It’s a shame that so much attention is showered on the war in Europe when it comes to strategic bombing. The Eighth Air Force is well-known and celebrated in movies and books, and we at least have heard about the B-24s of the 9th and 15th Air Forces who returned time and again from North Africa and later Italy to pound oil production at Ploesti in Romania. In the Pacific, we are regaled with the important work the B-29s on Guam and Tinian, but are never told many of them had been working from Chinese airfields prior to our seizing those Pacific islands. The controversy over Gen. Curtiss LeMay’s strategy of destroying Japanese cities (and killing massive numbers of civilians with controversial firebombing), as well as the knock-out blow of the atomic bomb, seem to leave no room for any recognition of the services of other groups and planes.
Now a new book by Edward M. Young entitled B-24 Liberator Units of the CBI goes a long way to dispersing the fog that hangs over the China-Burma-India air campaign. Part of Osprey Publications’ Combat Aircraft series, the book provides modelers with a goldmine of camouflage schemes and nose art (some of it the other side of risqué). The book chronicles the work of these airplanes and the crews who flew (and sometimes perished in) them.
The book is 96 pages of B&W photos and color plates with paint schemes and markings illustrated by Mark Styling. The text is what I’d call “history light,” with a readable, if not particularly riveting account of operations in the theater.
When the US entered the war in 1941, the strategy was to fight Hitler first and maintain something of a holding action against the Japanese. This policy was later partially modified, but the best equipment usually was sent first to the ETO, with the leftovers going to the Pacific. The gigantic ego “smack down” between the Army’s Douglas MacArthur and the Navy’s Ernest King and Chester Nimitz meant that whatever equipment was allocated for the PTO then got divvied up, with the China-Burma-India theater getting the leftovers of the leftovers.
But with strategic airpower a popular doctrine in the Army Air Force, the overall command decided to send at least some heavy bombers to the theater. The B-17 wasn't particularly suitable for the makeshift runways and harsh conditions in Asia, but the Consolidated B-24 Liberator thrived. Rugged and mechanically-reliable, it could handle long missions into Thailand or the South China Sea, as well as hauling supplies over the Himalayan “Hump.” Easily-modified to carry bomb bay fuel tanks and several innovative radar arrays, the Liberator’s “slab” fuselage sides became a favorite canvas for GI pin-up artists, too.
The 10th and 14th Air Forces in India and China respectively operated on the slimmest of provisions and equipment, some begged, borrowed or stolen from other units, and at the end of a supply line halfway around the world (the longest of any group). Yet they kept the Japanese pinned down, out of India, and aided our Chinese allies in tying down soldiers that might have turned the tide if transferred to the Philippines, for example. The campaign focused around two objectives: saving India from Japanese conquest, and expelling the IJA from Burma. The 10th Air Force was created to bomb both strategic targets like ports and rail nets, as well as more tactical targets like bridges and airfields. The B-24’s adaptability made it well-suited to attacking Japanese shipping , both in port and on the open ocean, much as the plane became the go-to aircraft in the Atlantic for destroying German U-boats. Not all of the danger, however, was in combat: after the Japanese closed the “Burma Road” from Assam in India to Kunming in SW China, many Liberators were lost on the “Hump” route (crew morale plunged when units or aircraft were rotated out of combat to flying in supplies and armaments).
The 14th Air Force was created under the flamboyant (and controversial) Claire Chennault, who first gained fame as the leader of the all-volunteer “Flying Tigers” formed to help the Chinese prior to the United States entering the war formally in 1941. American strategy in China was something of a crazy-quilt of conflicting strategies and equally conflicting egos: we supported the Nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Ka-Shek, though the US commander in China, Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, felt Chiang was more interested in fighting the Chinese Communists than the Japanese (Stillwell referred to the diminutive Chiang as “the gizmo”). Chennault resisted Stilwell’s plans of training Chinese divisions for a push through Burma, preferring to use air power to disrupt Japan’s supplies of raw materials.
All of this is a backdrop, however, to the story of the men who flew Liberators to bomb Japanese harbors, airfield, marshalling yards, bridges, etc. While the B-17 gets most of the nostalgia, the B-24 Liberator was in many ways a far more important plane, especially outside Europe. With the exception of ditching in water (where its design would generally rip open), the plane could carry a larger payload and fly farther than the Flying Fortress (which had a higher ceiling). More Liberators were built (18,400 vs. 12,700) than Fortresses.
The plane could take off on a relatively short runway, making it ideal for the jury-rigged airfields built in the China and Indian base areas. Despite the long haul, the original B-24D's who started in theater were gradually replaced with J's and then Ls and Ms. By war’s end, any D's still around were waiting to be scrapped. Given the fact that a series of American firms manufactured the B-24, repair and maintenance was a nightmare requiring stocks of different parts and spares. The fact that ground crews kept these babies flying halfway around the world is testament to the dedication, skill and grit of the men who served in the CBI.
The book’s British prose is workmanlike, but suffers from antiquated versions of place names that make it difficult for the reader to look on a modern map (e.g., Peiping instead of Beijing). Given that the author is an American, I can only presume Osprey has “Anglicized” the text to satisfy some deep craving. Since few of the bases or targets mentioned are household names, it makes following the action on a map difficult. And since no map is provided, this in an annoying situation in my opinion.
The accounts of missions (often supplemented with the words of their participants in journals and logs of the period) give a credible sense of the dangers and hardships endured. The scholarship seems solid, with help from the National Museum of the US Air Force and the Museum of Flight. Mark Styling’s illustrations of the racy nose art favored by CBI crews is first-rate and a delight for modelers and decal makers. I hope at least one sheet of CBI Liberators arises from this book’s appearance. The paint schemes are mostly routine (olive drab or bare metal), though late in the war some interesting variants appeared, including the Synthetic Haze combination of pale blue over sky blue to overcome searchlights that weathered badly into a weird mottling.
Given all the kits and decals devoted to the ETO, I would think modelers would jump at the chance to learn about (and replicate) this almost totally-ignored theater of operations. The accounts of the brave lads who piloted and maintained these aircraft are worth the price of the book, while the detailing on two dozen actual planes will delight and inspire the fans of heavy bombers and sexy nose art.
Highs: A valuable extension of our knowledge about a mostly-ignored theater of operations. Superb nose art illustrations. Excellent historical details.Lows: Antiquated spellings of place names, Briticisms (“aeroplane”), no theater maps.Verdict: Highly recommended. This could open up an entire avenue of builds, decals and camo schemes.
Our Thanks to Osprey Publishing! This item was provided by them for the purpose of having it reviewed on this KitMaker Network site. If you would like your kit, book, or product reviewed, please contact us.