Ex-CBI Roundup
February 1998 Issue

By Roland H. Kiel

"Boom Town in the Jungle"

The very last issue of our base newspaper, India Ink, contained an article giving the army's version of what we had accomplished at our Eastern India Air Depot.

"In India, midway between Asansol and Burdwan on the Grand Trunk Road, sleeps Panagarh, an odiferous village of Biblical flavor, uncharted by modern civilization, and buried in the mausoleum of time.

"It took a world calamity to acquaint Panagarh with modern times through the medium of the Eastern India Air Depot, a United States Army Air Force installation that leaped overnight into existence.

"Not always called the Eastern Air Depot, it was started around a nucleus of 35 enlisted men.

"They were an advance party sent out on 26th December, 1943 from Ondal by the 47th Air Depot Group. The latter gave its name to the field, consisting then of a small airstrip and a handful of jungle-choked barracks. It covered an area of 15 square miles that was crossed by inferior roads that cut through jungle, rice paddies and small village settlements. It was nothing but rotting vegetation, mud, leeches, rain, snakes - and monkeys.

"When the advance party arrived, the existing barracks, though comparatively new, were being eaten by termites. The roofs leaked: the windows were unscreened. Vermin, snakes, wildcats and little creatures of the jungle had moved in. Dense underbrush crept up to the front doors.

"By the time the entire 47th Air Depot Group was officially arriving from all parts of India, a beginning had been made, but now activity speeded up immeasurably. Before the living quarters were made livable, before the workshops were established, before tools or equipment arrived, planes began to trickle in for repair. Soon the advance party of the First Air Commandos arrived and the immediate purpose of the depot was made known: It was to assembly gliders for use by the commandos in an airborne invasion behind the Jap lines, which were then too close for comfort.

"Setting up a makeshift line, the men of the 47th began the assembly of gliders, using the huge plywood crates in which they arrived from the States as temporary workshops. We fitted the gliders so they could carry engineering equipment to build the strip for landing planes.

"This became such a rush job that all men, regardless of job assignments, worked around the clock, sometimes for days on end, to get them assembled. Unprotected by shade, they sweated in temperatures as high as 140 degrees!

"While the gliders were in process of assembly, the commandos were making 'snatch' runs. A wire was attached to the noses of two side-by-side gliders and then stretched between two telephone poles. Using a trailing hook, the plane in flight would come in at about telephone pole height, catch this wire and the gliders would thus be towed (actually jerked) airborne. During the course of making their practice runs, the commandos littered the area with glider wrecks.

"General Cochran paid us a sincere tribute for our part in this mission after his Air Commandos landed Wingate's Chindits behind the Jap lines to encircle the enemy and drive them out of Burma. This also enabled us, the Indians, the Chinese and the Americans to build the Ledo Road through Burma and to rebuild the airstrip at Myitkyina.

"Before glider production was completed, another program was launched, known as the Matterhorn Project, and our phase of it was concerned with flying desperately needed gasoline supplies over the Hump.

"A hazardous task at best, the work was made doubly so by the damaged condition of the gasoline drums marked for shipment. Gasoline leaked not only from the drums but from the wing tanks of some of the war-weary aircraft.

"Our Commander, Colonel Cooper, took off one day to fly the Hump for a staff meeting. He never returned.

"Colonel Arnold succeeded Colonel Cooper. "From this point on the purpose of the depot was to supply, repair, maintain and process planes of the U.S. Air Forces. Among them were the fast fighters, medium bombers and heavy transports. The work load soared. Everywhere were planes of all sixes from the puny L-5s to the huge B-29s. They were lined wing to wing on the hot cement apron, in the back strips, in the hangars, in the jungle - if space could be cleared. By this time, in addition to the original eight hangars captured in Africa, there were 55 additional types.

"At first, mess halls and day rooms were shared. Later, an entirely new area went up for the repair squadrons, complete with individual day rooms, showers and mess halls. All, however, worshipped in the same chapel, enjoyed the same movies and USO shows, relaxed in the same Red Cross Club, and contributed to the same newspaper. Still the depot grew. Civilian labor was hired to supplement that of the military. Punjabis, Bengalis, Hindus and Moslems worked side by side. Indian guards, Chowkidar, Punjabi and Ghurka, took over the work of depot security.

"Land was surveyed and blueprints drawn for zoning and building new living areas for both military and civilian personnel, a new work line with modern shops, and a new Red Cross club and recreational facilities. So well planned and executed were the aforementioned that the finished product, the Eastern India Air Depot, was used as a working model for other installations throughout the CBI Theater. S/Sgt. John Raben, who played a prominent role, was awarded the Bronze Star and given a commission for his efforts.

"When the unexpected but happy end of the war was announced, the Eastern India Air Depot was at the height of its development. Men had worked from seven in the morning until six at night. Sundays were regular work days unless, on some occasions, they were shortened to half days. The men had become work-weary, heat-weary, food-weary.

"Their war effort was a vital one, but so obscured behind the lines of battle that the only tangible recognition received was that lone bronze star given to a single soldier."

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