Saturday 15 June 2013

Robert Short ~ The First Flying Tiger

On 22nd February 1932 near Suchow (now Suzhou 苏州) in China three Type 13 attack aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy from the carrier Hôshô were intercepted by a single biplane fighter purportedly wearing the insignia of the Chinese central government. One of the Japanese aircraft was attacked and damaged with the navigator killed and the observer wounded but before further attacks could be pressed home three escorting Japanese Type 3 carrier fighters had swooped in and one of them, piloted by Nokiji Ikuta, shot the interceptor down. The American pilot, Robert Short, was killed in his cockpit and his aircraft, a Boeing 218 demonstrator, plunged into a canal near the village of Gaodian. The victor flew low over the crash site with his two wingmen and they dipped their wings in turn, probably to get a better look at the downed aircraft, but Gao Jing-sheng, a Chinese farmer from the village who had watched the air combat, took that to be their salute to the fallen, a chivalrous gesture. In the 1930s the popular media was still wedded to the notion of chivalry in the air as a result of the proliferation of air combat stories from the Great War. This was the first recorded incident of air combat between an American volunteer pilot flying an American fighter aircraft on behalf of China and the fighter aircraft of the Empire of Japan and it was also the first Japanese air-to-air victory in war.

Although the incident and perhaps more importantly its context seem to get little attention it was significant in the history of Chinese and Japanese aviation in a number of important aspects. Short's combat and  heroic death has unfortunately tended to obscure the role and exploits of other Chinese pilots at this time, as well as that of other Chinese operated aircraft. It remains a little known but fascinating preliminary episode to the great air war over China that was to erupt in 1937 and continue for eight years.  

Background to the 1932 Incident

Tension between Chinese nationalists and Japanese interests in Shanghai had been rising since the Japanese intervention in Manchuria in 1931. But there was an underlying Chinese resentment against the Japanese presence in China for their part in the treaty-imposed trading port concessions enjoyed by Western colonial powers which had possibly been encouraged by the Central Government's nationalism. Since 1925 the Japanese had recorded 713 attacks against Japanese persons and property in China, ranging from vandalism to Japanese owned buildings and property to the abduction and murder of Japanese citizens. After exchanges of fire between Chinese police and a Japanese group from the Shanghai Seinen Doshikai which had attacked the Chinese San Yu bathtowel factory in retaliation for the factory workers assaulting two Japanese buddhist priests the tension came to a head. The 78th Division of the Chinese 19th Route Army commanded by General Tsai Ting-kai began digging in around the outskirts of the international settlements in Shanghai where the Japanese had a large concession of trading interests and factories. The previous year the Chinese had sought German assistance in improving and reinforcing with concrete their coastal battery forts at Woosung where the Whampoa river (now Huangpu 黃浦江) joined the Yangtse and at Lion Hill fort on the northern outskirts of Shanghai. The presence of these forts was a potential challenge to the Japanese naval vessels navigating the rivers to the city. After further incidents involving clashes between so-called "plainclothes soldiers" of the Chinese Army and Japanese civilians and police and the failure of attempts to secure an end to hostilities by the Japanese Consul-General, Rear Admiral Shiosawa the local Naval Force commander and General Tsai, Lt General Ueda the commander of the Japanese 9th Division issued an ultimatum for the Chinese forces to draw back behind a line 20km from the settlements. This was rejected and as a result the Japanese landed army and naval forces which began engaging and attempting to drive back the Chinese troops from the city environs.

Satellite map of Shanghai and Nanking (Google Maps)

Air Operations Over Shanghai

Air operations began on 29 January when Type 14 E1Y and Type 90-3 E41Y floatplanes from the tender Notoro which had arrived on 24 January conducted very low-level bombing attacks against Chinese army positions in the Chapei district of Shanghai. Wet and misty weather conditions obscured visibility and despite the dropping of flares and directional signals from the ground there were heavy civilian casualties and damage to buildings as a result of the attacks. Japanese airpower over the city was reinforced by the arrival of the aircraft carriers Kaga and Hôshô a few days later. The main complement of these vessels were the Mitsubishi B1M Type 13 carrier attack aircraft, a three seat biplane capable of carrying torpedos or bombs and the Nakajima A1N2 Type 3 carrier fighter, a developed version of the British Gloster Gamecock design from 1925.

