Fallen Tiger

On Nov. 11, 1944, Lt. Henry Francis Minco, a Clevelander in the U.S. Army Air Corps, went missing on a mission over Thailand. Almost 60 years later, a squadron mate's unexpected phone call sends us reaching back through the fog of war to remember Minco's

It's over so fast that no one sees it.

It is Nov. 11, 1944, Armistice Day, 10 minutes after noon. Second Lt. Henry Francis Minco, a Clevelander in the United States Army Air Corps, is flying over central Thailand, searching for enemy rail traffic, when he sights three Japanese aircraft flying toward his flight of four fighters of the 25th Fighter Squadron.

"Do you see them, Vad?" Minco calls out. The planes are above them, five miles out.

"Got them," responds 1st Lt. Roger R. Vadenais, flight leader of the four P-51 Mustangs, as he drops his wing tanks. He puts the flight into a climb to make a pass at the enemy fighters, older-model aircraft with fixed landing gear, called Nates.

"I see two below, am going after them," Minco calls. He breaks from Vadenais' right wing as the sky fills with Japanese aircraft.

Minco is never seen again.

Officially, Henry Minco went missing on his 71st combat mission. His family was told he had been lost in Southeast Asia in an air battle, but there were never any details of the incident. Without absolute proof of her son's death, Henry Minco's mother believed firmly — until her death at age 96 — that her son would someday be found alive.

Then, 58 years after Henry was lost, his brother, John — an acquaintance of mine — received a startling phone call. It was from Clifford Long, Henry's closest friend in the Air Corps. The call prompted a meeting in the summer of 2002.

The encounter was poignant and struck a curious chord within me. Henry Minco was a Flying Tiger, part of the 14th Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater. I had known the Flying Tigers well, ever since I was a child recovering from polio, lying in bed, day after day. The Flying Tigers helped me endure the endless boredom of the bedridden. Magazine photos and advertisements that portrayed them captivated my imagination, transporting me from my sickbed into the skies over places with exotic names.

I set out to reconstruct the day that Henry Minco became a lost Tiger. It took more than a year to accumulate all the available records and conversations and find out what happened in the skies that day in 1944.

A fire in 1973 in St. Louis destroyed the military personnel records of men with the surnames of Hubbard through Z, including those of Henry Minco. Duplicate records were available, but had to be assembled into a file. Rep. Dennis Kucinich interceded with Pentagon officials, who gathered the documents. By studying the official records, and Clifford Long's diary entries and other information, it was possible to re-create what happened to Minco.

Henry was born in Passens, a town in Bordeaux, France, in 1923. His father, John Clyde Minco, had met his mother, Marie, while serving in France in World War I. While John Clyde tried to establish himself in business in the States following the war, Marie returned to France with their first son, John, to live with relatives. A few years later, the family reunited in Cleveland, where John Clyde's brother, Joe, worked for Murray Bender Shoes.

They settled into a yellow-brick, downstairs apartment on the corner of Berhwald Avenue and State Road. The small one-bedroom apartment with a Murphy bed in the living room was meant to be a place to begin, but remained home to Marie for many years.

John Clyde opened a Dodge dealership, but the Great Depression had begun and he loaned money to people who never repaid him, his son, John, recalls. Any real happiness was short-lived. In April 1933, the same week two Cleveland banks closed, John Clyde died at the age of 38.

Marie was only 29. Joe Minco got her a job at May Co., in the third-floor needlework department, where she earned $10 a week. Members of a nearby church sent a basket to the apartment at Thanksgiving.

The boys had to work to make ends meet, but having grown up in France, they could barely speak English. A nearby Kroger store took them on to bag potatoes and stack vegetables. One of the employees spoke French. Later, the brothers got a Plain Dealer route, and they hustled as caddies at Ridgewood Country Club during the summers for 65 cents a round and, if they were lucky, 10-cent tips. Henry parlayed his earnings at the club by beating the other caddies at craps.

Marie's joys were the piano; her cat, Minou; the French language; and her two sons. For the most part, they were good boys, hard workers, and a bit more streetwise than their schoolmates. They had to be.

Henry, a free spirit, liked to drive fast, gamble a bit, take risks and enjoy himself behind a smile that never betrayed his emotions. But in high school, the Minco boys had little social life. John cannot recall either of them ever having a date. There was no time and no money.

