Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jumping the Hump: Airlift to China, 1942-45

by Mike Yoder

From the start of their invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army moved to seize Chinese seaports and seal the country off from trade with the Western world. To keep his armies supplied with war materiel, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek ordered the building of the Burma Road. Supplies arriving in Rangoon, Burma, were taken to rail yards in the city of Leshio. From there, convoys began the overland journey through the jungles and mountains of Burma to Kunming, China.

Although officially neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that it was in the United States strategic interests to keep China fully engaged in the war with Japan. From 1938 onwards, more than 1 million Imperial Army troops were commited to the struggle to conquer the Chinese mainland. Maintaining Chiang and his army was essential to keep these forces from contributing to the conquest of SE Asia and the Pacific. With the fall of France to the Germans in 1940, Japan seized the French Colonies in Indo-China. Overland traffic to China from the Vietnamese port of Haiphong was disrupted as the Japanese moved to cover the left flank of their Chinese venture.

In the days following the raid on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army struck out for the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, Singapore and Burma. Moving rapidly inland from Rangoon, the Japanese took Leshio and cut the Burma Road by April, 1942. The Japanese advance through Burma was so fast that their armies nearly captured Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell and his staff, who had just arrived in Burma to take command of Chinese and Allied forces in the country. A lean, hard officer with a reputation for being crusty and vulgar, "Vinegar Joe" led the remnants of his command on a remarkable overland march through the steaming jungles and swamps of Burma to safety in Imphal, India.

From India, Stilwell organized the campaign to retake Burma from the Japanese. The core part of his plan was to cut a new road from Ledo, India, across Northern Burma and intercept the existing Burma Road in the Karen State of Burma. Pending the completion of this road, all supply of China would be by air transport. The route entailed flying from airfields in India's Assam province to Kunming, China, over the Eastern ranges of the Himalayas. The most imposing mountains in the world, the Himalayas were promptly nick-named "The Hump" by the pilots and aircrew who flew this route.

Responsibility for this mission initially fell upon Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton, commanding the US 10th Air Force in India. Brereton commenced operations with an allotment of some 62 C-47s. The immortal "Gooney Bird" was the Douglas DC-3, pressed into wartime service, given the Army Air Corps designation C-47 and slapped with a coat of Olive Drab paint. Brereton was originally allotted 75 C-47s, but a dozen or so were diverted for duty in N. Africa. Of the 62 which actually arrived in the China-Burma-India Theater, 15 were destroyed or lost before airlift operations actually got underway.

Of the remaining craft in the original small fleet, a considerable number were down for lack of spare parts. Maintenance crews took to "cannibalizing" questionable airplanes to keep the remainder flying. The first supply flights to China didn't actually get underway until July of 1942. The original target of resupply by air was set at some 5000 tons a month. Those first few meager attempts fell far short of this mark It was soon obvious to Gen. Henry Arnold and the USAAF staff that airlift operations were a specialized field which needed to be organized outside of the realm of the Theater Air Commander.

Accordingly, the US Army Air Force Air Transport Command officially assumed control of airlift operations from Gen. Brereton in October of 1942. All transport aircraft involved in airlift operations were transferred from 10th AF to the ATC at that time. The "Hump" operation was originally organized as the India-China Airlift Wing under the command of Col. Edward H. Alexander. Alexander's crews faced some daunting problems both on the ground and in the air. In a report to ATC's General George, Alexander noted that, "Except on rainy days, maintenance work cannot be accomplished because shade temperatures of from 100 degrees to 130 degrees Fahrenheit render all metal exposed to the sun so hot that it cannot be touched by the human hand without causing second-degree burns".

However formidable ground maintenance might have been, actually flying the route over the Hump was even more challenging. Fortunately, the basic routes had been laid down during the early 1930's by the Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and Pan American Airlines. But the route over "the Roof of the World" wasn't any easier from the need to go deeper into the Himalayan chain to avoid Japanese fighters ranging out of airfields in Burma. In a direct line, the flying distance from an airfield near Ledo, India to Kunming was only 500 miles. Swinging North to avoid Japanese fighters stretched the fully-laden Gooney Bird to the very limits of fuel endurance.

Just getting the heavy load into the air and at altitude to cross the Hump was a challenge in itself. The airfields in the Brahmaputra Valley were only some 900 feet above sea level. Upon take-off, the Gooney Birds would struggle to gain altitude to cross the first chain of mountains, the 10,000 foot high Patkai Range. After crossing the Chindwin River Valley, the pilots approached the series of 14,000 foot high ranges separating the Salween and Mekong rivers before making the final climb to cross the Santsung Range. This was the most demanding part of flying the Hump, threading their way through peaks between 15 - 20,000 feet in height.

This would have been a daunting task even under ideal flying conditions and with well-trained and experienced aircrew. However, flying through any part of the Himalayas entailed severe turbulence, thunderstorms and icing. Aircrews would often find that lack of proper de-icing equipment would force them to fly at lower altitudes through river valleys looking for a pass through which they could fly their iced up transports. Losing an airplane in these remote mountains often meant losing an experienced aircrew as well. Many men bailed out of a stricken plane in these areas and were never heard from again.

