A Day In The Life Of A Pilot Flying The Hump In The China~Burma~India~Theatre In 1942

In 1942 PAN American Airways designated a number of crews to fly the Africa-India-China supply route. The pilot group was known as Pan American-Africa Ltd. They were based at first in Accra, Gold Coast - now Ghana. Their route was from Accra, NE to Khartoum, then N to Cairo and east across India to China.

In May 1942 they were based in Dinjan to fly over the HUMP along with Army ATC crews. Half of 13 C-47 transports and their crews were Army, half Pan Am Air pilots. The outfit was headed by Col. Caleb Haines. They were to transport supplies to the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in Loiwing, China. They negotiated the 190 mile crossing of the 19,000 foot lower Himalayas (The Naga Hills).

The Story As Told By Charles H.McClelland one of the Pan Am Air pilots in this group

My thanks to Charles' wife Jean McClelland and their son Scott for giving me permission to use this story on my web site.

One final check: sidearms, extra ammo clips, parachutes, Tommy guns, Very pistol and shells - all okay. Then, up to the office - the cockpit of the C47 for the day's little drama. This morning, I'm a little stupid; too much beer last night so, please God, don't let them puke all over the cabin on the trip back. I couldn't handle the stink.

During the briefing, the Major pounded it in: Jap Ki-48 "Lilly" bombers with fighter escort headed for airport, ETO Dinjan 1015 local, fifty minutes from now. Observe strict radio silence and don't start taxiing without either a green light or a green Very pistol shell! If you do get a red light, don't be a hero! Get out of that plane fast and go for cover!

"Watch that tower like a hawk!" barked Zettler from the left-hand seat. "Sound off either red or green!" He didn't need to tell me; if a fly had walked up those bamboo walls, I'd have seen it. He fired up the starboard engine, milking the mixture until the engine pulsed. I read off the check list aloud through force of habit, pointing at each item.

                As the port engine roared into life, a green ball of fire arced from the tower in a weak, dying-swan lob, landed fifteen feet out and skittered erratically along the ground. I jabbed a finger toward the dancing orb and shouted: "Signal!" Zettler looked up at that moment, saw the shell and started the ship rolling. "Kind of a half-assed signal," he snorted, "but they mean 'go,' I guess."

                Taxiing down for takeoff, I searched the sky ahead for approaching low flying aircraft, but could see none. If the 1015L ETO still held, we could expect all hell to break loose in exactly three minutes...

                At the end of the runway, we squared off and Zettler started to run up the engines. As we began the pre-takeoff check, a big fireball erupted from the mud and bamboo tower. Mouth open, I watched its fiery trajectory through the air. Red! Red! This time I didn't need to sound off. Zettler saw the whole thing. "For the love of Christ!" he raged, "what the goddamn hell are we supposed to do now? Get out and hide under the plane?" Unbuckling his seat belt, he half rose over the yoke and, stretching to his limit, scanned the sky overhead and to the sides. "Well, piss on them!" he snapped, "I don't see any Japs. We're gettin' out of here!" He released the brakes, rammed the throttles forward and, in less than 1000 feet, our wheels were off the ground and we were bound for our twice-daily game of Russian roulette with The Hump.

                The Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command (or the ABC Ferry Command as we were called) was composed at the very beginning of the Hump crossings in April of 1942 of thirteen C47 transports and their crews, half of whom were Army, half Pan American Airways pilots. Headed by Colonel Caleb Haines, its original object was to ferry ammunition and aviation gas to the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in Loiwing, China from the RAF base in Dinjan, India, a muddy, little landing strip on the Brahmaputra River smack up against the Himalayas. But, when it became evident that the Flying Tigers could no longer stem the Japanese advance in Burma, many of the Chinese troops retreated northward along the railroad to Myitkyina, Burma, where the severely wounded and near-dead overran the airport there and waited, many for days, for hoped-for evacuation over the Hump to freedom in India. From being essentially a supply carrier, it now became our task to negotiate the 190-mile crossing of the 19,000-foot lower Himalayas (the Naga Hills) which were enveloped much of the time in monsoon clouds, and flying strictly by dead reckoning, to let down (hopefully) in the valley at Myitkyina and collect a planeload of soldiers and refugees (sometimes numbering up to seventy bodies) then, with the overpowering stench of gangrene, feces and puke permeating the cabin and cockpit, and accompanied by the terrified shrieks of the sick and dying, to struggle once more to cross the vicious peaks to safety.

