US AIR BASE, SOUTH CHINA - (delayed) - A corporal, who comes from New Jersey, aimed along the thin beam of a lieutenant's searchlight and fired at the bottom of a gasoline drum through the open door. In great, hungry, licking sheets, flames split the darkness, raced along the floor, up walls and through the roof. The destruction of the American air base at Kweilin had begun. Demolition crews were racing between installations in jeeps, working with systematic swift efficiency.
They repeated the process at hangers, hostels, depots and alert shacks. Exploding ammunition and tracer shells went off in a crazy inferno. Roaring yellow blazes produced bizarre lighting effects against the high craggy fantastically misshapen limestone masses which jut in the most improbable contours from the earth's floor in Kwangsi, looking like a mad surface of Mars or the moon viewed through a powerful lens.
From neighboring installations at Ehrtong and Lichiachien came the thud of exploding 1,000-pounders and the glow of their fires matched ours. The 14 Air Force was pulling away from Kweilin which was waiting, stripped and unpeopled, for the will of the enemy.
No one knew for sure where the Japanese were located. Intelligence and communications had broken down. Chinese troops were building pillboxes at the main intersections of the city and taking up positions in a narrow radius of the outskirts.
The situation up the road and railroad toward Chuanhsien 90 miles away (most natural defense position for Kweilin) was unknown. The Chinese 93rd Army, apparently on somebody's orders, had pulled away from their positions, not offering battle. For two days no one, including the Chinese Command, had been able to discover the location of the 93rd's headquarters. The Japanese were moving at will against the rear and past the flanks of dispersing mobs of Chinese soldiers and civilian refugees. The warning net was gone and Kweilin Air Base was defenseless against marauding columns of Japanese cavalry, known to be approaching within less than 40 miles, with some rumors locating them only 10 miles away. The worst fear was the possible cutting off of convoys moving out by road, possibly by plainclothes men known to be in the vicinity. P-51's and B-25's continued flying missions from this field in the midst of evacuation activity, flying out and returning at intervals all day.
Fourteenth Air Force men, who in the last two months have had to evacuate Hengyang, Paoching and Lingling, now have the job down to the smoothest. The men and most valuable equipment were moving out unhitchingly amid surprising lack of Jap air interference. Brig. Gen. "Casey" Vincent's headquarters building was stripped of all personnel and paraphernalia it took to direct operations of his famous Wing. All personnel were gone except Vincent, "Tex" Hill, his staff and a small group under Maj. George Hightower, adjutant directing final phases of evacuation. Empty, tidy offices were awaiting the torch like dressed-up corpses.
In the morning Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell and Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault flew for a final conference on the spot (I managed to fly with them). Gen. Chang Fah-kwei, commanding Kweilin, came up in his shiny, slick American sedan to answer, if possible, their questions on the current Chinese debacle of South China. When the brass left shortly after noon, maps were torn from the walls. The war room became another empty shell where beds were set up for the final night, during which no one was to sleep. Phones went out at 3:30 and power was cut off.
I drove in toward Kweilin. Along the road straggled lines of war's most miserable creatures- refugees. Households reduced to awkward bundles, the roots plucked up and strewn helplessly by big winds. Women of all ages and with hobbled feet and loads on their backs and on children and men. An occasional column of dejected, retreating soldiers. On the tracks just outside the city and at the south station stood three stalled refugee trains. Cars of all types were crawling with people, like bees on a comb, inside nod outside on the rods. Movement was blocked by a derailment up the line. People waited, mostly with unsmiling patience. Some had taken along the ties, walking hopelessly in search of safety.
Kweilin itself is a dead city, dead as only a teeming Chinese city suddenly emptied can seem dead. Shops, houses, hotels, cafes and whorehouses were boarded up.
Back at the base, Vincent, Hill and Brig. Gen. Thomas Timberman sat in Vincent's office at the end of the day. Conversation did not exactly sparkle.
"Look at the map" said Vincent. "It's the worst strategic defeat ever suffered by an American air force." There was not much evidence to hope it could ever be retrieved by Chinese forces. Vincent stood up and strapped on his gun. The little group broke up. Work from now on was in the hands of Col. Waldo Kenerson, builder of the great B-29 bases and now ironically the demolisher of the chief American central China airfields. Tall, patrician Kenerson gave the word just before one a.m. Two hundred pounds of dynamite were touched off, giving the signal to other fields and demolition crews under Capt. Berwin Fry who went to work on their job of thorough-going arson. Extra supplies, bombs cached in a cave, went off with a terrific detonation. In a few minutes the first fires were going. Just before dawn, as we stood by the last waiting transport, Kenerson's men touched off 22 1,000-pound bombs buried in the fighter strip. A sliver of new moon sitting on its back rested precariously on top of a limestone peak., but a great curling mass of smoke and dirt obscured it in the graving dawn. The destruction job was complete except for one runway still intact for the final takeoff, but with 30 similar bombs imbedded, Kenerson and the demolition squad remaining behind to finish the job would move out toward the road. A few minutes later as the sun came up, Vincent Timberman and staff boarded "Casey's" B-25, Silver Slipper, and took off. Our transport, right behind, was the last American plane off Yangtong field. We followed him in a final circle over the fires still burning and smoke still hazing over pocked runways. On Allied maps now pin-pointed with so many glitteringly victorious operations everywhere you can draw a shadowed circle around South Central China.
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