The Toughest Flying In The World

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They ferried the instruments of war back and forth from 1942 to November 1945, petering out after Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to things in August. “Twenty-one days shipping home on the USS Gen. LeRoy Eltinge ,” Harry announces with disgust. Someone waiting his turn in Hankow worked up a stateside guide. “You are about to be sent from this continent,” it mocked, “which you have come to know so well, to a strange country across the sea … the inhabitants of the United States come in two sexes, male and female. … Chances are that you will like the United States. … No doubt you will become aware of ice cream sodas, china dishes (to eat from), automobiles (something like jeeps, but without four-wheel drives), flush toilets, and movies held indoors in big buildings called theaters (not to be confused with the India-Burma or China theaters). It is quite possible that many of you will like America so well that you will decide to settle down there. …”

And here they are, the survivors, in the ballroom at Harrah’s, forty years out, dancing with the girls they left behind or met along the way, dancing before, during, and after the annual banquet. Harry leading my strawberry-blonde cousin, Melba, his wife of forty-three years, slow-dancing to a Glenn Millerstyle big band. At the Hump Pilots Association annual meeting that morning, Cookie Byrd performed an annual duty. “First I’m going to read a verse that a member’s father wrote,” he told the membership. “Says: ‘A fleeing moment is indeed a fleeing moment, for life is made up of a succession of fleeing moments. And too soon and too early comes the time when we stand on the threshold of eternity and there no longer is time.’ At this time I’m going to read those who passed away. I’ll read the names and what bases they were from. We have quite a list here. Last year I read 87 names. Today I think it’s 103.”

 

Cookie read every name and every base—base that is, not place of birth or death or principal achievement. His voice boomed over the crowd of aging men now uncharacteristically silent. One hundred and three gone, but later the membership chairman announced that two hundred more had joined up in the last year; the Hump Pilots Association’s active and inactive membership exceeds five thousand. A letter read at the meeting from Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, who was Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff, praises their accomplishment, with pardonable hyperbole, as the “foremost and by far the most dangerous, difficult and historic achievement of the entire war. …”

In 1943 the correspondent Eric Sevareid and twenty-two others on a malfunctioning Hump plane jumped into the Burma jungle, negotiated their safety with up-country headhunters, rendezvoused with a rescue mission, and walked out. Sevareid published an account of the experience after the war that nicely summarizes what the Hump was about. “Now in tiger country,” he noted near the end of his walkout. “Wonderful jungle, waterfalls, ferns in Rousseau style. …We can glimpse Mokokchung from here, across lovely valley. Tomorrow, easily. Tonight one of the [native] guards said to Private Schrandt: ‘India there ’—and pointed west. ‘China there ’ —and pointed east. ‘America there ’—and pointed up .”

“We didn’t love it,” the collective voice of the Humpsters whispers before it disbands for another year, “but we didn’t hate it, and we can’t forget it. What keeps calling us back to the Hump in our aging minds? Names of comrades, and faces we’ll never see again.”