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Taiwan's Black Bat spy pilots come into light

Surviving cadres say they worked with the CIA in efforts to foment insurrection on China's Communist mainland.

September 02, 2007|Annie Huang | Associated Press

HSINCHU, TAIWAN — They gathered quietly on a rainy night in the northwestern Taiwanese city of Hsinchu, six survivors of a secret cadre of pilots who risked their lives against the Communist enemy during the darkest days of the Cold War.

Known as "The Black Bats," they say they were working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a claim backed up by a photo of them posing with the CIA's then-station chief. Between 1953 and 1967, they flew more than 800 sorties over the Chinese mainland, dropping agents, testing radar responses, even collecting air samples from suspected nuclear test sites.

After decades in the shadows, they are coming forward, encouraged by the planned establishment of a museum honoring their exploits in this high-tech center that was once the base of their operations.

Though their main mission -- laying the groundwork for an anti-Communist insurrection -- unquestionably failed, they are seen by many on this democratic island of 23 million people as national heroes, because they helped cement a crucial connection with the United States when their homeland needed all the help it could get.

The Black Bats' story first emerged in Taiwan in 1992 when China repatriated the remains of 14 crew members who died when their plane was shot down over the mainland in 1959. A few books on their exploits were published in subsequent years, including one by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry detailing their clandestine China overflights.

But the Bats had remained largely anonymous until the gathering early in June 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.

"We owe our national and social stability to them, but we had never thanked them in public," said Tsing Hua humanities professor Lung Ying-tai.

The Black Bats were formed in 1953, just four years after Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces were defeated on the mainland by Mao Tse-tung's Communists. That loss precipitated their wholesale retreat to this island 3 1/2 times the size of Los Angeles County located 100 miles off the Chinese coast.

During his more than 20 years in power on the mainland, Chiang had maintained an uneasy relationship with the United States -- many historians accuse him of wide-scale corruption -- but once on Taiwan, Washington embraced him as an anti-Communist bulwark.

The CIA was a major link in the new U.S.-Taiwanese connection, Black Bat veterans say, providing the group with P2V, B-17 and B-26 aircraft to carry out its mission of scoping out the Communist enemy, and inserting agents on the mainland to promote an insurrection.

The veterans proudly display photographs taken with Ray Cline, then the agency's station chief in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, and show other memorabilia supporting their claim of CIA sponsorship.

"There's no doubt about the cooperation between the Black Bats and the CIA," said Tseng Wen-shu, who helped organize an exhibition about the Bats at a municipally sponsored Hsinchu military museum.

A 2004 book co-authored by CIA Taiwan veteran James Lilley says the agency used aircraft to insert Taiwanese agents into the mainland, though it does not mention the Bats specifically.

The CIA did not respond to an e-mail asking about its connection to the group.

Chu Chen, 77, one of about 10 surviving Black Bat pilots, said crews were trained in Taiwan by Americans he later learned were CIA employees. Like others in the group, he kept his exploits secret until recently -- even from members of his own family.

"If we had disclosed anything, we could have been shot as intelligence agents leaking secrets," he said.

Taiwanese defense expert Fu Ching-ping said the CIA purposely hid its connection to the Black Bats because of fear of being implicated in military forays against the mainland.

"They employed the Taiwanese pilots so they could deny any connection if the mission went wrong," he said.

The Black Bats' major function was to drop Taiwanese spies to incite mainlanders to rise up against Communist rule -- an enterprise that almost invariably ended in failure.

No figures are available on how many spies were dropped, but surviving Black Bat pilots say few ever returned to Taiwan.

Former navigator Chou Li-hsu recalled numerous infiltration missions and extolled the bravery of the agents.

"They tossed their weapons down first and then they jumped," he said.

Several former pilots also recounted close encounters with pursuing Communist planes, which narrowly missed shooting them down.

Tai Shu-ching, 82, said that in five years of Black Bat service he flew 78 sorties over China, including one in 1960 in which eight Communist airmen were killed when their planes crashed into a mountain during a futile chase of Tai's P2V.

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