CNN is in Seoul, South Korea
The US Air Force responded to a recent spotting of a Chinese high-altitude balloon suspected of spying by sending up its own high-flying espionage asset: the U-2 reconnaissance jet.
The Cold-War era spy plane that took high-resolution photographs, including a selfie from the pilot, reportedly convinced Washington that the Chinese balloon was gathering intelligence, and not just studying the weather as Beijing continues to insist.
The plane's key role in the event sent tensions between the world's two largest economies soaring and shone an international spotlight on the methods the two governments use to keep tabs on each other.
Most of the media's focus until now has been on the balloon specifically, how a vessel popularly seen as a relic of a bygone era of espionage could possibly remain relevant in the modern spy's playbook. Yet, to many military historians, the involvement of that other symbol of a bygone time, the U-2, is far more telling.
The U-2 has a long and storied history when it comes to espionage battles between the US and China. In the 1960s and 1970s, at least five of them were shot down while on surveillance missions over China.
Although the losses haven't been widely reported, they are for good reason. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who was responsible for all of America's U-2s at the time the planes were shot down, has never officially explained what they were doing there.
Adding to the mystery was that the planes were being flown not by US pilots nor under a US flag, but by pilots from Taiwan who, in a striking parallel to today's balloon saga, claimed to be involved in a weather research initiative.
In August, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence released a report on China's nuclear submarine program. The report, which is based on open-source information, states that China now has four nuclear-powered submarines, with two more under construction.The report has caused a stir in the U.S., as it is the first time that the U.S. has acknowledged that China has a nuclear submarine program. The report comes at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are high, due to China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.The report has been dubbed the "Dragon Lady" report, in reference to the nickname given to China's first nuclear submarine, the Type 092 Xia-class submarine. The Dragon Lady is a symbol of China's growing military might, and its determination to protect its interests in the South China Sea.The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence has released a report on China's nuclear submarine program. The report is based on open-source information and states that China now has four nuclear-powered submarines, with two more under construction. This is the first time that the U.S. has acknowledged that China has a nuclear submarine program. The report comes at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are high due to China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. The report has been dubbed the "Dragon Lady" report in reference to the nickname given to China's first nuclear submarine, the Type 092 Xia-class submarine. The Dragon Lady is a symbol of China's growing military might and its determination to protect its interests in the South China Sea.
The fact that the CIA would be tight-lipped over what these American-built spy planes were doing is not surprising.
Although the agency has remained silent for more than 50 years, their lack of response to CNN requests for comment on this article indicates how sensitive the issue was at the time, and still is today.
The US government has a general rule of 25 years for automatic declassification of sensitive material. However, one of its often-cited reasons for ignoring this rule is in those cases where revealing the information would 'cause serious harm to relations between the US and a foreign government, or to ongoing diplomatic activities of the US.'
Contemporary accounts by the Taiwan pilots who were shot down, retired US Air Force officers and military historians among them leave little doubt as to why it would have caused a stir.
According to accounts by the pilots in a Taiwan-made documentary film and histories published on US government websites, the planes had been transferred to Taiwan as part of a top-secret mission to snoop on Communist China's growing military capabilities, including its nascent nuclear program, which was receiving help from the Soviet Union.
The U-2, which was newly developed and nicknamed the Dragon Lady, appeared to offer the perfect vessel. The US had already used it to spy on the Soviet's domestic nuclear program. This was because its high-altitude capabilities, which were designed in the 1950s to reach 'a staggering and unprecedented altitude of 70,000 feet,' according to its developer Lockheed, put it out of the range of antiaircraft missiles.
The United States had thought that, in 1960, the Soviets shot down a CIA-operated U-2 and put its pilot Gary Powers on trial. Washington was forced to abandon its cover story (that Powers had been on a weather reconnaissance mission and had drifted into Soviet airspace after blacking out from oxygen depletion), admit the spy plane program, and barter for Powers to be returned in a prisoner swap.
"Since America didn't want to have its own pilots shot down in a U-2 the way Gary Powers had been over the Soviet Union in 1960, which caused a major diplomatic incident, they turned to Taiwan, and Taiwan was all too willing to allow its pilots to be trained and to do a long series of overflights over mainland China," Chris Pocock, author of "50 Years of the U-2," explained in the 2018 documentary film "Lost Black Cats 35th Squadron."
The black cats were a part of Detachment H. They were responsible for the security of the base.
