August 14, 1937

In mid-1937, after years of preparation and baiting, Japan finally began its full-scale effort to conquer China. The war came to Shanghai on August 14, known thereafter as "Bloody Saturday", from the air.

The Japanese launched bombing raid attacks on Shanghai and Nanjing from Taiwan , but a passing typhoon made it impossible for their fighter cover to take off from the carrier Kaga, near Shanghai. The large Mitsubishi G3M2 "Nell" bombers were greeted by the unopposed Chinese 4th Fighter Wing led by Gao Zhihang and miserable weather over target. Col. Gao's Hawk IIIs shot down several of the raiders and the others diverted to bases in Korea and Japan. This good luck would not last. The Chinese air force launched its own attacks despite the bad weather. Chinese Northrop bombers took off from Guangde, about 120 miles west of Shanghai with early Curtiss Hawk II dive-bombers supporting them. About 40 planes arrived over Shanghai, which was covered in thick cloud. The Curtiss Hawks began dive-bombing the Japanese Marine headquarters at the Kung Ta textile mills while Northrops attacked Japanese cruisers and supply ships at Wusong and the Japanese warship Idzumo, moored next to the Japanese consulate on the Whangpoo River, which served as the Japanese military headquarters. They missed.

One of the 550-pound bombs fell at the crowded intersection of Nanking Road and the Bund while two more bombs from a Northrop fell on bustling Avenue Edward VII. The bombs caught crowds of onlookers gazing up at the planes and the loss of life was appalling - 1,740 people killed and 1,873 injured.

According to one account attributed to Claire Chennault, Chinese airmen had been trained to bomb from 7,500 feet, but the thick cloud made it necessary to come in much lower, and they released their bombs at 1,500 feet without adjusting their bombsights.

Another possibility is that the bomb racks, notoriously tempermental, released early when the arming switches were thrown. This would better account for the bombs falling where they did, according to some. The damage may even have been caused by or compounded by bombs jettisoned or dropped from a Japanese aircraft in the clouds above. In war strange things happen.

The next day and over the next weeks, the Japanese bombers from Taiwan and Korea returned with escort and inflicted great damage on Shanghai and Nanjing. Victims ranged from Mr and Mrs Robert K. Reischauer, brother of the Japanologist and future ambassador, to the burnt baby photographed on the tracks at Shanghai South by "Newsreel" Wong.

China put up a heroic resistance in the air and on the ground, its Curtiss Hawk and Boeing 281 pilots fighting to the last with frightful losses against the deadly new Mitsubishi "Claude" shipboard fighters. An elite Chinese unit of Boeing 281 (P-26) monoplanes defended Nanjing to the last plane, while on the ground in Shanghai the crack German-trained KMT "Ironsides" troops, the "Lost Battalion" held the Joint Savings Godown on Suzhou Creek. But Shanghai (the parts not controlled by the foreigners), and then Nanjing, fell to the invaders.

Model 281s delivered to the Chinese Air Force in 1936.

An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949. He got the day and a few other details wrong, but the feel is right:

"On August 13th, incidentally my birthday, two small Chinese planes appeared over Shanghai, flying high to avoid the barrage of anti-aircraft fire unleashed by the Japanese in Hongkew.

The target of the planes appeared to be the ancient Japanese cruiser, Idzumo, permanently anchored close to Garden Bridge, a former Imperial Russian warship captured during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. This was the headquarters of the Japanese Navy in Shanghai, impotent as a fighting unit but useful as a monument to commemorate the country's victory over a Western power.

The Chinese planes manoeuvred over the Idzumo but at such a height that accurate bombing was out of the question. Then the bombs dropped to transform two areas of the International Settlement into flaming holocausts in which more than 1,000 people died.

The first bomb landed in Nanking Road between the Cathay and Palace Hotels. It created havoc. Hundreds of pedestrians of many nationalities simply disappeared in a whirling mass of dismembered bodies. Trams were set on fire. Motorists were burned to cinders in their blazing vehicles. The few who survived had not long to live. There was even greater devastation on Avenue Edward Seventh, where the second bomb dropped. This was the Chinese theatre district, an area of street stalls, of pavement sideshows, always thronged with sightseers. The carnage was appalling. It was the last attack launched by the Chinese in the Shanghai area - an appalling debacle that clearly proved to the world that China's material resources were not only scarce but that in quality they precluded any worthwhile offensive action against the well-armed Japanese."

For more information on aviation in Old China, see also early aviation, and Robert Short.

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