A U-2 "Dragon Lady" in a hangar at Osan Air Base, South Korea, on Oct. 22, 2020.
Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

When a Chinese high-altitude balloon suspected of spying was spotted over the United States recently, the US Air Force responded by sending up a high-flying espionage asset of its own: the U-2 reconnaissance jet.

It was the Cold-War era spy plane that took the high-resolution photographs – not to mention its pilot’s selfie – that reportedly convinced Washington the Chinese balloon was gathering intelligence and not, as Beijing continues to insist, studying the weather.

In doing so, the plane played a key role in an event that 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.

Until now, most of the media’s focus 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, it is the involvement of that other symbol of a bygone time, the U-2, that 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.

Those losses haven’t been as widely reported as might be expected – and for good reason. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which 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.

A US Air Force pilot looks down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon from the cockpit of his U-2 spy plane on February 3, 2023.

The Dragon Lady and Chinese nukes

That the CIA would be tight-lipped over what these American-built spy planes were doing is hardly surprising.

But the agency’s continued silence more than 50 years later – it did not respond to a CNN request for comment on this article – speaks volumes about just how sensitive the issue was both at the time and remains 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 of what the planes were doing – 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.

The planes – according to accounts by the pilots in a Taiwan-made documentary film and histories published on US government websites – 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 newly developed U-2, 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 as its high-altitude capabilities – it was designed in the 1950s to reach “a staggering and unprecedented altitude of 70,000 feet,” in the words of its developer Lockheed – put it out of the range of antiaircraft missiles.

Or so the US had thought. 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.”

A mobile chase car pursues a U-2 Dragon Lady as it prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base in California in June 2015.

The Black Cats and Detachment H

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.

That treaty has long since lapsed, but Taiwan remains a point of major tensions between China and the United States, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowing to bring it under the Communist Party’s control and Washington still obligated to provide it with the means to defend itself.

Today, the US sells F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan as part of that obligation. In the 1960s, Taiwan got the US-made U-2s.

The island’s military set up a squadron that would officially be known as the “Weather Reconnaissance and Research Section.”

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.”

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 in the 2018 documentary film.

The other CIA unit in Taiwan

  • Coinciding with the Black Cat Squadron, the Black Bat Squadron was formed under the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Agency and Taiwan’s air force, according to a Taiwan Defense Ministry website.
  • While the Black Cats were in charge of high-altitude reconnaissance missions, the Black Bats conducted low-altitude reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering missions over mainland China from May 1956. It also operated in Vietnam in tandem with the US during the Vietnam War.
  • Between 1952 to 1972, the Black Bats lost 15 aircraft and 148 lives, according to the website.

    “The Black Cats program was implemented because the American government needed to find out information over mainland China – what were their strengths and weaknesses, where were their military installations located, where were their submarine bases, what type of aircraft were they developing,” said Powers Jr.

    Lloyd Leavitt, a retired US Air Force lieutenant general, described the mission as “a joint intelligence operation by the United States and the Republic of China.”

    “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,” Leavitt wrote in a 2010 personal history of the Cold War published by the Air Force Research Institute in Alabama.

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

    “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,” Hua wrote in a 2002 history of the unit for the magazine Air Force Historical Foundation.

    At the Taiwan airbase, Americans worked with the Taiwan pilots, helping to maintain the aircraft and process the information. They were know as Detachment H, according to Hua.

    “All US personnel were ostensibly employees of the Lockheed Aircraft Company,” Hua wrote.

    Code name: Razor

    The ROC air force and US representatives inked an agreement on the operation, giving it the code name “Razor,” Hua wrote.

    He described the intelligence gained by the flights as “tremendous” and said it was shared between Taipei and Washington.

    “The missions covered the vast interior of the Chinese mainland, where almost no aerial photographs had ever been taken,” he wrote. “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.”

    Other sensors on the spy planes gathered information on Chinese radar capabilities and more, he said.

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

    When asked for further comment on the Black Cats, the ministry referred CNN to the published materials.

    “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 author Pocock said in the documentary.

    The squadron even had its own patch, reputedly drawn by one of its members, Lt. Col. Chen Huai-sheng, and inspired by a local establishment frequented by the pilots.

    But the Black Cats, like Powers Sr. two years before, were about to find out their U-2s were not impervious to antiaircraft fire.

    On September 9, 1962, Chen became the first U-2 pilot to be shot down by a People’s Liberation Army antiaircraft missile. His plane went down while on a mission over Nanchang, China.

    Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)
    See photos showing US Navy recovering spy balloon from water
    01:18 - Source: CNN

    Shot down over China

    In the following years, three more Black Cat U-2 pilots were killed on missions over China as the PLA figured out how to counter the U-2 missions.

    “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,” Pocock said.

    “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.”

    In July 1964, Lt. Col. Lee Nan-ping’s U-2 was shot down by a PLA SA-2 missile over Chenghai, China. According to the Taiwan Defense Ministry 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 PLA missile hit the U-2 being flown by Capt. Hwang Rung-pei over Jiaxin, China, and in May 1969, Maj. Chang Hsieh suffered a “flight control failure” over the Yellow Sea while reconnoitering the coast of Hebei province, China. No trace of his U-2 was ever found, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.

    A U-2 Dragon Lady, from Beale Air Force Base, lands at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in 2017.

    Captured by the Communists

    Two other Taiwanese U-2 pilots were shot down but survived, only to spend years in Communist captivity.

    Maj. Robin Yeh was shot down in November 1963 over Jiujiang, Jiangxi province.

    “The plane lost control when the explosion of the missile took out part of the left wing. The plane spiraled down. Lots of shrapnel flew into the plane and hit both of my legs,” 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.

    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. I guess this would be my lifelong memory,” Yeh said.

    Maj. Jack Chang’s U-2 was hit by a missile over Inner Mongolia in 1965. He, too, suffered dozens of shrapnel injuries and bailed out, landing on a snowy landscape.

    “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,” he recalled in the oral history.

    Neither Yeh nor Chang, who were assumed killed in action, would see Taiwan again for decades. The pilots 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 no longer had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan and had formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

    Though the Cold War US-Taiwan alliance was no longer, the CIA brought the two pilots to the US to live until they were finally allowed to return to Taiwan in 1990.

    Members of the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron "Black Cats" work on a U-2 "Dragon Lady" at Osan Air Base on Oct. 22, 2020.

    No regrets

    Indeed, by the time of their release CIA control of the U-2 program had long since ceased. It had turned the planes over to the US Air Force in 1974, according to a US Air Force history.

    Two years later, the Air Force’s 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron and its U-2s moved into Osan Air Base in South Korea. Commander Lt. Col. David Young gave the location the “Black Cat” moniker.

    Today, the unit is known as the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron.

    But US U-2s continue to be involved in what might be characterized as “cat-and-mouse” activities and their activities continue to make waves occasionally in China. In 2020, Beijing accused the US of sending a U-2 into a no-fly zone to “trespass” on live-fire exercises being conducted by China below.

    The US Pacific Air Forces confirmed to CNN at the time that the flight had taken place, but said it did not violate any rules.

    Meanwhile, for those involved in the original Black Cats, there are few regrets – even for those who were captured.

    Yeh told the documentary makers he had fond memories of life at 70,000 feet.

    “We were literally up in the air. The view we had was also different; we had the bird’s eye view. Everything we saw was vast,” he said.

    Chang too felt no bitterness.

    “I love flying,” he said. “I didn’t die, so I have no regrets.”