FLYING THE HUMP

In the process of conducting the postwar analysis of air operations, authors of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey paid attention to the story of airlift activities. In its study of the China-Burma-India theater, the survey attached particular value to the airlift factor and the role of the ATC. “The major significance, for the future, of all air operation in CBI was the development of air transport operations,” the survey concluded. The airlift’s success was all the more notable because of its hurried deployment and the formidable geographic region in which it operated. As the survey observed, “the terrain of Burma and China and the absence of land lines of communication forced all agencies in the theater to turn to the airplane—initially as an afterthought and an emergency last-chance measure.” The flexibility of air transportation offered planners a unique tool “to meet the exigencies of the various situations.” Summing up, the survey declared that “air transport operations expanded beyond the wildest predictions of 1942—expanded because it was the one agency which could succeed.” 

Regarding the CBI theater, the military situation in 1942 appeared to be highly unfavorable. The Imperial Japanese Army presence in China totaled one million troops. The Chinese forces opposing them numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but were critically disadvantaged by their tenuous supply line stretching hundreds of miles to the west in India. Moreover, this line to Allied support snaked through impenetrable jungles and towering mountain passes of the Himalayas. The mountains, rising to twenty thousand feet and more, presented a seemingly impossible operational challenge. With the cynical cockiness typical of soldiers and airmen, troops in the region reduced the Himalayas by way of semantics, simply referring to them as “The Hump.” 

Following the invasion of China in 1937, Japanese forces succeeded in occupying or controlling virtually all of China’s Pacific coast and large parts of the interior; the Japanese navy commanded all ocean approaches. In the spring of 1942, Japanese units overran Burma, on India’s northern border, cutting off the last significant land routes that supplied the struggling armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek in China. The United States and its allies needed to keep China in the war because its forces preoccupied hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops. This holding ac-tion would permit the Allies to attack Axis powers in the European and Mediterranean theaters, at the same time building the necessary logistical infrastructure to challenge and defeat Japan in the Far East. But for this grand strategy to work, China had to be supplied. The loss of Burma and of its supply lines to China precipitated an emergency situation. 

General Arnold had been worrying about the fragile supply lines to China even before the loss of Burma. During the 1930s, the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) had pioneered air routes over the Himalayas. CNAC operated with the support of the Chinese government and the expertise of Pan American Airways. With Arnold’s support, CNAC became a contractor to operate air cargo services between India and China, although it was clear that far more capacity was needed. Accordingly, the Tenth Air Force, based in India, took responsibility for substantial air cargo flights and began operations over the Hump in April 1942. In two months, the Tenth Air Force carried 196 tons of cargo, and CNAC delivered 112 tons. Summer monsoons nearly terminated flights, but the two units were delivering one thousand tons a month by the end of the year. This, however, was far short of the ten thousand tons required by the Chinese each month. A drastic reorganization ensued. 

Staff reports analyzing early failures pointed to a variety of problems, including shortages in aircraft and crews. Poor maintenance kept many airplanes grounded. Operational missions dealt with foul weather, flight at high altitudes, and spoiling forays by Japanese fighter airplanes. More-over, Tenth Air Force commanders did not seem committed to an all-out effort to sustain Hump operations. In October 1942, Arnold decided to put the ATC in command of all Hump operations, and Tenth Air Force units on Hump assignments were transferred to the ATC in December. The ATC, with authority to handle all airlift requirements in the theater of operations, brought its special experience to sort out the problems in air transportation and cargo flying. 

Heavily loaded transports began their runs to China after lifting off from hot, muggy airfields in India’s eastern jungles, then struggled upward for altitude to clear the towering Himalayas. A direct route to Kunming, China, took four hours, at an average altitude of about sixteen thou-sand feet, and placed aircraft over areas within range of Japanese fighters. The ATC crews characteristically flew a dogleg to the north to escape enemy airplanes, even though the path stretched fuel reserves to the limit and required an operational altitude of twenty thousand feet to clear most of the Himalayan peaks. Many fliers wound up threading their way through available mountain passes at sixteen thousand feet, with snow-covered ridges and pinnacles rising on either side of them. In addition to the changeable weather high over the Himalayas, pilots flew across virtually impenetrable jungles on both sides of the menacing mountain ranges. 

Over the Indian jungles, in particular, fliers had to contend with monsoon rainstorms for six months of every year. Landing strips and runways became muddy quagmires; fliers and ground personnel existed in a swampy world of sodden bunks, clothes, and tents. The C–46 Comman-dos mounted a many-paned windscreen and, when airborne, pilots discovered that the monsoons forced water through myriad gaps around the cockpit windows and left them as miserably soggy in the air as they were on the ground. Sheets of driving rain and turbulence around airfields of-ten kept operations shut down for days at a time. Early in the war, the Japanese never expected Allied airlifts to work because of the mountains and the tropical storms, but the pressure to deliver needed war matériel of-ten meant flying in conditions that normally kept airplanes on the ground. Veteran pilots explained the “CBI takeoff ” to newcomers—if you could see the end of the runway through the rain and mist, then a takeoff was expected. At night, ATC crews sent a Jeep cruising ahead down the runway to clear it of cows, nocturnal animals, and curious natives. 

