Flying the Hump

March 1, 1991

In mid-December 1941, in the wake of Japan’s massive land, sea, and air offensive in the Far East and its attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies had no doubts about the need to support China fully to keep it in the war. China’s forces would tie down Japan on the mainland. China would provide bases for attacks on Japan. In any event, Gen. Claire Chennault’s China Air Task Force, the “Flying Tigers,” had to be supplied.

Suddenly, in March 1942, supplying China became immeasurably harder. Japanese forces cut the Burma Road–the only overland path to China–and all land supply ceased.

The Allies came back with a response unprecedented in scope and magnitude: They began to muster planes and pilots to fly over the world’s highest mountain range. The route over the Himalayas from India to Yunnanyi, Kunming, and other locations in China was immediately dubbed “the Hump” by those who flew it.

Though relatively short, the route is considered the most dangerous ever assigned to air transport. The reason is apparent from this description contained in the official Air Force history:

“The distance from Dinjan to Kunming is some 500 miles. The Brahmaputra valley floor lies ninety feet above sea level at Chabua, a spot near Dinjan where the principal American valley base was constructed. From this level, the mountain wall surrounding the valley rises quickly to 10,000 feet and higher.

“Flying eastward out of the valley, the pilot first topped the Patkai Range, then passed over the upper Chindwin River valley, bounded on the east by a 14,000- foot ridge, the Kumon Mountains. He then crossed a series of 14,000-16,000-foot ridges separated by the valleys of the West Irrawaddy, East Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong Rivers. The main ‘Hump,’ which gave its name to the whole awesome mountainous mass and to the air route which crossed it, was the Santsung Range, often 15,000 feet high, between the Salween and Mekong Rivers.”

Pilots had to struggle to get their heavily laden planes to safe altitudes; there was always extreme turbulence, thunderstorms, and icing. On the ground, there was the heat and humidity and a monsoon season that, during a six-month period, poured 200 inches of rain on the bases in India and Burma.

Fifty Years Ago

If the US was to conquer such obstacles, it would have to build an organization to ensure the smooth flow of planes, people, and supplies. The seeds of such an organization already existed. On May 29, 1941–fifty years ago this spring–the US Army had created the Air Corps Ferrying Command. Out of this small organization grew the US Air Transport Command, under the command of Maj. Gen. Harold L. George.

“It seems almost incredible,” Gen. William H. Tunner remarked in his memoirs, “that up until three o’clock in the afternoon of May 29,1941, there was no organization of any kind in American military aviation to provide for either delivery of planes or air transport of materiel.”

When the Japanese closed the Burma Road, the US devised an initial plan that called for sending 5,000 tons of supplies each month over the Hump into China as soon as possible. American C-47s delivered the first, small load of supplies in July 1942. It was a meager beginning. If the resupply effort was to be greatly expanded, airfields would have to be built, pilots would have to be trained, and transports would have to be manufactured and ferried to the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater.

The air transport task in the CBI fell first to Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of Tenth Air Force. The Ferrying Command was to deliver seventy-five C-47s to the CBI, but some were diverted to support British forces in North Africa. Of the sixty-two that finally reached the theater, about fifteen were destroyed or lost, and many of the rest were out of service for long periods due to a shortage of parts and engines.

It was obvious that the theater air commander should not be responsible for a supply route reaching from factories in the US to destinations in China. On October 21, 1942, Air Transport Command (ATC) officially took over the task.

Operations under ATC began in India on December 1. The original small air transport unit was established as ATC’s India-China Wing. As air transport activity increased, it became the India-China Division, comprising several wings. “Every drop of fuel, every weapon, and every round of ammunition, and 100 percent of such diverse supplies as carbon paper and C rations, every such item used by American forces in China was flown in by airlift,” General Tunner said later.

