Biplane fighter aces


Major General Yuan Chin-Han

Pilots from the 3rd FG in front of a Chinese P-40. The image is probably taken in the spring of 1942 at Wujiaba Airport outside Kunming.
Identified pilots are (from left): Yuan Chin-Han, Wang Han-Hsun, unknown, Tsai Ming-Yong and Wang Wen-Hua.
Image copyright R. T. Smith used by permission of Brad Smith.

At the start of the Sino-Japanese war, Yuan Chin-Han was serving in the 21st PS, 4th PG. This unit was at the time equipped with Curtiss Hawk IIIs.

During the night of 14 and 15 August, the pilots of the 4th PG at Schien-Chiao airbase had to prepare their fighters themselves since the ground personnel had left the field to take shelter during the air raid on 14 August and had not returned. The pilots carried cans of fuel on their backs from the storage building to the field, punched holes on the cans and fuelled the aircraft themselves. They had not eaten since noon, and were not able to go to bed until 1:30 a.m. They did not sleep long because alarm sounded less than two hours later.
In the early morning on 15 August Colonel Kao Chi-Hang led 21 Hawk III's from the 4th PG to intercept a dawn attack on Hangchow by twelve Type 89 torpedo bombers from the Japanese carrier Kaga. In the confused action in and out of clouds, the 4th PG made 17 claims, more than the total number of Japanese planes in the action. The actual losses were six shot down and two ditched in Hangchow Bay.
Kao quickly shot down one of the Type 89's on the edge of the formation and then attacked another setting it alight. A lucky shot from the starboard quarter hit Kao in the right arm before passing through the instrument panel and damaging the engine in his Hawk No. IV-1. He was forced to land at Schien-Chiao and was out of action for 2 months.
21st PS's Squadron Leader Captain Lee Kuei-Tan in No. 2101 attacked the No. 2 Shotai, shooting down the No. 2 plane over Chao-Er. Two out of the crew of three were seen to bail out but they were over the Chao-er River and probably did not survive. Lee then teamed up with Lieutenant Cheng Hsiao-Yu of 22nd PS in No. 2202 to claim another Type 89. Return fire from the tightly packed Japanese formation was heavy and Lee's No. 2101 received slight damage to its upper wings while Cheng’s No. 2202 took a shot in one of its landing wheels. Cheng’s wingman, 2nd Lieutenant Chang Kuang-Ming also claimed a victory in this combat when he attacked the leader of a group of Japanese bombers. He opened fire with his two machine guns. Tracers and bullets truck his target, and the enemy plane turned into a fireball and plunged out of the sky. He broke off immediately and turned around for another strike.
Lieutenant Huang Yan-Po in No. 2107 attacked the first Shotai, claiming to have shot down the No. 3 aircraft in flames. He too took a shot in the landing wheel. Lieutenant Tan Won in No. 2104 also attacked the same Shotai and claimed another Type 89. This may have been the aircraft of the Kaga's Commander, Air Group (CAG) Commander Iwai who was killed in this action along with his deputy. Lieutenant Wang Wen-Hua caught two Type 89's trying to attack Schien-chiao from the south and shot one down in flames. One of the crew, a young ensign, bailed out and was captured. (This unnamed ensign later defected to the Chinese side and helped translate decoded Japanese radio messages). Lieutenant Yuan Chin-Han in No. 2108 went after the No.1 Shotai in a formation and claimed to have shot down the leader in flames (this may also have been Iwai's plane, it is almost certain that many Chinese pilots shot at the same planes). Lieutenant Liu Chi-Sheng in No. 2102 also claimed one Type 89 over Woong-Chia-Fu but was hit in the fuel tank and force landed at Chaio-shi Airfield where his plane was further damaged by bombing.
Lieutenant Le Yi-Chin from the 22nd PS made no less than 4 claims but these are almost certainly duplicates of other claims or overoptimistic.
Deputy Squadron C.O. Lai Ming-Tang landed to refuel and took off again to claim a shared kill with his wingman Lieutenant Liang Tian-Cheng.
Of the 23rd PS, Captain Mao Ying-Chu, Lieutenant Yang Yu-Ching and Lieutenant Wang Yin-Hua each claimed one Type 89.

