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Army's World War II flights to China filled with hazards

American planes flying over the Himalayas, a route known as the hump, kept supplies flowing to Chinese troops during World War II. The crews had to navigate over 15,000-foot peaks while often flying through terrible weather at night on the trip from India to China. And once they reached Kunming, China, landing wasn’t always easy.
American planes flying over the Himalayas, a route known as the hump, kept supplies flowing to Chinese troops during World War II. The crews had to navigate over 15,000-foot peaks while often flying through terrible weather at night on the trip from India to China. And once they reached Kunming, China, landing wasn’t always easy.
Published Jan. 13, 2012

Editor's note: During World War II, U.S. Army planes regularly flew ammunition, fuel and supplies to China. The aim was to keep China from surrendering to Japan, lest Japan release a million soldiers to fight against the Allies. The flights began in the valley of Assam near the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River in India. The pilots climbed over the highest mountains in the world, battling monsoons, heavy thunderstorms, violent updrafts and downdrafts, lightning and severe icing — all without navigational aids or weather reports. This is the story of one of those flights," Bob Moore, 87, left, wrote in his cover letter to theTimes. "It could be anybody's story. We all took our turn."

I don't know what woke me. Maybe it was the sergeant's voice or the shaking of my bunk. I opened my eyes to the glow of the flashlight on the floor. Then a voice penetrated my consciousness — "It's time, lieutenant."

"Okay, I'm awake."

"I'll wait in the jeep, sir."

The glow of his light disappeared out the front of my tent. I raised the mosquito netting as I swung my legs out of my bunk. I reached for my pants hanging over the back of my chair. My wallet and watch were on the table with my cigarettes and matches. I struck one for light and looked at the time. It was 1:48 a.m. I strapped on my gun belt with my .45 and knife, finished dressing and headed for the jeep.

After a brief stop at the latrine we were on our way to the flight line and the operations building. The low group of bamboo huts that served as flight headquarters looked dark and foreboding any time of day, but at 2 a.m. on a dark, drizzly night, they gave me the chills. Inside, two lightbulbs hanging on cords gave the only illumination. The co-pilot and radio operator were already there. I didn't know them. Every flight over the hump had a different crew. Your name was on a list and when it came up, you flew.

We would fly from our base at Mohanbari, India, over the high ridge of the Himalayas, to Kunming, China. We would start near sea level, ascend to 15,000 feet, and land at 6,240. On this day my load would be 26 55-gallon drums of high-octane gasoline. The corporal behind the counter had me sign the necessary papers, and the three of us went into the next room for our parachutes. Nobody ever flew without a chute. If you lost an engine over the hump or if the weather got you, the chute was your only chance. No one could survive a crash landing on the hump.

We climbed into the back of a six by six and headed for our plane. By now the drizzle had become rain. At the revetment the crew chief informed me he had checked the plane and said it was okay to go. We climbed in as soon as we could to escape the rain. I checked the tie-downs on the drums to be sure they were secure. I wanted no loose drums rolling around the back of the plane if we hit bad weather.

The plane was a C-46 Commando, which we usually referred to as "Dumbo," after Disney's flying elephant. The C-46 was the largest twin-engine plane in World War II. It had a wingspan of 108 feet and a length of 76 feet 4 inches. Its power came from two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines and it could cruise at 200 miles per hour with a load of 15,000 pounds.

I took my time reading down the three checklists — "Before starting engines," "During warmup" and "Before takeoff." I taxied out to the end of the runway and waited for the tower to clear us. Barreling through the rain, I held her down until we reached 80 mph, almost to the end of the runway. I knew I would be on instruments the minute we lifted off.

I circled east and climbed. The Naga Hills and the first ridge were just ahead at 10,000 feet. I continued to circle until I reached 11,500. I was taking no chances tonight. The storm was increasing and once we passed the first ridge, we were buffeted around like a toy.

A few minutes later, ice began to form on the leading edges of the wings. I flipped on the de-icers. The storm continued to increase and we were pushed up one minute and down the next. The altimeter read 15,000 feet and then dropped to 11,000. Below us were rock ridges of the Himalayas and the deep valleys of the Salween and Mekong rivers. North of us the mountains rose to over 20,000 feet and south lay the jungles of Burma and the Japanese. I had no worry from them unless we lost an engine and had to bail out. Once past the Naga Hills, we were clear of the Naga headhunters. I'd rather have dealt with them than the Japanese.

The commander of the hump operations, Gen. Harding, had decreed that there was "no weather on the hump," which meant that the hump never closed. I wished he was sitting in my seat. So many planes had crashed on these mountains that someone had called it the "Aluminum Trail." It was said that on a clear day you could find your way to China by following the debris.

Hail beat against the windshield, threatening to break it. Our only navigation came from a radio compass that was supposed to point to checkpoints and to our final destination. Mine was swinging in full circles. The radio operator was unable to pick up any checkpoints but I told him to keep trying. With these winds there was no telling how far we had come. We had been in the air over five hours and we should have been getting close to China. A few minutes later the radio operator said he thought he was getting something from Kunming. With the static, it was hard to make out. I dialed in the tower at Kunming and my needle swung straight ahead.

"Hello, Roger Queen. This is Mohanbari 346, requesting landing instructions."

"Roger 346, this is Kunming. Hold at 15,000. We're backed up tonight."

Kunming's elevation was more than a mile high with mountains spread around. Everyone who flew into Kunming was aware of the mountain with the sheer cliff west of the field. In the center of the cliff was a black smear where some crew had hit it at 180 mph.

I held at 15,000 feet on the nose, knowing that at every 500 feet, another plane was holding just as we were. All I could do was fly the pattern and hope that everyone else was doing the same.

After 10 minutes the tower cleared us to 14,500 feet and then to 14,000. Suddenly some plane above us called "Mayday." He had lost an engine and could not hold his altitude. The tower cleared him for immediate landing. Everyone in the pattern knew what that meant. He would be letting down through us. All we could do was pray. He must have missed us because we were still flying. I heard the tower clear him to land. Finally we were cleared to 13,500, then 13,000. It's hard to describe your feelings when you're letting down between mountains higher than you are and you can't see them.

After what seemed an hour, we were cleared to land. On the downwind leg, I could barely make out the field. Things began to clear on the base and by the time I was on the final, the runway was in full view. Kunming's runway was 7,218 feet and I used every bit of it. At the end, I saw the usual jeep with its sign on the back, "FOLLOW ME." My engines had hardly stopped turning before the Chinese crew was there to start unloading.

The three of us just sat and looked at each other. After a minute I think we started breathing again. It was the radio operator who broke the silence. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for eggs."

We all laughed; the tension was gone. No matter what time of day or night you arrived in China, you always got eggs.

Robert L. Moore, a retired school principal and former chairman of the Pinellas County School Board, lives in St. Petersburg.


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