In November 1942, John was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and, because flight pay as an aerial gunner was $75 a month, he chose that duty to help his mother.

Henry, who'd graduated from James F. Rhodes High School in 1941, was exempt from the draft since his mother was a widow with one son in the service. John begged him to stay home and take care of their mother, but to no avail. Henry volunteered for the Air Corps in December 1942. He wanted to fly fighters, a hazardous pursuit even in peacetime.

He measured up physically. At 145 pounds, he was slender enough to fit into the cramped cockpit of a fighter, he had 20-20 vision and his teeth were good, so he could grip an oxygen breathing tube during flight.

Henry took his basic training in Greenwood, Miss., in late 1943, and soloed quickly. After a few months, he was advanced enough to take a fighter on a quick flight to McDill Field in Tampa, Fla., for a brief reunion with John, who was finishing his training in bombers.

Henry came in low over the field, did a roll and brought his P-47 down smartly, all to the consternation of the control-tower officers, who were sick of stunts by hotshot pilots. The brothers spent two hours together in the Post Exchange, drinking Coke and talking about their mother. John was still upset with Henry for joining the Air Corps, but the younger Minco shrugged it off, saying that folks at home looked sideways at healthy young men who were not in the service.

And then he was gone, gunning the fighter down the runway and into the sky, wagging the wings in farewell. It was the last time John ever saw his brother.

The loss of Henry Minco haunted Clifford Long throughout his life.

The two men met in training at Perry, Fla., where Minco won a poker pot and gave it to Long to buy a ring for his fiancee. They were together again in India and China in 1944.

The Chinese called Long "Lt. Moon" because of his round face. Before the war was over, he narrowly escaped with his life after a Japanese fighter forced him to crash-land.

After the war, Long worked for Gulf Oil for 36 years, raised a family and finally retired in West Chester, Pa., to play golf and keep active in the Flying Tiger veteran association. In recent years, like many veterans, he became more reflective on his war experiences.

"For all those years, Henry was never far from my thoughts," he says.

Finally, realizing that he would be in Cleveland for his grandson's wedding in the summer of 2002, Long decided to contact Henry's brother and arrange a meeting. A call to information yielded John Minco's number.

A few minutes later, Long was talking to his friend's brother, telling Minco what a fine person and good pilot Henry had been. Long asked John Minco where Henry was buried. John said he didn't know. No one did.

No one had spoken of Henry for years after Marie's death. So for John Minco, the call was something of reconciliation with the past, but also a shock.

"I called because I knew time was getting short," says Long. He lamented that he had not called years ago when Marie Minco was still alive. He'd hesitated to get in contact because it was such a difficult call to make. He'd called other relatives of friends lost in the war, sometimes to find that they didn't care about the distant past.

The two men decided to meet when Long visited Cleveland.

The circumstances proved unfortunate. Minco, a polite, proud and stoic man, had been in the hospital with a digestive ailment and was very ill the day of their meeting. In obvious discomfort, he struggled to greet Long at a motel restaurant in Middleburg Heights.

Long paged through his war diary and several pictures. He told John what he knew of his brother: Rumors circulated among the pilots that missionaries had found Henry's body still in his parachute, and buried him.

Tears welled in Long's eyes as he recounted the memories. For years, he'd kept a file on Henry and two others from the squadron who were lost. He wrote articles about them for the veterans' journals, making sure they were remembered among those who had flown with them.

The two men spoke for a half hour and then John, exhausted, retired to the car to rest.

Henry Minco became a Flying Tiger in July 1944, assigned to the China-Burma-India Theater — the bad address, the backwater, of World War II. The Air Corps there was underfunded, undermanned and unappreciated. Pilots existed on eggplant, rice and hard Chinese cookies. They had to fly to Calcutta for a decent meal. They spent their free time in China, duck hunting in the rice patties, gambling and just sleeping. The real hunting took place in the sky among the mountains, valleys and jungles, where the Japanese Army Air Force roamed.

The Tigers also had to provide air support for a ground war. The Japanese were trying desperately to cut off the supply routes that kept the Chinese in the war. The only thing holding the Japanese was the 14th Air Force, flying second-line aircraft at treetop level, dropping bombs and strafing columns.