                For many of the crews, the stench was worse than the danger. One planeload of Chinese soldiers and evacuees could stink up a plane to the point that you'd gag a hundred feet downwind from it. They urinated and defecated where and when they chose. The cabin of a C47 arriving from Myitkyina produced a smell that was almost unimaginable. Little piles of half-digested rice, puddles of piss and shit dotted not only the deck but extended a foot up the bulkheads. Oftentimes the temperature was in the nineties and hundreds on the ground in Burma. We'd try to fly with the cockpit windows open but that created a suction that drew the air from the cabin. With those filthy bodies and the other nauseating smells, we couldn't bear it and would have to close the side windows and just sweat. The total effect was probably like being imprisoned at the base of a three-holer outdoor toilet.

                Some of the pilots actually liked this assignment, even asked for additional trips; others hated it like poison and made no bones about the fact they were scared of it.

                What were my feelings about the Hump flights? Was I scared? Yes, if a pounding heart and sweaty palms indicated fear, I was afraid. But, trying to analyze it further, I think my overriding feeling was one more of angst-anxious concern. Anxious concern? Hell, admit it, it was apprehension. And I could tick off at least three areas that warranted apprehension: first, but by no means strongest, was the concern over the overall ability of Smilin' Jack over there in the left hand seat. Was he a heads-up pilot or was he just barely competent? How would he react to an emergency? Would he keep his wits about him or would he go to pieces? The guy I was with, George Zettler, was an above-average pilot, no doubt about it, but a sour sonofabitch. That was fine with me. I wanted a skilled operator as the aircraft commander, not a charmer. At least I would know his mind was on the job, not on his popularity rating.

                And that brings up my strongest foreboding: an emergency - hitting a peak or losing power and having to parachute into the steaming impenetrable jungle below and landing in the hands of the head-hunting Naga tribesmen.                

 And, weather - don't let me forget my second strongest fear. Starting now, in the middle of April, we'll be getting plenty of it. We're still a tad early for the full monsoon but the upper winds from the southeast are getting stronger every day and the big old CBs are full of rain and ice and turbulence till hell won't have it.

                Off the ground, we circled the airport twice, checked abeam Tezpur and, leaving the Brahmaputra River, headed southeast, climbing steadily. Although we kept scanning the skies back around the airport, we saw no signs of enemy planes. There was a black pall of smoke over the field so we assumed it had been bombed. Later, however, we learned that the smoke came from the tower; the operator, in his eagerness, had fired a Very pistol shell directly into the tinder-dry bamboo, sending the structure up in flames.

                Although the monsoon season was not yet completely on us, dirty black altocumulus and cumulonimbus clouds obscured the rocky rampart of the Hump around Sadfiya. To us, these menacing-looking clouds were both savior and nemesis, for they could be counted on to pile up to the North, obscuring the highest peaks, and we always scurried for them like a mouse running for its hole. On the one hand, they were the best protection for our unarmed planes against the Japs but, on the other, the knife-like peaks posed an ever-present danger. Going over with less than a max load, we stayed well north, climbing to 20,000 feet, and my discomfort started. Moreover, the lack of oxygen was complicated by the freezing cold. In the hour plus we'd be cruising at 20,000 without oxygen, the really debilitating effects of altitude sickness didn't have time to take hold. But the feelings began to creep up: for example, gasp as I might, I couldn't seem to get a lungful of air. Also, I could expect not only a headache like a tight band around my forehead but my cheekbones and teeth began to hurt like crazy. By far the most painful result of the altitude, though, was the gas buildup in the stomach and intestines. Above about 15000, my stomach became so bloated that it was sheer agony. Naturally, the most obvious relief was in passing gas. With two people letting rapid-fire farts at will in the close quarters, after an hour or so, the fumes in the cockpit were fetid to put it mildly.