Later in the day at 13:30 the Nanking Air Defence Command received a report that 16 Japanese aircraft had flown past Soochow towards Nanking. The alarm was sounded, and Chinese Air Force fighters took off to meet them. The Japanese aircraft were 20 G3Ms from the Kisarazu Ku. The Japanese aircraft had flown in directly from Ohmura in Japan and landed back at Cheju-do.
From Chu Yung, squadrons of the 3rd PG scrambled their aircraft. Wong Pan-Yang led eight Boeing 281s from the 17th PS. Chen Yau-Wei, Commander of the 8th PS, led five Fiat CR.32 fighters. Scrambled were also seven Hawk IIs from the 28th PS, 5th PG, and one Hawk III and five Hawk II from the 34th Provisional PS.
In the ensuing melee, four G3Ms were shot down and six damaged. Claims were confused but it is generally acknowledged that Captain Wong Sun-Shui (in #1703) downed the first G3M to fall in the Battle of Nanking when the eight Boeings from the 17th PS attacked a flight of six Mitsubishi G3M bombers over Nanking and claimed to have shot them all down without losses. This was the No.4 aircraft in a Shotai that bombed the Ta Hsiao-chang Airfield, most likely the No. 5 Shotai led by Lieutenant Yoshida. 17th PS’ Wong Pan-Yang and Su Ying-Hsien shared one victory at Chu-Yung while Chun Chia-Chu claimed another, which crashed south-east of Nanking. Chin Shui-Tin also took part in this interception but didn't claim any aircraft.
The Japanese aircraft fled and the 8th PS went after them. Chen Yau-Wei and Huang Chu-Ku shared a victory near Chu-Yung while Shen Tse-Liu and Liu Chi-Wei together shot down an enemy plane west of Lui Shui.
Captain Chow Ting-Fong, commander of the 34th PS led six Hawks from Chia Hsiang and followed eight Japanese aircraft to Nanking. Captain Chow attacked one of these and shot it down over Fang Shan.
4th PG’s Captain Lee Kuei-Tan led three Hawk IIIs of the 21st PS and Captain Huang Kuang-Han, C.O. of the 22nd PS, led eight Hawk IIIs from Hangchow to Nanking to help in this interception and they also attacked the bombers. Lee Kuei-Tan claimed a shared bomber together with three other pilots. Tan Won and Yuan Chin-Han shared a victory. Cheng Hsiao-Yu, Pa Ching-Cheng and Wu Ting-Chun each claimed one shot down. Wu Ting-Chun’s aircraft was damaged in this combat and he was forced to make an emergency landing. Liang Tian-Cheng claimed two victories. Huang Kuang-Han claimed a Japanese G3M halfway between Nanking and Lui Shui.
Because of low clouds, each group fought on it’s own with little co-ordination. A total of 14 Japanese aircraft were claimed shot down. Five Chinese aircraft were damaged.

At noon on 23 August the Japanese and Chinese clashed when five Hawk IIIs led by Captain Lee Kuei-Tan of the 21st PS met an estimated nine Japanese aircraft. The Chinese aircraft was flying in the Wan Chao Bin area in Shanghai in support of ground forces.
During the combat Lee was hit by a bullet and crash-landed at Su-Zhou. Lieutenant Yuan Chin-Han claimed an enemy aircraft while trying to rescue Lee before being attacked by two other enemy aircraft. He was hit eight times by the fighters (according to other sources he was hit by AA fire) and a bullet hit his right cheek and severed his right ear. He passed out and didn’t become conscious before he was down to 1000 feet. He crash-landed his plane on a rice field in enemy territory. The plane overturned and Yuan dug himself out with his hands on the soft mud in the rice field. He collapsed next to his plane with mud and blood all over his body. He was captured by a group of five Japanese soldiers. They found him soaked with blood and hardly breathing and they thought he could not live. They abandoned him and left for a farm house two hundred meters away. When Yuan found himself alone, he got up and dashed over 1000 meters to the west towards Chinese-held territory in a single stretch. Yuan was a former 400-meter and 800-meter runner and represented his province in regional athletic meets in North China. His track experience and athletic stamina made his daring escape possible even though he was severely wounded.

