People’s Republic of China (1948-1953)
Fighter – 39 Operated
The North American P-51 Mustang is considered one of the world’s most iconic warplanes from the Second World War, seeing action in nearly all theaters, as well as the Korean War and many other conflicts thereafter. However, one of the lesser known stories of the Mustang is its service with the Communist Chinese forces who would go on to form the People’s Republic of China shortly after. A total of 39 Mustangs were obtained from the Chinese Nationalist forces either by capture or defection. These Mustangs were used in various roles with the Communists, and nine of them even had the honor of flying over Beijing on October 1st 1949 for a parade to commemorate the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Although never seeing combat, the Mustangs still had served with the Communist Chinese forces as one of their most advanced fighters until the arrival of Soviet aid.
The Republic of China (i.e, Chinese Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) was a notable operator of the North American P-51 Mustang during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Since the United States entered the Second World War, plans were made to provide the Republic of China China with modern American warplanes to replace the worn and outdated planes that the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) were using. The Mustangs were initially flown by pilots of the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW) starting from November 1944. The models they operated were P-51B and P-51C, but later in February 1945, P-51D and P-51K variants were delivered and put to use against the Japanese along with the P-51B and P-51C. At the end of the Second World War, the ROCAF received 278 Mustangs from the USAAF, most of which were P-51D and P-51K models, but also with some F-6D and F-6K photo reconnaissance models. Soon after, the uneasy relationship between the Communist Party of China under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Nationalist government under the leadership of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) disintegrated. As such, the civil war between the two parties resumed after nearly nine years of truce. This time however, the Communist forces were more prepared to fight the Nationalist forces. As time went on, the Nationalist forces began losing their hold on mainland China and were forced to retreat to Formosa (Taiwan), but not before many of their soldiers, officers and generals defected, leaving a substantial amount of equipment behind.
The People’s Liberation Army obtained their first Mustang on September 23rd 1948 when Captain Yang Peiguang (杨培光) from the Nationalist 4th Fighter Wing based in Beiping (Beijing) defected with his P-51D to the Communist forces at Siping, Jilin Province. The bulk of the Mustangs which would be captured by the Communist forces were, however, from the Liaoshen Campaign which lasted from September 12th – November 2nd, 1948. With the Communist victory at the Battle of Jinzhou on October 15th, a considerable amount of Nationalist equipment was captured; among these were thirty one Mustangs in various states of repair at the Jinzhou Airfield. Though now with thirty four Mustangs in total, the People’s Liberation Army was not able to press any into service due to many factors; the most important two being the lack of able pilots and the varying states of disrepair that the Mustangs were in.
The city of Shenyang was finally captured by the People’s Liberation Army on October 30th 1948, and on the second day of the city’s capture on October 31st, the Northeast People’s Liberation Army Aviation School sent men to secure the Shenyang Beiling airport, factories, warehouses, personnel, and various other assets formerly belonging to the Nationalists. In November, the Shenyang Beiling airport was officially established as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Repair Factory Number 5 (中国人民解放军空军第五修理厂). With the establishment of this repair factory, the first machines to be repaired were the Mustangs. The repairs took top priority and the first Mustang was ready for service on December 30th. Since then, thirty six Mustangs were repaired within a span of eighteen to twenty months lasting until 1950.
On December 10th 1948, the People’s Liberation Army was able to capture the Nationalist-held Beiping (Beijing) Nanyuan Airport as part of the Pingjin Campaign. Three Mustangs were found in relatively good condition, and a total of 128 Packard-built V-1650 Merlin engines were captured as well. This boosted the total amount of Mustangs in the People’s Liberation Army to thirty seven, and provided plenty of replacement engines for maintenance. After this, two more Mustangs would fall in the hands of the Communist forces.
On December 29th, Lieutenant Tan Hanzhou (谭汉洲) of the Nationalist 4th Fighter Group defected with his Mustang from Qingdao to Communist held Shenyang. The last Mustang to fall into the People’s Liberation Army’s hands occured on January 14th of 1949 when Lieutenant Yan Chengyin* (阎承荫) from the Nationalist 3rd Fighter Group’s 28th Squadron defected from his home base of Nanjing to Communist held Jinan.
Now with thirty nine Mustangs in total, the People’s Liberation Army began to put them to use. Starting from late January 1949, a large number of Mustangs were presented to the Northeast Old Aviation School’s (东北老航校) 2nd Squadron of the 1st Air Group with the purpose of training pilots. On August 15th 1949, the People’s Liberation Army formed their first flying squadron named at the Beiping Nanyuan airfield. The squadron consisted of two Fairchild PT-19 trainers, two de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers and six Mustangs. Shortly after the formation on September 5th, this squadron was assigned the task of defending Beiping’s airspace from Nationalist forces. At some point before October, eleven more Mustangs were assigned to this squadron. The squadron saw no combat.
