Some fighter and bomber pilots jokingly referred to Air Transport Command as an acronym for “allergic to combat.” But the men of the command who flew over the Himalayan mountains during World War II knew better. They delivered more than 650,000 tons of war materials to the fighting armies of China in an epic non-combat operation.
As a result, China was able to resist the Japanese army, which had invaded in 1937. That resistance forced the Japanese to commit 1.2 million troops and vast military resources on the Chinese mainland. Had the Japanese imperial Army been able to achieve a quick victory over Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist Chinese defenders, the invaders would have been able to amass even greater forces against America in the Far East.
For almost four years, the Air Transport Command’s India-China Wing (later a division) maintained an aerial pipeline between India and China. During much of that time, it was the only link between the outside world and Maj. Gen. Clair Chennault’s 14th. Air Force, Gen. Joseph Stilwell’s American Expeditionary Force, and Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek’s Chinese National Army. This aerial pipeline provided the logistical support for the defense of China.
In the process, the unit lost more than 800 aircraft and 1,000 men. But it accomplished its purpose, and by the end of the war the Hump airlift was operating with business-like precision. Tonnage climbed while accidents decreased.
World War II actions in this theater really began in 1937, when the Japanese invaded China. The Chinese resisted these incursions, using a scorched earth strategy of trading territory for time while soliciting the aid of the United States.
Aid came in the form of supplies and equipment and the American Volunteer Group, a rowdy gang of fliers under the command of Chennalt who made a name for themselves as the “Flying Tigers.”
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941, the supplies sent to China increased markedly. In that month, for instance, the United States sent 12,000 tons of war material to China. Most of it reached that nation through the British colony of Burma, located in a key spot between India and Southeast Asia. U.S. ships unloaded cargo at Rangoon in southern Burma. The cargo was then sent by rail to Mandalay and trucked to western China on the Burma Road, a rutted trail carved out of the Himalayan Mountains.
Although unable to provide China as much assistance as it could to other major allies, the United States wanted to keep the country in the war to contain the large numbers of Japanese forces fighting there. It was critical that Chinese forces received sufficient supplies to continue the fight.
The Japanese were intent on defeating China rapidly and ending a significant and continuous drain on their resources. The Japanese High Command sought to interrupt allied aid to the Chinese and moved to secure Burma. Japanese forces invaded the British colony in December 1941, throwing 100.000 men and 700 aircraft into the campaign. The British fought valiantly to defeat this massive force and capitulated in April 1942. China was apparently cut off from the outside world.
Even before the loss of Burma by the British, however, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, had recommended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that an air route from India to China be developed because of the difficulty of sustaining ground supply lines. President Roosevelt was enthusiastic and informed Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek in February 1942 that an aerial supply line would be maintained until the successful conclusion of the war. Thus, the Hump airlift began to take shape.
When Japan’s forces cut the Burma Road, the Chinese government chartered the China National Aviation Corporation to airlift supplies, but the airline had insufficient resources to support the allied effort. That’s when the Air Transport Command became involved. On April 8, 1942, Col. William D. Old made the first military flight over the Hump. Soon after, the Army Air Forces deployed additional assets to India and the airlift began to grow.
Starting as a mere trickle in April and May 1942, the first two months of the operation, the command delivered 196 tons and the CNAC delivered 112. Traffic declined drastically in June, however, with the beginning of the monsoon season. That month ATC delivered 29.6 tons and CNAC delivered none. The airlift gradually increased through the rest of 1942 until, by the end of the year, the two organizations were delivering more than a thousand tons each month.
The growth in tonnage was due, in part, to the October 1942 formation of the India-China Wing, commanded by Col. Edward H. Alexander. Apart from its responsibilities for the Hump operation, the wing managed intra-India transport, intra-China supply, and aerial search and rescue.
The men in the wing considered their missions as dangerous as the strategic bombing missions over Europe. Out of the steaming, tropical valleys of India’s Assam Province, they flew fully loaded C-46 Commandos, C-47 Skytrains, and modified B-24 Liberators. The first obstacles encountered were the Naga Hills—named for the head-hunting tribe that inhabited them—with 10,000 peaks more jagged than the American Rockies. These “hills” led to even higher elevations until the aircraft reached the main Himalayan ranges—the Hump.
Flying through the jungle valleys of the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong rivers and around the 15,000-foot crests of the Sansuny range, the aircraft crossed the Hump and proceeded eastward toward the principal U.S. airdrome at Kunming in southwestern China.
If an aircrew chose a direct flight path over the Himalayas in good weather, they could make the flight in four hours at a maximum altitude of 16,000 feet. But the route required them to fly over a portion of northwestern Burma, territory securely held by the Japanese. To avoid this, many aircraft commanders detoured to the north, flying a distance of 720 miles and crossing the Hump at the northwestern end of its lowest peaks at some 16,000 feet.
Weather conditions made the mountain crossing the most treacherous Army Air Forces operation of the war. It was not uncommon for sudden winds reaching almost 250 m.p.h. to create turbulence so violent that a heavy cargo aircraft might flip, roll, and plummet 3,000 feet a minute, like a dinghy in a typhoon. Fully six months out of the year the aircrews contended with monsoon rains that drenched the countryside, created turbulence, and made operations practically impossible. The living and working conditions as well made the operations perilous to those not used to the subtropical environment of India. In addition to the Japanese, the mountains, and the heat, the accommodations left a great deal to be desired.