The Toughest Flying In The World

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A fifteen-minute fall from seventeen thousand feet: “The whole jungle rushed up and I went crashing through. The breaking branches, twigs, and bamboo made an awful racket. As I touched the side of the mountain, I was sprung upward. The parachute had canopied over the treetops, and the recoil of the trees lifted me before I could strike the ground with any force. My weight brought me back down. A more gentle landing I could hardly have hoped for.” That was one outcome. Another was: “I pulled the rip cord and hit the ground almost immediately after the chute had opened.” Or, “I hit the ground so hard that the impact tore the soles almost entirely off both shoes.” Those who found themselves hanging in a tree in the middle of the night were wise to stay put until dawn. Sometimes the trees grew sideways from a mountain, a sheer drop.

A jungle kit came with the parachute rig—pocket knife, ration of chocolate, fatigue hat, GI leggings, mosquito head net, gloves, silk map of Burma and parts of China, compass, box of .45 bird-shot shells, box of fishhooks and line, signaling mirror, bottle of iodine, packet of sulfa powder, whetstone, box of quinine tablets, morphine, phrase booklet, folding machete, silk American flag. Humpsters also always carried a canteen full of water and their standard-issue .45 automatic when they flew.

In two weeks or two months they walked out. They walked out on broken ankles and were carried out with broken backs. Search and Rescue was meanwhile indefatigable. When it tracked them—they flashed mirrors, spread their parachutes over bushes, built fires —SAR dropped supplies and directed rescue parties. One SAR pilot who had flown 130 trips over the Hump parachuted down and hacked out a landing strip by hand to rescue an injured pilot. Doctors jumped to minister to the severely injured, the ultimate house call.

A tiger stalked one flier during his walkout, following him on the opposite side of a stream for two days. When he stopped, the tiger would stop. Downed fliers shot fish and tried to shoot deer. Elephants sometimes blocked their way. They worked always downstream, hoping the rivers that the streams fed supported settlements.

The locals helped them. “We were passed from village to village, with bearers from each village taking us to the next. Our guide usually had a bouquet of flowers waiting for us at each village, in the room where we would spend the night.” And fleas and bedbugs too. They ate fermented corn mush in one place, balls of warm rice in another. Eventually the locals delivered them to a British garrison or a waiting jeep. “With five of us in and on the Jeep, we reached the village of Ta-li and went directly to the house of the British district officer stationed there. There to greet us stood an exquisite vision straight from Terry and the Pirates,’ the officer’s Chinese wife. Who would have expected such elegance, stunning beauty, and culture in this remote mountain area?” The Dragon Lady fed them a banquet at 3:00 A.M. Recuperated—one man’s broken back took six months to heal—they returned to flying the Hump. “Occasionally, I would spot the wreckage of our ship and emotionally experience that bailout and ordeal.”

 

Getting down was as dangerous as getting up and getting over. My own cousin Melba’s husband, Harry Bayne, who stayed on after the war and retired from the Air Force a brigadier general, remembers one Hump night as the worst night of his life. We reunited at the reunion. I hadn’t seen him in years. He had hardly aged—bold black eyebrows, salt-and-pepper hair, fighting trim. Over the Hump he flew a bigger aircraft introduced later in the war, a four-engine tanker adapted from the B-24 Liberator. “The worst time that I guess any of us had,” he told me, “was during the first week of January, 1945. Somewhere around sixty to seventy-five airplanes were lost in one night. The weather was so bad they almost aborted the mission, but the theater commander said go ahead, so everybody went. I had the long haul up to Chengtu, which that night with the winds that we had took us about eight hours; normally it would be around four or five. We got over there, and the base was closed in, and there were people screaming ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ on every channel. Everybody was panicked because they couldn’t get in, they were running out of fuel, the controllers couldn’t get you down because there were airplanes at all the designated altitudes, and finally the tower operator said, ‘Everybody descend five hundred feet.’ Well, when I heard that I said, Tm getting out of here,’ because otherwise I was going to get killed. And I took off out of the pattern and headed south to go back to Kunming, which was an hour and a half south.

“I had no clearance, so I kept broadcasting every so often and dropped down to a half-altitude, 21,500, which is what you were supposed to do in an emergency. So I flew that back to Kunming, and they were closed in too. I was about to run out of gas. There were guys bailing out. You’d hear them hollering over the radio. I took up the heading for Yunnanyi then. I told them I was proceeding to Yunnanyi, and I never got a call back. But I was lucky. At about twentyfive thousand feet I happened to look down and, suddenly, saw the base right in front of me, and I just took that airplane and turned it right over on its back.