Flight to China

A vivid closeup of the men and machines—and the route — which constitute "the world’s toughest lifeline"

GEORGE H. JOHNSTON December 1 1944

Flight to China

A vivid closeup of the men and machines—and the route — which constitute "the world’s toughest lifeline"

GEORGE H. JOHNSTON December 1 1944

Flight to China

A vivid closeup of the men and machines—and the route — which constitute "the world’s toughest lifeline"


WESTERN YUNNAN, China: Across the tightly laced mass of freight one could see only the heads and shoulders of the passengers seated tensely on the opposite side of the aircraft. Shoulders were shapeless beneath heavy sheepskinlined leather jackets, faces strangely inhuman behind black oxygen masks. Some of the men had their eyes closed but they were not asleep. One of the bizarre figures nodded slightly in my direction and twice held up his two hands, fingers outspread. Twenty thousand feet!

My bones felt cold, and there was a strange lightness in my head that made me gulp deeply at the oxygen, feeling with my right hand to ensure that the little rubber air sack was inflating and deflating. Wispy streaks of pearly cloud scudded by the window and moisture formed in tiny, racing balls on the thick glass. I looked forward through the great cigar-shaped hull of the aircraft into the instrument-panelled compartment where the pilot was jiggling at levers with sensitive fingers. The twin motors faded and coughed and roared again louder than before.

All the passengers sat up stiffly and listened anxiously for a few seconds to the sudden change in the engine note, and then, one by one, they subsided again, sucking away at the oxygen. The silvered fuselage was throbbing gently as the great bulk of the

C-46 Curtiss Commando transport plane swept eastward through the clouds. The man who had signalled me the altitude suddenly waggled his head in a comical way and jerked his thumb downward. I rubbed the fogginess from the glass and peered through.

We were over “The Hump,” probably the most notorious geographical feature of this war’s air transport routes, the great spur across the Himalayas that divides China from India, a mass of twisting ravines and sharp-fanged peaks that has become something real and personal and oddly malignant to the hundreds of young American pilots flying the “The Hump Route” into China.

Below was an enormous piled-up mass of silvery cloud, standing like a great misshapen pyramid in a grey plain of mist. Hidden somewhere beneath that pyramid were the solid massed peaks of the great range which did strange things to instruments, caused dangerous and unpredictable air currents, exerted incalculable magnetic attractions.

Of the peaks below nothing could be seen, but over to the left a huge triangle of rock and ice and snow shouldered upward through the cloud blanket, its chasms black against the deep cobalt of the sky, its icy eastern flanks gleaming in dazzling sunlight. The peak seemed to stand in the sky above us. I did not know its height nor its name. We were flying in an area where maps had shown mountains only at 12,000 until some Hump pilots almost ran into a peak 19,500 feet high—and we were flying at 20,000.

All the passengers were crouched in their seats now, peering downward and gesticulating excitedly. Some took off their masks and pointed below. I could see their lips forming words: “The Hump,” and with

every movement of their heads the thin rubber tubes leading to the oxygen pipes danced crazily. There

was a new note now in the engine and the plane began to lurch and dip unsteadily. We were losing height, dropping down through the clouds toward the rolling fields and folded hills of Yiinnan. We whipped off our masks and began to light cigarettes, started to laugh and joke stupidly among ourselves. The toughest part of the toughest air flight in the world was over. We were across the Hump— and in the monsoon, too . . .

The interior of the plane was bright with sunshine one moment, and then dark with cold and gloomy shadow as the big ship swung down through a checkered pattern of brilliant sunlight and swiftmoving vapor. Howard Baer, onetime Esquire cartoonist who was now in the CBI Theatre doing an assignment of war paintings, was dabbing charcoal on a scratch-pad covered with studies of men in oxygen masks, and too excited to remove his own. Below us the clouds were scattered and broken.

We could look down now on vast and desolate valleys stretching sunlessly into distances where scarred ravines and peaks together disappeared into the mountain clouds. Perched on a steep crag was the slim white finger of a Buddhist pagoda, at 16,000 feet reputedly the highest monastery in the world.

We could see the black chasms of gorges through which the flooded Salween and Mekong Rivers—one yellow, one red—carried Tibet’s melting snows to the distant Indian Ocean and to the swampy deltas where the coast of Indo-China met the South China Sea. On a razor-edged peak, rising like a broken wall from a deep cleft in the earth, we could see a tiny cluster of houses clotted around a graceful little pagoda which cast a slender shadow across the crumbling walls of the town.