Tonnage flown across the Hump increased slowly. Thirteen bases were established in India and six in China. Curtiss C-46s gradually replaced the Douglas C-47s and C-53s. Consolidated C-87s, the cargo version of the B-24, and some war-weary B-24s were added. In December 1942, 800 net tons were delivered to China. In July 1943, 3,000 tons were delivered. The target was 5,000 tons per month, but Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader, wanted more. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally ordered the target increased to 10,000 tons a month.

“Safer to Bomb Germany”

Increases in tonnage came at great cost. In the last six months of 1943, there were 155 accidents and 168 fatalities. General Tunner commented in his memoirs, perhaps somewhat facetiously, “It was safer to take a bomber deep into Germany than to fly a transport plane over the Rockpile from one friendly nation to another.”

Aircrews were in short supply. Those on hand were flying more than 100 hours per month. Pilots, most of whom had never before flown a twin-engine aircraft, were quickly recruited from among basic flying training school instructors in the Air Training Command. They were sent to bases at Assam, Karachi, and later Gaya, India, for checkout in the C-46 Commando.

Accidents mounted. Spare parts soon were in short supply. Maintenance personnel were inexperienced and worked under severe handicaps. Col. Edward H. Alexander, commander of the India-China Wing, reported, “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.”

In November 1943, the ATC Ferrying Division opened the “Fireball” run from Florida to India. C-87s and, later, C-54s were put to work flying high-priority parts from the Air Service Command depot at Patterson Field, Ohio, to India. The aircraft were based at Miami, and crews were stationed at key points along the routes to Brazil, central Africa, and India.

Emergency shipments from the States could arrive in the CBI in as little as four and a half days after order placement.

In the organization of the complex Hump operation, a key player was Brig. Gen. Cyrus R. Smith, president of American Airlines, who served as chief of staff to General George. General Smith acted as a troubleshooter. In the fall of 1943, after the operation suffered many air accidents, he visited the theater to report on conditions.

“We are paying for it in men and airplanes,” General Smith reported. “The kids here are flying over their head–at night and in daytime–and they bust [the aircraft] up for reasons that sometimes seem silly. They are not silly, however, for we are asking boys to do what would be most difficult for men to accomplish; with the experience level here, we are going to pay dearly for the tonnage moved across the Hump. . . . With the men available, there is nothing else to do.”

One of the unforeseen requirements was for the establishment of a search-and-rescue organization. Many crews, forced to bailout or crash-land, struggled for weeks, despite injuries, burns, and disease, to find safety. Terrain was so rugged that survivors would spend an entire day traveling one or two miles.

In the beginning weeks, when a plane was down, the first available transport crew went in the first available aircraft to conduct the search. This quickly proved unsatisfactory.

At Chabua, Capt. John L. “Blackie” Porter, a former stunt pilot, started “Blackie’s Gang” with two C-47s. His gang carried Bren .30-caliber machine guns. The copilot carried one in his lap, while the other was kept in the cargo area. They sometimes carried Thompson machine guns and hand grenades. In 1943, virtually every rescue of crew members was due primarily to the efforts of Blackie’s Gang.

The Search for Sevareid

One of the first of Blackie’s rescue missions was a search for the twenty crew members and passengers, including CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid, who had bailed out of a C-46 in the Naga hill country of northern Burma. The area was populated not only by Japanese, but also by headhunters [see “America’s Headhunter Allies,” June 1988 issue, p. 84]. The men were found, and supplies were dropped. Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, the wing flight surgeon, and two medics parachuted to assist the survivors. A ground party walked in and took them to safety.

After many such successes, the US created a special search-and-rescue organization with Captain Porter as its commander. He was lost in action in December 1943 while on a search mission.

In early 1944, tonnage to China reached the presidential goal of 10,000 tons per month. Soon, however, more was requested, and more was delivered. Brig. Gen. Earl S. Hoag, in charge of the India-China Wing at the beginning of that year, predicted that his men would deliver 77,000 tons during the last six months of 1944. His estimate was too conservative; more than twice that much was delivered. The rapid rise stemmed from a sharp increase in the number of aircraft and men, assigned to back up decisions made by President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the Combined (UK-US) Chiefs of Staff at a June 1944 strategy meeting.

