LOVELAND, Colo. (AP) – On Feb. 12, 1945, Gerald Ravenscroft, a member of the 14th Air Force’s Fighting Tigers, was in his P-51 Mustang flying over the Yangtze River near Nanking. He was on his 25th mission out of Laohekou, China, when he spotted a Japanese vessel on the river. “I didn’t know if it was a destroyer or what,” said Ravenscroft. “But I was the only one with a bomb.”
“As I started my dive, I could feel their bullets hitting my plane,” he said.
“It looked like a storm coming up. One of the wingmen that I had instructed to stay above called to say he thought I’d been hit in the coolant.
“The inline engine on the P-51 has coolant along the sides of the engine. If that gets hit, your engine overheats, and you have to bail out or attempt a crash landing. My temperature gauge was going up. I was in trouble.”
Ravenscroft pulled up to gain altitude. “I got to about 1,500 feet,” he said.
He had a parachute, but had never practiced using it.
“I got rid of the canopy and started to stand up to jump out on the wing,” he said. “The wind got me and tore me back. I was caught momentarily on the plane, but then I got my feet loose.
“The normal procedure is to count to 10 before you pull your cord,” he said. “But as soon as I saw the tail go by, I pulled the ripcord. It opened, and I had one swing, saw the ground and landed. Ten seconds more and I would have been in the ground.”
Many individuals are unaware of the war’s reach to mainland China.
“The Japanese had occupied the east coast of China north to Mongolia,” said Ravenscroft. “They had Xian, and they were dropping down into Kweilin.”
The Flying Tigers were initially part of the American Volunteer Group, serving with the Chinese army to drive the Japanese back. Later, the group became the Chinese American Task Force, which eventually became the 14th Air Force.”
The American military didn’t want American troops commanded by foreigners,” Ravenscroft said.
After Ravenscroft hit the ground, two Chinese men came to his assistance.
“We always carried a Chinese flag and a message from Chiang Kai-Shek telling anyone who saw the message to help because we were there defending their country,” said Ravenscroft. “But they couldn’t read!”
The men still seemed to know what was happening and insisted that Ravenscroft take off his shoes, though it was winter and a hilly, rocky area.
“They felt the Japanese would follow my shoe prints,” he said. “I knew that if they weren’t following shoe prints, they’d be following bloody footprints. But they kept insisting, and I was their guest, so I took the shoes off and started running.”
The three men ran approximately 25 miles that day, zigzagging back and forth to throw off the enemy. For nearly a month, Ravenscroft traveled between villages, with the assistance of nationalist guerillas.
“I was in occupied China, trying to escape from the Japanese,” he said.
Eventually, Ravenscroft was led to an American with the Office of Strategic Services — now the CIA. That man notified friendly territory that he had Ravenscroft and one other pilot, who also had been brought to safety.
They were flown to their base headquarters in Kunming on March 9, 1945. Also aboard the plane was Chiang Kai-Shek’s niece, her husband and John Birch of the OSS.
After his dramatic escape, Ravenscroft was assigned to Air Ground Coordination in Kunming.
“I wanted to fly again,” he said, “but they wouldn’t let me because I then knew too much about the escape route. If I were ever captured, the Japanese would do anything to get that information.”
Ravenscroft, 88, now lives in Loveland, with his wife Sandy. He enjoys sharing memories of his time in China and displaying models of the planes that he flew.
He points to his Air Force wings, honorary Chinese wings and his “Caterpillar” pin.
“To get the Caterpillar and be a member of Caterpillar Club, you have to have parachuted out of your plane. After all,” he said smiling, “the caterpillar makes the silk.”
– By Jeannie Lancaster, Loveland Daily Reporter-Herald
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