Operational efficiency began to improve with the allocation of more airplanes and personnel, better weather forecasting, accumulated flight experience, and additional airfields where more attention was paid to drainage and weather resistance. The big push came in the wake of high-level Allied conferences during the spring of 1943. These meetings established a timetable for major European offensives and also resulted in agreements to accelerate the offensive against Japanese forces in Asia. A major key to this last objective involved a more prominent role for the ATC. President Roosevelt himself underscored a goal of ten thousand tons a month for the airlift into China, where political considerations implied heavier support of Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces. 

With this factor in mind, military planners shifted workers and equipment from road construction to building airfields. By the spring of 1945, a determined effort resulted in a total of thirteen primary bases for the ATC in India and six in China. Although ATC transports carried some equipment across the Hump to Chinese construction sites, the major fac-tor on both sides of the Himalayas involved tens of thousands of local workers. The labor force—men, women, and children—carried out grueling tasks almost entirely by hand. Ox carts delivered rocks; a host of workers with crude picks reduced them to usable stone chips; hundreds more scooped them barehanded into baskets of woven vines, then hand-carried their burdens to the landing strip under construction. The stones were compacted by primitive boulder-filled rollers pulled along by gangs of straining laborers. News photographers recorded the throngs of workers— some one hundred thousand people—who swarmed back and forth to complete a six thousand-foot runway near the Yangtze River in China. 

Still, nobody could reduce the Himalayas in size; banish the monsoon season; make the rough, rocky airstrips any smoother; bring down temperatures at sweltering Indian air bases; resolve the persistent shortages of personal supplies; or rectify the dozens of other major and minor complaints that affected morale. Despite such problems, ATC crews and personnel found ways to pursue specific goals and to gauge their achievements. As one observer said, they were “living like dogs and flying like fiends” (Spencer, 1992). Pilots and ground crews competed against others to see who could load the most cargo and complete the most missions. These contests soon embraced entire units and expanded to include categories such as fewest accidents and highest number of flying hours to an aircraft. 

With gritty determination, the ATC pushed toward the goal of ten thousand tons of cargo a month. The target was not reached until the end of 1943, and came at the cost of many airplanes and aircrews. Many fliers simply lacked the experience for night flying or for operating the heavily loaded transports in hot weather and at high altitudes. Exhaustion of the pilots remained a constant factor. During the last half of 1943, some 150 major aircraft accidents resulted in more than 160 aircrew fatalities. Improved statistics for 1944 reflected rising operational experience, along with additional airplanes and pilots to enhance the frequency of flights. Monthly cargo deliveries climbed to fifteen thousand tons by the spring of 1944, and rose to more than thirty-four thousand tons by year’s end. 

Along the way, several administrative changes occurred. Brig. Gen. William H. Tunner took over Hump operations during the summer of 1944. Aircrews had dramatically raised the tonnage and frequency of flights, encouraged by Tunner’s predecessor, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hardin. But there were still too many accidents, and morale remained dismally low. Tunner’s prior success in running the huge and complex Ferrying Di-vision of the ATC led the AAF to tap him as the man to improve delivery rates even further.

Tunner insisted on appropriate military dress and appearance, markedly improved meals and recreation opportunities for service members, instituted better weather forecasting, and streamlined maintenance procedures. Though some may have groused about these changes and the increased military protocol, Tunner had good reason for the new regulations. Shortly after arriving to take up his new duties in India, Tunner personally flew a C–46 over the Hump to China and back. During takeoff, he saw numerous scorched areas beside the runway—grim reminders of too many transports that had crashed and gone up in flames. His round-trip over the Himalayas brought home the exigencies of flying in bad weather and the vast, menacing threat to missions over such mountainous and bro-ken terrain. His subsequent actions were all geared to reduce the accident rate and raise morale. Tunner was not above creative demonstrations to push his requests for additional resources back home, at one point making sure that reporters watched an elephant used to load crates into an ATC airplane in India.  

By the end of World War II, Tunner’s ATC Division had grown from 369 to 722 aircraft, and the number of personnel had swelled from twenty-six thousand to more than eighty-four thousand. Accelerated flight activity during the final offensives against Japanese forces in China meant one ATC transport took off every three minutes. Early in 1945, the month-ly cargo delivered to China reached forty-four thousand tons, and it peaked at seventy-one thousand tons in July. Meanwhile, accident rates dropped by more than 50 percent.

The record of ATC achievements in the CBI theater unquestionably demonstrated the potential of major airlifts in modern warfare. Of all the supplies delivered to China from 1942 through 1945, 81 percent came by air over the Hump. Chinese forces tying up one million Japanese troops meant that the Japanese Imperial Army had far fewer resources to oppose the amphibious landings and other island campaigns mounted by America and its allies in the fighting throughout the Pacific. Airlift thus emerged as a significant new military consideration in future applications of air power.