Like the U-2, Taiwan--also known as the Republic of China (ROC)--seemed a perfect choice for the mission. The self-governing island to the east of the Chinese mainland was at odds with the Communist leadership in Beijing--as it remains today--and at that time in history had a mutual defense treaty with Washington.
The treaty mentioned has already expired, but Taiwan is still a big issue for both China and the United States. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has promised to bring Taiwan under the Communist Party's control, but the U.S. is still required to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
Today, the US sells F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as part of their obligation. In the 1960s, Taiwan got the US-made U-2s.
A squadron known as the 'Weather Reconnaissance and Research Section' was set up by the island's military.
But its members, pilots from Taiwan who had been trained in the US to fly U-2s, knew it by a different name: the 'Black Cats.'
In the 2018 documentary film, the author Pocock and Gary Powers Jr. (the son of the pilot shot down by the Soviets and the co-founder of the Cold War Museum in Washington, DC) explained the thinking behind the squadron and its mission.
, the Far East Branch (FEB), was responsible for Taiwan’s security.
The FEB was responsible for Taiwan's security, as well as the other CIA unit in Taiwan.
The Black Bat Squadron was formed in cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency and Taiwan's air force, according to a Taiwan Defense Ministry website. This coincided with the formation of the Black Cat Squadron.
The Black Bats conducted low-altitude reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering missions over mainland China from May 1956 while the Black Cats were in charge of high-altitude reconnaissance missions. It also operated in Vietnam in tandem with the US during the Vietnam War.
According to the website, between 1952 and 1972, the Black Bats lost 15 aircraft and 148 lives.
"The Black Cats program was implemented because the American government needed to find out information about mainland China - their strengths and weaknesses, where their military installations were located, where their submarine bases were, what type of aircraft they were developing," said Powers Jr.
"The mission was a joint intelligence operation by the United States and the Republic of China," said retired US Air Force lieutenant general Lloyd Leavitt.
Leavitt wrote in a 2010 personal history of the Cold War published by the Air Force Research Institute in Alabama that 'American U-2s were painted with ROC insignia, ROC pilots were under the command of a ROC (Air Force) colonel, overflight missions were planned by Washington, and both countries were recipients of the intelligence gathered over the mainland.'
The first U-2 arrived at Taoyuan Air Base in early 1961, flown by Mike Hua.
Hua wrote in a 2002 history of the unit for the magazine Air Force Historical Foundation that the cover story was that the ROC (air force) had purchased the aircraft that bore the (Taiwanese) national insignia. To avoid being confused with other air force organizations stationed in Taoyuan, the section became the 35th Squadron with the Black Cat as its insignia.
"Detachment H" was the name given to the Americans who worked at the Taiwan airbase, according to Hua. They were responsible for helping to maintain the aircraft and processing information.
Hua wrote that all US personnel were ostensibly employees of the Lockheed Aircraft Company.
Role: Front-line assaultPrimary weapon: M4A1The code name for this individual is Razor and their role is to provide front-line assault. The primary weapon used for this purpose is the M4A1.
Hua wrote that the ROC air force and US representatives inked an agreement on the operation, giving it the code name 'Razor.'
"The flights yielded tremendous intelligence," he said, adding that it was shared between Taipei and Washington.
He wrote that the missions covered the vast interior of the Chinese mainland, where almost no aerial photographs had ever been taken. Each mission brought back an aerial photographic map of roughly 100 miles wide by 2,000 miles long, which revealed not only the precise location of a target, but also the activities on the ground.
"More" refers to what?
Between January 1962 and May 1974, the Black Cats flew 220 reconnaissance missions, covering 'more than 10 million square kilometers over 30 provinces in the Chinese mainland,' according to a history on Taiwan's Defense Ministry's website.
The ministry, when asked for further comment on the Black Cats, referred CNN to the published materials.
Pocock said in the documentary that the idea was that black cats go out at night, and the U-2 would usually launch in the darkness. Their cameras were the eyes, and it was very stealthy, quiet, and hard to get. And so combining the two stories, they became known as the Black Cats.
The squadron even had its own patch, reputedly drawn by one of its members, Lt. Col. Chen Huai-sheng. The patch was inspired by a local establishment frequented by the pilots.
But the Black Cats were about to find out that their U-2s were not impervious to antiaircraft fire, just like Powers Sr. did two years before.
On September 9, 1962, Chen became the first U-2 pilot to be shot down by a missile from the People's Liberation Army. His plane went down while he was on a mission over Nanchang, China.
I was shot down over China in my airplane. I had to parachute out and was captured by the Chinese. They took me to a prison camp where I was held for two years.I was flying my airplane over China when I was shot down. I had to parachute out and was captured by the Chinese. They took me to a prison camp where I was held for two years.
