Aviation History

The Death of a Flying Tiger Ace: the Final Flight of Bill Reed, China’s Shining Mark

Bill Reed’s engine went silent when he was about 20 miles from Liangshan airfield. Despite what misgivings he may have had, Bill bailed out as well. What happened next is open to some conjecture.

Bill Reed had it all — brains, looks, athleticism, courage, and a talent for leadership. After a challenging childhood in Depression-era Iowa, Reed joined the US Army Air Corps (USAAC), but the outbreak of World War II inspired him to resign his commission and travel to China to fly for the American Volunteer Group (AVG) — the legendary Flying Tigers. He flew 75 missions with the AVG before returning home. After a tour selling War Bonds, Reed went back to China and resumed the fight with another unusual unit, the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW), before tragically losing his life in a desperate parachute jump on Dec. 19, 1944.

On that day 3rd Fighter Group (FG) Commander Lt Col William N. Reed, in P-40N-20 43-23642, was leading three flyers to their home field at Liangshan (about 250 miles to the southwest in Szechwan Province) from the advanced air base at Laohokow. Flying with Bill were his second-in-command and close friend, Major Bill Turner and 2Lt Van Moad, a new pilot who had just arrived in China the previous month.

As told by Carl Molesworth in his book Flying Tiger Ace, it would take a little over an hour for the flight to reach Liangshan, and as Bill watched the sun setting off the starboard side of his plane’s nose, he had time to reflect on the combat mission he had led earlier that day. As missions went, it was not particularly remarkable except for its four-hour duration, which was somewhat longer than the normal P-40 sortie. Reed was qualified to make that assessment — after two tours of duty in China, it had been his 141st trip into enemy territory. Still, the mission had produced enough excitement to leave him weary and eager to sleep in his own bed in the quarters at Liangshan that night.

Darkness had fallen by the time Bill’s flight arrived at Liangshan, but the three P-40s were not the only aircraft in the sky over the airfield. Japanese bombers were reported in the area. There was no chance that the Americans might attack the enemy planes in the darkness because Liangshan lacked a radar installation that could have directed the P-4os toward the intruders. In fact, the only defense that airfields in free China had against night bombing was to shut off all the lights and black out the facilities. Unfortunately, the blackout also meant that Bill and his wingmen would be unable to see the runway. They would have to find somewhere else to land.

Curtiss P-40E Warhawk

With plenty of fuel remaining, Bill decided to lead his flight to the airfield at Peishiyi, some 130 miles southwest near Chungking. He adjusted his radio compass for the Peishiyi frequency and set out for the new destination. The three P-40s did not get far before clouds began thickening. Soon they found themselves on top of a solid overcast, and it revealed no breaks when Bill estimated he had reached the vicinity of Peishiyi. The flight made a few circles, but the pilots knew it would be suicidal to attempt letting down through the clouds with the mountainous terrain that awaited them below. Resignedly, Bill reversed course and headed back toward Liangshan.

Bill called Liangshan on his radio and got bad news. The weather at the air base was deteriorating and the Japanese bombers might still be in the vicinity. Until the Chinese Air Force (CAF) base commander received an all-clear message from the air raid warning system, he was refusing to turn on the runway lights for the returning P-40s.

The pale illumination of the gauges in his instrument panel revealed to Bill that his fuel supply was dwindling. With no other alternate airfields within flying distance, the three American pilots were out of options. In a quick radio discussion, they decided to circle near Liangshan until either the runway lights came on or their planes ran out of gas, in which case they would to take to their parachutes. Bill did not relish the prospect of bailing out. In numerous “bull sessions” with fellow pilots over the years, he had expressed his preference to fly his plane down to a forced landing if it became disabled. In fact, he had done exactly that six months earlier after his P-40 was badly damaged by ground fire on a strafing mission.

Time ticked away, but still the lights did not come on at Liangshan. Eventually the engines of the three P-40s sputtered and died as the fighters’ fuel tanks ran dry. One by one, the pilots rolled back the canopies over their cockpits, unhooked their safety harnesses and bailed out into inky darkness. Moad was most fortunate, landing uninjured and returning to Liangshan the following day (sadly, he was killed in action not long afterward). Turner hit the ground at a bad angle and broke his leg — villagers soon found him, and they carried him into Liangshan the next morning.

Maj Ken Kay, writing in the 3rd FG history, recalled the frustration felt by the men at Liangshan when they realized their esteemed commander was in trouble:

Hell’s Angels, the 3rd Squadron of the 1st American Volunteer Group “Flying Tigers.”

‘We watched their navigation lights sink below the hills toward Peishiyi. It was just one of those Goddamned nights. Later on we realized they might have safely landed here at the time, but the Japs were bombing Wahnsien, ten minutes away, at the time, and we were blacked out. When, realizing they could not get into Peishiyi and that they were circling overhead again, their gas perilously low, we finally turned on the field lights. At that moment a Jap “Lily,” which had been hovering nervously in the vicinity, dived in, scattering small incendiary and fragmentation bombs to the south of the field. We suffered no damage from the bombing, but our fighters were by that time completely out of fuel and all three pilots were forced to bail out.’

Bill’s engine went silent when he was about 20 miles from Liangshan. Despite what misgivings he may have had, Bill bailed out as well. What happened next is open to some conjecture. But the stark fact is that he did not survive the jump. His body was found the next morning about a mile west of Lao-Yen-Cheaz village. Capt Chuck Lovett, the “Exterminators’ intelligence officer at Liangshan and a great admirer of Bill, led the detail went out to find their commander’s body. Lovett gave this account to Molesworth many years later:

‘He bailed out, and we don’t know what he did, but we speculate he turned the P-40 upside down and dropped out. The pilots used to talk about what they were going to do if they had to bail out. What they were supposed to do was throttle way back and put the nose in an up position a little bit and roll the canopy back, then step out on the wing and dive off. That was the approved procedure, but we don’t know what Bill Reed did.

‘Whatever he did, he must have hit the tail plane with the back of his head, because his body wasn’t damaged at all other than there was a flap of hair loose on the back of his head that was scalped there. The chute did not open. His hand was on the rip cord.’

“Flying Tiger” Bill Reed, legendary leading ace of the CACW and beloved group commander whose men called him “Boss,” was dead. He was three weeks shy of his 28th birthday. He had received, amongst other awards, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Fifth and Sixth Order of the Chinese Cloud Banner.

Carl Molesworth’s book Flying Tiger Ace

Flying Tiger Ace is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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