In every direction great mountains in fantastic shapes rolled away, rising ever more steeply until they were lost in the whirling clouds behind. Some of the peaks had thin gauzy streamers of cloud blowing away from them. Through the crazy landscape of peaks and cliffs and sinister ravines crawled the scarred fissures of wild mountain streams. Near infrequent river flats, like the whorls of a fingerprint, were emerald, geometrical patterns of tiny paddy fields. All around us reared vast peaks, brown and red and grey and black, with unmelted snow still gripped whitely in the shadowed valleys of their summits.

'The passenger next to me nudged me in the side and shouted in my ear: “How would you like to

parachute down into that place?” I shook my head very firmly.

More than anything else, the one thing I was certain about was that this was no place for bailing out. Yet many men had jumped on this route, and the strange thing was that most of them had come back . . .

Unknown Everests

THE tales of The Hump, and there are many of them, are the tales of a new sort of adventure. There are two pilots still flying ATC routes across The Hump who will swear they have seen great mountains in the littleknown area of the Himalayas near the Tibet-Sikang frontier which are higher than Everest. One pilot came out from the overcast at HO,(MX) feet and saw vast, snow-capped peaks rising several thousand feet above the plane. Everybody laughed at his story until another pilot, weeks later, had an almost identical experience. Now, everybody is not quite so sure. On this roof top of the world geographical knowledge is so meagre and maps so unreliable that their stories could be perfectly t rue. 1 don’t say they are true, I merely say they could be. Everest is more than 29,000 feet.

On another transport, making a night flight from Yiinnan to Assam a fierce storm was encountered over the high peaks. The instruments failed and the plane was driven far off its course by 120-mile-an-hour winds. The engine spluttered. The gas tanks were empty and the pilot, thinking he was somewhere over the plains of Assam, gave the order to bail out. The men jumped at 17,000 feet, thinking they would have a long way to fall, but they hit the ground in 45 seconds! They had made a Shangri-La landing in the snowcapped Himalayas, and 28 days later they marched into Lhasa clad in Tibetan robes.

There was a new young transport pilot who took a C-46 away from India

in a dense overcast. He was circling to gain height and had reached 12,000 feet when the ship began to ice up. He ordered the crew to jump, but when they had all gone over the side he found that he could still fly the aircraft. He headed straight on toward The Hump in a fierce storm and five hours later landed his mammoth plane singlehanded on a Yiinnan airfield, with tons of freight safe inside but no crew. In those five hours that kid grew up. Now he is one of the coolest pilots on the run.

Once on a west-bound crossing a transport carrying several Chinese colonels and majors iced up so badly that all hands were forced to bail out and walk to base through the jungle. It was not until some weeks later that one Chinese colonel discovered that bailing out was not the orthodox way of reaching India!

These are but a few of the countless adventure stories of The Hump, where history’s most spectacular air line (military edition) has been giving a rarely interrupted freight and passenger service for more than two years and flying in monthly to China from two to three times the tonnage of war supplies that ever went in along the old Burma Road . . . Despite improvements to planes, new rescue facilities, better maps and improved systems of weather reporting, stronger fighter protection^ the Hump crossing is still the world’s most hazardous air route regularly flown, and the only one whose pilots are classified similarly to combat pilots. Their enemies are not only Japanese Zeros, which have taken sporadic but serious toll of these unarmed transports, but the worse hazards of weather, icing, terrible storms, hidden mountains, and flights which have to be made at substratosphere and stratosphere heights with extreme loads, often with planes designed neither for ceilings so high nor for loads so heavy.

Rescues Organized

THERE has been a heavy price to pay for this aerial conquest of the roof of the world and for the maintenance of a continuous shuttle route which for more than two years has been the only road into beleaguered China. Secret valleys and untrodden peaks of one of the least-known alpine regions of the world have become scrap heaps of lost planes and graveyards of dead men. However, since the inauguration of a Search and Rescue Squadron in October of last year, more than 75% of all men who have to bail out over The Hump are now saved.

When a transport is crashing over The Hump the radio operator taps out the estimated position and then lashes down the key to ensure that a signal keeps going out until the very moment of impact. Bearings are taken on the signal, and rescue men either walk into that position through the jungles, or drop supplies from rescue planes. Food, medicine, shoes, clothing, blankets, and such trade goods as silver rupees, cheap jewellery, salt and red cloth are sent down. Doctors in the squadron volunteer to drop in by parachute if

men are seriously injured. One doctor who parachuted in was in the jungles for 27 days but he succeeded in saving the life of the sole survivor of a crashed C-46.

