Valor: Working on the Railroad

March 1, 1994

“But for the Fourteenth Air Force, we could have gone anywhere we wished in China.” Those are the words of Lieutenant General Takahashi, who had been chief of staff of Japanese armies in northern China. It was a remarkable admission. At no time did Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault’s Flying Tigers have more than 600 fighters and bombers to cover an area as large as the US east of the Mississippi.

Some readers may think of Fourteenth Air Force in terms of its 10-to-1 kill ratio over the Japanese. Less has been written about the interdiction and close-support operations that denied Japanese armies the freedom of movement regretted by General Takahashi. Both aspects of that air war as seen from a fighter cockpit are etched in graphic detail by William F. X. Band in his book Warriors Who Ride the Wind. He recounts with power and sensitivity the perils and exhilaration of combat, the poignancy of loss, and hilarious escapades that tempered the austerity with which the Flying Tigers lived and fought.

Bill Band, who flew more than 100 combat missions in China, was a major participant in a unique interdiction campaign. In early 1944, when Band was a first lieutenant, the Japanese were building up forces north of the Yellow River for a drive south that would give them control of eastern China.

In late May, General Chennault sent eight pilots with recently arrived P-51Bs and a small maintenance team to a secret landing strip at Liangshan. They were designated the 26th Fighter Detachment, now all but forgotten to history.

From Liangshan, they would stage forward to another bare strip at Sian, some 800 miles north of Kunming. Their mission was to stop all traffic on the Peking-Hankow Railroad north of the Yellow River as far east as Peking, some 600 miles from Sian.

The assignment had some aspects of a suicide mission. The pilots would be operating on their own, beyond the range of friendly support, strafing at low altitude, where the P-51s’ liquid-cooled engines were extremely vulnerable to ground fire. If they were attacked near Peking and had to drop wing tanks, there could be no return to friendly territory. Add to that the customarily bad spring and summer weather in northern China and the absence of navigational aids, and prospects for survival or, at best, avoiding an unpleasant POW experience were marginal.

On May 30, the detachment flew its first mission in four flights of two aircraft each. Bill Band flew with Capt. Roderick P. “Red” MacKinnon. Together they blew up seven locomotives, strafed several troop trains, set fire to storage areas, and generally created havoc for several hundred miles along the river.

It wasn’t a cheap day, though. Band and Captain MacKinnon took many small-caliber hits, and one pilot, 1st Lt. Leland W. Dawson, was shot down and captured. He spent the next 15 months as a POW, emerging on V-J Day weighing only 95 pounds. One P-51 was so badly shot up it would not fly again for many days, but on that first mission the detachment had accounted for 23 locomotives, many trucks, several storage areas, and untold numbers of enemy troops.

On another mission, 1st Lt. Joseph P. Baglio was shot down by ground fire near Peking and rescued by Chinese Communist guerrillas, who had fled to the mountains much earlier to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies. Baglio was led 900 miles on foot and horseback to safety. One of the rest stops was at Communist headquarters, where he spent hours discussing political philosophy with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, the Communist leaders.

Bill Band’s longest mission–seven and a half hours–took him to the Great Wall near Peking. On the return flight, after being separated from his wingman, he attacked a large airfield not on his map, destroying enemy planes on the ground and in the air. This, like every other mission north of the Yellow River, was a flirtation with disaster.

When weather permitted, missions continued until June 25, when the detachment was ordered to return the four remaining, patched-up P-51s to Kunming. In a month of combat, eight fighter pilots had destroyed more than 60 locomotives and hundreds of other targets. Later it was learned that Japanese headquarters in Tokyo turned down the request of their commanders in China to drive into the western provinces. Air attacks on railroads in northern China by the 26th Fighter Detachment, and further south by other Fourteenth Air Force fighters and bombers, had reduced rail capacity by more than 40 percent and the number of locomotives to the minimum needed for moving raw materials bound for Japan.

In a theater where decorations were not bestowed lavishly, the pilots of the 26th Fighter Detachment were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for one of the most unusual and courageous actions of World War II. After the war, Bill Band graduated from law school, was recalled as a fighter pilot for the Korean War, then served as a senior official in the Departments of Defense and State. For him, those later experiences will never equal the high adventure shared with good friends who fought an extraordinary war in a remote theater of World War II.

Published March 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.