Taiwan’s U.S.–backed aerial spy flights over China predates the drone era

Tim Daiss
108258819 219x300 Taiwan’s U.S.–backed aerial spy flights over China predates the drone era

(Getty Images)

Taiwan’s motto has always been Knowing China through Taiwan. The country recently picked up on an article implying that China may become the next area for U.S. drone operations and that drones will change roles from attacking enemy combatants to spying.

If true, China for its part won’t be caught flat-footed. The country is reportedly developing its own drone fleet. A recent study from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, prepared for the U.S. Congress, indicates that China is preparing a drone fleet to spy on Taiwan.

However this is really nothing new. Three years after Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT-Nationalist government lost the Chinese Civil War to the Mao Zedong-led Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, covert U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed aerial missions over China commenced.

The U.S. trained Taiwanese pilots, known as “Black Bats,” were based in Taiwan and flew more than 800 missions over the mainland from 1953 to 1967, occasionally dropping agents, testing China’s radar defences, dropping psychological warfare leaflets and gathering military signal intelligence around Chinese radar systems.

“The squadron’s main task was to fly at low altitude over mainland China in order to trigger the air defense radar system of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and to record the radar frequency positions of the air defense systems,” a Taiwan Insights report said last August.

The Black Bat Squadron was also responsible for high altitude reconnaissance, flying to a height of about 70,000 feet, to take photographs of important military facilities. The military intelligence gathered by the squadrons was extremely valuable to the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War as the U.S. squared off in one corner against the Soviets and Chinese in the other. Of course, this also played out on the Korean Peninsular and also during the ensuing war in Vietnam.

And it was a deadly business. Chu Cheng, 87, a former pilot from Taiwan said in a World Journal interview in San Francisco last year that the purpose of the Black Bat Squadron’s low level flying served to lure counterattack measures by the PLA’s anti-air artillery, and so expose the enemy’s communication signals, to collect radar launch locations, and to analyse the ground command deployment of the PLA. “Each member of the Black Bat Squadron faced death without fear. In each mission, everyone was determined to live or die with their aircraft,” he said.

Fifteen Black Bat aircraft (B-17’s, P-2V Neptunes, B-26’s and others) were shot from the skies while 148 Black Bat crew members went down with their aircraft. Other reports claim that 10 aircrafts were lost. A few were captured after being shot down and later released in then British-controlled Hong Kong according to another source.

“Just like bats, they few at night and rested during the day,” the Taiwan Insights report added. “And since their aircraft were painted black, they were given the nickname the “Black Bat Squadron.”

However, some claim that this is a story that the CIA does not want to go public even now, and that the agency still refuses to declassify any of its internal history concerning low-level flights over China during the 1950s and 1960s.

According to a 2007 Associated Press (AP) report, the Black Bat’s story emerged in Taiwan in 1992 when China repatriated the remains of 14 crew members that died when their plane was shot down over the mainland in 1959. The report added that the unit had remained largely anonymous until a gathering early in June 2007 at Hsinchu’s National Tsing Hua University, where hundreds of Taiwanese observed a minute of silence for the 148 Black Bats who didn’t return from their missions and paid an emotional tribute to the few surviving members of the group.

And in November 2009, the Hsinchu City Black Bat Squadron Memorial Hall, modelled on a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) dormitory and built on the original site of the squadron’s Hsinchu camp, was founded to honour the sacrifices of these men, a fitting tribute to these all but forgotten warriors of the Cold War.

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  • Jason Duncan

    Interesting article… would be nice to hear from some of these guys in Taiwan who would have great stories to share… xie xie zia jian!

  • 陶維極

    There was all sorts of crazy stuff going on back then. In the early 1970s, I heard stories from air force people about flying to the PRC as special envoys: I mean on flights planned by both sides, not spying.

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