IJN Type 14 Reconnaissance Seaplane E1Y (Wiki)

It was reported that the Chinese had about 70 aircraft on airfields in the vicinity of Nanking and at Suchow. At this time the Central Government air force was still in its infancy and its fighter assets were limited to the Boeing 218 demonstrator, two Blackburn Lincock IIIs and eight Junkers K47 two seat fighters whilst the remaining aircraft were about twenty Corsair, Douglas O-2MC and Waco two seaters. On 5th February a formation of Type 3 fighters from Hôshô commanded by Lt Tokoro Mohachiro and Type 13 from Kaga commanded by Lt Hirayabashi Nagamoto encountered over Kunshan an assortment of Chinese aircraft from the Central Government's 6th and 7th Squadrons, commanded by the 6th's deputy leader Wang Yu-chuan (Huang Yuquan) a Chinese-American who had returned to China in 1926.  The Chinese aircraft were in transit from Nanking to Zhenru in preparation for an attack against Japanese warships lying off Woosung.

IJN Type 13 Carrier Attack Aircraft B1M (Wiki)

This encounter battle was inconclusive but Chinese ground forces reported the shooting down of one of the Type 13 aircraft, another was damaged and two Chinese pilots were wounded. During the fight Chu Da-shan (actually J D Singh, a naturalised Chinese of Indian origin) had engaged the formation of Type 13's in a Blackburn Lincock III fighter, but his guns had jammed and he had been injured by return fire. This aircraft or the second Lincock was subsequently destroyed at Chenju airfield when it malfunctioned as Wang Yu-chuan was attempting to take off in it. Some sources assert that the aircraft was destroyed on the ground by Japanese aircraft but the fate of the two aircraft may have been confused.

Blackburn Lincock III in Chinese service ( via Early Chinese Aircraft)

On 19th February after the Boeing 218 had been prepared for operations at Hongqiao airfield, Shanghai, Short  took off in it to fly it to Nanking. During this flight he encountered and was attacked by three Type 3's from Hôshô under the command of Lt Kidokoro. A brief dogfight ensued during which Short managed to scatter the Japanese formation and damage Kidokoro's A1N2. Several sources mistakenly assert that Kidokoro was shot down during this encounter but there is little doubt that the 218's sparkling performance came as a surprise to the Japanese flyers.

On the 22nd February the Central Government ordered all its aircraft to move from Nanking to Hangzhou. Because of the speed of the Boeing 218 Short was flying alone rather than with the main Chinese formation when over Suchow he encountered the flight of Type 13 attack aircraft. Some sources assert that this was an accidental encounter, others that Short had taken off from Suchow in defence of the airfield after landing there. At the time both sides resorted to propaganda to assert moral superiority over the incident. Although the Japanese formation was characterised as attacking the Suchow railway station crowded with civilian refugees, the Japanese asserted that it was following the railway line to the airfield at Suchow in search of the Chinese aircraft that had recently been encountered in the air. Chinese sources confirm that the airfield at Suchow was attacked by Japanese aircraft that day. According to Nokiji Ikuta it was just a routine patrol with the Type 3s flying in stepped down formation above and behind the Type 13 formation when Short's lone fighter suddenly appeared beneath the leading Japanese bomber and fired up at it from less than 100 yards range. Some sources state that Short made three consecutive climbing and diving attacks before firing a burst that wounded the wireless operator/gunner and killed the navigator 1/Lt Susumu Kotani, an Eta Jima classmate of Ikuta who was also the formation commander. Although the Type 13 Short attacked was damaged by his fire the pilot was unhurt and was able to return to Shanghai.

IJN Nakajima Type 3 Carrier Fighter A1N2 as flown by Nokiji Ikuta (© Rikyu Watanabe)

As the Boeing fighter dived away to gain speed then turned and climbed up for another firing pass Ikuta and his wingmen Toshio Kuroiwa and Kazuo Takeo peeled off and cut across its path in a steep dive, firing from 150 up to 50 yards. Ikuta saw his rounds hit the cockpit as the Boeing veered to evade his attack and it immediately dropped away awkwardly in an inverted spin. Ikuta recognised at once that he had either wounded or killed the pilot, and saw it continue to fall haphazardly until it crashed into the canal. The brief combat had lasted less than three minutes. "I was very moved by both the bravery of this man and his skill" Ikuta told a reporter many years later. Ikuta was later told that Short had attacked Japanese aircraft on two previous occasions. There may have been a perception that the 218 had also been in action on the 5th February. According to Minoru Genda the performance of the Boeing 218 fighter had come as a shock to the Japanese pilots and the  19th and 22nd February encounters with it were instrumental in contributing to the development of the Nakajima A2N1 Type 90 fighter to replace the Type 3.

Short was posthumously awarded the honorary rank of Colonel in the Chinese Army by the Central Government and given an official funeral which his mother was invited to attend. Chinese newspapers carried the story of his air battle and loss as front page features.

