A WWII Pilot’s Selected Experiences in the Air
I read an article that the Hump was the world’s first major airlift, and that CNAC hauled the second largest amount of cargo in wartime. We pioneered it. CNAC sent the first planes over and we kept expanding it. The Air Force started flying the route after we did. They lost a lot of airplanes. The last I heard, we had lost 609 airplanes over that route. (Many of those wrecks are listed on the CNAC website.)
What airports did you fly into? Well, there were many. I have personally flown into Dum Dum Airport (Calcutta, India), Dinjan (Assam, India), Kunming (China), Kweilin (China), Chungking (China), Lanchow (China), Likiang (China), Paoshan (China), Lunghwa Airport (Shanghai, China), Rangoon, Yunanyi, Suifu, Myitkyina, Nanking (now Nanjing, China), Tokyo (Japan), among others. Our headquarters were in Calcutta during the war. Some of these places I visited after the war.
Tell me about the blue sparks in the plane. Oh, Saint Elmo’s fire? When you first see it, it is scary as the dickens. Especially when you are carrying high-octane gasoline, and these sparks are all over the plane. Saint Elmo’s fire was so bright that you could sit there and read a newspaper in the middle of the night. But you wouldn’t see it unless you were flying through a storm, either rain or snow. Any time there was a snow storm, there was a spark of static electricity created. When you looked out the side, you would see a beautiful purple ring around the propeller. It started on the tip of the propeller, and grew until it was on the nose of the propeller. Pretty soon it got bigger and bigger until it came into the inside of the cockpit. Thousands of little crows-feet going back and forth across the windshield. When you looked down, there was a flame going from one foot to the other, from one rudder to another. It was a bright blue-purple flame. Was it dangerous? Could it have ignited the gasoline? I don’t know, but we never had any problem. You could put your hand in it and not feel anything. How did it get its name? I don’t know, but it was a term for static electricity. The purple fire has been known for years. Did you ever have any stowaways? Not that I was aware of. If a person tried to climb aboard around the wheels, the wheels would likely crush them when taking off. If that did not happen, they would freeze to death when we got to the higher altitudes. The lack of oxygen would probably put them to sleep first. So you were on oxygen? Of course. When went on oxygen at 10,000 feet when flying in daylight and on oxygen at 9,000 feet when flying at night. Why the difference? Our night vision was affected by lack of oxygen, so we went on oxygen earlier. What about passengers? Did they have oxygen? No, not usually. The first time I flew a load of Chinese soldiers, I kept the plane at lower altitudes for them, around 10,000 feet. Well, it was terribly choppy at that altitude and every soldier got sick all over the back of the plane. So the next time I flew soldiers, I took them up to 20,000 feet and they all went to sleep. They woke up when I descended again to 10,000 feet, all happy as a clam. They slept the entire flight and not one of them got sick. After that, I always flew passengers at higher altitudes. Did you ever have to fly without oxygen or were the oxygen canisters always filled? On several occasions, the canisters had leaks in them and I had to fly without oxygen. What did you do to stay awake? Mostly, you sat still and didn’t move. You tried not to exert yourself. It was an effort to stay awake. But after many flights over the Hump, your body acclimated somewhat to the altitude. Pilots were better acclimated than our passengers. How long were your flights? It depended. Most of our flights were between three and seven hours. How long could you typically go without refueling? That also depended on the weather, your load, and the altitude at which you flew. Naturally, we used more fuel to climb to higher altitudes, but used less fuel once up there. You could fly between ten and twelve hours without refueling if you cut back on your power.
Did you ever fly overloaded? We were typically loaded to the maximum. One time I flew a double load of cargo. Indian truck drivers typically hauled the cargo and loaded the plane. One time, a driver had loaded a few tin boxes in the back, tied down on the floor. Since it did not fill much of the space, another driver did not check the cargo and loaded a second load of cargo to fill the cargo space. I also had a full load of fuel on board. When I got into the plane and took off, the plane was so heavy that it took the entire runway to get off the ground. Did you consider just landing again? No, once you were in the air, you went on. I just burned fuel off so the plane got lighter over the mountains. When I landed, I discovered the original boxes contained copper ingots. So I was carrying two full loads of cargo.
