The U-2 spy planes were flown over China during the Cold War’s height by a mysterious squadron. Some people never returned home.

The US Air Force retaliated by launching its own high-flying espionage asset, the U-2 observation jet, when a Chinese high-altitude balloon suspected of spying was recently sighted above the US.

America was allegedly persuaded that the Chinese balloon was gathering intelligence rather than, as Beijing continues to say, researching the weather, thanks to the Cold War-era spy plane that took the high-resolution pictures and its pilot’s selfie.

In doing so, the jet contributed significantly to an incident that increased tensions between the two biggest economies in the world and brought these countries’ spying practices into the public eye.

The balloon has received the most of media attention up to this point, with the focus being on how a tool commonly thought of as a remnant of a bygone period of espionage might potentially stay relevant in the playbook of the modern spy. But for many military historians, the U-2’s involvement—another remnant of a bygone era—is arguably more significant.

When it comes to the espionage conflicts between the US and China, the U-2 has a lengthy and illustrious history. At least five of them were shot down over China on surveillance missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

For good reason, the losses haven’t been as widely reported as one might anticipate. After the planes were shot down, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was in charge of all American U-2s, has never formally said what they were doing.

The fact that the planes were being flown by Taiwanese pilots, who in a startling similarity to today’s balloon situation, claimed to be involved in a meteorological research program, rather than American pilots or under the American flag, added to the mystery.

On February 3, 2023, a US Air Force pilot flying a U-2 spy plane peers out of the cockpit towards what appears to be a Chinese surveillance balloon.
On February 3, 2023, a US Air Force pilot flying a U-2 spy plane peers out of the cockpit towards what appears to be a Chinese surveillance balloon.
American Defense Department
Dragon Lady and Chinese nuclear weapons
It should come as no surprise that the CIA would keep quiet about what these American-built espionage planes were up to.

Yet, the agency’s ongoing quiet more than 50 years later — it did not respond to a CNN request for comment on this piece — says a lot about how delicate the subject was and still is.

Sensitive material in the US government is generally automatically declassified after 25 years. The fact that breaking this regulation would “cause substantial harm to relations between the US and a foreign government, or to ongoing diplomatic actions of the US” is one of its frequently cited justifications.

There is little question as to why the planes would have generated a commotion given contemporary descriptions of what they were doing, including those provided by the Taiwan pilots who were shot down, retired US Air Force officials, and military historians.

The planes were transferred to Taiwan as part of a top-secret mission to spy on Communist China’s growing military capabilities, including its nascent nuclear program, which was receiving assistance from the Soviet Union, according to accounts by the pilots in a Taiwanese documentary film and histories posted on US government websites.

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The recently created U-2, also known as the Dragon Lady, seemed to be the ideal vessel. 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, and the US had already used it to spy on the Soviet Union’s domestic nuclear program.

Or so the US believed. A CIA-operated U-2 was shot down by the Soviets in 1960, and Gary Powers, the U-2’s pilot, was put on trial. America was compelled to give up its pretext—that Powers was on a weather reconnaissance mission and had drifted into Soviet territory after being unconscious from oxygen deprivation—admit the spy plane program, and offer Powers’ return in exchange for prisoners.

According to Chris Pocock, author of “50 Years of the U-2,” in the 2018 documentary film “Lost Black Cats 35th Squadron,” “America turned to Taiwan because it didn’t want its own pilots shot down in a U-2 the way Gary Powers had been over the Soviet Union in 1960, which led to a significant diplomatic incident. Taiwan was all too willing to allow its pilots to be trained and to do a lengthy series of overflights over mainland China.

In June 2015, a U-2 Dragon Lady is pursued by a mobile chase car as it approaches Beale Air Force Base in California for a landing.
In June 2015, a U-2 Dragon Lady is pursued by a mobile chase car as it approaches Beale Air Force Base in California for a landing.
the US Air Force
Detachment H and The Black Cats
Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), appeared to be the ideal location for the mission, much like the U-2. The self-governing island to the east of the Chinese mainland had a mutual defense treaty with Washington at the time and was at conflict with the Communist leadership in Beijing, as it still is today.

Although that agreement has long since expired, Taiwan continues to be a source of significant tensions between China and the United States, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping promising to subjugate the island and Washington still owing Taiwan the means to defend itself.

As part of that responsibility, the US now sells F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. Taiwan acquired the US-made U-2s in the 1960s.

The military of the island established a squadron that would later be given the name “Weather Reconnaissance and Research Section.”

But, its members—Taiwanese pilots who had received US-based U-2 flight training—knew it better as the “Black Cats.”

The 2018 documentary video featured explanations from the author Pocock and Gary Powers Jr., the co-founder of the Cold War Museum in Washington, DC and the son of the pilot shot down by the Russians.

According to a Taiwan Defense Ministry website, the Central Intelligence Agency and Taiwan’s air force collaborated to develop the Black Bat Squadron at the same time as the Black Cat Squadron.
The Black Bats began conducting low-altitude reconnaissance and electronic intelligence collection operations over mainland China in May 1956, while the Black Cats were in charge of high-altitude reconnaissance missions. During the Vietnam War, it also ran joint operations with the US in Vietnam.
According to the website, the Black Bats lost 15 aircraft and 148 people between 1952 and 1972.
According to Powers Jr., “The American government needed information over mainland China, including what their strengths and weaknesses were, where their military installations were located, where their submarine bases were, and what kind of aircraft they were developing.” This is why the Black Cats program was put into place.

The mission was referred to as “a cooperative intelligence operation by the United States and the Republic of China” by retired US Air Force lieutenant general Lloyd Leavitt.

