Birch Bai was in trouble. Enemy fire had crippled his P-40, and he’d struggled, hoping to fly long enough to get out of Japanese-occupied territory. He was near Dashan, a mountain town in Yunnan Province, when the sputtering engine quit. The bullet-riddled plane plummeted into an uncontrollable spin, barely giving him enough time to slide open the canopy and tumble out.
A sharp wind rushed past him. Even wearing a helmet, he could hear the hissing of cold air as it blasted through his sheepskin-lined flight jacket. He pulled the ripcord and heard the parachute unfurl behind him. Jerked suddenly upward, the chute blossomed like an enormous white flower as the air filled it, and he began to float upon the air currents.
Despite his repeated calls for help, none of his squadron had replied. His radio had been silent since he was shot over the target—a Japanese airfield near the border of China and Burma. His P-40 had been hammered in the engine and the cockpit as he flew through a stream of deadly fire. Afterward Danny had followed in his fighter while the other planes returned to their base.
Having flown in combat for eight years, the thirty-year-old major was one of the top Chinese fighter pilots in the Air Force. At least we’ve destroyed the base. Now, the Japs have no easy way to replenish their supplies. Images of flaming airplanes, hangars, and runways still excited him.
Birch aimed for a meadow the size of a football field. Thick woods made up the southern and western boundaries. Around Dashan, ancient bamboo huts were perched on the lush hillside, blending naturally with the environment. If he hadn’t been in combat, he would have enjoyed the scenery. But he didn’t have that luxury. From his airy vantage point, he noticed two armored vehicles already moving toward his wreckage.
A sudden gust of wind pushed him to the edge of the meadow, and a tree branch caught his parachute. The cords stretched to their full length, leaving him tangled in his harness, dangling ten feet off the ground. Quickly Birch took stock of the surroundings. On the other side of the field, a Japanese ground patrol was snaking its way toward him. He had only a pistol and an extra magazine. With one swift motion, he withdrew the hooked knife from his pants pocket, stretched his lean arms, and sliced through the cords.
Struggling to free himself, he heard the roar of a plane overhead, and a split-second later, gunshots. Danny must have seen the Japs, too. Birch looked up. The tiger-faced plane zoomed toward the enemy patrol at treetop height. The American airman’s bullets surprised the Japanese, who dove frantically into the undergrowth for cover. Dirt and rocks flew everywhere.
“You’re too low,” Birch shouted at the top of his lungs even though he knew that Danny couldn’t hear him. “Dammit! Get the hell out of here, Danny.”
But the P-40 didn’t retreat. It swooped low, its guns rattling. The trees quivered and the ground shuddered. The fighter plane made strafing runs and pinned the patrol down, forcing the Japanese to deal with the airplane rather than pursue the downed pilot.
Anti-aircraft fire from the vehicles and the patrol’s machine guns sprang skyward. The explosive shells burst around Danny. Soon the sky was studded with small black puffs of smoke. The sight and sound sent chills up Birch’s spine.
It took no more than a minute to untangle himself, but it felt like an hour. Cutting the last cord, he dropped to the ground, made a forward roll, and sprang to his feet. He unbuckled the straps from around his legs, let the harness drop, and headed toward the forest. In just a few steps, his athletic frame was swallowed by the dense woods. Soon it would be hard for the Japanese to find him.
Before Birch had time to catch his breath, he heard a dreadful noise—a motor cutting out. Without the slightest hesitation, he spun around and rushed back. His eyes widened as he watched the P-40 crash land at the far end of the meadow. Smoke poured out of the fuselage. The deafening impact made his heart drum in a frantic rhythm.
Birch sprinted toward the crash site. Danny Hardy was his best friend and his sworn brother. I’ll never leave him alone in the hands of the devil! He didn’t think he could reach Danny before the Japanese. But he had to try.
After a few steps Birch yanked off his helmet and thick jacket. Anything slowing him down had to go. Other than his long, powerful runner’s legs, he didn’t have any advantage to win this race.
He ran, dodging and weaving from side to side. His hand reached for his pistol. With several bursts, he raked the Japanese. His bullets hammered the enemy. One of the soldiers spun; his rifle flew off. Another doubled up.
But there were simply too many of them…
Dozens of Japanese chased after Birch like a swarm of killer bees. Some ran diagonally across the field, trying to block his path to the crash site. Others rushed to the downed plane. Tracers whizzed over his head. He understood their intention—to slow him down and capture him alive.
Before long, Birch ran out of ammunition. The enemy stopped shooting, too. For a moment, the battlefield became eerily quiet. The only noise was his heavy breathing and pounding heartbeat. The Japanese surrounded him. Their rifles and bayonets glinted in the sunlight.
The plane was still a hundred feet away. Dark smoke continued to belch from the nose of the aircraft. There was no sign of the American. Where was he? Birch’s eyes went wide before a look of panic twisted his features. Is he still inside? Injured? Dead?