one Oscar probably destroyed on the ground, and five damaged on the ground. They destroyed five Lily aircraft on the ground, seven more damaged on the ground and one probably damaged on the ground. That totaled 27 enemy aircraft. The battle over the target area took about 183 minutes, the entire mission 3 hours 20 minutes.
Lt. Col. McComas in the cockpit of his P-51C, China, 1945. You can see his kills, 14 aerial, five on the ground. Photo contributed by Bob Bourlier and presented by ArmyAirForces.com
I want to show you a couple photos of a 118th TRS P-51 model made by Len Roberto, who has done some fantastic aircraft and ship modeling. This model let's you see close up what the 118th's birds actually looked like. Roberto made this model for Bob Bourlier, whose uncle, Lt. Phil Dickey, designed the nose art. This aircraft model is of the P-51D-5NT aircraft flown by Colonel McComas, and carries the markings it carried on the December 23, 1944 mission.
Colonel McComas spent most of his time in China in great pain, suffering from various illnesses and a back injury. Nonetheless, he did what airmen do the best --- fly, fight and destroy targets. Finally, his tour had to be curtailed so he could return to the US for treatment. In his seven month combat tour in China, he scored 14 aerial kills, became an "Ace in a day," scored four kills on the ground, and along with his wingman, sunk a Japanese destroyer in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. During this time, he had been shot down, he bailed out behind enemy lines, messed up an old back injury, and was rescued by Chinese guerrillas on the ground and returned to duty. This injury would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Let's switch now to January 20, 1945. The 118th TRS and other fighter squadrons had been conducting a sustained air campaign against Shanghai through much of the month. The Suichwan-based 118th tasked 16 P-51s, all flown by its lieutenants, 2nd Lt McGovern included, to strafe airfields in the Shanghai area. They flew directly to Wuhing and then to the target at 10,000 ft. Ceilings were unlimited, visibility 1-5 miles in haze. It looks to me like they proceeded to the north, and then cut eastward to the Shanghai area.
Lt. Carl Colleps experienced an electrical system failure and had to abort and return to base (RTB). The remaining 15 joined up with more P-51s from the 74th FS and went directly to the target area. It looks to me like they had a field day at Japan's expense.
Lt. Carl Colleps
Lt. Russell Williams
Lt. Russell Williams spotted a "Zeke," or Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" in a landing pattern at Lunghwa airfield and let him have it. The Zeke blew up just as Williams passed over him and the Zeke's wing hit Williams' wing. The Zeke's wing fell off, Williams wing was badly damaged, but he was able to limp her home with a kill under his belt.
Japanese Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero fighter based in California. Presented by the Commemorative Air Force.
Lt. Fred Lamphier
Lt. Melvin Scheer
Three other 118th pilots, Lts. Posts, Fred Lamphier (L) and Hiberger joined up to take on an "Oscar," or Nakajima Ki-43, and Lamphier nailed him. Lamphier got a kill. Lt Melvin Scheer (R) jumped an Oscar at 8,000 ft. and fired at him from nearly head-on, the Oscar broke off and exploded. Scheer got a kill. Lt. McGovern observed the kill and the pilot bailing out.
Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar, Japan. Presented by Aviation History.
Lt. Raymond Trudeau came in on an Oscar from behind at 7,000 ft. and then down to 2,500 ft. Trudeau hit him in the tail and engine, but the Oscar broke away and out of sight, so Trudeau got a "damage" on this guy.
Lt. Raymond Trudeau
Lt. Ray Crowell
Lt. Ray Crowell led his flight on a strafing pass over Lungwha, strafed a hangar with an airplane in it, and destroyed the aircraft. One ground kill. While he was in the area, Crowell shot up the control tower. Pulling off the airfield, he then saw a tug pulling some barges on the river 10 miles to the south. Crowell and Lt. Pearsall joined together and strafed the tug causing it to burn.
His aircraft was lost, Tollett did not return to base, and was listed as missing.
Lt. Everson Pearsall attacked the Lungwha control tower, then came back and probably destroyed a small aircraft on the deck, came back and got another one.
Lt. Everson Pearsall
Lt. Silven Kosa
Lt. Richard Chouinard
Lt. Silven Kosa found some Oscars parked at Lungwha and destroyed four and damaged six more after several passes. He then went over to Tachang airfield and destroyed one Nakijima (Douglas) DC-2 "Tess" and damaged another on the ground. Lt. Richard Chouniard probably destroyed two more Oscars on another part of the field, and then joined with Kosa to work over Tachang, damaging two Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily bombers and one Tess.
Lt. Lynn Decker
Lt. Roy Christianson
Lt. Glenn Geyer
Lt. Lynn Decker destroyed another Lily over at Lungwha and Lt. Roy Christianson destroyed an Oscar there as well. Lt. Glenn Geyer made a strafing run at Lungwha but then was not observed again. His P-51 was lost and he was listed as missing.
