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"Forgotten theater' pilot recalls crossing Himalayas

Published May 29, 2000|Updated Sep. 27, 2005

Hump Pilots braved violent thunderstorms, flew to icy heights and delivered supplies to China sometimes loaded by elephants in India.

They were the supply line, bouncing around in twin-engine C-46 transport planes over the Himalayas, the only thing keeping Allied bombers stationed in China filled with fuel and munitions.

These fliers, dubbed Hump Pilots because their routes from India took them over some of the world's highest mountains, are a lesser-known chapter of the World War II saga, a piece of the China-Burma-India campaign.

"It's called the forgotten theater," said Jan Thies, who has been executive secretary of the Hump Pilots Association for 30 years.

Jim Wesley, 81, who lives with his wife, Jane, in Seminole's Freedom Square retirement center, flew 76 missions over the Hump. He arrived in late 1944 and stayed until the route closed after the Japanese surrender in 1945.

He recalls flying through violent thunderstorms over the mountains, hunching down in his seat to shield his eyes from lightning so he could see his instrument panel.

Remembers the sound of ice flying off the propellers into the sides of the C-46 Commando cargo plane, the feel of the oxygen mask on his face.

Laughs at the lack of technology: no radar, no weather-forecasting equipment.

"Don't make it sound heroic," Wesley said. "We were all young. We didn't know any better. It was a case of you had a job to do and you did it."

Wesley entered the Army as a foot soldier, drafted into the infantry in 1940 for a one-year tour.

"Then there was this little thing called Pearl Harbor," he said.

Wesley, who had been flying since 1934, re-enlisted in the Army Air Forces, precursor to today's Air Force.

After his initial training, Wesley said, he and his classmates were standing on a train platform, heading for B-26 bomber school. A sergeant came running up and pulled the six who were last in alphabetical order _ Wesley through Wolfe _ from the ranks.

"We need transport pilots," the sergeant said.

It set the course of Wesley's career. He spent most of the next 30 years flying transport or rescue missions in the military before retiring in 1970.

The only bombers he ever flew were Russian, ferrying them from the factory in Montana to Alaska, where they were picked up by the Russian army. After a stint carrying troops between Egypt and India, Wesley arrived at the Hump in late 1944.

The Allies had troops in China, trying to turn back the Japanese. The only way to get supplies to those troops was to fly them in from India, over Burma (now Myanmar) and the Himalayas.

Fuel, bombs, bulldozers, jeeps and all sorts of equipment would come by ship into the Bay of Bengal, then be transported by steamship up the Brahmaputra River and arrive by single-gauge railroad in the Assam Valley area.

There, British tea plantations were converted to airfields with crushed stone runways. The pilots could see Mount Everest from their camps on rare clear days.

Elephants were used to load hundreds of 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel into the back of the C-46s in India. The planes, Wesley said, "were the world's largest twin-engine airplane at the time. It was a big old bird. It was a good old plane."

Wesley, stationed in northeast India, normally flew into Kunming or Luliang in northwest China.

The first ridge of mountains near the India-Burma border was only in the 10,000-feet range, according to Wesley's maps. "Not too bad," he said, "except you were climbing heavily loaded from a valley practically at sea level."

The landscape leveled off again until, near the Chinese border, the mountains rose to more than 20,000 feet.

Wesley still has the mementos he carried in his pocket during each of those flights: a pink bootie and a leather wallet with two small pictures of his daughter, Lynn, born while he was in India.

He also has several maps of the region _ made of silk for durability _ and a small brown leather notebook, in which he recorded in pencil each of his Hump flights and the time each took. On Jan. 23, 1945, for example, it took him eight hours and 50 minutes to make the round trip; on Jan. 26, the same flight took nine hours.

The silk maps were not for use in flight, he said. They were used to guide the pilots to a village or military post if the plane went down.

Along the side of the map, in English, Bengali, Urdu, Kachin, Burmese, Chinese and Lisu, is this message:

"I am an American airman. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied military post. You will be rewarded."

Wesley unfolds a yellowed piece of paper about 4 by 6 inches. On it are three hand-drawn, wing-shaped lines with tiny notations along each, sort of like a time line.

He calls it his "wing tips."

The lines represent the three most common routes across the mountains; the notations are altitudes and radio beacon locations.

The Hump Pilots didn't have radar; they didn't even have a navigator in the crew. They had a pilot, a co-pilot and a radio man.

"All we had was a little radio beacon. You didn't talk to anybody," Wesley said. "We didn't know any better in those days."

When the plane flew over one of the beacons, Wesley said, "a little ol' needle would point down when we went over, hopefully. . . . We knew where we were going. We flew headings and hoped."

There also was no way to know what kind of weather lay ahead.

"There were no weather forecasts. You just went," Wesley said. The only weather news would be a report from the last pilot to return.

Most of Wesley's runs were to deliver 100-octane fuel and bombs to the B-24s bombing the Japanese in the South China Sea. "We flew all their fuel in to them," Wesley said.

The 50-gallon drums were lashed together in the fuselage with just a small walkway among them.

Once the plane reached about 12,000 feet, Wesley said, the co-pilot would go back to check for leaks. If a drum was leaking, the co-pilot and radio operator would first turn it upside down, hoping to move the hole to the top. If that didn't work, they rolled it out the back of the plane.

"I hope none of them landed on somebody's head in the jungle," Wesley said.

Wesley is humble about the Hump Pilots' contribution to the war, but he is also proud.

"I think we did a heck of a good job," he said. The war might have gone differently if the Japanese had been successful in China, he said. "Without that, we don't know what would have happened. . . . We saved China."

The military never appointed an official historian for the China-Burma-India theater, so there was never a complete record of the numbers of men who served as Hump Pilots, said Mrs. Thies, the secretary of the Hump Pilots Association.

At one time, the association had 5,000 members, she said, including pilots and crew members. The group now has about 3,000 names on its mailing list.

"We don't hear from all of them," she said. "Some of them have passed away, I'm sure."

At the annual reunion each year, members talk about how much longer the association will stay in business. All its members now are in their late 70s or older.

"They figure they can probably go on five more years," Mrs. Thies said. "That doesn't mean, in some form, it won't go on until there's just one or two or three of them left."

"We're all reaching the point where it's time to leave this earth," Wesley said. That's why, he said, it is so important today, on Memorial Day, to remember the friends who died 55 years ago and those who served, about 1,000 of whom die each month.

"We're losing 'em fast," he said, "and kids don't even know what Vietnam was today, much less World War II. We don't have the patriotism we had back in those days."


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