As told to Packy Maxwell
Training in a BT-13
I spent about four years during World War II in the Army Air Corps (which became the U. S. Air Force after the war) which included operations in a war zone. I owe the service a lot. They took on a 19-year-old kid, housed, clothed, fed, and educated me, and gave me a structure in which to function.
The service made it possible for me to gain a college education, earning a salable skill and establishing a career path for most of the rest of my life. To this day I am very involved in veteran affairs in my community.
I was born in the little town of Galena, Kansas in 1922. I was very young when my father left the family and my first memories are of living in Kansas City, Missouri with my mother, aunt and grandmother. Two of the ladies worked and one stayed home. My mother worked in a “Sweet Shop” selling chocolates and running the soda fountain. For a time she went out to the then-resort town of Colorado Springs to work as a waitress, during which time I was left with foster parents. The foster parents, the Dixons, were taking care of a number of other children as well.
My mother returned after a time. Life was reasonably comfortable and I had a group of like-minded pals. I continued my schooling and graduated from high school. I was 18. It was 1939.
I was attending junior college in Kansas City when I heard of a program offered by Douglas Aircraft. It involved graduating from a metal-working course in Kansas City. Graduates got jobs at Douglas. Four of us got a jalopy and headed down Route 66 to California. The thing I remember most about the trip were the sand dunes, which I think were in New Mexico, where the highway on top of the dunes was made out of 2-by-12 wooden planks wired together.
When we got to California we got jobs at Douglas. I was working at a plant where they were building the A-20, a twin-engine light bomber. It was great to have a job and to be in an industry that was in the thick of things.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, I figured I’d better take action a
head of my draft board. I volunteered for the Navy. They said I had flat feet and rejected me. I didn’t know the Navy was doing a lot of marching.
I then volunteered for pilot training with the Army Air Corps. They also rejected me due to a deviated septum. That didn’t discourage me. A session with a doctor and a “chisel” and I was back talking to the Air Corps. I was accepted into their pilot training program, and graduated as a flight officer.
Training began with a sort of boot camp in Santa Ana, learning to be a soldier while at the same time mastering things like the Morse code and other Air Corps-related skills. From there, now as an Air Cadet, I moved to a college training detachment in the state of Washington. The pre-primary aircraft was the Piper Cub. From there I moved on to various California locations flying increasingly larger single-engine aircraft. I was under the impression the Air Corps had many more pilots in training that they had aircraft available.
What I remember most about the single-engine training was the flight instructor yelling through the communications tube at me to see if he could unnerve me during various maneuvers. I trained in a number of aircraft. One of the single-engine trainers was known as the “Vultee vibrator” and a multi-engine trainer as the “bamboo bomber” due to its frame and fabric body. Having by this time flown all the single-engine training craft, I moved on into multi-engine planes.
Finally in April of 1944 in Douglas, Arizona, my training was completed and I became a flight officer and was posted to the Ferry Command (later to become the Air Transport Command). I soon received my single bar as a 2nd lieutenant.
Aircraft production was catching up with demand. My job was to ferry bombers and transport planes. After receiving four-engine training in Florida I was assigned to pick up multi-engine planes from Consolidated Aviation’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas. We would pick up a plane and fly to various locations around the country, leaving the aircraft for additional upgrades: outfitting with armaments, navigation instruments, and other modifications. We would ferry another plane from that location to the next facility. It was a kind of “round robin” all over the country. Then we would take a commercial flight back to Dallas. The women’s ferrying operation, known as the WASPS, was doing some of the same work, although there was no fraternizing.
After a couple of months of this activity, I joined crews flying bombers to Natal on the northeastern coast of Brazil via Trinidad. There another crew would take the B-17 or B-24 to Ascension Island in the mid-south Atlantic, then northeast to Dakar on the West African coast and on to units in southern Europe and North Africa.
Some of the flights, however, only went as far as Great Falls, Montana, where the planes were turned over to the Russians. Although I had no contact with them, it was my understanding that Russian pilots picked up the planes there and flew them across the Bering Sea to Asiatic Russia. Understand the Russians did not enter the war against Japan until shortly before VJ day.
It was now fall of 1944. D-Day had come and gone and it looked like I might not be going overseas.
Flying the Hump
For much of the war, there had been a somewhat isolated operation going on in support of the Chinese Army in South China near the Burma border. The Air Transport Command had been flying from various fields in India near the border with Burma carrying supplies, food and particularly aviation fuel for the Air Force unit under General Claire Chennault.
Originally this air group was a mercenary organization known as the Flying Tigers. It was hired by the Nationalist Chinese Government to provide air support for their ground operations. We understood that the pilots in this unit were independent contractors and were paid bonuses for a confirmed “kill” – a Japanese plane shot down – perhaps receiving $500 per kill. However, by the time I was involved, the unit had been incorporated into the US Air Force and had lost much of its swashbuckling reputation. Many of its original pilots had left in one way or another.