The 118th encountered heavy and accurate anti-aircraft (AA) fire. The pilots noted it was a different kind of AA, which included about 10 phosphorous explosions at altitudes ranging from 400-1500 ft. The Japanese managed to get 12-15 fighters into the air, but it appeared the Shanghai warning system was ineffective as these fighters were just climbing out when the 118th arrived. The enemy pilots were not ready to fight.
On their way home, Lt. Scheer strafed a train of 14 cars south of Sungkiang. The engine appeared to take considerable damage. Scheer then attacked another locomotive at Kaslung and damaged it. McGovern also caught a locomotive at Hangchow RR station. He fired into it and probably destroyed it.
Thirteen pilots and their aircraft engaged in the attacks returned to base safely. Two were left missing.
This mission was conducted on January 20, 1945, and two days later, the squadron left the field because of Japanese advances on the ground toward it. The squadron moved to Chengkung. At this point, the Japanese were consolidating their hold on southeastern China, taking control of the Canton-Henyang railroad in February 1945.
118th TRS P-51s on the flightline at Laohwangping, China, June 1945. Photo contributed by Bob Bourlier and presented by ArmyAirForces.com. There is fantastic photography at this site of the 118th TRS from training in the US to the war in the CBI.
The squadron remained at Chengkung until April 1945, and then moved to Laohwangping. The task at this base was to stop the Japanese advance against Chihkiang. Chihkiang, among other things, hosted 14th AAF fighters and was a forward base. This next map shows an approximation of the locations of Laohwangping and Chihkiang. The most notable point to be made is that the Allies had been forced to leave the bases farther to the east, and now the Japanese were trying to chase them out of airfields to the west as well.
The US and China put a major effort into defending Chihkiang. An article published by the India China Division, Air Transport Command on June 7, 1945, recounted the fight.
Chihkiang Tower. Photo credit: James H. Aurelius. Presented by CBI History.
It said that the fighter pilots sitting alert there sat in the planes, ready to go. One was shot while in the cockpit. USAAF transport aircraft brought in the Chinese New Sixth Army, all their equipment, supplies, ammunition, everything they needed from rear bases. The aircraft landed at Chikkiang, offloaded and refueled at virtually the same time, and got out of there to get back to pick up more Chinese soldiers and bring them back. These Chinese forces formed a reserve, enabling the the holding forces to push forward against the Japanese. In the mean time, fighter aircraft did what they could to beat back and slow down the Japanese advance. As a result of this coordinated US-Chinese effort, the Japanese attack failed and they fell back. Furthermore, the Chinese moved into and took Nanning to the south, about 330 miles west of Canton, forcing the Japanese out. Together, these were huge Allied victories.
Not many people realize that the Japanese invested a great deal in their operations in China. The bulk of their combat forces outside the home islands were assigned to the CBI, and these were among her very finest front-line units. Their problem in China was now made more difficult as the result of major US victories in the Pacific island hopping campaign that would enable daily B-29 bombing of the home islands from the Marianas in the Pacific. The Allies were advancing toward the Home Islands, the Japanese feared the Allies might invade along China's coastline, and they expected the Allies to invade the Home Islands themselves. One result was Japan had to begin withdrawing forces from China for use elsewhere.
The air war was essentially finished in China by July 1945. The emperor would agree to an unconditional surrender in August 1945 and the official surrender occurred in September. The 118th would help oversee the Japanese withdrawal and would slowly disband. It was officially deactivated in October, and most of the pilots were transferred to other units within the 23rd FG. McGovern was among those, assigned to the 75th FS for a short time. The 118th squadron was returned to the Connecticut National Guard.
Many accounts of McGovern's time in the CBI War say that he had four aerial and five ground kills. That is not true. The book, WWII Victories of the Army Air Force (AAF), by Arthur Wyllie, is a very detailed and well-researched account of our AAF in action in WWII. Wyllie lists McGovern as having achieved two aerial victories against the Japanese while flying with the 118th TRS. This aerial victories account coincides with a report I saw on an USAF site which said that McGovern claimed only two shootdowns in aerial combat, both Nakajima Ki-43s, on January 20, 1945, while flying the P-51 over Shanghai with the 118th. I conveyed that story to you from the original Intelligence debriefing of the raids. I also found a blog item by someone who was credible and certain that these two are his only air victories. And finally, one of his flying mates, Wayne "Whitely" Johnson, has told me McGovern had two aerial and two ground kills. So I consider this matter closed.
James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern poses on the wing of his World War II fighter plane. Presented by CNN
This photo, which I understand to have been released by the McGovern family, is said to show Captain McGovern posing on the wing of his fighter aircraft at an unknown location. Note there are four Japanese flags on the fuselage, which might lead some to believe that he had four aerial victories. In talking with Wayne "Whitey" Johnson, I learned that the two national flags of Japan, the rising sun on a plain white background, reflected aerial victories. The other flags with "sunrays" extending outward are the Japanese battle flag, and reflected ground victories; i.e., aircraft on the ground destroyed. Johnson confirmed that McGovern had two aerial and two ground victories.
