HSINCHU, Taiwan: They gathered quietly on a rainy night at a rare ceremony in their honor, six survivors of a secret cadre of Taiwanese pilots who risked their lives against the communist enemy during the darkest days of the Cold War.
Known as "The Black Bats," they say they were working for the American Central Intelligence Agency, a claim backed up by photos of them posing with the CIA station chief. Between 1953 and 1967, they flew more than 800 sorties over the Chinese mainland, dropping agents, testing radar responses and collecting air samples from suspected nuclear test sites.
After decades in the shadows, they are now getting public recognition. At a gathering last month in Hsinchu, a high-tech center in northern Taiwan that was once the base of their operations, hundreds of Taiwanese observed a minute of silence for the 148 Black Bats who never returned from their missions and paid an emotional tribute to the few surviving members of the group.
Their main mission — laying the groundwork for an anti-communist insurrection — failed, but they brought back useful intelligence, defense experts say. Moreover, they are seen as national heroes for helping to cement relations with the United States when a still vulnerable Taiwan needed all the help it could get.
"We owe our national and social stability to them, but we had never thanked them in public," said Lung Ying-tai, a humanities professor at the National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu.
After the event, Taiwan's Defense Ministry finally recognized the "important contributions" made by both the Black Bats and another group dubbed the Black Cats, which flew high-altitude U2 spy plane missions over China.
"They ... provided crucial strategic and military intelligence that helped stabilize the Taiwan Straits situation," the ministry said in a statement. "We will never forget this chapter of our history."
The Black Bats were the product of a different era, when the threat of nuclear war loomed and the communist victory in China raised fears of an Asian colossus that would help the Soviet Union pursue world domination in places like Korea and Vietnam.
Though tensions remain between communist China and democratic Taiwan, the two are bound today by deep trade and investment ties that reflect China's new face as an economic power.
The story of the Black Bats first emerged in 1992, when China repatriated the remains of 14 crew members who died when their plane was shot down in 1959. A few books on their exploits were published in subsequent years, including one by the Taiwanese Defense Ministry detailing the clandestine flights. But the veterans had remained largely anonymous until the recent Hsinchu gathering.
The Black Bats were formed in 1953, four years after Chiang Kai-shek's forces were defeated by Mao Zedong's communists and fled to Taiwan, a leaf-shaped island 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the Chinese coast.
Washington embraced Chiang as an anti-communist bulwark, and the Black Bats were born.
Chu Chen, 77, one of about 10 surviving pilots, said crews were trained in Taiwan by Americans he later learned were CIA employees. Like others in the group, he kept his exploits secret until recently — even from his own family.
"If we had disclosed anything, we could have been shot ... (for) leaking secrets," he said.
The CIA purposely hid its connection to the Black Bats, Taiwanese defense expert Fu Ching-ping. said. "They employed the Taiwanese pilots so they could deny any connection if the mission went wrong," he said.
A 2004 book co-authored by retired CIA Taiwan veteran James Lilley says the agency used aircraft to insert Taiwanese agents into the mainland, though it does not mention the Black Bats by name. The CIA did not respond to an e-mail asking about the group.
"There's no doubt about the cooperation between the Black Bats and the CIA," said Tseng Wen-shu, who helped organize an exhibition about the Black Bats at a military museum in Hsinchu.
The CIA provided the aircraft for the missions, according to the veterans. They proudly display photographs taken with Ray Cline, then the agency's Taipei station chief, and show other memorabilia supporting their claim of CIA sponsorship.
No figures are available on how many spies were dropped into China on the missions, but the pilots say few ever returned. "They tossed their weapons down first and then they jumped," former navigator Chou Li-hsu said.
Crew members also recounted close encounters with pursuing Chinese planes.
In 1960, eight communist airmen died when their planes crashed into a mountain while chasing a Taiwanese P2V plane piloted by Tai Shu-ching. The encounter is described in "Fights to Protect the Motherland's Airspace," a book published in 2001 by China's People's Liberation Army. read whole article