This is the second part of this story, one of China’s Wings outtakes, describing what happened to the various CNAC pilots during the dark days of August, 1937, when a colossal battle between Japan and China erupted in Shanghai. Here is it’s beginning.
During the night of Sunday, August 15, heavy wind and rain swept in from the China Sea and battered Shanghai.[i] The weather wasn’t so bad in Nanking, 180 miles inland. The city’s thick Ming Dynasty walls were thirty-miles in circumference, and they contained two airports, one civilian and one military.[ii] CNAC pilots Moon Chin, Donald Wong, Hal Sweet, and Bob Pottschmidt had spent the night in Nanking. Just as they sat down to the Metropolitan Hotel’s breakfast, airline operations summoned them to the commercial airport. All four hurried to the flight line without eating and were told to take off, right away, and follow Donald Wong’s Ford tri-motor to Hankow. The Ford was the only plane with a radio, and since the Stinsons couldn’t keep pace, Wong flew ahead and circled while the others caught up, and thus the formation inch-wormed west, up the Yangtze. Halfway to Hankow, the Ford U-turned and flew back east. Sweet, Pottschmidt, and Moon Chin assumed Wong had received new instructions. They dutifully followed in their little monoplanes, and Wong led them all the way back to Nanking.[iii]
Nobody in Nanking had any idea why they’d been recalled. The hungry pilots left their planes with the ground crew and hustled back to the hotel to gobble lunch while the planes were serviced — every one of them had missed breakfast. Moon Chin pinched up a few morsels between the tips of his chopsticks. Two or three bites into his meal the air raid sirens wailed.[iv] The telephone rang and summoned the pilots back to the airfield with orders to get their airplanes away before the raid arrived. Moon Chin wolfed a few more bites and dashed after the others.
Donald Wong’s “Tin Goose” tri-motored Ford and Hal Sweet’s Stinson were fueled. The two of them took off for Hankow. Bob Pottschmidt, a lean, blonde, twenty-six year old former track star from Winthrow High School in Cincinnati, Ohio,[v] was perched atop the wing of his Stinson, helping a coolie fuel the plane. “Potty” held a chamois across the mouth of a funnel with one hand and the fuel hose with the other. Below him, the blue-dungareed coolie frantically worked a hand pump threaded into the top of a 55-gallon fuel drum. Moon stood beside the tail, waiting his airplane’s turn. Soft drizzle leaked from gunmetal gray clouds, ceiling 500-feet.
Moon Chin heard a far-off rumble. Pottschmidt heard it, too: the drone of airplane radials. Three blurs appeared in the scrappy mists trailing from the cloud bottoms. The planes lost a few more feet of altitude and resolved into twin-engine monoplanes. “Those’re Jap bombers!” yelled Potty. “They’re gonna hit the other field!”[vi]
The flight dropped out of the clouds on perfect course to attack the flight line of the military airfield, about a mile from where the CNAC men serviced their planes. Black clouds of debris spat up from the earth. The roof of an immense hanger leapt into the air atop a yellow-red pillar of flame.[vii] Torrents of anti-aircraft fire reached for the attacking planes. Moon Chin hadn’t seen bombs fall. A second later he heard the booming detonations.
Pottschmidt dropped the hose and leapt off the wing. Moon joined him in a sprint for the airport gate. The coolie kept pumping like mad. He was staring at the bombing and hadn’t noticed Potty’s jump. Gas squirted onto the ground and pooled around his feet before he yelped and ran after the others. The airport guards refused to let them leave. More bombs exploded on the nearby airfield. Moon and Pottschmidt ran to the passenger terminal, a solid construction. It was packed with frightened civilians. The Generalissimo’s personal hangar was beside the terminal. The two pilots ran to a concrete bench opposite and wriggled to shelter on the muddy ground beneath.
Other bombers dropped out of the cloud layer, every one perfectly lined up to pummel the military airfield. “That’s some damn fine navigation,” observed Pottschmidt.
“They’re getting help,” Moon stated.
Pottschmidt nodded. It couldn’t be done any other way. The Japanese had to be getting help from fifth columnists on the ground in Nanking. Flying from bases on the island of Formosa, far to the south, the bombers were probably homing in on the Nanking Radio Station, mouthpiece of the Kuomintang, which pushed the strongest signal in the city. It wasn’t Nanking Radio, however, that betrayed the presence of local assistance. The perfect short-range approach did that. Radio Nanking’s signal would get the bombers into the city’s vicinity. It wouldn’t get them to points of such phenomenal precision over the airfield. To do that, someone on the ground must have placed smaller transmitting beacons a mile or two on either side of the airfield, the exact axis of approach the bombers intended to use being the line drawn between the two transmitters. Close to Nanking, the bombers tuned their homing devices to the short-range beacons, then maneuvered until they had the two signals exactly aligned. Keeping the signals together, the planes flew towards them at a pre-planned altitude. The instant they passed over the first beacon (they’d know it had occurred when that signal’s direction flipped 180 degrees), they began their letdown through the clouds at a predetermined descent rate, continuing toward the second transmitter and therefore perfectly lined up with the target. They popped through the clouds at five or six hundred feet, in the middle of their bomb runs, just like they’d been making a foul weather instrument approach to the airfield, which was, of course, exactly what they had been doing. It was a very avant-garde aviation technique for 1937. There was no other possibility.[viii]
Suddenly, a Japanese bomber peeled from formation and banked in their direction.
[i] Sunday’s weather: “Chinese Surprised,” New York Times, August 16, 1937.
[ii] Nanking’s Ming Dynasty walls contained two airports: Bixby, Harold M., Topside Rickshaw, Ch. X, pp. 58; Author interview with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004.
[iii] August 15 details and the Nanking air raid: author interviews with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004 and January 7, 2005; “Bob Pottschmidt,” a summary of his personal history written in the late 1980s and posted at cnac.org
[iv] “Chinese Fight Foe in the Air at Nanking; Report Downing 6 of 12 Attackers,” New York Times, August 16, 1937: “Japan’s first air attack on Nanking yesterday [August 15] undoubtedly as the highpoint of the day’s aviation activity.”; Chang, Iris, The Rape of Nanking, pp. 65; Imperial Japanese Navy Lieutenant Commander Hiramoto, Michitaka, “Air Raid on Nanking,” The Chinese Mercury, Winter 1938, confirms Moon Chin’s recollection that August 15, 1937 was the date of the first Japanese air attack on Nanking.
[v] a twenty-six year old former track star from Cincinnati, Ohio’s Winthrow High School: unidentified newspaper clipping posted at cnac.org.
[vi] Pottschmidt’s quote: author’s interview with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004 and January 7, 2005.
[vii] Hanger detonation: Lieutenant Commander Hiramoto, Michitaka, “Air Raid on Nanking,” The Chinese Mercury, Winter, 1938.
[viii] Details of this day: Author’s interview with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004, January 7, 2005; “Bob Pottschmidt,” C.N.A.C. Cannonball, January 15, 1989; Michitaka Hiramoto’s article “Air Raid on Nanking” confirms the poor weather (“a raging typhoon” and “the city lay under heavily banked clouds”) and that much planning went into the execution of this raid: “All the details of the expedition had been gone over carefully”; Moon Chin carefully described the precise Japanese navigation and its requirement for covert support to the author on multiple occasions.