Ikuta was deeply affected by this experience and afterwards to much opprobrium from his comrades and senior officers he resigned his commission and left the Navy. "I lost my spirit" he recounted, "I could no longer feel the things that made me fight. I hated anything military and renounced my place as a fighter pilot." In 1976 the Japanese wife of a retired US Air Force Colonel contacted Robert Short's brother Ed to ask him if he would like to meet Ikuta. Ellis told Ed that since the incident Ikuta had prayed every day for the repose of Robert's soul. The two men subsequently met and with reconciliation remained in touch. At a visit to Yasakuni Shrine Ed thought of his brother and the Japanese officer who had been killed in the air combat.

On 23rd February Japanese aircraft attacked Suchow and Hongqiao and on the 25th the Central Government directed that all aircraft should be concentrated at Jianqiao airfield at Hangzhou, the site of the aviation school, to prepare for another attack against the Japanese warships. The following day the Japanese attacked Jianqiao as the Chinese aircraft, warned of the impending raid, prepared to move to Bengbu airfield in Anhui Province. The aircraft had been moved overnight from the airfield to a strip of land alongside the Qiantangjiang River and at the approach of the Japanese aircraft, Shi Bangfan the 2nd Sqn commander and Zhao Puming took off in a Junkers K-47 and Corsair V92-C to attack as the rest of the aircraft were being hastily prepared for flight. Shi was wounded in the arm during his attack and had to force land in a rice paddy, his gunner Shen Yanshi pulling the pilot from the wreckage as Japanese aircraft strafed them. Shi lost his arm but survived to become known as the "one arm general". Zhao was hit in the chest and neck as he attempted to take off under fire in the Corsair but managed to get the damaged aircraft down at Qiaosi, succumbing to his wounds three weeks later. The airport at Qiaosi was later named after him. The Japanese destroyed six aircraft on the ground and the aviation school buildings in the raid but lost one aircraft which made an emergency landing in the river and was deliberately sunk to avoid capture.

The fighting at Shanghai continued until 3rd March, although there appears to have been no further air to air combat, and following the League of Nations intervention on 5th March General Shirakawa, the Japanese expeditionary force commander, issued an order for his units to cease hostilities. Japanese casualties in the incident amounted to 718 killed and 1,788 wounded. Chinese casualties are variously cited as approximately 12,000 with the Japanese claiming 40,000 killed, wounded or missing with untold civilian casualties.

Robert Short, Aviator

Robert Short (Historic Wings)

Robert McCawley Short was born in Steilacoom, Washington in October 1904 and after his father left home in 1912 was brought up by his mother in the Tacoma area. Robert was the eldest of three children with a younger sister and brother. Growing up he was known for his audaciousness with several harmless but frowned upon escapades in school that got him into trouble, including managing to appear twice in his 1925 graduation photograph by some deft footwork between the two shots that were necessary to complete the picture. After a succession of jobs Robert joined the Air Corps and commenced pilot training at March Field. He wrote to his family "I am very confident in my ability to fly. If I get washed out, it will not be because of my lagging spirit." He was and it wasn't. The military discipline and routine rankled with him and culminated in him bombarding a farmer's truck from the air with water melons.

After the Air Corps he went through a succession of flying jobs including assistant manager at Tacoma airport but he lost that job to a political appointment. He was then offered a job flying the mail for the Central Government in China, duly arriving in Shanghai in late February 1931. The maintenance regime of the Loening amphibian that was assigned to him to fly was alarming and he quickly gave up the post, eventually electing to join L E Gale in Shanghai as a demonstration and delivery pilot for Boeing aircraft.  

After the Shanghai incident erupted in 1932 Robert, who was living in the city, wrote his last letter home on 4th February "It burns me up why the Chinese planes which are superior to the Japanese don't come. China could win in a walk in aerial fighting." He ended this letter with a reassurance "Don't you worry. I'll be very careful."

The monument to Robert Short in present day Suzhou, China (Mr Maurice Chi via Richard Douse)

The Boeing 218

Boeing 218 X66W (XP-925) (San Diego Air & Space Museum via Wiki)

The Boeing 218 originated as a private venture initiative to adapt the P-12 to test prove a metal-skinned semi-monocoque fuselage. It effectively became the feasibility prototype for the P-12E (with the Army designation XP-925) and the F4B-3. The Boeing aircraft record shown here suggests that several changes were made to the airframe and engine, as well as reconditioning and repairs on at least two occasions. The prototype XP-12E was completed and rolled out on 1st October 1931 whereupon the 218 became surplus to requirements. It was sent to L E Gale, the Boeing representatives in China, on 28th October 1931, crated aboard an American Mail Line ship. This was presumably to garner interest in export orders for the P-12E although the actual reasons are obscure. The only known photographs show the aircraft at the time it was being tested in the USA, although these are sometimes presented as showing the aircraft in China. The Boeing aircraft record sheet suggests that it was probably not displaying the US government serial X66W at the time of its operations in China as that section has notably been left blank for the China movement details. See the modelling section below for additional comments regarding its likely colour and markings at the time of the incident.

