50th Anniversary

118th TRS

By Wayne Johnson

From Chennault’s Flying Tigers

World War II

50th Anniversary

1996

 

 

The 118th has a long and illustrious history. Activated at Kelly Field, Texas on August 31, 1917, as the 118th Aero Squadron of the Connecticut Air National Guard, it served in France in WWI. After the Armistice, the outfit disbanded, but was resurrected in 1923 as the 118th Observation Squadron and reassigned to the Connecticut National Guard, where it has remained to this day, except service in WWII.

            The history of the squadron insignia goes back to pre-revolutionary days. George III of England demanded Connecticut return its charter because the colony was deemed disobedient to the king. As the king’s men came to retrieve the charter, a colonial secretary ran with the charter and hid it in an oak tree. The tree became known as the ‘Charter Oak.’

            The Connecticut Air National Guard adopted the Flying Yankee as its insignia in 1928. Although the Air National Guard approved the Yankee emblem for use by the 118th, it did not receive official approval from the Air Force until 1953. The only change in the officially approved insignia was the addition of fleurs de lis that year. The Flying Yankee insignia was not generally used by the squadron in China in WWII. In late 1944, a new insignia for the squadron, the Black Lightning, came into being. The squadron commander, Colonel Edward O. McComas, a native of Kansas, was not comfortable with the Connecticut National Guard Flying Yankee insignia. Phil Dickey, the squadron armament officer had painted black stripes on a P-51. He painted the plane with a black lightning stripe, later bordered in an orange type color, from nose to tail. McComas liked the idea and had a patch drawn using that theme. The Black Lightning patch worn on jackets, featured a P-51 with black lightning stripes bordered in orange, superimposed on a bright blue background. Although not officially approved, the 118th used the patch until the end of WWII. (Most squadron insignias used in China did not have official approval.) When the 118th returned to the States it resumed use of the Flying Yankee insignia that is still uses today.

            The 118th’s first tactical assignment in WWII was antisubmarine patrol out of Charleston, SC. It later went to Meridian, MS, to train as a tactical reconnaissance squadron. On January 6, 1944, the 118th now designated the 118th TRS, left by ship for the CBI, arriving in India one month later. For the next few months, flying P-40s, the 118th flew security patrol for the new B-29 bases in India.

            In early June, the Flying Yankees went over the ‘Hump’ to Chengkung, China, where it was attached to the 23rd FG. A historian for the 118th wrote: “From Flying Yankee to Flying Tigers in one easy voyage.” It may have been an easy sea voyage, but it was a rough hump crossing for the 118th. One of its pilots, Lt Warren Christensen, disappeared over the hump and was never found.

            Two days after landing in China, the 118th, commanded by Col. Edward O McComas, was in the thick of battle at Kweilin and other eastern 14th bases. With other 23rd Group squadrons, pilots flew six or more sorties each per day during the Japanese Ichi-Go Drive, but by late 1944 all the eastern bases were lost. The 118th, together with other 23rd Group squadrons, was awarded the presidential unit citation for action during this period.

            Although trained as a reconnaissance squadron, when it arrived in China, General Claire Chennault, the 14th Air Force commander, use it primarily as a fighter squadron. Shortly after the loss of eastern bases of Kweilin, Lingling, Hengyang, and Liuchow, the 118th, now flying P- 51s, returned to the Suichuan pocket in November 1944. Japanese troops surrounded the base. The 118th took part in major strikes against Hong Kong and Shanghai areas. It was forced to evacuate Suichuan on January 22, 1945, after two highly successful raids on Shanghai enemy airfields. On the first Shanghai raid, January 17, 1945, the 118th and 74th fighter squadrons destroyed 97 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground. No U.S. aircraft were lost, although a number were damaged by ground fire. The 118th and 74th returned for another raid on Shanghai airfields on January 20, 1945. This time they were not so lucky. Although they destroyed 25 enemy aircraft, the 118th lost two planes and the 74th also two. All pilots were rescued by Chinese gorillas and returned safely to base.

The 118th had been officially assigned the 23rd Group in January 1945. General Chennault in Way of a Fighter wrote: “operating out of the pocket at Suichuan… surrounded by Japanese forces… the 118th and 74th hit a quarter of million tons of shipping, knocking down 512 aircraft without loss of a single pilot in air combat...flying only eight percent of the 14th’s fighter missions, they accounted for 60% of all shipping losses… during this period, and 40 percent of all damage to enemy planes. All losses to the 118th resulted from anti-aircraft and ground fire.

            After the evacuation of Suichuan, the 118th returned to its home base at Chengkung, then was transferred to Loahwangping, where it continued strikes primarily against ground and shipping targets. It returned to Liuchow after the recapture of that base, where it was operating when the war ended. Its squadron commander, Major Marvin Lubner, is credited with flying that last official mission of World War II.

The 118th produced its share of aces:

 Col. Edward O. McComas, the 118th commander, became one of the top aces in China with fourteen in the air and four on the ground.

Captain Oran Watts had five in the air and one on the ground.

Lieutenant Russell Williams had five in the air.

Major Marvin Lubner, who became commanding officer in June 1945, had six in the air while serving his first tour of combat in China with a 76th fighter squadron.

But the 118th had its share of losses; thirteen pilots lost their lives while serving with the 118th in China. Major David Houck came to Suichuan in December 1944 to replace McComas as commanding officer. He was shot down over Hong Kong harbor on January 15, 1945, captured and later executed by the Japanese. Capts. Robert Gee and Samuel Bowen, Lieutenants Robert Boernke, Elmer Chancellor, Roy Christensen, Warren Christenson, Carlton Covey, Brian Kethley, Robert O'Brien, Ernest Swanson, and Herbert White all give their lives for their country. Lieut. James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern, who stayed on flying for Chennault’s airline, CAT, after the war was shot down and killed during the final days at Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam (now French Indochina).

Max Parnell was a little more lucky. He was shot down over Hong Kong on Christmas Eve, 1944, and spent the rest of the war in the Japanese prison camp. Not very pleasant, but he survived. In an understatement of his experiences he said, “they were kind of stern with me.”

 Some were more fortunate E.J. Davis, Jack Gocke, Richard Stutzman, and Tom Swaim were all shot down during the Japanese Ichi-Go drive against the 14th’s eastern airbases. They were all rescued by Chinese peasants or guerrilla forces who helped them back to safety. Dan Mitchell and Frank Palmer were shot down over Canton on January 15, 1945. Both were successful in evading the enemy with long walks out with helpful Chinese farmers. Galen Theobold was shot down the same day over Hong Kong. He managed to glide out of heavily occupied enemy territory but broke his leg in a low bail out. Friendly Chinese carted him out on a makeshift litter in an excruciatingly long journey back to base. Glenn Geyer and Harold Tollett were shot down over Shanghai on January 20, 1945. The Chinese guerillas rescued both pilots and returned them safely after more than three months eluding Japanese troops.

To all those who served in the cause of freedom, and particularly those who made supreme sacrifice by giving their lives that others be free, we salute them.

 

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