General Tunner took command of the India-China Division of ATC in August 1944. A 1928 West Point graduate and strict disciplinarian, he made many changes in the interest of efficiency. One significant innovation was the introduction of production line maintenance, the brainchild of Lt. Col. Bruce White, a former executive with Standard Oil of New Jersey in China.

Planes brought in for maintenance would pass through three to ten stations as if on a factory production line. At each station, a plane would go through different maintenance functions. A rigorous inspection completed the procedure. If approved, each aircraft would be test-flown before being sent back to the line.

The concept became standard practice throughout the Army Air Forces on bases with large numbers of a single type of aircraft.

When General Tunner arrived, pilots rotated out after 650 hours of flying time. Many pilots were flying as much as 165 hours a month in order to pile up the time and go home quickly. General Tunner’s ,flight surgeon reported that fully half of the men were suffering from operational fatigue. Several accidents stemmed directly from such fatigue.

General Tunner immediately increased to one year the time a pilot would remain in the theater. He also increased the number of flying hours to 750. “It didn’t make the pilots happy,” the General wrote later, “but . . . it kept quite a few of them alive.”

The Accident Rate Declines

He appointed Col. Robert D. “Red” Forman as chief pilot, and, as training improved, the accident rate began to decline. When General Tunner took over the India-China Division, four-engine Douglas C-54s were being introduced. They could carry three times the load of the C-47s and would eventually replace them and the C-46s. As the Air Force history states, the operation brought airlift into “the age of big business.”

General Tunner felt that his hard-nosed management approach would result in improved efficiency and performance. “I had been sent to this command to direct American soldiers, and while I was their commander, by God, they were going to live like Americans and be proud they were Americans.”

General Tunner inaugurated malaria-prevention spraying operations, using stripped-down B-25 “Skeeter Beaters.” According to Tunner, this, combined with the use of repellents and mosquito nets, drove down the incidence of disease.

In 1944, General Tunner changed the route of the C-54 flights, creating a more direct flight to China. This placed the transports over 150 miles of Japanese-held territory and within range of Japanese fighters. To defend his aircraft, he requested and received fighter protection. “Enemy action was of little consequence” afterward, he reported.

Another area that needed improvement, as far as General Tunner was concerned, was the search-and-rescue capability, which he called “a cowboy operation.” He appointed Maj. Donald C. Pricer, a Hump pilot, as commander of the unit and assigned to the job four B-25s, a C-47, and an L-5, all painted yellow. One of the first tasks was to pinpoint all known aircraft wrecks in the theater, the better to eliminate “duplication of work, for, after all, aluminum was scattered the length and breadth of the route.”

It was during this period, moreover, that the helicopter was introduced into the theater and began to prove its potential as a rescue vehicle [see “The Skyhook,” July 1988 issue, p. 104].

General Tunner ordered each base to establish a jungle indoctrination camp, with mandatory attendance for all new arrivals in the theater. Newcomers had to spend time in the jungle under the supervision of trained guides.

The General encouraged the introduction of competition into the operation and challenged each unit to beat its own records and those of other units. He authorized the publication of a newspaper, with prominent display given to tonnages carried over the Hump by individual units. He also encouraged the creation of press releases. One told of training elephants to load drums of gasoline quickly aboard aircraft. The photo that accompanied this story reached hundreds of newspapers.

The success of the Hump operation under ATC became apparent from statistics released on August 1, 1945. 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.

When the war was over, Air Force historians added up the figures. The peak month was July 1945, when 71,000 tons of cargo were carried. Some 650,000 tons of gasoline, munitions, other materiel, and men had been flown over the Hump during the airlift, more than half of the tonnage delivered in the first nine months of 1945.

Besides helping to defeat Japan, the Hump operation was the proving ground for mass strategic airlift. The official Air Force history comments: “Here, 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.”

C. V. Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer and the author of many books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “In Pursuit of Pancho Villa,” appeared in the February 1991 issue.