Tell me about Elmer, your copilot. A fellow pilot (Captain Ridge Hammell) had bought a Siberian bear in a market in Calcutta. He named him Elmer. Shortly thereafter, his owner was killed, so the rest of us took turns taking care of Elmer. Since the jungle heat made him miserable, we took turns flying him over the mountains. The copilot’s seat was typically empty, and without oxygen, the bear would curl up in the seat and go to sleep. (They would put an airline cap held in place by headphones on the bear when he was the copilot. They trained the bear to hold on to the control yoke when the plane was on autopilot. Rumors circulated at Army gatherings that bears were flying transports across the Hump. ) One flight, I was transporting about 15 American GIs over the Hump. I put the plane on autopilot and went to the back to use the restroom. An Army lieutenant asked me, “Hey, who’s flying the plane?” I simply answered, “Elmer is.” Well, knowing there was no copilot on board that flight, the lieutenant went to the cockpit to check it out. Astonished, he yelled back to the other soldiers, “The bear really is flying the plane!” I replied, “Yep, he’s one of the best.” They sat quietly the rest of the flight. (Sadly, the bear eventually died from pneumonia he got from frequently going from the extreme heat to the extreme cold.)
What about the Ledo Road project? Did you fly supplies for that? Oh, ya, when I first started to fly over there, they were just starting the Ledo Road. I watched the progress of it. When we flew over it, you could see the trucks and the dirt being moved. And the gunfire and cannons going off. The Chinese army was chasing the Japanese out. The Japanese eventually took control of the area, didn’t they? No, that was the Burma Road. That was a pre-war road. It started at Rangoon and went clear up to north Burma and then into China. The Japanese captured Rangoon and cut off the head of it. Well, from then on, the American and British soldiers tried to retake it. Did the Japanese hold the road? No, the boys retook it long before the end of the war, and we were using it again. In the meantime, they had started the Ledo Road. It started at Ledo, India and went from there to join the Burma Road and into China. Stillwell called it the Ledo Road later on.
What did you fly in? You name it. We hauled gasoline, bicycles, bombs, machine guns. Food? Yes, food, but that was mainly rice. Anything the soldiers needed we flew in. Speaking of rice, tell me the story about bombing with rice. (Chuckling) The Japanese had driven the British out of stronghold in the jungle called Fort Harrison, and they had taken it over. We knew where this building was, as it stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of the jungle. We knew it was Japanese held, so no one bothered it. But the Japs had been bothering us a lot, so we decided to pester them a bit. So one morning after we had dropped rice to the Chinese soldiers, we each held back five bags of rice. There were five planes, each with five sixty-pound bags. When the fifth plane passed over the sight to drop their rice, there was no building left to hit. It was leveled. When a sixty-pound bag comes out of a plane at 160 miles an hour, it is just as destructive as a hundred-pound bomb. We never saw a Jap come out of that building. Not one.
Erin and Rachel (my twins) were amazed that you flew millions of dollars worth of gold and it was never guarded. No, there was never a guard on the plane. Ya, I flew millions of dollars worth of gold. In fact, the very last flight I made over the Hump was from Dinjan down to Calcutta. They loaded my plane with gold. In Dinjan, they offloaded the gold from my C47 to a C46, which was twice as big. Another 47 was there and they dumped that load of gold onto my C46 as well. So I was carrying two loads about 10,000 pounds of gold. It was going to Chungking to Chiang Kai-Shek’s headquarters. Do you have any sense of how much of the war we financed for China? Well, we were paying an awful lot of it. We never got a dime of it back. They never repaid any of it. But they took heavy losses. After all, they had been fighting for seven years before we even got over there. They had already lost several million people. The money becomes insignificant to that.