The Hump–the world’s highest, most majestic, awesome, fearsome mountains. Rising twice as high as our Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Peaks so grand they make Mount Rainier, Shasta or Whitney seem as foothills in comparison. Flight across Himalayas was always an adventure–long and challenging–winds and weather unpredictable. Peaks of ice, snow and bare rocks slicing high upward, claiming their space and daring any to come near–sometimes seen, more often unseen. A testing place of men and machines–respecting preparedness, skill, courage–asking no less than perfection of machine and equipment–taking its painful toll of any weakness, any failure.
No comfort to be found below–no haven–no airfield–no level ground for emergency landing. To bail out and come to ground on a high mountainside was a thought too dismal to entertain. Even if safely down by parachute, ordeal of survival in that high, wild, and treacherous country offered little hope. If, by luck, one found contact with people on ground, would they be friend or foe? We had been briefed that large areas of mountain country were home to bandit tribes, or Black Lolos whom the Chinese had never been able to rout from their mountain strongholds, or to control.
We were flying the Hump with unreliable equipment–engines which often failed–meager navigational aids–inaccurate maps–little ability to forecast weather. Any of the crews engaged for long in these crossings would have tales to tell–experiences long to be remembered. The accounts which follow portray some experiences and happenings which have lingered long in my memory.
Too Much Gasoline
On trips from India to China our planes were loaded to the limit–well beyond weight maximums officially specified for the B-29. Every effort was made–every opportunity stretched–to deliver the most gasoline and supplies to our forward bases–within range of Japanese homeland.
Our B-29 was carrying six 640 gallon bomb-bay tanks filled with 100 octane aviation fuel, along with crates of ammunition, engine oil and spare parts–all bomb bay tanks connected with each other and to each wing tank by a rather complicated manifold system located between the two bays.
Had made an early morning take off to avoid day’s heat. Off ground and skimming over brush tops for ten miles–building up speed and getting overheated engine temperatures down to acceptable range. Began slow climb, 200 feet per minute–leveled off at 1,000 feet. Checked for fuel siphoning. (Our planes had an air vent for fuel tanks. When full, with aircraft’s nose a little high, raw gasoline would often siphon out vent, wasting much fuel if not corrected. By leveling and cruising at 1,000 feet, flying for some time, then transferring fuel from bomb bays to wings tanks, this siphoning was avoided).
We were at 1,000 feet–on auto-pilot. Our flight engineer decided to step back to bomb bay–check over fuel transfer manifold system for possible leaks. A few minutes later a heavy gush of gasoline fumes filled the cockpit.
I immediately ordered all crew, and our passenger, the Wing Flight Surgeon, to go on 100% oxygen–ordered that no electrical switch of any kind be turned on or off (to avoid chance of electrical spark). Just then, flight engineer came stumbling out of bomb bay– clothes drenched with gasoline. “What happened”? He tried to answer–was incoherent–navigator got him into seat and strapped on his oxygen mask, set to 100%. By then flight engineer was unconscious–but breathing.
Asked co-pilot to strap on oxygen bottle–go into bomb bay–learn what had happened. As he headed back, I looked out window. Could clearly see ground and objects below, but seemed to be in a dream world–something wrong! I realized, when giving instructions to others, I had neglected to switch my own oxygen valve to 100%–was breathing oxygen mixed with fuel fumes. Switched to 100%, soon recovered. Auto pilot keept plane in level flight.
Co-pilot returned and reported that the problem had been found and corrected. Flight engineer had mistakenly opened a valve which controlled flow of fuel from rear upper tank to front lower tank–pressure had blown cap from lower tank–fuel gushing into bomb bay. He had spotted fuel cap and attached it. Soon fumes began to dissipate–crisis over. Called gunners in rear to tell them now everything OK. Found out they had all passed out before they could mount oxygen masks. Were just now coming around.
Flight Surgeon told me I would have passed out within a minute had I not remembered to switch on 100% oxygen–said sight is the last sense to go–followed by loss of consciousness.
An airplane filled with such dense gasoline fumes is like a huge bomb waiting for any spark to explode–even from static electricity. Once again, good fortune–or more likely, mothers’ prayers–were with us.
After this close call, the rest of our trip to China and return seemed routine.
Two Much Ice
Major Sam White was Operations Officer of the 770th Squadron. He had completed a combat tour in B-17s (South Pacific) and was one of original pilots assigned to the Squadron–well liked and competent. We were close friends.
Since he, as Operations Officer, did not have assigned crew, it was difficult for him to accumulate mission credits. Not long after Lt. Col. Sullivan, our Squadron Commander, was re-assigned and I assumed command, Sam asked to participate in an up-coming mission. He put together a crew from available personnel, including several from my previous crew–flew his bomb laden aircraft across hump to A-5. Trouble with an engine and need for repairs kept him grounded at A-5–did not make mission.