Permanent Clouds

POSSIBLY the greatest single hazard in Hump flying is icing, which is more common and forms more quickly than on any other world air route. Apart from this, pilots probably need a better instrument knowledge than on any other route. Ninety per cent of night flights are flown totally blind, and more than 50% of daylight flights are made “on instruments.” Pilots usually attempt to get through the cloud cover, which is almost permanent, and fly over the top of the layers, but the common cloud top is 18,000 feet, gradually increasing to an average of over 25,000 feet by June. If icing occurs the initial loss of altitude is something like 1,500 feet a minute, which leaves, at best, five minutes in which to jettison cargo and hope that the ice will melt.

Once on top of the clouds the pilots have regular “landmarks”—permanent cloud bulges on the tops of well-known peaks, or narrow breaks or depressions in the clouds which indicate the courses of rivers below. It is almost no exaggeration to say that the experienced pilots who have made 80 to 90 round trips know almost every cloud on the route!

Banks of cumulus and the deadly thunderheads are evil forces which will hurl a ship down 4,000 feet and up 3,000 feet almost in a split second, sometimes with sufficient force to tear away wings and engines like paper. It is almost impossible to predict weather with any degree of accuracy. High mountains bend radio directional beams, but not always in the same direction nor to the same degree. Fierce winds, sometimes reaching velocities of 140 and 150 miles an hour, cause incalculable drifts and terrible strains on heavily burdened planes which are carrying bigger cargoes at greater altitudes than was ever thought possible a few years ago. Yet they fly in weather which would ground planes on any commercial air line in the world. And services continue for most of the time 24 hours a day and seven days a week, with some pilots making as many as three round trips a day across The Hump.

Dwarfs All Air Lines

THIS wing of ATC dwarfs any air line in the history of aviation. It operates more planes than the three great United States air lines combined had before Pearl Harbor; it has more pilots than all the American commercial air lines put together had in 1941, and it hauls more freight than any air service in history. Its airfields in Assam and China every day are busier than LaGuardia Field in New York. And now even the transport pilots on this route are developing a swashbuckling attitude of superiority over fighter and bomber pilots, whom they’re inclined to regard almost as “sissies!” In declared flying weather, if a transport is grounded on a field for more than an hour the pilot is forced to file a written “please explain.” The job of the Hump pilots is to keep supplies moving— bombs, gasoline, oil, bullets, jeeps, artillery and everything needed for Chennault’s 14th Air Force, and to take out from China vitally needed strategic raw materials for the Allied war machine . . .

All this began when the Burma Road went out and President Roosevelt promised China that aid would come to her in spite of Japanese advances. A month later, in April, 1942, the first Hump military flights were made in four already decrepit and overworked Douglas transports. Four P-40’s were borrowed from the AVG to provide some form of protection against the swarms of Japanese fighters. Today, 33 months later, great fleets of huge transports are going backward and forward three to four miles high, like the shuttles of a loom, in history’s most spectacular air transport job.

'The organization involves more than just flying freight and passengers. It conducts its own chain of transient hotels, its own laundry services for passengers and personnel, its own warehouses, stores and cloakrooms, its own taxicab services, its own corps of baggage porters, proudly proclaimed “The Only Red Cap Service in Asia.” It has rescue squadrons, hospitals,

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Flight to China

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weather stations. It has experts who actually load aircraft by slide rule calculations. It has a Priorities Board, which gives scrupulously fair judgment on rights to travel, regardless of rank or importance. I have seen a major off-loaded because a medical outpost needed a crate of rabbits, white mice and guinea pigs weighing 200 pounds. And I’ve seen two full colonels taken off a plane because two privates had better priorities.

I was thinking of these things as the plane raced eastward. At times it seemed that one could reach out from the ship and pluck the needles from the mountain pines as we rushed past. Next moment one was looking down into a vast and forbidding valley, with sheer walls dropping away blackly thousands of feet below. But the hills were gradually becoming rounder and less scarred. The vivid green paddy fields were now more numerous, patterned in the plains and up the slopes of brown mountains and in beautiful secluded little glens where one could see the tiny slow-moving specks that were the stolidly plodding water buffalo pulling wooden plows through the mud.

To. the Red Earth

These were the Yiinnan Hills, the lower ramparts of the barrier that had stood since the beginning of time between China, Tibet and India—fold upon fold of warm red earth and brown fields and green paddies, with the cloud shadows marching swiftly across the rolling contours. There were clustered walled villages and fantastic pagodas perched upon hilltops; the ochre ribbon of the old Burma Road twisting through the plains and staggering drunkenly across the mountains; irrigated fields shining like mother-ofpearl in the sunlight; tiny farms scoured from the sides of the steepest mountains; villages more numerous and bigger and set within spider webs of radiating roads and mule tracks . . .

