March 1957 Issue
Burma Air Victory
How Allied Air Power Helped In Defeating The Japanese in Burma
To grasp the magnitude of the task facing Eastern Air Command, both its combat and transport aircraft, roll out the map of Burma. Note the ranges that spread south in Burma from the Himalayan heights, the Roof of the World. For centuries they were the barrier to invasion from the east. They served that purpose, too, fairly adequately when for the first time the Japanese self-styled themselves the warriors who were to "march on Delhi." A defense line for the Allies, these ranges were at the same time the apparently insuperable obstacle to be mounted before troops based in India could push into Burma and clear out the Japs. They were, too, the 8,000-feet barrier over which supplies had to be carried to sustain those troops. There was one supply road, turning and twisting over the mountains, that led into Central Burma. But the roadhead, way up in Assam, was itself 500 miles from the port of Calcutta, where supplies poured into the base of India. It was a fortnight's journey by rail and road. It was an impossible journey in the monsoon months of May to October.
A C-47 DAKOTA in flight over the Burma hills,
enroute to a supply-drop mission.
The Air and Eastern Air Command supplied the answer to this problem. They cut that fortnight's journey to less than 24 hours. They lifted regiment after regiment over the mountain barrier and then went back for the supplies that maintained the troops as a fighting force. The monsoon, it was said, would stop these sorties. The American, British and Dominion aircrews took their lives in their hands and their C-47's over these storm-swept, turbulent mountain peaks. They beat the barrier; they beat the monsoon; they beat geography and Japs. They seemed to be able to ferry forward anything at any time. A 155-mm howitzer was broken down, flown into Myitkyina by the 10th Air Force and reassembled. It helped the fighter-bombers and B-25's of the 10th to batter this North Burma base to surrender in July and August, 1944. Seventeen bulldozers were split up, hopped over the peaks, and reassembled to hack airstrips out of the jungle for new bases for Eastern Air Command, ever leapfrogging forward. From January, 1944, to and including April, 1945, transport aircraft of the Eastern Air Command, both USAAF and RAF, carried supplies and ammunition into Burma totalling 594,165 tons. Men carried out of the Burma combat zones (wounded, etc.) totalled 110,761. Men carried into the zones totalled 315,125. Total tonnage carried was 677,748. The B-24's of the 7th Bombardment Group even took a hand on the "milk run" in the monsoon of 1944 and ferried two million gallons of fuel to China. C-46 supply planes flew locomotives into Central Burma. Live pigs, chickens, calves, went in as fresh food. Mules and ponies were packed in C-47's and landed where their sure-footedness was vital in territory even the jeep couldn't stomach. Fourteen hundred mules were flown in one operation. Two divisions and the headquarters of the Chinese 6th Army - 25,000 troops and 1,500 pack animals - were flown back to China when the Japs threatened Chungking and Kunming. The combat aircraft, too, had this mountain barrier to contend with. The Beaufighter and the B-25 Mitchell, rising from bases in east Bengal, would soar to 16,000 feet at times to clear the ranges, then drop to 200 feet to sweep down on the Rangoon-Mandalay railway and wipe out a supply train. There would be ack-ack over the target. You might catch something of it. An engine would sigh, splutter and cough. You'd sweat it out to gain height for those fearsome peaks and swirling clouds that hid that home runway from view. There were 500 to 600 miles to go - that's London to Berlin - and storms to combat that could whip up an area of death in 60 seconds. Many got back. Many airmen of Britain and America vanished utterly, completely. Somewhere in those green-clad Chin Hills was their grave. These, then, were just some of the life-and-death elements Eastern Air Command flyers had to conquer.
CONVERTED B-24 bomber (C-109) hauling gasoline over
The Hump for B-29's in China. Photo by M. H. Christler.
