- Historic Sites
The Toughest Flying In The World
These World War II airmen had one of the most dangerous missions of all, piloting unarmed cargo planes over the Hump—the high and treacherous Himalayas
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
“I pulled enough Gs to about tear the wings off, because if I didn’t get in that hole, I was done. The radios were out. I just went in, and when I landed, it was so mobbed that there were airplanes backed up on the runway. Believe me, when I got out of that airplane—I’ve seen these people kissing the ground—I kissed the ground. I’ve probably put in eight thousand hours flying since then—I had about twenty-three hundred back then—but the Hump was the toughest flying in the world.”
It made them a little crazy. “Whether at work or at play,” one summarizes, “maximum manifold pressure and rpm was law.” They jeeped out at night to the garbage dumps to hunt the packs of jackals that fed there. Rats roamed their thatch-and-bamboo bashas . “A replacement came in and thought we were pulling his leg about the rats. The very first night, he woke us with a bloodcurdling scream. There was a rat, sitting on his stomach, nibbling on his little finger.” The blast of a .45 booming through the thin basha walls at night meant someone was shooting at a rat skittering across a rafter.
“We had a little officers’ club,” Harry remembers. “Guys who could play the piano were in demand. Obviously there was a lot of drinking going on. The rule was twelve hours from bottle to throttle. When you’d come back from the Hump, you’d go to the flight surgeon’s office, and they’d check you and give you a shot of Old Methuselah or something. A shot of whiskey and a glass of water, and then you’d hit the sack.”
In places where even the rain fell hot through the miasma, they concocted schemes to cool the ration beer. “We tried hanging it out of the airplane windows on a wire,” the collective voice resumes. “This method was not satisfactory. Someone tried packing the beer in an empty metal tub, covering it with sand, and then soaking the entire thing with gasoline. The gas was supposed to evaporate during the flight and, in turn, chill the brew. This didn’t work too well either.”
A sergeant who understood at least the rudiments of heat transfer built a real refrigeration system. He stretched radiator hoses from a gun port into the fuselage and through a cooling coil set in a twenty-gallon water can. “From there another radiator hose exited the can and made its way out into the open through the opposite gun port. Next, the bottled warm brew was put in the can around the coil.” Sergeant and pilot then took the plane up to ten thousand feet and spent an hour expensively circling. “When they landed, their secret was out, and about twenty-five of their buddies met them at the flight strip. It was the first cold beer they had tasted for a long time, and the three cases were consumed on the spot.” When staff headquarters heard about the project, it banned unauthorized flights. Back to warm beer.
The food was terrible. “The mess hall offered a choice of SOS or Spam,” grouses the collective Humpster, “with dehydrated eggs and potatoes, battery acid (canned grapefruit juice), and coffee.” SOS meant chipped beef in cream gravy over toast. “The little dark spots in the bread, bought locally, were gnats caught up during the kneading. New arrivals could be observed carefully picking them out, but old-timers left them in, insisting that the gnats gave the bread a distinctive, nutty flavor. At Tinsukia the village bakers kneaded dough under their sweating armpits. This gave their bread an even better character.”
Bottles of Atabrine tablets stood on every mess-hall table, a standard World War II antimalarial that happens also to be a dye. Taken daily it gave the skin a jaundiced tint and turned freckles green.
The first sergeant’s pet monkey drowned in the water tower at Sookerating. They found it when the shower water began to stink. Then there was the time when a crate of football uniforms turned up at Ledo: “The jerseys were godawfully hot, but they looked swell with those big white letters. The natives thought we were pretty important for a while.” Someone shot a seventeen-foot python and found a whole deer undigested inside. “The most common snake was the small green krait that the natives referred to as the ‘ten-step snake,’ meaning that you would die before you took ten steps. When you had to go to the outhouse at night, you gave it a second thought.” A tiger padded through one crew’s tent, pausing to sniff at each bunk; they found the pug marks in the morning. In Calcutta on R&R someone charmed a cobra with a clarinet. Indian entrepreneurs sold the gullible phony rubies cut from jeep taillights. The prettiest whore in Calcutta worked at Margo’s place, on Kriar Road.