Main base of operations for Hellbird Group–all efforts centered around missions to be flown against Japanese Empire. Also “home sweet home” to all Group members and supporting organizations–airmen, officers, nurses, red cross reps. In addition to flying activities, here was a full-fledged community–people living, working, interacting–forming a single, purposeful, effective organization–at this military outpost in a distant, very different part of world.
This episode recounts activities and experiences of life while “at home” in Piardoba–those memories which stand out most sharply after these many years.
Our enemies were more than just Japanese. First encountered upon arrival in India were tiny unseen ones–bacteria and virus. Sickness was an ever-present danger and reality.
Almost everyone was hit very early on by what was commonly called the GIs–Dehli Belly–the bowels of Hell. With fever, nausea, headache–usually lasted three or four days–sometimes longer. Made one feel really rotten sick–but so common it invoked little sympathy or medical treatment. Dengue fever and malaria–far worse–all too common in India–required hospital care.
All my crew suffered from GIs within first 30 days–several quite severely. About par–few were spared. I was lucky for a while.
One squadron officer came down with dengue fever so severe doctors removed a portion of colon–was touch and go whether he would survive–he did. Another (my closest buddy, Pete Torvend) had severe case of dengue fever–transferred to Calcutta hospital–while there in recovery, came down with malaria.
The tiny enemy took its toll. Caused many to suffer–some to die.
On flight missions it became common practice to switch crew members around–healthy ones filling in for those too ill to fly. Many instances of members lost while filling in empty position on another crew.
TERMITES AND SCORPIONS
First monsoon season storm had soaked our base the afternoon of first combat mission. Next morning, stepping out back door I saw hundreds of winged termites swarming from huge anthill—forming a continuous cloud. First reaction–take pictures. Then I noticed scorpions–5 to 6 inches long–stingers curled–gorging on termites. Counted seven–finished off six–one scurried away. Will I see him again—hopefully, not in my bed.
WHAT TO DO WITH EXTRA PAY
All officers had a “Bearer”–native boy (young man) who took care of room, clothes, etc. Pay was about 50 cents a day. My bearer, called Raju, was a bright and likeable young fellow–spoke good English–did work cheerfully and well.
Pete Torvend had room next to mine. His Bearer had to leave work for some reason now forgotten. Suggested to Pete that, since Bearers did not have that much work to do, Raju might serve us both. Arrangements were made–all very happy–especially Raju who now had double pay.
Week or two later, Raju came in especially cheerful–whistling and humming. I mentioned he seemed especially happy. “Of course, just got married”. “But I thought you were already married”. “Oh yes, Sahib, but now with more money, can afford another wife”. I asked about his new wife. “She is 12 years old–very nice wife”. “12 years old! That’s a child–too young to marry”. “Oh no, if older she is already spoiled. This way, I can train her the right way ”.
GOOD WAY TO GET EXERCISE
Officers of each squadron roomed in same building. The 770th was next door to building occupied by Col. Carmichael and his Group staff. The Colonel had moved his bed out onto back stoop for cooler sleeping.
One night, some of 770th officers were playing cards–partying till late hour. Someone had fireworks bought in China–string of firecrackers found its way, with lighted fuse, under sleeping Colonel’s bed. For weeks after, all 770th officers could be seen doing calisthenics en mass behind their building–starting an hour before bugle call.
ICE CREAM TREATS
Our small PX carried usual items–but one item was special–canned ice cream mix. Problem was–no ice on base. The train passing through from Calcutta could bring ice–a twenty pound block, wrapped in straw matting to reduce melting–cost $20.00. So we rigged home made freezers–block of ice produced gallon of ice cream. What a treat! Especially when local bananas (thumb-sized, but flavorful) were added to mix. Not difficult to get buddies to chip in for the $20.00.
At first our outdoor theater was crude–screen stretched between poles–small projector booth—backless board seats. Necessary to wear long sleeves and douse well with mosquito repellant–but movies were welcomed entertainment.
Of course Hellbirds could do better. Soon we completed a grand amphitheater–huge covered stage–permanent seating for several hundred. Now not only had a movie theater, but stage for USO shows. We all eagerly anticipated the music, dancing and comedy brought to us by USO. Especially remember performances by Andre Kostelanitz and Lily Pons, Gene Autry.
