“Target Hong Kong: A true story of US Navy pilots at war” by Steven K Bailey

Taikoo Dockyard, Hong Kong, under attack Taikoo Dockyard, Hong Kong, under attack

In mid-January 1945, US Navy pilots launched a series of attacks on Japanese-held Hong Kong. In his new book Target Hong Kong, Steven K Bailey, whose previous book Bold Venture told the story of the bombing of Hong Kong by US Army Air Corps pilots based in China under the command of General Claire Chennault of “Flying Tigers” fame, shifts his focus to the American naval pilots of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 38 whose mission was to seek out and destroy Japanese convoys, warships and ports in and around the South China Sea. The code name for the naval-based air attacks on Hong Kong was “Operation Gratitude”.

Japanese air forces attacked the British colony of Hong Kong on 8 December 1941. Eleven days later, Japan’s forces invaded and subsequently occupied Hong Kong Island itself. British forces defending the island were outnumbered and outgunned by Japanese invading forces who, Bailey writes,


drove a wedge between the two defending brigades by forcing their way through Wong Nai Chung Gap, a strategic pass that cut through the mountainous spine of Hong Kong Island.


The fighting included what Bailey describes as “close-quarters combat”, especially near buildings on St Stephen’s campus in the Stanley Village known as Bungalows A, B and C. Bailey writes about the futile efforts of Ray Jones and the “Stanley Platoon” to hold off the Japanese advance. British forces surrendered Hong Kong on Christmas Day, though pockets of resistance held out for a few more days. The Hong Kong garrison lost 1500 men in the fighting and civilian casualties numbered around four thousand. “Hong Kong and its capacious harbor”, Bailey writes, “became an outpost of the extending Japanese Empire.” Ray Jones and about 2500 other military and civilians on Hong Kong island were held captive in the Stanley Internment Camp, while others were sent to the Sham Shui Po POW camp.


Target Hong Kong: A true story of US Navy pilots at war, Steven K Bailey (Osprey, February 2024)
Target Hong Kong: A true story of US Navy pilots at war, Steven K Bailey (Osprey, February 2024)

Bailey’s narrative moves swiftly from Hong Kong’s capitulation to the American advances in the Central and Southwest Pacific campaigns, setting the stage for “Operation Gratitude.” Here, Bailey’s focus is on the US Navy pilots and the warplanes that they and their crews operated during the attacks on Hong Kong—Hellcats, Helldivers, Avengers. He describes the “complexity of launching, executing, and recovering a naval air strike.” He describes what it is like to execute a “dive-bombing run” while under intense anti-aircraft fire:


the maneuver put the plane in a near-vertical plunge towards the ground or the sea… a dive-bombing run taxed the physical and mental stamina of pilot and gunner alike. The rapid descent could burst eardrums like a popped balloon … and the high-G pullout could trigger gray-outs that pushed the pilot against the dark threshold of unconsciousness.


Bailey learned this by interviewing some of the pilots that flew missions in Operation Gratitude. He also visited some of the crash sites on Hong Kong, where aircraft debris was still visible more than 70 years after the war.

Bailey describes the targets of Operation Gratitude in broad terms:


Everything in and around the South China Sea would be fair game, from barges to battleships, and no Japanese sailor, or airman would be spared.


The American Task Force 38 launched the operation on 9 January 1945, when Admiral Halsey’s carriers moved between Luzon and Formosa into the South China Sea. The task force’s initial target was a Japanese convoy of tankers which was attacked by aircraft from the carriers Lexington, Hancock, and Hornet. One Japanese convoy totaling forty ships reached Hong Kong on 13 January, seeking the protection of Victoria Harbour, which included what Bailey describes as “robust” anti-aircraft defenses. On 15 January, US warplanes conducted “fighter sweeps over Canton and Hong Kong and along the South China coast.” They attacked enemy airfields, including the airbase at Kai Tak, shipping, storage, and port facilities, and ships in Victoria Harbour. Operation Gratitude lasted until 22 January.

During and after Operation Gratitude, American planes on four separate occasions bombed and strafed targets on Portuguese Macau, which remained neutral, unoccupied, and a place where refugees sought protection throughout the war. The pilots later claimed that they believed a seaplane hangar there concealed Japanese warplanes, so they strafed and bombed it, causing considerable damage to the hangar and other buildings, and a number of casualties. Other US planes bombed what they believed to be a Japanese warship in Macau’s harbor. The United States later agreed to Portugal’s demand for compensation for its losses on Macau.


Bailey’s narrative focuses mostly on several US Navy fliers, including Lt Richard Hunt, Lt Richard Scobell, Lt John Lavender, Jr, airman Jean Balch, Major David Houck, and Lt Paul Stevens. Hunt and Scobell were downed when their planes collided over Hong Kong. Scobell died in the crash. Hunt survived, was captured and later executed by the Japanese. Houck parachuted from a burning plane and after his capture by Japanese forces was tried as a “war criminal” and executed. Lavender died when his plane was shot down over Victoria Harbour, but airman Balch who was in the same plane survived and was incarcerated in Stanley Prison. Stevens miraculously survived the war after flying 114 combat missions, though he was made to suffer through a courts martial for bombing targets on neutral Portuguese Macau. In all, 41 pilots and crewmen were listed as missing in action over Hong Kong. Another 120 American pilots and crewmen had been killed over other locations in and around the South China Sea. American warships suffered heavy losses as a result of kamikaze attacks.

It is estimated that at least ten thousand Hong Kong residents died as a result of Operation Gratitude. Bailey notes that as many as 360,000 Hong Kong residents died during the war years. The inmates at Stanley Prison and POW camps were liberated after Japan’s surrender—they, too, suffered from cruel mistreatment by the Japanese. Bailey writes that Hong Kong at war’s end was “[b]ombed, looted, and depopulated” and “teetered on the edge of famine and epidemic.” Visually, the landscape had changed, too. “The tempests of war,” Bailey notes,


had stripped the peaks of Hong Kong Island to the bone… Where there had once been slopes of pine forest and stands of bamboo, little remained but boulder and bracken by 1945.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.