Those darned Chinese P-38s!!!

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Airman 1st Class
Apr 5, 2023
A number of internet sources indicate that China received fifteen Lockheed P-38L Lightning fighters during World War 2, followed by a similar number of the F-5E photo reconnaissance variant. Correct? Well, not really…

In fact, during July 1944, fifteen new-build Lockheed P-38Ls were diverted from Burbank production to the Chinese Air Force, but they never entered service as such. Instead they were flown to the Dallas Modification Center and converted into F-5E photo reconnaissance aircraft. This process took approximately one month and following modification, all were then ferried to the US east coast and prepared for shipment by sea to the far east. They officially departed the Newark, New Jersey port of embarkation in September 1944 in three separate shipments.


The photo above shows the aircraft at Burbank, still configured as P-38L fighters, awaiting the ferry flight to Texas and conversion into unarmed F-5E reconnaissance aircraft. Date is around 18 July 1944.

Their whereabouts for the next 8 months are not known, though it seems likely that the sea voyage took many weeks; the journey via Sierra Leone and South Africa could take as long as two months. However, these machines were undoubtedly used to train the Chinese airmen who were to fly and maintain them (an assumption is that training was done by the 9th PRS, USAAF, based at Myitkyna in Burma, a unit already operating various marks of F-5 Lightning).


Above: F-5E 44-24089 "P-38003", likely seen while still in India. The olive drab paint was removed soon after arrival in China.

The Chinese National Army officially received the aircraft at the Ondal USAAF sub-depot (APO 690), northwest of Calcutta, India on 19 May 1945, and these went to form the 12th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. On 20 May the aircraft departed for China but bad weather forced their diversion enroute; by the following day they had all reached the Himalayan staging airfield at Mohanbari. On 7 June the F-5s crossed the Himalayas to Chenggong in Yunnan province, and from there to the permanent station at Suining in Sichuan Province, where photographic reconnaissance operations began on 20 July. With the end of the war, the unit's mission changed from photo reconnaissance to that of photo mapping, and from the end of 1945 to 7 March 1946 the 12th PRS was based at Nanjing Dajiaochang in Jiangsu Province. At the latter base it also began to receive F-5G aircraft, and with the beginning of the civil war, its function reverted back to reconnaissance. The F-5Gs, as well as further F-5E airframes (around 25 in total), were received on 15 April 1946; all were ex-USAAF Tenth AF machines, delivered via Fourteenth AF in Chunking.


F-5G 44-26418 "P-38036" of 12th PRS, possibly seen at Nanjing Dajiaochang. This was one of the 1946 delivery aircraft.

Following the end of the Chinese Civil War, the F-5 unit moved ten aircraft to Taoyuan AB in Taiwan in February 1949 and then performed sorties over mainland China to monitor Communist forces. In 1953, the last F-5E (or more accurately, "RF-38L") was retired and replaced by only marginally newer RF-51D Mustangs.
One minor point. If these aircraft left the USA by sea in late 1944 then their routing would most likely be via the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and then across the Arabian Sea and round Southern India to Calcutta.

The Mediterranean had been reopened to through shipping in May/June 1943 allowing significantly reduced journey times for materials being sent to India.
Thanks for the source of the shipment data, with AFHRA now limiting requests to 5 per month it might be worthwhile setting up an aircraft cards exchange.

I assume Bird is the name of the program to the people maintaining the delivery documentation. PR-A1 normally translates to Priority A1 for me. Starting with those for China some 314 P-38L-1 were sent to Dallas and 23 to BHAM after delivery.

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