Boeing 218 X66W (XP-925) (with kind permission of

Boeing 218 Aircraft Record Sheet (Boeing Archives via Mike Lombardi)

The Blackburn Lincock III

Blackburn Lincock lightweight fighter and racing aeroplane (Arents Cigarette Cards)

The Blackburn Lincock was a British private venture lightweight fighter design from 1928 powered by a 270 hp Armstrong Siddeley Lynx Major IVC. Designed by Major F A Bumpus B.Sc., A.R.C.S., Wh.Sc., F.R.Ae.S., the chief designer, chief engineer and joint managing director of Blackburn, the name 'Lincock' was derived from 'Lynx-Cock' in reference to the power plant. From 1915 to 1919 Major Bumpus had served as a technical officer in the RNAS. Only five of the type III were built with two purchased by the Japanese Army. Two Lincock IIIs were also purchased by General Ho Chien, the Governor of Hunan Province, China in October 1930, but he was prevailed upon to surrender them both to Nanking Central Government service. They arrived in Shanghai aboard the SS Glengarry in December 1930, were assembled at Lunghua aerodrome and then transferred to Nanking in May 1931 where they were assigned to the 6th Squadron of the nascent Central Government air force. 

The Nakajima A1N2

IJN Nakajima Type 3 Carrier Fighter A1N (via Wiki)

The Nakajima 'G' (for Gloster) was developed from the Gloster Gamecock as a joint venture between Nakajima and Gloster with designer Takao Yoshida working with the British manufacturer to produce a carrier fighter able to meet an April 1926 IJN requirement for a fighter to replace the Mitsubishi Type 10. The design was closely related to the Gambit, a Gloster private venture adaptation of the Gamecock intended for carrier operations and equipped with an arrestor hook and floatation bags.  In April 1929 the Nakajima 'G' was accepted by the IJN  as the Type 3 Carrier Fighter A1N1. The A1N1 was originally powered by a Nakajima licence-built version of the Bristol Jupiter VI 9-cylinder air-cooled radial engine of 420hp but in 1930 the design was improved by the installation of a Nakajima Kotobuki 2 engine of 450hp and accepted into service as the Type 3-2 Carrier Fighter, A1N2.

IJN Nakajima Type 3 Carrier Fighter A1N (via Historic Wings)

Approximately 150 Type 3 Carrier Fighters were produced between 1929 and 1932, 50 of A1N1 type and about 100 of A1N2 type. After deployment on four of the IJN's aircraft carriers the Type 3 was retired from service in 1935. In carrier service the A1N was finished in silver dope overall with Hinomaru in six positions and red high-visibility tail fin rudder and tailplanes. Wing struts were painted gloss black. Large alpha-numeric unit and identity codes were displayed, black on the wings and fuselage and white on the tail. 

Modelling the Blackburn Lincock and Boeing 218

The only 1/72nd scale Blackburn Lincock kit I'm aware of is the very rare "The New Types Park" mixed media kit (shown above) and issued only in a limited run of 500 in about 1992. For any brave soul contemplating a scratch build there are 1/32nd plans of the type available from MyHobbyStore.  The delivery scheme of the Blackburn Lincock to China was overall plain silver dope but photographs of the aircraft in service reveal that the rear fuselage and tail were painted a dark colour, probably dark green but possibly dark blue, with white ID numbers and a broad white (or possibly light blue and white) stripe aft of the cockpit. The aircraft has also been depicted with a red rear fuselage and blue tail. One aircraft had a large number 609 and the other a smaller number 610 painted on the fuselage. The undersurface of the wings at least was marked with the 'white sun in blue sky' insignia of the Central Government air force but the rays of the sun did not extend to the outer circumference of the blue roundel as seen in later presentations.

The New Types Park Lincock - a neat looking kit but rare! (photos kindly provided by Carlos Carreira)

It's a little ironic that whilst details of the Lincock colour scheme and markings are better documented there is no readily available kit for that type whereas although the Boeing 218 is available in the form of an easy adaptation of existing P-12 kits the colour scheme and markings remain uncertain!