As an aside, Johnson mentioned that many times a pilot did not really have his own aircraft. Instead, the ground crews would rig up a kind of paper identification which would be attached to the fuselage when the pilot arrived to that aircraft, It could be removed later. I have blown up this photo and the words "J.B. McGovern" are hand-written on the identification paper just to the left of the flags. I was not able to read what was written below that.
As an aside, this particular aircraft model is a P-51 B/C. The canopy has horizontal struts. The "D" model employed the Malcolm bubble with no such struts.
Lieutenant James B. McGovern, Jr., USAAF, 118th TRS, China, in his P-51D Mustang. Photo courtesy of Robert Bourlier. Bob has confirmed to me that this is a "D" model. Presented by CBI History.
The squadron had mostly P-51Cs, but did get some P-51Ds later. As I mentioned, the "D" model had a bubble canopy, which vastly improved the ability of the pilots to see out, 360 degrees.
"Earthquake McGoon" was presumably named after the comic strip character who appeared in Li'l Abner during the 1930s. Presented by the 6th Bomb Group.
Wayne Johnson, shown in this next photo taken in 1944 with his squadron mates, delivered McGovern's eulogy at Arlington National Cemetery on May 24, 2007, and described the nicknaming process this way:
In talking to Johnson, he said Dickey loved to draw, and especially loved to draw cartoons and the like. He is credited with doing nose art for many of the 118th's aircraft. Johnson has also estimated that McGovern was "assigned" the nickname in either late December 1944 or early January 1945.
This is a group photo of 118th TRS "Red Flight" officers. Front Row: (L-R) 1st Lt Richard Warrington, 2nd Lt Claude Jackson, 1st Lt LeRoy Price, 2nd Lt Elmo Oxley and 1st Lt Ray Crowell. Back Row: (L-R) 1st Lt Everson "Vitamin" Pearsall, 2nd Lt Ron Phillips, 1st Lt Raymond Trudeau, 2nd Lt James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern, 2nd Lt John Grover and 1st Lt Chester Malarz. That's our man, back row, third from the right. This photo and others were provided courtesy of Bob Bourlier and presented by CBI History
For his part, like Earthquake McGoon, McGovern was a big fellow, though he is not the tallest guy in the photo you see above. That said, he was a big guy and apparently carried a bit of a pot belly while in China. Wayne Johnson described him this way:
"McGovern's unshapely size, black bushy eyebrows, black beard (even after a fresh shave), his fondness for Jing Bao Juice, and his attempts to make his own moonshine, made him a natural as 'Earthquake McGoon.’ “
"But McGovern was more than a comic strip character. He was a superb fighter pilot. He was the type of pilot that became part of the airplane. A careful pilot and one that one felt safe to fly with."
When I talked with Johnson, he repeated that everyone in the squadron thought him to be a good pilot. Johnson had written earlier:
"As his girth grew, his crew chief would almost pry him into the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang. But once in the pilot's seat, he became part of the machine. McGoon was a natural born fighter pilot. He was the kind of pilot you liked to have along on a mission. Careful but tenacious."
One more story recalled by Wayne Johnson. McGovern learned that a radio operator was stranded at a remote base, and the enemy was close by. McGovern volunteered to fly in some explosives to blow up the equipment and brought some maps to show the trooper some escape routes. McGovern flew to the site and landed, then decided the troop walking out was too hard, so he climbed in his Mustang, left his parachute behind to make more room in the cockpit, gave the guy his helmet and goggles, put the radio op on his lap, and took off with the radio operator's head above the canopy, with the canopy left open. McGovern landed that baby, and said this to the trooper:
"Better'n walking, wasn't it son?"
The 118th TRS grew three aces, five aerial kills or more: they were Lt. Colonel E.O. McTomas, scoring the 4th highest number of kills in all 14th AAF, Lt. Oran S .Watts with 5, and Lt. Russell D. Williams also with 5.
While we all like to praise our aces, I, not having been a pilot, will praise any of aviators who score an aerial victory. I'll list the ones I know about, though I want to remind all readers that all these guys in all the fighter squadrons flying everywhere during WWII did a host of other things, like bombing, strafing and all that comes with being an American fighter pilot. They are the envy of us all.
Lt. Henry Davis - 3
Lt. Ira B. Jones III - 3
Lt. John F. Grover - 2
Lt. James B. McGovern - 2
Lt. Berthold H. Peterson - 2
Capt. John W. Carpenter - 1
Lt. Carlton Covey - 1
Lt. Jack E. Gocke - 1
Lt. George H. Greene - 1
Lt. Claude S. Jackson - 1
Lt. George S. Kutsher - 1
Lt. Frederick A. Lamphier - 1
Lt. Donald H. Penning - 1
Lt. Melvin G. Scheer - 1
Lt. Raymond A. Trudeau - 1
Lt. Richard I. Windsor - 1
Here's a group photo of the 118th TRS officers at Chengung, China, circa January 1945. The Earthquake is first row, first from the left.