In a 2010 memoir of the Cold War written by Leavitt and released by the Air Force Research Institute in Alabama, Leavitt noted that American U-2s were painted with ROC insignia, ROC pilots were commanded by a ROC (Air Force) colonel, overflight missions were organized by Washington, and both countries were recipients of the intelligence gathered over the mainland.

Mike Hua, who was present when the first of the aircraft arrived at Taoyuan Air Base in Taiwan in early 1961, was one of the first men to fly the U-2 for Taiwan.

“The cover story was that the Taiwanese national insignia-adorned aircraft had been purchased by the ROC (air force). The section changed its name to the 35th Squadron and adopted the Black Cat as its emblem in order to avoid becoming confused with other air force groups stationed at Taoyuan, according to Hua, who authored a history of the unit for the magazine Air Force Historical Foundation in 2002.

Americans assisted Taiwanese pilots with aircraft maintenance and data processing at the Taiwan airbase. According to Hua, they were known as Detachment H.

All US personnel were apparently working as Lockheed Aircraft Company workers, according to Hua.

Name in code: Razor
The operation was given the code name “Razor” when an agreement was signed between the ROC air force and US authorities, according to Hua.

He called the intelligence gathered by the planes “tremendous,” adding that Taipei and Washington shared it.

The enormous heartland of the Chinese mainland was covered by the missions, where hardly any aerial images had ever been taken, he noted. Each flight returned an aerial photographic map that was approximately 100 miles wide by 2,000 miles long and identified both the precise position of a target and the activity taking place on the ground.

He claimed that additional sensors on the spy planes collected data on Chinese radar capability and other things.

According to a history on the website of Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the Black Cats performed 220 reconnaissance missions between January 1962 and May 1974, covering “more than 10 million square kilometers across 30 provinces in the Chinese mainland.”

The government directed CNN to the released materials when queried further about the Black Cats.

Black cats are known to venture outside at night, and the U-2 typically takes off when it is dark. Their cameras served as their eyes, and they were quiet, covert, and difficult to procure. They eventually adopted the name “Black Cats” after mixing the two tales, according to author Pocock in the documentary.

The squadron even had its own patch, which was allegedly created by Lt. Col. Chen Huai-sheng and was based on a local restaurant that the pilots visited.

But the Black Cats were soon to discover, like like Powers Sr. two years earlier, that their U-2s were not immune to antiaircraft fire.

Chen was the first U-2 pilot to be brought down by an antiaircraft missile fired by the People’s Liberation Army on September 9, 1962. While on a mission over Nanchang, China, his aircraft crashed.

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taken out over China
As the PLA learned how to block U-2 operations in the ensuing years, three more Black Cat U-2 pilots perished during missions over China.

The mainland Chinese started to develop missile launch sites but moved them around after learning from their radars where these aircraft were headed and what their targets were, according to Pocock.

Hence, they would construct a location here, occupy it for a while, but relocate the missiles if they believed the following flight would pass over this area. Between the routines of the flights from Taiwan and those air defense troops of the (China) mainland, calculating out where the next flight would fly, it was a cat-and-mouse game, literally a black cat and mouse game.

A PLA SA-2 missile downed Lt. Col. Lee Nan-U-2 ping’s in July 1964 over Chenghai, China. He was reportedly attempting to learn more about China’s supply channels to North Vietnam while flying out of a US naval aviation base in the Philippines, according to the Taiwan Defense Ministry.

A PLA missile struck Capt. Hwang Rung-U-2 pei’s in September 1967 as it was flying over Jiaxin, China, and Maj. Chang Hsieh experienced a “flight control breakdown” over the Yellow Sea in May 1969 while surveying the coast of Hebei province, China. According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, his U-2 was never discovered.

In 2017, a Beale Air Force Base U-2 Dragon Lady lands at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
In 2017, a Beale Air Force Base U-2 Dragon Lady lands at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
Communists capture the American Air Force
Despite being shot down, two more Taiwanese U-2 pilots managed to escape and spent years in communist captivity.

Chief Robin Yeh was assassinated over Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, in November 1963.

“The explosion of the missile destroyed a portion of the left wing, which caused the plane to lose control. The plane descended spirally. Yeh, who passed away in 2016, described this in “The Brave in the High Air: An Oral History of The Black Cat Squadron,” a book from Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. “A lot of shrapnel flew into the plane and struck both of my legs,” Yeh said.

He claimed that 59 pieces of shrapnel were extracted from his legs by Chinese physicians after his detention, but they were unable to remove all of it.

“It didn’t really interfere with my day-to-day activities, but the winter months made it difficult for me to move around. I suppose I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” Yeh added.

The Andaman & Nicobar Islands’ Port Blair in 2022.
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In 1965, a missile struck Maj. Jack Chang’s U-2 over Inner Mongolia. He too was wounded by numerous pieces of shrapnel and managed to escape, landing on a snowy area.

The darkness at the moment prevented me from calling for aid, so I had to wrap the parachute firmly about myself to stay warm. As daylight finally dawned after ten hours, I could make out a town of yurts, so I dragged myself there to ask for assistance. As soon as I got to a bed, I passed out,” he stated in the oral narrative.

Yeh and Chang, who were believed to have died in battle, would not return to Taiwan for many years. Eventually, in 1982, the pilots were allowed to return to Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British territory.

But in the years that had passed, the world into which they had come had undergone significant transformation. The US had legally changed its recognition of Taipei to Beijing and no longer had a mutual defense agreement with Taiwan.

Although the US and Taiwan had broken their Cold War alliance, the CIA transferred the two pilots to the US so they could live there until 1990, when they were ultimately given permission to return to Taiwan.

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