* Mr. Yan later changed his name to Yan Lei (阎磊) after his defection.
Perhaps the most notable use of the Mustangs in Communist Chinese service was on October 1st 1949. By then, the bulk of the Nationalist forces were in discord and in the process of retreating to Formosa (Taiwan). With the Communist victory inevitable, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. A Soviet-style military parade was held in newly-renamed Beijing’s (Beiping) Tiananmen Square which included sixteen thousand and four hundred soldiers, one hundred and fifty two tanks, two hundred and twenty two cars and seventeen planes were displayed to the public. Of these seventeen planes, nine were Mustangs. The Mustangs flew in groups of threes in a V formation and led the aerial convoy. Once over Tiananmen square, these Mustangs increased their speed and flew past the square and out of sight, they made a turn and reentered Tiananmen square for the back just in time to link up with the two Fairchild PT-19A trainers flying last. Because they re-entered the square so quickly, the spectators were led to believe these were nine different Mustangs, with a total of twenty six planes appearing over Tiananmen square instead of the actual seventeen. This was mentioned in a government made propaganda newsreel. Of these nine Mustangs, at least one was a P-51K model.
After the parade, the Mustangs were once again deployed in a defensive state awaiting possible Nationalist intrusions in Beijing. By November 1949, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was officially established and a total of twenty two airworthy Mustangs were in service, with nine more awaiting repair. This meant that thirty one Mustangs still survived, with eight written off. It is unknown what precisely happened to these Mustangs but the author speculates that they could have been cannibalized for parts, destroyed in training flights, disassembled to study the structure, or simply scrapped.
On July 26th 1950, the Beijing defense squadron was renamed the “Air Force 1st Independent Fighter Brigade” (空军独立第一歼击机大队). By then, the Soviet Union was supplying the Chinese with more modern equipment and by mid-August, the brigade’s Mustangs were replaced by Soviet Lavochkin La-9 fighters. Once replaced, all Mustangs scattered across the country were collected and given to Aviation School No.7 to train new pilots. With this, Aviation School No.7 modified thirteen Mustangs to be two-seat trainers. This was done perhaps to speed up the training process, and to prevent accidents by rookie pilots without guidance. There is currently one known photo of the two seat trainer.
By September 1953, most Mustangs were retired from training service due to cracks in the landing gear. However, eight of them remained in service with Aviation School No.7 to train Ilyushin IL-10 pilots how to taxi their planes. A few more examples were used as teaching tools to train pilots on identifying plane parts. It is unknown when precisely the Mustang was retired once and for all.
To this day, only two Mustangs formerly in PLAAF service survive in museums. The first one is a P-51K-10-NT “Red 3032” with the serial number 44-12458. This P-51K is on public display at the Chinese Aviation Museum (中国航空博物馆), sometimes also known as the Datangshan Aviation Museum located in Datangshan, Beijing. It remains in relatively pristine condition as it was in an indoors display and sheltered from the elements. Bomb hardpoints are visible under each of the wings which signifies that this Mustang perhaps once served as a fighter/bomber for the ROCAF.
The other surviving PLAAF Mustang is a P-51D-25-NA “Red 3” with the serial number 44-73920. This Mustang can be seen at the China People’s Revolution Military Museum (中国人民革命军事博物馆) in the Haidian District of Beijing. What is notable about this specific plane is that it was one of the nine Mustangs that flew over Beijing on October 1st of 1949 for the Founding of the People’s Republic of China parade. This Mustang was displayed outdoors exposed to nature for the majority of its life until the museum went under renovation when it was finally moved indoors. The Mustang has gone through minimal restoration, as it looks considerably cleaner than when it was displayed outdoors. This Mustang also had bomb hardpoints under its wings.
A total of 39 North American P-51D Mustangs were operated by the Communist Chinese forces, and later the People’s Republic of China. Within these Mustangs, an unknown amount were P-51D and P-51K models.
- P-51D – An unspecified amount of P-51D Mustangs of various block numbers were operated by the People’s Republic of China. A P-51D-25-NA is confirmed to have been in service as it flew over Beijing as part of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China parade and is now in the China People’s Revolution Military Museum (中国人民革命军事博物馆) in the Beijing.
- P-51K – An unspecified amount of P-51K Mustangs of various block numbers were operated by the People’s Republic of China. A P-51K-10-NT is confirmed to have been in service as it is in the Chinese Aviation Museum (中国航空博物馆) in Beijing.
- P-51 Trainer – A total of thirteen Mustangs were modified by Aviation School No.7 in 1951 to be two-seat trainers. The instructor sat in the rear while the student pilot was at the front. No surviving examples are preserved to this day.
The author would like to extend his thanks to Mr. Hemmatyar for restoring some of the photos used in this article.
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