In late ’44, I got orders to this supply operation and was posted to Dhaka, India (now Bangladesh) just north of Calcutta near the Burma border. The orders took me by the earlier described southern route to North Africa and though the Middle East via Karachi and across India to Dhaka. I was to be a co-pilot in an aircraft that had been adapted from the B-24, a high-altitude bomber built by Consolidated Aircraft.
The aircraft’s armament was removed, and it was refitted with eight fuel cells in what had been the bomb racks, all together holding 2,900 gallons of aviation fuel. It was designated C-109 and was specifically adapted for use flying the “Hump.”
The B-24 had a somewhat troubled reputation as a bomber, since it was very light on protection armament and its fuel system was poorly designed. When used in low-level bombing operation in Europe it was extremely vulnerable. Fuel from where the wing tanks joined within the aircraft tended to leak aircraft fuel into the crew’s area. However, it was perfect for flying over the high mountains in the Himalayas know for such peaks as Mount Everest and K2. Until this modified bomber appeared, it was not possible to take a direct route over the top of the “Hump.”
The best way to describe the flight itself is to put my hand with fingers extended on the table between us. These extended fingers are ridges of mountains running down to the Indian Ocean. There is a weather condition called “adiabatic expansion,” which causes moisture off the ocean to rise up the ridges producing thunder heads over each of these ridge lines. They can rise up over 15,000 feet.
In the early days of flying The Hump, the C-46 aircraft used did not have the altitude capability to fly over these thunderheads. Some tried to take on these monstrous thunderheads, leaving an “aluminum trail” of aircraft wreckage among the rocks, as the ridges were called. As a result, planes had to fly a route around the ridges with a number of stops and lighter payload. However, the converted B-24 with its turbocharged engines could fly right over the top of the highest mountains further inland from these ridges in a safer and more direct route to Kunming.
Military flying is best described as a modern activity comprised of hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Described below are a couple of examples taken from personal experience.
A Good Flight
The crew is called up. The flight engineer has about 20 good “Hump” runs on his record. The First Pilot is a “Service Pilot,” meaning that he had earned a pilot license and has logged many hours in private planes, before entering the Air Corps. The co-pilot, age 22, is not a hot pilot, but moderately competent at navigation.
Takeoff set for 1800 hours (6 pm). First Pilot conducted a lengthy check list of the plane (the Air Force list plus his own list). Fuel has been loaded in all wing tanks and in the eight neoprene fuel cells located in the former bomb bay. All this well within prescribed load-weight limits. Weather: light mist, no cross-wind. Takeoff is noisy, but uneventful. After gear-up and flaps up we adjusted our rate of climb to about 300 feet per minute on a heading of 95 degrees (East). At about 10,000 feet we broke out above the clouds, and went on oxygen. Everything was clear with no turbulence.
In an hour we were over the first ridge in Burma at about 18,000 feet. Flight engineer verified normal readings for engine temperatures, oil pressures, and fuel consumption. All four engines were synchronized. Co-pilot was tracking Rangoon’s commercial radio station on the directional loop antennae in order to compute headwind speed, since “dead reckoning navigation” uses heading, time, and ground speed, which is air speed minus headwind. In about another hour we were at 27,000 ft. altitude over our halfway point. We could see it – pinpoints of light below us: Myitkyina, Burma (now held by British Forces, instead of Japanese.)
Radio conditions were just right. The Japanese propaganda radio station was coming through to us playing Glen Miller tunes, and with “Tokyo Rose” saying, “Hey GI Joe, your girlfriend is out tonight with that 4F (draft) guy from down the block. You’d better ditch this war and go home quick!”
The sky was black above with a zillion stars. The First Pilot was dozing in the back, the co-pilot, a little sleepy, but now “in charge” looked out and saw a RED LIGHT dead ahead. The specter of a mid-air collision popped into his head so he abruptly changed course. First Pilot roused to see what happened. When co-pilot pointed out the red light, First Pilot checked it then said, “Get back on course you idiot, that’s Mars!!”
Visibility was good over Kunming Lake and airport. We made a smooth landing and had a nice warm hour layover time, while the cargo fuel was being pumped out into storage tanks. The flight to Kunming usually took five hours and the return an hour less.
Personal comfort on the flight was absent. We were flying at 27,000 to 30,000 feet in a freezing environment. To keep warm, we wore a cumbersome sheepskin-lined suit, gloves, a face mask for oxygen supply, and a set of ear phones. Since the earphones were shared with other pilots when they had the aircraft, there were occasions when another person’s fungus became yours and there were enough fungus to go around in the tropical environment. There are no “facilities” on board.