This was dangerous flying: agile enemy fighters with veteran pilots above, ground fire below and, always, the risk of flying too low and crashing, or "mushing in," as the boys would say.

In fast-diving aircraft, pilots can become mesmerized. There is a moment when everything seems frozen and the speed at which the ground approaches is imperceptible. The G-forces drive blood from the head, so pilots can fall into a twilight that teeters on the edge of blackout.

The ground itself, the jungle three layers thick with trees, was a verdant color, almost a broccoli smear, from the air. Flashes of gunfire reached up from it like sparks, the colored tracers arcing up, a threatening but fascinating sight. In the monsoon season, sullen clouds hovered over the valleys, obscuring the irregular limestone mountains. Years later, in nearby Vietnam, another generation of American pilots would call them granite clouds.

Fighter pilots were fed into the war like nickels into a slot machine. There were so many ways you could get killed flying fighters that no one bothered to enumerate them.

Minco and Long were assigned to the 25th Squadron out of Yunnanyi, China. On Nov. 2, nine days before Henry Minco was lost, Long flew with him to Calcutta, where they picked up new P-51 Mustangs.

The P-51 was the best American fighter plane, perhaps the best fighter in the war. It came late to the CBI because Europe had been a priority, but now they were being ferried into the theater to replace the aging P-40, a brute of a plane that was tough, but slow. Normally, pilots had to accumulate 60 training hours in the faster, more sophisticated P-51s before qualifying to fly in action. But this was the first time Minco, Long and most of their fellow pilots had flown P-51s.

There was an accident on the flight from Calcutta. Attempting to land at Mohanbari, India, 2nd Lt. Tim Hayes failed to make sure his landing gear was down, and locked. When the P-51 touched down the left wheel strut gave way and a fire erupted from the wing tank. Fortunately, Hayes escaped unhurt.

The accident investigation revealed that Hayes had not been fully briefed on emergency operations of the P-51. Few of the pilots were familiar enough with the Mustang to fly it well, let alone take it into combat. The accident report was prophetic.

Records show that another pilot, 2nd Lt. Thomas R. Ankrim, who was on the ferry flight with Long and Minco, was lost later, somewhere near Lampang.

Minco led the flight of a dozen or so fighters over the Himalayas to Chungking, China. Soon, they were flying the P-51s on reconnaissance missions.

The planes left Yunannyi around 10 a.m. on Nov. 11 and flew south for an offensive recon mission. They were to shoot at anything Japanese on the ground or in the air. Four P-51s, the strafers, were low in the formation. Four more were above them. Seven P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighters flew top cover. The weather was listed as operational, but at this time of the year, visibility could get iffy, especially close to the ground.

The targets were the rail lines, built to supply an army moving north toward China, between Chiang Mai and the Dara Bridge, about 500 miles from Yunannyi. Microfilmed intelligence reports record the fierce combat that day.

Swinging over Chiang Mai and flying east, the pilots observed Japanese airstrips, barracks and rail lines. A strafing P-51 destroyed a black single-engine fighter on the north end of the runway at Lampang.

The attacking flight continued down a rail line at 350 mph, shooting up a locomotive. The pilots observed numerous hits, but no explosion. A group of trucks hurriedly drove south from the airport.

At that moment, at around 18,000 feet, the P-38s made contact with about nine Japanese fighters. The American planes made a pass and, within seconds, the P-38s scored a hit on one enemy fighter, which exploded in the air. One Lightning broke from the fight, its right wing on fire, and it made it safely back to base.

At this point, Henry Minco, in the middle flight, saw three Japanese fighters above, called out and broke off from Lt. Vadenais' wing. Vadenais acknowledged, climbed and made a head-on pass into the Japanese flight.

Vadenais missed on his first pass, came around and fired on a Nate. He saw its propeller break off, then the plane rolled over and plunged into the ground. In all, the flight destroyed six Japanese fighters, including the one on the ground and two probables.

At least two enemy pilots were seen parachuting out of their stricken craft over Lampang. No one in the flight witnessed the fate of Henry Minco. The only thing they could do was mark the coordinates of his last sighting.

No search-and-rescue flights were mounted. The jungles below were thick and forbidding. The Japanese were known to kill captured pilots.