In 1940, the 22nd PS of the 4th PG Group exchanged their I-15bis for nine Hawk IIIs from the Air Force Academy at Kunming. During the Japanese Operation 101 attacks on Chungking in 1940, the Hawk IIIs of the 22nd PS had plenty of opportunities to engage in combat.
At this time Captain Yuan Chin-Han served as deputy commander of the 22nd PS.

On 22 May, Japanese bombers caught Chinese fighters refuelling at Baishi-Yi Airfield, destroying 5 and damaging 7. They managed to do this by flying close enough to Chungking to cause the Chinese to scramble their fighters and then circling out of range until the Chinese ran low on fuel and had to land. A reconnaissance plane monitoring all of this radioed the bombers to come in and attack after the Chinese fighters started refuelling.

On 26 May the Chinese warning network reported three separate raids inbound for Chungking; one group of 27 bombers passed Chang Yang at 10:09, another group of 36 bombers passing the same place at 10:44 and finally a third group of 36 passing Wu Feng at 11:20. Three reconnaissance planes were also reported supporting the bombers.
As a result of the experience from 22 May the Chinese had changed tactics. At 11:40 they scrambled two I-16s from the 24th PS, four I-15bis and four Hawk IIIs from Kwangyang-Ba Airfield. The I-16s were to look for the reconnaissance planes and the biplanes to look for the bombers while holding another group of fighters in readiness. Sure enough, the Japanese bombers circled out for range until 13:45. By then, the shorter legged Russian-made fighters had run low on fuel, but instead of landing at their home base, they diverted to other airfields to refuel. In their place, the group of fighters held in readiness was scrambled. However, the Chinese didn't quite get their timing right and the second group of fighters did not get high enough in time to intercept the Japanese. The only ones that managed to make contact were two of the four Hawk IIIs led by Captain Yuan Chin-Han, vice-commander of the 22nd PS and two I-15bis from the 21st PS led by Captain Chen Sheng-Hsing.
Patrolling at 5,000m between Baishi-Yi and Kwangyang-Ba airfields, Yuan’s group was getting low on fuel and two of the Hawk IIIs had broken off to refuel at Hsu-Ning when he spotted a group of 36 Japanese bombers dropping bombs on the Hua-Lung Bridge. Leading his wingman Lieutenant Wang Lung-Kwang on an intercept course to the south-west, Yuan caught up with the Japanese over Tachung-Ba. Attacks on the Japanese formation were made first from the right, then from the left and finally from directly below. Wang's 50-caliber (12.7mm) machinegun jammed on his third pass and he was left with to make a couple of more passes with his 7.92mm machinegun before breaking off to land at Yi-Bin Airfield. The more experienced Yuan carried on alone and soon, his shooting brought some results. One bomber was seen to fall back from the No.3 shotai with its left engine on fire. Yuan concentrated on this straggler, boring in to within 100m on his firing passes as the Japanese bomber lost speed and descended lower and lower. Breaking away in a dive after one pass, Yuan found himself so low that he almost crashed into the mountains. Frantically pulling up, Yuan repositioned himself for another pass. In the next three attacks, Yuan concentrated on the bomber's right engine and broke away only after he had also run out of 50 caliber ammunition. By this time, both engines of the Japanese bomber were smoking heavily.
During this period, Captain Chen Sheng-Hsing and future ace Lieutenant Kao You-Hsin arrived in two I-15bis from the 21st PS. Both had been descending towards Baishi-Yi to refuel at 13:45 when they spotted 27 Japanese bombers heading from the south-west to bomb the airfield. Climbing for altitude once again, Chen spotted two other formations of Japanese bombers. One (the 36 bombers attacked by Yuan and Wang) was coming much closer. What's more, there was a straggler that had fallen behind. Initially, the other Japanese bombers had slowed down to box in and support the damaged bomber. On his first pass from the front, Kao had to fly through the fire of the other bombers to get at the damaged bomber. Chen bore in from behind and managed to draw off some of the fire concentrated on Kao. Soon, the damaged Japanese bomber had slowed down so much and descended so far that the rest of the Japanese formation had to leave it behind. After Yuan broke off, Kao followed the Japanese bomber until it crashed into the mountains while Chen covered him from above.
Credit for the kill was awarded to Yuan, Kao and Chen.