As mission aircraft were returning from target, Chinese Intelligence gave word that Japanese bombers were trailing B-29s–apparently to bomb bases after B-29s had landed. Word went out–all crews with fly-worthy aircraft take off and return to India as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, Sam’s maintenance had been completed, but his plane not yet unloaded of excess gasoline. He elected to take off–plane heavier than others. Also, he carried six extra personnel being returned to India. In all, eight officers, nine airmen on board.
Climbing for altitude toward mountains, encountered heavy icing–accumulating on wings and propellers. Rate of climb slowed. Ice build up grew worse. Finally, at about 10,000 feet he could climb no more–started turn back to A-5. Plane shuddered and stalled–left wing dropped–speed picked up–out of control–-fell into flat spin. Sam hit bail out alarm. Officers in front cabin already had nose gear door open–began diving out. Three made it, the third suffering burns as he fell from plane (had to be from explosion). Sam and his copilot (my ex-copilot Lt. Marshall), along with others in front cabin, went down with plane.
Those in the rear of plane could not move from their seats–pinned down by force of spin. But suddenly, some found themselves free-falling through clouds–plane had broken apart–they were thrown out. Pulled rip cords and drifted safely to ground.
Other planes making flight, less heavily loaded, reported they had broken out of icy clouds just 500 feet above Sam’s max altitude and made it safely on their way.
Sad fate of Sam’s flight–nine of our noble young Hellbirds lost–two suffered major injuries. Six escaped from doomed plane, rode their parachutes down and returned safely to base. (Above details provided by survivors).
The Hump’s icy clouds had taken a deadly toll.
As Squadron Commander it was my responsibility to write a letter to the next of kin of any member lost or missing. This was the most heart-rending of tasks–telling a mother, father, wife that the cherished young man seen off to war would not be coming home. Explaining the circumstances–trying to convey the grief in my own heart, and the hearts of his comrades–expressing our deep gratitude, and that of his country, for his brave and noble service–sharing the great sorrow that he had paid the ultimate price. Each such letter was a burden more heavy than any combat mission. And in our time of war, all too often repeated.
On occasion, when weather was clear, crews might elect to fly from check point over Assam Valley directly to A-5–braving highest stretch of Himalayas instead of flying eastward to southern China, then across somewhat less formidable ranges to Chengtu Valley. All too often, the choice to go direct–over peaks towering above 23,000 feet, proved unwise. Bad weather could close in quickly–pilot finding himself flying at dangerously high altitude for his heavy load–mountain peaks, not accurately positioned on maps, hidden from view–engine loss in these conditions could prove fatal.
One day Col Kal, back from hump trip, told me he had almost been converted. “OK, what happened?” I asked.
Col. Stack, 58th Bomb Wing Catholic Chaplain, was on flight with him. (They were close friends–Kal called him Padre). The weather appeared clear–mountains beautiful–Kal decided to take direct route from Assam to A-5. All seemed well––Padre asleep on floor–an engine failed. Kal told navigator, “Wake up Padre and get him into parachute. Tell him we are half way across–we have lost an engine and are losing altitude. Can see passes ahead and think we can make it OK–but be prepared.” Upon awaking, Padre told navigator, “Tell Col. Kal thanks for the message, but the God who takes care of me when awake takes care of me when asleep. I will just go back to my sleep.” He did.
Kal said to me, “That was the moment I almost became a Catholic.”
Number Three On Fire
We were on our way to forward base in China for a mission–bomb bays full of 500 pound bombs–extra cases of ammunition on board.
Col. Carmichael had decided crews would benefit from formation practice, so each Squadron was crossing the Hump in close formation.
Approaching Shillong Hills our leader started climb. Soon ran into clouds–became more dense, with heavy rain. Leader directed formation to spread out and fly individually. I was on right wing and moved out for space–still in climb–could not see other planes.
All at once, felt plane jar. First thought–had we hit another plane? Then right gunner called out on intercom, “Number three engine out, losing lots of oil. Number three on fire!” I asked Flight Engineer to close cowl and activate engine fire extinguisher–he did –was able to put out fire. Feathered prop.
Knew Air Transport Command had two bases in Assam Valley. Elected not to jettison bomb load. Set course to Chabua–let down over base–broke through clouds and landed safely. Inspection of engine showed that cylinder head had broken loose–oil spilled onto hot exhausts and caught fire.
Contacted Piardoba. They would send replacement engine with mechanics to help with change over. Would take time. Settled in for week at this ATC base. Young pilots here were flying twin engine C-47 transport planes across Hump to southern China in all-out effort to support needs of Gen. Chennault’s 14th Air Force–plus added needs of B-29s.
Enough happened here for another story.