Across High Himalayas

At flight briefing we studied route to be flown over the “Hump”–northeast over flatlands (now Bangladesh)–over Shilling Hills (one of world’s heaviest rainfall regions) to Assam Valley–east over Burma into southern Chin–northeast to Chengtu–let down to 1,000 feet over antiquated radio beacon (no beams)–west 20 miles to destination, Kuinglai (A-5).  Were issued– money belts with currency of countries we would cross–“blood chips” (pledges printed in several languages that US government would pay compensation for live return to US authorities)–maps (outdated and inaccurate)–secret radio frequencies and codes.

Our B-29 was heavy–full fuel tanks plus 2,560 extra gallons in bomb bays–cases of 50 caliber machine gun cartridges–containers of engine oil and hydraulic fluid–spare parts as could be fitted in.

Completed ground check of aircraft to assure all OK. Placed personal identification and valuables in bag provided–to be left behind for safekeeping. Ground crews pulled propellers through to clear cylinders–starters engaged, engines roared to life one by one. As we taxied toward take-off, I felt exhilarated, confident and ready–an important task to be done–welcomed high adventure ahead.

As a lad, I lived in San Joaquin Valley near foothills of Sierra Nevada. How I loved those mountains! The valley was hot and life routine–but the Sierras were cool, filled with adventure and excitement. Camping–hiking–fishing–hunting. Hearing the wind through tall pine, fir and spruce–breathing fresh mountain air scented with flowers, ferns, evergreens–viewing sun on snow capped peaks above green forests, watching eagles and hawks soar and dive, following crystal clear streams tumbling down to granite gorges–seeing deer with antlers held high listening, watching for signs of danger–bear lumbering through brush and trees hunting for a berry patch, honey tree–rotting, larvae-filled log. This was California nature–land in the 20s and 30s–undisturbed–snugly pristine.

When age 15–early June–had spent three weeks trekking high Sierras with buddy and two pack donkeys–mountains heavy with snow–no other humans so high so early. We were mountain men. That was adventure! And this day, the highest mountains of world lay ahead. Had lived with their vision–grand–stately–majestic–towering twice Sierra’s height. Now I would experience them.

Take-off was early to avoid excessive heat. Clearance from tower–swung onto runway at high taxi speed–engines already opening to full power–near runway end, plane grudgingly lifted from surface–raised landing gear. Now dragging low over brush and trees–engine temperatures already above tech order allowance–tucked in wing and cowl flaps bit-by-bit, slowly gaining speed and cooling engine temperatures. After 10 miles, wing flaps up and cowls at three degrees–temperature within limits–able to start slow climb. Felt relief reaching 1,000 feet–to this point, engine failure (all too common) would have sent plane and crew in uncontrollable decent to gigantic fiery explosion.  Leveled off at this low altitude for cruising (whole purpose of flight was to unload max fuel at forward base–climbing with heavy load burns fuel fast–stay low as we can–as long as we can.

Approaching Shilling Hills, weather closed in–on instruments–climbed to 5,000 feet for safe clearance. Over Assam Valley, swung east–climbed in dense cloud to 19,000 feet (2,000 above highest mountains shown on map for this leg). At one point, clouds broke– caught glimpse of snow covered mountain just to right that appeared higher than our altitude–climbed another thousand feet for safety. (Reported this upon return–other crews later verified elevation of this mountain, almost directly on course–19,500 feet).

Cloud cover solid to Chengtu. Crossed beacon at 1,000 feet above ground–headed west to A-5–caught occasional glimpse of rice paddies below. Exact time to cover 20 miles to base critical–base located east side of river with mountains climbing to west. Time elapsed–no sight of base–began left turn–caught site of river to right–then saw yellow base boundary marker. Let down to 500 feet, starting timed landing pattern approach– glimpses of ground through clouds. Turned from base leg to where runway expected–slowly letting down. At 300 feet, saw dark streak ahead–it was river–OK, had bearings now–turned into new landing pattern holding 300 feet–found runway–safely down.

chinarunnway 650A-5 was one of five bases built near Chengtu for B-29 operations–one for each of four 58th BW groups–one for Flying Tiger fighters providing air defense. Each a marvel of Chinese hand-labor (coolie) construction–no heavy equipment–not even a truck. Boulders hauled from river–cracked into piles of large stones–some spread for base of runway–others crushed to smaller stones–some of these spread for second runway layer–others crushed into course gravel–some of course gravel for third layer–some crushed to fine gravel for fourth layer. Runway 9,500 feet long by 150 feet wide. Fine gravel layer leveled and crested–pressed smooth by 400 coolies pulling huge cylindrical stone with long ropes attached to hardwood post through center hole. Two inches of mud spread on gravel and allowed to dry–center strip seventy-five feet wide covered with tung oil to shed rain. Taxi ways and parking revetments of same stone and dried mud construction–solid footing for weight of loaded B-29s.

Adequate for intended operations–but one unforeseen problem. B-29 propeller tips reached close to ground–vortex from whirling blades often pulled chunks of dried mud and gravel which struck and chipped edges of blades. No spares–crews used files to smooth chips and dents–concerned about effect on propeller balance and loss of blade efficiency. Over time, battered blades became more common than smooth ones.

Each parked B-29 guarded by Chinese soldier–young, with old, bayonet-equipped rifle. Crowds of curious coolies encircled planes, gradually edging closer–guard waved them back–more edging forward–guard singled one to step forward–either a hard whack with flat of bayonet against out-spread hands, or punch in ribs with gun butt sending offender to ground–crowd moved back. Cycle would repeat.

Sleeping quarters were tents with cots on concrete slabs. Large dining room–small food portions. Typical meal–bowl of clear soup with dollar-size piece of book coy–plate with piece of pork fat and one vegetable–slice of dark, unsalted, unleavened bread–course brown salt to sprinkle on. Seemed like starvation diet for hungry American.

Wasn’t long before we found kitchen help had rice with own meals–taught them to make gravy and serve large bowl of rice, covered with gravy, at end of each meal–survival food. (Found later that in negotiation for building bases, Chinese authorities concerned about impact of reduced labor force on rice harvest–100,000 workers needed for each base.  Americans agreed not to take rice as food.)

Next morning–planes de-loaded–took off for return to Piardoba. Heavy weather still–no sight of mountains–in dense cloud until beyond Shilling Hills, over flatlands and back to low altitude. Sight of high Himalayas had escaped us.

Upon deplaning at home base, asked tail gunner what he thought of flying backwards on these long trips. His answer, “Mighty glad I was in back. Would have been scared to death up front, seeing those jagged rocks coming at me.” Surprised, (from nose, flying through cloud, we had seen nothing) I asked what rocks? Answer, “Not long after take-off–those rocks came by so close I could almost reach out and touch them.”  Wow!

Leaving A-5, I had climbed to 16,500 feet to pass first mountain ridge–2,000 above highest elevation shown on map. Not enough–later, when weather cleared, I found that, at 16,500, plane would have to pass through gap to clear ridge. Luck–or mother’s prayers–with us once more. Never again put trust in maps of China!

Unhappily, others were not so fortunate. Example: A later mission–A-5 to Formosa–one of our out-bound Hellbird planes, flying over mountains in heavy cloud, experienced sudden, hard, unexplainable bounce. After mission, nose cap from American bomb was found embedded in fuselage. Learned plane from another Group had disappeared–unaccounted for–until evidence of nose cap gave clue that it had been flying below the Hellbird plane–hit mountain and exploded.