Between October 1943 and August 1945, Major Yuan served as Chinese CO of the 3rd FG of the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW).

The first CACW fighter mission was flown during on 1 December 1943, when nine B-25s, four from the 1st BS (CACW) and five from the 2nd BS (CACW), were assigned to strike the docks at Kowloon on the coast near Hong Kong, and 17 P-40s of the 3rd FG (CACW) contributed to the fighter escort, providing close support.
The formation joined up over Erh Tong, then headed south towards the target. CACW bombers were flown by Lieutenant Colonel Irving L. Branch, Captain Chester Conrad, Derward Harper, William Carson, Winston Churchill and 1st Lieutenant Mark Seacrest. Majors Yuan Chin-Han, Summers and Eugene Strickland, plus Captains Turner and Bull led the fighters. Also in the formation was Lieutenant Colonel Frank Rouse, who was in China to get some combat experience prior to forming the 5th FG (CACW). The other USAAF fliers were Lieutenants James Bush and Frank Smiley of the 28th FS (CACW) and Lieutenants John DeHaven and Clifford 'Tip' Boyle of the 32nd FS (CACW).
Rounding out the fighter pilots were the Chinese squadron commanders, Captains Cheng Sung-Ting and Hung Chi-Wei, plus Capitan Wang S. C. and Lieutenant Wu S. L. of the 32nd FS (CACW) and Lieutenants Meng C. Y., Chang C. M. and Cheng T. of the 28th FS (CACW).
The bombers crossed their target on a heading of 160o, then turned sharply back north toward home. The bombing appeared to be accurate, with only three bombs falling outside the target area. The flak was medium in intensity and accurate for altitude, but trailed the formation.
Five Ki-44s approached the formation but were driven off near Kowloon. During the exchange one of the B-25 gunners, Sergeant Wei C. C. in Lieutenant Colonel Branch's aircraft, claimed a Ki-44 probably destroyed, the first air-to-air damage claim made by the CACW.
All aircraft returned to base, and the bomber crews reported that the escort provided the P-40s was "very satisfactory".

On 1 March 1944, 14 B-25s and 16 P-40s from the 14th AF pounded a military zone in the north-east part of Nanchang.
This attack was the first all-Chinese mission, which was flown from Kweilin. Major Yuan Chin-Han led the 3rd FG (CACW) fighter escort for B-25s of the 1st BG (CACW) that were hitting Nanchang. There was no opposition from the Japanese, and all aircraft returned home safely. The bombing accuracy, however, was disappointing.

Yuan was a particularly capable officer, commanding the 3rd FG throughout the war and flying missions as late as May 1945. He was described by group historian Ken Kay as ”a smiling, taciturn soldier with an ear half shot away from some earlier battle; hospitable, a speech-making party man and a fine tactician.”

Yuan Chin-Han ended the war with 2 biplane victories, these being claimed while flying the Curtiss Hawk III.

He remained in the Air Force after the war where he rose to Major General.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 15/08/37 1 Type 89 (a) Destroyed Curtiss Hawk III #2108 Hangchow area 21st PS
  15/08/37 ½ Enemy aircraft Shared destroyed Curtiss Hawk III   Nanking area 21st PS
2 23/08/37 1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed Curtiss Hawk III   Shanghai area 21st PS
  26/05/40 1 Enemy bomber Shared destroyed Curtiss Hawk III   Chungking area 22nd PS

Biplane victories: 2 and 2 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 2 and 2 shared destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with Type 89 torpedo bombers from the Japanese carrier Kaga. The Chinese pilots claimed 17 destroyed enemy aircraft but the actual losses were six shot down and two ditched in Hangchow Bay.

Tidbits from the Sino-Japanese Air Battles - Chang Kuang-Ming, 1998 World News Weekly August 1998 kindly provided by Tom Chan
Wing To Wing: Air Combat in China 1943-45 - Carl Molesworth, 1990 Orion Books, ISBN 0-517-57568-X
Information kindly provided by Raymond Cheung, Tom Chan, Samuel Hui and Erich Wang.

Last modified 23 December 2011