                Right here, I might as well anticipate your question: why, you ask, didn't you use oxygen and save yourself all that discomfort? The reason is simple: the oxygen equipment on the 47s worked only about 5 percent of the time, and most of the crews found it was more trouble than help so didn't even bother with it. Voice communication being so difficult, we exchanged any necessary information with gestures.

Going over, we had to twice make heading corrections. The southeast wind was strong and, with the specter of being blown over the peaks north of The Rockpile, we kept correcting more and more southeast. Over the Chidwin Valley, we flew in the clear on top of an altostratus layer and, with fingers crossed, started letting down at our KATA point. Our corrections were not excessive as I had feared for, when we finally broke out over the Irrawaddy River, we were still a few leagues north of Myitkyina. Circling the airport, I estimated the milling throng of evacuees waiting beside the runway at roughly two hundred.

                Going back, we stuffed and squeezed in the plane fifty-six of that pitiful group. Many more pushed and tugged, even wrestled among themselves trying to get aboard, but were stopped by a huge character brandishing a gun and barking staccato orders. I had discovered several flights before that it was much better if I didn't even watch them stumbling and falling into the cabin. It was too unsettling. Without looking, though, I knew just about what the composition of the assemblage was: there would be a preponderance of Chinese soldiers, some on crutches others being carried on the backs of companions, all of them wearing makeshift bandages on some part of their body; on their head; around their bodies; slings on their arms; their legs; over their eyes. There would be two or three pregnant women, some obviously right on the verge of delivery; several children and babes in arms with filthy, snotty faces; and, finally, a score of men and women so old and frail that it was obvious they would not be able to survive the rigors of the trip. Although we exceeded our max recommended payload by about 3000 pounds, we figured - or at least I figured - that the extra weight wouldn't give us any trouble if we had a normal run back - but we didn't.

                Right off the bat, the takeoff was complicated by rocks on the runway. There was no way we could avoid them all; luckily, those we hit or knocked aside were relatively small so we didn't blow a tire.

                The flight plan called for a time enroute of 55 minutes at 17,000 feet. I figured we'd pick up time with the southeast wind on our tail and we could keep further south.

                Coming over, we'd had light to moderate turbulence at 19,000, so we were a cinch to get a shaking up going back. Little did we anticipate the degree of shaking we were in for. As expected, as soon as we entered the clouds, the turbulence began. It wasn't too bad at first, but steadily became more severe until the time we should have been abeam a series of particularly vicious peaks called The Rockpile. It's difficult for anyone to appreciate just how bad severe turbulence can be until you've been in it. The only thing I can think of that would be comparable would be riding a wildly bucking Brahma bull bareback. Up and down, now lifted abruptly off your seat against your seat belt, then slammed down viciously until it feels as though your distended stomach must surely explode, then thrown violently from side to side, crashing painfully against the window frame or brought into bone-crushing contact with the guy in the other seat, then thrown bodily forward until your face slams down excruciatingly on the throttle and mixture handles. After the first warning lunge, both Zettler and I clenched the wildly-rotating yokes, trying to keep the plane from going completely over. In the only apparent lull in the violence, Zettler did about the only thing he could to prevent the 47 from breaking apart: he lowered the landing gear and reduced power. Almost simultaneously, it felt as though a great hole had opened beneath us, the bottom dropped out of everything and we abruptly plunged down 800 feet. Still wrestling with the wildly-gyrating yoke, I looked down from my window and nearly died of fright. Directly beneath us, not more than 20 feet below was solid, wet, glistening black rock. It was so close I could have counted the tiny pebbles in the water-filled clefts in the dark mass and areas of drifted gravel and matted grass.