Matchbox Boeing P-12E - still possible to find

The Matchbox Boeing P-12E is probably the best contender as a sound basis for building the 218 in 1/72nd scale. The fairing behind the cockpit must be modified to the correct shape. The main issues with this kit are the incorrect dihedral of the upper wing and a very poor engine. Starfighter Decals make a replacement wing in resin and a replacement engine. Alternatively a Monogram F4B-4 kit could be cannibalised for its wings and engine (the Starfighter pieces are based on the Monogram pieces). The flotation gear panels have to be removed from the underside of the Monogram upper wing and the corrugated skin representation is better on the Matchbox kit so fitting the Matchbox ailerons to the Monogram wing is also worth doing. For those who enjoy working in larger scales there was a Classic Airframes kit in 1/48th scale and the classic 1/32nd Hasegawa kit which is still obtainable. The painting shown below depicts the aircraft in action in its olive drab and yellow demonstrator scheme as X66W, and this has been repeated for the recent Hobbymaster 1/48th die-cast model, although it appears to have had a red or orange fuselage flash at some time.

A splendid painting of the Boeing 218 Demonstrator X66W in action over China (© 2009 Birdy Chang)

The Hobbymaster 1/48 die-cast model of X66W

The 218 looks smart in olive drab and yellow but Japanese sources suggest that at the time of the incident the aircraft was painted dark green with large Chinese markings on wings and fuselage, as shown in the heading illustration. As a US Government serial number the X66W designation was unlikely to have been worn at this time. A Chinese source also confirms that the 218 had been painted green - and armed - when it was being prepared at Hongqiao for delivery to the Central Government as a test aircraft. It might be that only the yellow parts of the airframe were re-painted with the possibility of a difference in colour between the original olive drab and the green. The Japanese pilots who engaged Short reported that his aircraft carried Chinese insignia and later US demonstrators in China are also known to have worn prominent Chinese insignia. Yer pays yer money...

Matchbox Boeing P-12E

Modelling the IJN Type 3 and Type 13

There are exquisite resin kits for both these types available from Choroszy Modelbud

As might be expected there are conflicting accounts of the air operations over China during the Shanghai Incident of 1932. The known details are consolidated here at best endeavour as a resource and in tribute to Robert Short, Nokiji Ikuta and the Chinese pilots of the Central Government of China. Any additional information or corrections are welcomed and this blog feature will be updated accordingly. 

Sources and References

Sino-Japanese Entanglements 1931-1932 - A Military Record by Motosada Zumoto (The Herald Press, Tokyo, 1932)
The Air Battle Over Shanghai 1932 by Ah Xiang (republicanchina,org 2011)
The Lesson of Robert Short by Anne F Thurston (unpublished manuscript, undated, via Boeing Archives)
A History of Chinese Aviation by Lennart Andersson (AHS of ROC 2008)
Flight in the China Air Space 1910-1950 by Malcolm Rosholt (Rosholt House, 1984)
Sunburst - The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power 1909-1941 by Mark R Peattie (Naval Institute Press, 2001)
The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Naval Air Service by Peter J Edwards (Pen & Sword, 2010)
Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II by Ikuhiko Hata and Yasuho Izawa (Airlife, 1989)
Pictorial History of Japanese Military Aviation by Eiichiro Sekigawa (Ian Allan, 1974) 
Japanese Aircraft 1910-1941 by Robert C Mikesh & Shorzoe Abe (Putnam, 1990)
P-12/F4B In Action by Larry Davis (Squadron/Signal #141, 1993)
The American Fighter by Enzo Angelucci with Peter Bowers (Orion 1987)
Boeing Archives
San Diego Air & Space Museum

With special thanks to 'Old Man' for his advice regarding modifying the Matchbox P-12 kit.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Nick for another interesting bit of aviation history.


Ken Glass said...

Many thanks for presenting this data, Nick.

Ken Glass

Ronnie Olsthoorn said...

Very interesting story and images, thanks for posting this Nick!

About the painting, it's done by a guy who signs his work with "Birdy Change" but his actual name is Zhang Yiming.

More about this painting here, with further examples of the artist's superlative paintings on page 3:

Straggler 脱走兵 said...

Thanks Ronnie - I have updated the blog accordingly and provided a link to the artist.


Ronnie Olsthoorn said...

Just noticed I made a typo... it's "Birdy Chang" without the E at the end.

I'd swear Firefox does auto-"correct" on me from time to time...!

ltdann said...

Does anyone know the ocean liner that transported the Model 218 to Shanghai?