On one occasion a Captain from 770th (not to be named here) was dispatched to Calcutta in UC-64 aircraft (single engine–carried 12) to bring USO dance troupe for performance at our base that evening. Did not return–while we worried about their safety, men on base groused “where are the girls?” All were safe–arrived following day. Captain later told me that after heading to airfield with troupe, one fair chorine enticingly made overtures. He ordered a quick taxi U-turn back to hotel. Said to me, “You know I couldn’t turn down a situation like that”.
THE TAJ MAKAL
Earlier story told that Col. Kalberer was widely traveled and experienced. He expected B-29 Groups might be sent to area without modern conveniences–prepared for that eventuality–filled his aircraft with useful items.
Now in Piardoba–construction in progress–three regular thatched roof buildings were planned for housing Group staff. Col. Kal drew up plans for a single building of unique, modern design which could be built at equal cost. His plan submitted to higher headquarters–approved. When built and equipped with items he had brought, it was most attractive, most useful and comfortable building in region. Hellbirds appropriately dubbed it the Taj MaKal.
There was a large semi-round reading room and lounge–library–wet bar. Two wings angling outward, each with corridor and several double officer rooms–end rooms rounded in glass. Behind at center–porcelain bathtub and showers, flushing toilet, refrigerator, electric water heater, storage room. Above was large water tank–outside a gasoline driven electric generator with capacity to meet full needs of building. All the comforts of home
When any USO troupes came, officers doubled up to make rooms available for entertainers. More often than not, troupes had available allotted vacation time and would spend extra week at Taj Makal–nowhere else in region as comfortable.
I shared a room with Group Flight Surgeon, (Major Burnett Rawson)–a serious minded, most capable doctor. Col. Kal dubbed him Quack–took it in good humor.
At Taj MaKal, group officers lived like family–got to closely know and understand each other. Contributed to esprit d’corps and smooth operation of Hellbird Group organization.
A holiday–4th of July, as I recall. No flight mission that day–time for fun. Enlisted men challenged nurses to softball game. Special rule–nurses to wear shirts and trousers–men to wear dresses. Men required to bat left-handed.
Fun it was–hilarious. So much so that, although vivid pictures of antics and crazy get-ups come to mind, matter of who won and the score escapes me.
Piardoba was located in bush country–a few scattered villages here and there with rice paddies–not a region where many large animals roamed. On occasion, however, a passing herd of elephants might be seen–or leopard–or wild boar. Some fellows decided to organize a hunt. Knowing that hunting had been hobby of mine, was invited to participate.
A large isolated area of bush was selected as hunt site–over 100 natives organized to serve as bush-beaters–about a dozen hunters–officers and airmen.
Hunters spread out in line a hundred feet or more apart–out of view from each other–one native with spear at shoulder of each hunter. We were armed with GI rifles–a couple with shot guns. Bush beaters formed wide arc about mile from hunters–moved toward us–shouting, beating the brush with their spears. Object–to frighten and confuse animals–herd them toward hunters
Could hear beaters in distance–louder as they drew closer–hunters alert for any wild beast to charge out. Could not see far–leopard, boar, whatever, could emerge only yards away–only chance for a quick shot. Spear bearer on the ready if help needed.
Beaters drew nearer–finally heard two shots–bit later, another. Stood tense and expectant. Only sound was that of beaters as they closed in–then broke through to our positions. All gathered ‘round. Our bounty–one rabbit, two hawks. Natives were paid –$20.00 took care of all. Mighty hunters sheepishly headed back to base–not much to brag about–certainly not one for the books.
HUNGRY FOR CHICKEN?
We had a restaurant down near flight line owned and run by native Indians–mostly a place where hungry airmen working on planes could get quick bite. Most food was ordinary–but that place really turned out great fried chicken.
It was our Group Flight Surgeon’s responsibility to inspect food sources for health safety. The Indian staff at this restaurant took his inspections seriously. Consistent with native “baksheesh” custom, they always sought to gain favor by offering Doc Rawson the best of their food.
Every now and then, in late evening some senior officer would say, “You know what? I’m getting a bit hungry. Don’t you think its time for inspection of the Indian restaurant, Doc?” Doc would say, “I guess so”, climb into his Jeep–a little later return with huge pot loaded with delicious fried chicken.