                "Up! Up!" I screamed, yanking back furiously on the wheel. "Rock right here!"

                I leaned over to glance out the other window and saw with horror that Zettler's face was a crimson mask. Blood poured from a long gash on his forehead, down over his eyes, his mouth, his chin, and dribbled onto his shirt soaking it. With one shaking hand, he tried to wipe his eyes clear.

                "Take it!" he croaked, "I can't see a fucking thing!"

                Right then, I had a really uncanny, other-world feeling, one of, what would you call it, empathy, or maybe transference? For, even though I hadn't actually seen Zettler's head bang down on those brutal handles sticking out of the control pedestal, I could feel the agonizing contact. And, looking at him, I experienced the same awful pain and shock that he obviously felt, so much so that I put a hand to my own forehead, expecting to bring it away, covered with blood. While he tried, with both hands, to wipe the blood off his face and out of his eyes we climbed back to 20,000 but, with only one pair of hands flying the plane, it was impossible to keep the thing on an even keel. Several times, sudden buffets of turbulence caused us to pitch and yaw uncontrollably. One particularly violent wallop slammed the ship into a half roll with the wing pointed straight down. As I fought with aching arms to bring the wing up, a thunderous pounding exploded on the cockpit door, and our passengers in the cabin set up a deafening screaming and yelling.

                "Poor bastards!" mumbled Zettler, almost unintelligibly. He had finally taken off his shirt and, with it, wiped his face and eyes and sat there in his T-shirt, shaking with cold. "They probably think we're doing this on purpose!"

                I glanced at him in surprise; showing sympathy for his fellow man didn't sound like the Zettler I knew. For a moment, I wondered if the blow on his head had derailed his thinking.

                He took the bloodied shirt away from his face and looked at the cockpit door in alarm. "That door better hold up or we're in for real trouble!" then: "Head 120 for ten minutes. That should get us south of the high ones. Then we can let down to 12 or 13. We've got to get out of this cement mixer!"

                After ten minutes on a 120 heading, with heart hammering, I started to descend at a cautious 500 feet per minute. At 13,000, the cloud below us started to darken, meaning either we were finally coming out of the clouds - or we were getting close to hard rock again. Still the turbulence continued and, with it now, came heavy rain. I kept glancing over at Zettler, praying that he wouldn't pass out on me. He still pressed the bloodied khaki to his face and forehead. His head lolled forward, chin resting on his chest. "How you holding up, Zett?" I asked. Without a word, he lifted the makeshift bandage, turned his head and stared silently and steadily at me with blood-rimmed eyes, then abruptly turned back to his former position. "Well, piss on you, too, Hitler!" I almost said, but didn't.

                Renewed hammering on the cockpit door. Two or three of them must have made a concerted rush and hit the door with their shoulders; the hinges on the upper half of the door broke off and bent the top of the door inward toward the cockpit. I half turned at the crash and caught a glimpse of two or three angry faces in the opening and, at the same time, wisps of foul-smelling smoke floated into the cockpit. I was halfway out of my seat, determined to prevent the onrush of those crazed people, when Zettler came alive and roared: "Show those bastards a Tommie gun! Don't let the sons of bitches in here!" He allowed his blood-soaked shirt to fall in his lap and signaled that he was taking over the flying. I grabbed one of the Tommie guns from behind my seat and stuck it through the hole in the broken door. The cabin looked like the inside of an opium den: bodies sprawled on the deck, half-leaning against the bulkheads, stumbling over and around prostrate figures. As I peered through the tangled mass of bodies, a bright tongue of flame appeared through the haze. Several were huddled around a pile of smoldering clothing, holding out their hands to get warm. The cabin was filled with choking, stinking smoke from the fire.