Three more Black Cat U-2 pilots were killed on missions over China in the following years as the PLA figured out how to counter the U-2 missions.
Pocock said that the mainland Chinese learned from their radars where these flights were going, what their targets were, and they began to build sites for the missiles but move them around.
So they would build a site here, occupy that site for a while, but if they thought the next flight would be going over here, they would move the missiles. It was a cat-and-mouse game—literally a black cat and mouse game—between the routines from the flights from Taiwan and those air defense troops of the (Chinese) mainland, working out where the next flight would go.
According to the Taiwan Defense Ministry, in July 1964 Lt. Col. Lee Nan-ping's U-2 was shot down by a PLA SA-2 missile over Chenghai, China. He was flying out of a US naval air station in the Philippines and trying to gain information on China's supply routes to North Vietnam.
In September 1967, a missile from the PLA hit the U-2 being flown by Capt. Hwang Rung-pei over Jiaxin, China. In May 1969, while reconnoitering the coast of Hebei province, China, Maj. Chang Hsieh's U-2 had a "flight control failure" and he was lost at sea. No trace of his U-2 was ever found, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry.
in 1953, he was held as a prisoner until 1955
He was captured by the Communists in 1953 and held as a prisoner until 1955.
Two other Taiwanese U-2 pilots were shot down but survived; however, they spent years in Communist captivity.
Maj. Robin Yeh was shot down in November 1963 over Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, while flying an F-104 Starfighter.
"The plane lost control when the explosion of the missile took out part of the left wing," Yeh, who died in 2016, recalled in "The Brave in the Upper Air: An Oral History of The Black Cat Squadron" published by Taiwan's Defense Ministry. "The plane spiraled down. Lots of shrapnel flew into the plane and hit both of my legs."
He said that, following his capture, Chinese doctors removed 59 pieces of shrapnel from his legs but couldn't take it all out.
"It didn't really affect my daily life, but during winter my legs would hurt, which affected my mobility," Yeh said. "I guess this would be my lifelong memory."
Maj. Jack Chang's U-2 was hit by a missile over Inner Mongolia in 1965. He suffered dozens of shrapnel injuries and bailed out, landing on a snowy landscape.
He recalled in the oral history, "It was dark at the time, preventing me from seeking help anyway, so I had to wrap myself up tightly with the parachute to keep myself warm. After ten hours when dawn broke, I saw a village of yurts afar, so I dragged myself and sought help there. I collapsed as soon as I reached a bed."
The pilots, Yeh and Chang, were assumed killed in action and would not see Taiwan again for decades. They were eventually released in 1982 into Hong Kong, which, at the time, was still a British colony.
However, the world into which they emerged had changed greatly in the intervening years. The US had formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and no longer had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan.
The end of the Cold War led to the end of the US-Taiwan alliance, and the CIA brought the two pilots to the US. They were finally allowed to return to Taiwan in 1990.
I have no regrets in life. I believe that everything happens for a reason, even if we don't always know what that reason is. I'm happy with the choices I've made, even if they didn't turn out the way I wanted them to. Because of this, I don't spend time dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. I'm present in the moment and enjoying life as it comes.I don't have any regrets in life. I think everything happens for a reason, even if we don't always know what that reason is. I'm happy with the choices I've made, even if they didn't turn out like I wanted them to. Because of this, I don't spend time worrying about the past or the future. I'm just enjoying life as it comes.
According to a US Air Force history, indeed, by the time of their release CIA control of the U-2 program had long since ceased and it had turned the planes over to the US Air Force in 1974.
Two years later, the Air Force's 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. David Young, and its U-2s moved into Osan Air Base in South Korea. Young gave the location the 'Black Cat' moniker.
The 5th Reconnaissance Squadron is the unit's name today.
The US continues to send U-2s on what could be called "cat-and-mouse" missions, which sometimes causes problems for China. In 2020, China accused the US of sending a U-2 into a no-fly zone during live-fire exercises being conducted by China.
The US Pacific Air Forces confirmed to CNN that the flight had taken place, but said it did not violate any rules at the time.
There are few regrets for those who were captured, even for those who were involved in the original Black Cats.
The man told the documentary makers he had fond memories of life at 70,000 feet.
"We were up in the air," he said. "The view we had was also different; we had the bird's eye view. Everything we saw was vast."
Chang felt no bitterness.
"I love flying," he said. "I didn't die, so I have no regrets."