Adding to the pilots woes, the 4 month long Monsoon season would dump some 200 inches of rain on the soggy airfields in India and Burma. Runways would be turned into quagmires and heavy downpours would ground all aircraft. Hardened tarmac runways and proper drainage eventually solved this problem, but pilots were still expected to at least attempt a take-off if they could see halfway down the runway through the fog and mist. For all their efforts, the airmen of the Hump set down 800 net tons in China during the month of December, 1942.

Although the CBI was the "forgotten war" and on a much lower priority than the needs of the European and Pacific Theaters, the build-up for meeting the monthly goals of the airlift proceeded apace. Additional C-47s joined the airlift fleet and the larger Curtiss C-46 "Commando" started arriving in quantity during early 1943. Trained aircrew were still in short supply, and ATC started combing the ranks of flight instructors, airline pilots and anyone with any multi-engine time in their log-books. The aircrew that was available was putting in more than 100 flying hours a month and pilots with only single engine experience (often fresh from Air Training Command flight schools) were quickly checked out in the C-46 and pressed into service for the airlift.

The build-up continued and the tonnage set down in China started to approach the initial goal of 5000 tons a month. Chiang Kai Shek started demanding more and President Roosevelt responded by raising the tonnage to 10,000 tons monthly. The India-China Airlift Wing was expanded to the India-China Airlift Division, now under command of Gen. Earl S. Hoag. Thirteen airfields were established in India and an additional 6 in China. Along with the increased airlift capacity came an increase in losses of aircraft and crew. Hoag reported 155 flying accidents and 168 fatalities for the last half of 1943. Hoag did deliver upon the target of 10,000 tons monthly by the beginning of 1944, but the cost in aircraft and crew was deemed too high.

In August of 1944, Hoag was relieved and command of the airlift passed to Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner. Tunner was known in Air Force circles as a strict disciplinarian and his first step was to demand proper military attire from ground and air crew alike. Tunner personally flew a C-46 on a round trip flight from India to Kunming and declared that it was "safer to fly a fully loaded bomber deep into Germany" than to fly the Hump. He immediately changed the routing of flights through the Himalayan chain to a more direct route to Kunming, cutting down the flight time. He demanded and received fighter escorts for his transports. The capture of the Japanese airfield at Mitchina, Burma reduced the threat of Japanese fighters and provided forward operational airstrips for P-51s flying escort duty.

As they became available, the 4 engine Douglas C-54 began to replace the struggling Gooney Birds and Curtiss Commandos. The C-54 could carry 3 times the payload of a Gooney Bird and with proper de-icing equipment, fly higher and faster. Tunner may not have been able to shrink the Himalayas in size, but he gave his airmen a larger margin of safety. With aircrew safety in mind, Tunner also revised the pilot rotation system. When he took charge, aircrew were rotated out of the CBI after flying 650 hours. Some pilots were cramming in as much flying time as possible to get out of the Theater that much faster. Tunner established a years tour of duty for everyone and upped the rotation requirement to 750 hours of flight time. With these and other changes, the losses of aircraft and crew diminished drastically.

Tunner also addressed problems on the ground with maintenance. Lt. Col. Bruce White was his chief of maintenance and a former executive of Standard Oil of New Jersey. White implemented a system of "production-line maintenance", whereby each plane brought in for servicing went through several checkpoints, as if on an assembly line. Only after a rigorous inspection and flight testing was an aircraft returned to line duty. The US Air Force uses this procedure to this day when dealing with large numbers of the same type of aircraft.

Morale only increased as Tunner called for an improvement in food and living conditions for his fliers. War-worn B-25s were called into service as "Skeeter-beaters", spraying insecticide in the vicinity of the airfields, thus reducing the rate of malaria among the men. Publicity back on the Home Front drew attention to the airlift operations and the innovations of fliers and ground crew was played up in the press. Running a story and a picture of an elephant being trained to load barrels of gasoline onto a transport got wide circulation in papers back in the States.

The success of the measures imposed by Tunner was reflected in the figures which were released by ATC for Aug. 1, 1945. From the website of and the story of the airlift:

"On that day, the command had flown 1,118 round trips, with a payload of 5,327 tons. A plane crossed the Hump every minute and twelve seconds; a ton of materiel was landed in China four times every minute. All of this was accomplished without a single accident." The airlift is believed to have hit its peak in July of 1945, when 71,000 tons of materiel were safely set down in Kunming.

Those figures and that statement gloss over the price the American airmen paid for their success. It was a painful and costly learning process. A total of 407 aircraft and their crew were lost in the wilds of the Himalayas and over the jungles of Burma and India. As the official history of the US Air Force notes: "the AAF demonstrated conclusively that a vast quantity of cargo could be delivered by air, even under the most unfavorable circumstances, if only the men who controlled the aircraft, the terminals, and the needed materiel were willing to pay the price in money and in men."

However, Tunner and his staff wrote the book on Airlift Doctrine and they went on to apply it to great effect in another time and place. In 1947, the first major operation of the newly minted US Air Force was the resupply of the city of Berlin, then under a Russian blockade. Faced with the worst flying weather in Europe, the attempt to resupply Berlin by air was expected to fail just as badly as the Luftwaffe's attempt to resupply Stalingrad had failed. Recalled to command "Operation Vittles", Gen. William Tunner, his staff and a cadre of airmen wearing the distinctive patch of the China-Burma-India Theater assembled one more time for yet another supply mission. The costly lessons they learned in war paid a dividend in time of peace as they pulled a major city back from the edge starvation.

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