                At sight of the gun thrust through the opening, several of the passengers fell back, but a couple grabbed the barrel and I fought to get it free. I finally managed to wrest it loose and waved it around threateningly. When I glanced toward the front again, Zettler had continued letting down to 3000 feet, retracted the gear, and resumed normal cruise speed. We were back to VFR conditions and the turbulence had ceased except for a few minimal jolts. Zettler turned north 40 degrees and we overheaded what must have been the town of Imphal. With the cessation of the turbulence and the cabin warming up, the passengers drew back and were quiet.

                I kept the gun trained through the top of the broken door and, gesturing toward the smoldering mass of clothing, shouted for them to put out the fire. Even though they didn't understand the words, they interpreted the gestures. It was getting hot again and they started to stamp out the embers. One character pulled his pants down and started pissing on the fire. As if on signal, two more pulled down their pants and directed streams on the smoking mass.

                At 2000 feet, the country began to look familiar, and soon we made our security approach, overheading the designated island in the river, and started a landing circuit of the field at Dinjan.

                After the rigors of the flight, it probably would have seemed more in character for at least a halfway hostile reception at Dinjan, like having to land on a runway full of craters and pockmarked by enemy bombing. On the contrary, though, the whole area slept quietly in a warm rain and the only evidence of unusual activity was a wisp of smoke rising from the charred embers of the mud and bamboo tower.

                Once parked, the repellent business of unloading and preparing the plane for its next flight began. The cabin load of passengers did not disembark; they erupted from their foul quarters, the ambulatory jumping to the ground not even waiting for the steps to be put in place; the ancient, the lame, and the pregnant waiting for what assistance they could get. Five bodies remained, or six, if you counted a squalling baby delivered on the westbound passage to a Chinese woman who now lay dull-eyed, cuddling her newborn in the slimy remains of the afterbirth. Three old Chinese, two women and a man lay curled up and blue-faced in the obscene abandonment of death; and one Chinese soldier, cause of death due no doubt to his wounds. In the hour's time normally taken for a turnaround, the most important - and, by far, the most revolting job - was performed by four unfortunate grunts, known charitably as The Untouchables. Their task was, to put it mildly: as soon as the "meat" was out of the cabin, The Untouchables, masks covering nose and mouth, entered slowly and unwillingly. Their first job was to bring out the corpses in body bags, lay these side by side beside the runway where the doctor, protected by elbow-length rubber gloves and full face mask, examined them hastily and pronounced them dead. Then The Untouchables reentered the charnel house armed with stiff brushes, pails of hot, soapy water, shovels and, finally, a five-gallon container of creosote. The effects of this awful assignment on the four can only be imagined. By the time they had completed their job, there was never anyone within a quarter mile to listen to their grievances.

Zettler and I rode back to the "infirmary" with the doctor where Zettler was cleaned up and sewed back together. Then as a reward for having done our duty, we each got a big shot of the doc's Johnny Walker Red. Then, to a quick debriefing and Zettler and I went our separate ways to get an hour's sack time before the next go-around. And I, to offer up a silent prayer that the next guy I had to ride with knew an aileron from a rudder.

The above story is just one of many that have been told about the experiences of these great pilots that flew the "Rock Pile" they called the "Hump". Their courage and dedication made it possible to carry out the campaign against the Japs in China. Without them there would have been no gas, bombs,ammunition or any of the supplies needed to support our troops in the China Theatre.There are no words to describe the magnitude of the part they played in winning the war in the C.B.I. theatre.

What the Hump cost in lives and planes from December 1st,1942 to November 16th, 1945

The pilots and crews delivered a total of 776,653 tons of war materials at the cost of 910 crewmen~130 passengers~594 planes lost with only 75 crew members rescued.A terrible price to pay but these pilots and their crews never hesitated in doing their job.For this we are forever indebted to all of them.

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