Japanese Zeros shot down his B-24 bomber down

Joe Hart flew a B-24 bomber for the “Flying Tigers” in China during World War II. Photo provided.

“Glamour Girl” is what Lt. Joe Hart and his B-24 “Liberator” crew were going to call their World War II bomber. But they never got a chance to paint it on the nose of their four-engine plane because they were shot down by Japanese fighters over China on their second combat mission during WWII.

Hart, who now lives in Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. was a 22-year-old college student when he graduated from multi-engine training and received his silver wings. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to become part of a historic squadron — the American Aviation Group, better known as the “Flying Tigers.”

The Tigers were comprised of four fighter squadrons of American volunteers who fought in the Chinese Air Force, primary in P-40 “Warhawk” fighters with menacing-looking shark’s teeth mouths painted on the nose of their planes. Once the United States entered WWII, many of the pilots in the volunteer group joined the U.S. 14th Air Force.

When Hart and his nine-man crew arrived in July 1943 at their base in Kunming, China, they became part of the 14th Air Force and members of the Tigers. The 14th wore the Flying Tigers shoulder patch and all their planes flew with the distinctive shark’s teeth nose art.

“It was July 24, 1943, and we were on our second bombing mission. The objective: An industrial complex at Hankow, China,” said Hart , 90. “Seven B-24s from our squadron were supposed to meet up with a like number of bombers from another squadron, but bad weather kept the other bombers on the ground.

“We were to have fighter protection from P-40s and P-38 ‘Lightning’ fighters. Half the P-38s were called to another target, and the P-40s were having enough trouble taking care of themselves against the Japanese Zeros. We were pretty much on our own.

“We could see Japanese fighters taking off from a base 18,000 feet below us. In a few minutes, there were 45 Zeros in the air against seven B-24s and a handful of P-40s,” Hart said. “The P-38s flying up above us never came down and got in the fight. They thought other planes below them were assigned to protect us.

“As we approached the target, anti-aircraft flak started bursting about us. Unbeknownst to us, Maj. Hors Foster, leading our flight in the first plane, was seriously wounded and died a few minutes later,” he recalled. “Their co-pilot was also injured; the lead bomber was struggling to stay in the air. Mort Salk, the bombardier, pulled the dead pilot out of the cockpit and took over flying the plane.

“More enemy fighters were coming in on us. They would fly out of the range of our .50-caliber machine guns, get ahead of us, do a U-turn and come at us,” Hart said. “A Zero was coming straight at us with guns flashing. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose.

“You could feel the plane taking hits. Then the windshield shattered and pieces of glass hit me in the right eye and face. Using my jacket sleeve, I wiped blood from my face and tried to get oriented.

“Lt. Gordon Ruhf (the bombardier) came scrambling up to the flight deck yelling we had a fire in the back of our instrument panel and they couldn’t put it out. Another burst of machine gun fire hit us. I saw Lt. Clarence Stanley (the co-pilot) go limp and his hands drop from the wheel. He was dead!

“I took over the plane with blurred vision and tried to stay in formation. I ordered the crew to bail out. The bombardier and navigator went out through the nose wheel door, and the engineer and I jumped out through the bomb bay because we had already dropped our bombs,” Hart said.

The ground was more than three miles below him. He waited to pull his ripcord because Japanese fighter pilots were machine-gunning aviators who bailed out.

“A Zero headed for me and I played dead. He came within 100 feet of me and gave me a good look. With head bowed and arms hanging limp at my side, I pulled the ruse off,” he said.

Shortly after reaching the ground an old woman working in a rice paddy spotted him and pointed Hart toward a path. A few minutes later, four Chinese guerilla militiamen took him to a nearby village, bandaged his wounds and hid him from the Japanese. He was taken at night by sedan chair from one town to the next. Three days later, Hart was reunited with his navigator, bombardier and engineer, the only members of his crew to survive the crash.

They finally reached Changsha, the first large city with a British Red Cross hospital, where he was operated on and his badly infected right eye was removed. He developed malaria in the hospital.

While recuperating from his surgery, the mayor of Changsha gave a banquet for the three “American heroes” in the hospital. Hart was presented with a silk scroll that reads: “To the 14th American Air Corps, a memento to their victorious return.” It remains in a place of honor in his home.

On Sept. 15, 1943, Hart returned to Kunming via river steamboat, train and plane. Because of his injuries he never flew a B-24 again. Only two of the seven bombers in his squadron survived the attack on Hankow. Only 22 aviators of the 72 who flew the mission returned — 50 men were lost.

“I try to never talk about my Army Air Force career. The government spent so damn much money just training me how to fly a B-24, and I only flew two missions,” he said. “Then there was the airplane we lost and all the time the government spent trying to fix my eye.”

Eventually, Hart was discharged from the service and spent 37 years working for General Motors as a commercial artist and department head.

He and his wife, Mary, first arrived in Punta Gorda, Fla. aboard their 30-foot Pearson sailboat, “After Five,” in 1982. They sailed down the Mississippi River from Michigan and tied up at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He now lives in Windjammer Point condominiums in PGI.

Mary died 13 days after Hurricane Charley devastated the area on Aug. 13, 2004.

They have five children — two boys and three girls — 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 24, 2010 and is republished with permission.

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  1. Don, thank you for this and many other wonderful stories. Joe Hart was one of hundreds of American airmen rescued by ordinary Chinese citizens during World War II. The rescuers risked their lives to bring their allies to safety. Within months after Hart was shot down, the U.S. Navy had hundreds of men on the ground coordinating with Chinese guerrilla forces for this and other missions. Don Bell, an American radio personality working in the Philippines, was on a story with the AAF when his plane was shot down, went through a similar odyssey. His and several other stories are recounted in my book, The Rice Paddy Navy.
    Sincerely, Linda Kush

    • Linda, I appreciate your positive comments about these stories. Mary, my associate, is going to order your book for me through Amazon. It sounds like a good read. What’s great about these stories is not what I do but what these men and women did in their service to our country. I just happen to have the privilege of talking to them and am glad there’s a willing audience to share them with.

      Don Moore
      War Tales

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