The transport plane ducked down through a rain squall, which swept the windows with streaming water. We thundered along with the cloud sitting wetly just above the trembling wing tip. We dived again, barely scraping the top of a huge pine-clad mountain. Suddenly, looking down, the mountain was no longer there. I looked behind. The mountain ended suddenly in a scarred precipice which dropped a

thousand feet sheer into the waters of a huge lake whose grey waters mirrored a swarm of Lilliputian sampans as numerous as water beetles. Farmhouses and villages skirted the lake and stretched away toward the horizon across a shining plain of green fields and flooded paddies. In the centre of the plain a city sprawled, and beyond, in every direction, the rolling Yiinnan mountains were stacked tier upon tier. The predominating colors were earth tones—terra cottas, browns, ochres, reds—red earth, the good earth of China . . .

The shadow of our plane jumped and raced below, vaulting low hills, leaping paddy fields and lakes and canals, skimming temples, driving down red roads where tiny baggy - trousered figures with cart - wheel straw hats plodded along through winding avenues or whipped along their oxen or pony carts. In the rice fields we could see swarms of men and women and children with circular hats on their backs stooping over the bundled green plants. Villages swept below us, villages of crumbling red mud walls and fantastic upturned eaves and gables, villages with tiny courtyards, in which black pigs scrabbled and children played.

The engine note of the plane slackened as we banked steeply, and we could hear the soft whining as the flaps and wheels came down. The land below streamed into a blurred mass of brown and green and blue. The wheels thumped heavily, thumped again, and we could hear the gritty crunching of gravel beneath the racing tires. For some reason we all burst out laughing. I suppose it was not until then that we all realized just how much of a strain that trip had been.

Four Hours From India

Yet it had been only four hours since we had left India. Only four hours since we had stood on an Assam airfield, surrounded by jigsaw-patterned tea plantations, trying on parachutes and oxygen masks and being briefed by a young and unemotional lieutenant who succeeded in scaring the wits out of all of us by telling us what to do when we bailed out, how to treat the mountain tribesmen, which way to walk to reach safety, and how valuable for our wounds we would find the sulfa drugs contained in the jungle kits fastened to our parachute harness.

It was only four hours since we had streamed into the* capacious belly of the aircraft, 28 of us, and sat there in intolerable heat and drenched in sweat

while we waited anxiously for the takeoff. It was only four hours since we had circled above the green fields of the Brahmaputra Valley to gain height and had looked across the flooded river toward the stern-faced mountains of Tibet. In four hours we had left one world and gone through a curtain of grey nothingness to come out into a world completely different.

As Hump trips go, it had been a good passage. The weather had been kind, the altitude reasonable. It had been cold, but while we had shivered at 17,000 feet the pilot was still stripped to the waist. At 18,000 feet he donned a shirt. At 19,000 he pulled on a leather flight jacket. Within four hours we had left behind the hazy moist heat of Assam and come out into the clear cool atmosphere of the Yiinnan Plateau, with an elevation of 7,000 feet and the climate of a New England spring. And we had come to China. There was no doubt about that . . .

Mud villages and serrated pagodas . . . coolies rolling the airfield, thousands of them in their great straw hats squatting on their haunches and methodically breaking great boulders into gravel for the runways . . .

Chinese women grinning and giggling, some with babies strapped to their backs, and wearing baggy pants and bonnets of faded blue and all working cheerfully with picks and shovels . . . bare-bottomed kids scampering around their mothers and laughing uproariously . . .

At the edge of the airfield peasants with cloaks of fibre thrown across their j shoulders were plodding through the mud behind primitive wooden plows which buffalos were hauling. Beyond was the vast scarred cliff face we had finally come across, and in the extreme distance a low, scudding wall of rain j clouds obscured The Hump. It ! occurred to me that I hadn’t even seen j ! the Hump proper, but when I mentioned this to an ATC pilot he grinned and said: “I’ve flown the Hump 62

times each way, but I’ve only seen the actual Hump eight or nine times. I made seven round trips before I saw it the first time. Mostly you just see clouds—and they’ve usually got nasty hard centres!”

Our transport had been the first ship across for several days, for The Hump had been closed in by fierce monsoon storms which had caught planes grounded on both sides of the great mountain spine. Now, with lifting weather, a stream of transports was pouring in — Curtiss Commandos, Douglases, lumbering, heavy-bellied C-87’s. They came droning down from the clouds one after the other, circling low over the paddy fields and villages. Only eight had landed when the ship that had brought us in was waddling along the taxi strip to make the return trip. The air was throbbing with the noise of aircraft, and the clouded skies dotted with great transports coming in or taking off and roaring away toward the mountains of Yiinnan. Overhead swooped a tight formation I of Mustangs with shark-mouth mark; ings, returning from a routine patrol ! of the Hump Route—the toughest, ; most adventurous, most daring aerial lifeline in the world today. The Hump was functioning again . . .


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