PASS TO CALCUTTA
After a while, opportunity for three day pass to Calcutta–night train from Piardoba–2:3O AM. Dark night–no moonlight—no station light anywhere–no place to buy ticket. Platform and train cars dark. Felt way to an open door–climbed aboard–stumbled over bodies asleep on slatted floor–tracks and ground below. Squeezed down between sleepers—ugh.
At daylight could see train was massively overcrowded. More boarding than leaving at each stop. People on top of cars–on steps–hanging onto windows–unbelievable sight!
Came to a major town–Kharagpur–still no sign of ticket taker. On into big station at Calcutta. Debarked–through guard gate. Was asked where I had boarded train–then was told what fare to pay. Many native passengers walked by without paying. Was this any way to run a railroad? (Railroad company was India’s largest employer–only way for masses to get around–collecting fares seemed secondary).
Cleaned up for lunch–a spacious, luxurious dining room at European style hotel. Waiters everywhere–more than one per guest–probably worked for tips only. After dining, tried swimming pool–also luxurious. Then a walk along downtown buildings and shops. A peculiar, unpleasant stench in the air–everywhere–the smell of a teeming city without sanitation. In evening, took taxi ride–streets dark–crowded with rickshaws, carts, people–only parking lights on motor vehicles. Taxi sped along–driver continuously squeezing rubber bulb of air horn–heedless of the dark bodies just making it out of our way. Traffic lights long–engine turned off at every red light.
Back at hotel–dinner–then it hit! Stomach pains–nausea–muscles aching–head throbbing–the dreaded GIs. To room and to bed. Could not get out of bed next day. Third and last day, just able to check out and make it back to Piardoba. Not most enjoyable three day pass. (At least it happened while not on pilot duty),
GENERAL LAVERN “BLONDIE” SAUNDERS
An Officers’ Club to be proud of was now completed–General Saunders flew up from Kharagpur Hq. for opening. An enjoyable affair. It was late when the General left for flight line–climbed into twin engine B-25 with copilot–took off for return to Kharagpur
Later, call came to Col. Carmichael–“General Saunders–has not returned”. No way to search in dark of night. At daylight, search plane found crashed B-25 not far from base–the general still in cockpit–alive but gravely injured. Flew him to hospital at Kharagpur base. Within few days, General Arnold, Chief of Staff, US Air Corp, dispatched a C-54 (4 engine), along with medical team, to fly General Saunders back to stateside hospital. In time, he recovered.
GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY
New Commander of 20th Air Force, General Curtis LeMay, paid visit to Piardoba. Col. Kalberer then Commander of Hellbird Group. We knew LeMay had told his staff he had come to this command not to make friends, but to get bombs delivered on Japanese.
Never one to forget the ladies, Col. Kal had invited nurses to dinner that evening–as many nurses as male officers. I was seated near–could hear nurse seated next to General LeMay try again and again to engage him in conversation–with mostly one word responses. Finally, rather exasperated, she asked, “General LeMay, isn’t there any subject I can interest you in?” He turned, looked her in the eye and said, “Sure, tell me how to get more bombs on the target.”
As war progressed, LeMay earned nicknames “Ironass” and “Smiley”. Was 100% dedicated to his mission. I noticed he did not mind making a sacrifice for what he considered important for improvement of overall mission. Example: LeMay had set up a Lead Crew program. Lead crews were chosen from the best and sent through special training. They led their Squadrons–all other planes flying in formation and dropping bombs on signal from Lead Crew.
After one early mission, LeMay held critique of Group Commanders and Lead Crews–presenting accounts of how mission went. I was a participant as one of the 462nd Bomb Group’s Lead Crews. When our accounts were completed, LeMay asked, “Where is Capt. X?” (name not recalled). Col Kal, “Oh, he did not make the mission so I didn’t bring him along.” Lemay, “Why didn’t he make the mission?” Answer, “ Not long after take-off an engine swallowed a valve. He had to return to base.” LeMay. “Capt. X is no longer a Lead Crew”. Kal, “But General, this was a mechanical problem–no fault of his. He could not help it.” LeMay, looking Kal in the eye, “You were not listening, Capt. X is no longer a Lead Crew”.
Point made for all to hear. Lead Crews had to be good enough to make every mission a success–no excuse–no reasons why not. Injustice to the crew? Yes. Impact on the Command and mission. Positive.
As history tells, General LeMay went on to build and bring to bear on Japanese Empire the most powerful and effective military force ever assembled. His accomplishments were a primary factor in bringing war to an early, satisfactory end.