Two days later, the squadron commander told Long, who was ferrying in more P-51s, that Minco was missing. Long had been concerned about his friend, for in recent weeks Minco had become increasingly somber, admitting one night that he had a premonition of his death.

On Nov. 23, Marie Minco was notified that her son was missing. Within minutes, she received a second telegram from John, saying his 35 missions over Europe were completed and he was on his way home.

Rumor drifted up from Thailand, through what Cliff Long remembered were native contacts, that Henry was dead. He had managed to get out of his plane and open his parachute, but was killed either during the exit from the aircraft or on landing in the trees.

Long's diary entry for Feb. 21, 1945, notes that Minco's body was buried by missionaries. Long remembers that a friend told him the information had come from natives. The same missionaries were said to have buried the body of Thomas Ankrim, Long's roommate, who was downed later in the area in a different fight.

In August 1945, the Air Corps dutifully returned Henry's meager personal effects: three handkerchiefs, a towel, six pairs of socks, a trench coat and a service hat. There were two pairs of insignia wings and a billfold with no money. Marie received six months of pay as compensation for her son's life.

A team from the American Graves Registration Service made what it called a "thorough effort" to find any traces of Henry Minco in summer 1946, investigating the coordinates where his plane was last seen, 99.20-18.20, northeast of Lampang.

Their report, issued on Aug. 26, recommended that further attempts to locate the remains should be canceled since the area was thick with jungle and torrential monsoons would have washed away any evidence of a crash. At a formal hearing in Calcutta in October, a panel of officers officially declared that Henry Minco's remains were nonrecoverable and ordered that no further searches be undertaken.

In 1951, the Army's identification branch checked Minco's dental records against recovered but unknown remains from the CBI Theater, with "negative" results.

What cost 2nd Lt. Henry Minco his life nearly 60 years ago? He was an exceptional pilot, responsible enough to lead others in ferrying planes over the treacherous Himalayas. Older pilots had respect for Minco, Long remembers, and it was clear that he was being groomed for promotion. He'd flown many missions and was familiar with the terrain. The weather was considered good on the day of his fatal mission.

An examination of the record offers several clues. First, Minco volunteered for the mission when many pilots were unwilling to fly the new P-51s into combat. It's believed that Minco had no more than 20 hours in the Mustang, and the accident report from the ferry flight stressed the need for more instruction and flight time in the P-51s.

Secondly, although he had 70 missions to his credit, this was likely his first dogfight with Japanese fighters and their aggressive pilots. The cardinal rule of air combat was never to get into a turning fight with the Japanese, whose fighters were generally more maneuverable. The best way to fight them was to make a pass, shoot, get away and make another pass.

The third and, perhaps, most telling clue, is Minco's apparent break from his element leader to attack two Japanese planes. In his original statements concerning Minco's loss, Lt. Vadenais did not mention Minco's radio call stating his intention to attack the enemy. Perhaps Vadenais did this intentionally to cover what he thought was Minco's mistake. Later, the squadron intelligence officer added the information regarding Minco's last transmission.

If Minco did break away to attack, it was highly unusual, possibly even a breach of air-combat rules. That would have greatly diminished his odds of survival.

Alone, flying an unfamiliar high-speed aircraft against a veteran enemy in a twisting, violent dogfight low to the ground — the scenario offers any number of possible bad endings.

Yet, what would one have expected of Minco? As a gambler, he knew risk. He was an excellent marksman. He may have seen his shot and taken it. Or perhaps there was more to his premonition of death than anyone will ever know. The stress in war is as deadly a killer as the guns.

Henry Minco is one of 78,000 Americans still listed as missing in action from World War II. From time to time, remains are discovered in distant places, families are notified and the list diminishes.

In researching this article, through aging war records, history books and the recollections of Clifford Long and John Minco, I feel I grew close to Henry.

On Veterans Day, the anniversary of his death, I stopped by Cleveland's War Memorial on the Mall behind the library. There are nearly 4,000 names on the memorial, men killed in World War II and Korea. Endless rows of names, each once a life, each a story.

Henry Minco is listed on the east side of the monument, seventh from the bottom in the 12th row from the south. I touched his name with my finger, a salute, my simple memorial to a man who never came home, and whispered a prayer.

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