The Command had its first great test within less than two months of its formation. It was fitting that the supply aircraft should win these, the first battle honors. For all through the alternate swift-moving and mud-slogging Battle of Burma in 1944 runs this thread of grey-green C-47's. The supply line they drew over jungle and mountain was a decisive factor in the annihilation of the Japanese Army. Decisive year in South East Asia for the Japs was 1944, for it was as the new year dawned that Hirohito's High Command put the final touches to the plan to carry the war into India and smash the land and air bases that were being prepared there. It was in the early days of February that Lt. General Hanaya, Jap Commander in the Arakan, struck. He split the 5th Indian Division and 7th Indian Division and cut the land route supply lines. This was not new in Burma, but this time the encircled troops of the British 14th Army stood firm in the defense "boxes" and fought it out. They fought because the air sustained them. ONE OF THE four air forces which comprised Eastern Air Command at that time was Brig. General William D. Old's Troop Carrier Command, with its squadrons of USAAF and RAF C-47's. Over the heights of the Mayu Range they winged their way to parachute their supplies into the besieged "boxes." From first light over the waters of the Bay of Bengal until night and mosquitos cloaked the jungle-clad hills, the supplies went in. Fifteen hundred tons were were dropped to the men who repelled in hand-to-hand combat the fanatical Japs. Rations, fuel, ammunition, water rained down. The Japs, with no such air supply, wavered. Then they broke, leaving thousands of their dead in the tidal creeks, the swamps and the jungle. The Air had shown the Army the way. Here was the solution to the problem of Burma's logistics. This was the new weapon that was in the months ahead to lift whole divisions and their equipment and move them hundreds of miles in hours. Here were the aircrews who, in liaison with the pilots of the American L-l's and L-5's, were to ferry out the casualties to the rear hospitals. These, then, were the aircraft that were to give the Army cook his groceries, the armorer his ammunition, the tank crews their fuel, the medical stations their penicillin and bandages. At last the men with vision were proved right. Burma's mountains, her jungles, yet, even her monsoons were no longer to be barriers to movement. The air not only could sustain a besieged division; it could set it in motion and keep it moving. The Troop Carrier Command gave way that summer to the Allied Combat Cargo Task Force of C-47's and C-46's operating under Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Evans with USAAF, British and Canadian crews. They parachuted and flew in supplies all the way down from Imphal to, eventually, Rangoon, while in North Burma the cargo and transport planes of the 10th Air Force kept the NCAC troops supplied. Over the whole length and breadth of Burma, Combat Cargo Task Force and 10th Air Force supply planes delivered the goods. Once more in 1944 were the supply aircraft to break a Japanese offensive. This was six weeks after Arakan. This was Imphal and Kohima, where three of Japan's finest divisions broke through into India and Tokyo Radio blared that the "march to Delhi" was on. The Fifth (Indian) and Seventh (Indian) Divisions were flown up, lock stock and barrel, from Arakan as reinforcements. Again the land supply lines were cut, so speedy was the Japanese advance. Again Eastern Air Command supply aircraft flew in supplies and men and flew out thousands of non-combatant troops and civilians. Wellingtons alone ferried in a million pounds of bombs for the fighter-bombers in the Imphal Plain. At Kohima, too, the supplies parachuted down. They were snatched by British and Indian troops from jungle clearings, often from under the very noses of the Japanese. The 14th Army held. Smashed from the air, his lines of supply wiped out by Eastern Air Command planes, the Jap again broke and retreated. The way back was white with bones of starved Japanese. For them there was no air supply. This was the start of the 1,000-mile retreat down to Rangoon. On May 3, 1945, Burma's capital was reoccupied and the Allies had a springboard for further offensives. Tiddim Road, which winds its way through clouds and jungle from Imphal to the base in the Chin Hills which gives it its name, became the most bombed highway in Asia. As the Japs retreated down it, B-25's and P-47's, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Hurribombers smashed at it continuously. By day the Jap was never safe from the guns and cannon and bombs that spelled death. By night the glow of a campfire as he tried to cook his food drew more bullets.
B-25 OF THE 12th Bomb Group dropping bombs on
Jap concentration in Burma. U.S. Army photo.
IN THE AIR the war was fierce, but short-lived and decisive. On the eve of the Arakan offensive, Japanese fighters appeared. So, too, for the first time did the RAF Spitfires. The Japanese fighters ran into trouble. The Third Tactical Air Force swept into them. In ten days, 65 Jap fighters, were destroyed, probably destroyed or damaged. Only three Spitfires were lost. The Japs withdrew. Some weeks later they appeared again over the battlefields of Imphal and Kohima. Third Tactical Air Force swept them out of the skies again, then switched their attack to gun positions, foxholes, dumps, transport bridges, rivercraft. On into the monsoon they flew as the Jap threat to India was broken. Third Tactical Air Force fighter-bombers and medium bombers flew 24,000 sorties in this, the worst four months of the worst flying weather over the worst flying terrain in the world. The old RAF warhorse, the Hurribomber, was in its element in the mountains that split India from Burma. Strategic Air Force B-24's were flung into the Imphal battle. The last of India's invaders crossed back into Burma in late August. In the whole Burma campaign up to that stage, Eastern Air Command and the 14th Army had annihilated five Japanese divisions and cut up several others. Meanwhile way up in North Burma was the domain of the 10th Air Force under Major General Howard C. Davidson. Their supply planes roared in between the jungle and the rain-cloud ceiling. They helped to keep alive the men who, under General Joseph Stilwell, cleared the Japs from the Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys. They helped in the carving out through cliff, jungle, mountain and swamp of the Ledo Road that ran to Myitkyina, that at last completed the ground link between China and the United Nations, after years of isolation. The lOth's combat planes were there right through 1944, machine-gunning enemy positions and taking the place of artillery as Sumprabum, Shadazup, Kamaing and Myitkyina fell to Stilwell's armies. They were there, too, when the Northern Combat Area Command - the Chinese divisions, the Mars Task Force and the 36th (British) Division, all under Lt. Gen. Dan I. Sultan - drove through Mogok, Mong Mit, Bhamo and Lashio and flung the Jap out of all North Burma east of the Irrawaddy. During one three-month period in Stilwell's drive, 10th Air Force planes flew more than 8,500 sorties and dropped more than 3,700,000 pounds of bombs on the enemy. Myitkyina, the most vital enemy air base in North Burma, was subjected to merciless air attack prior to its fall. Tenth Air Force P-40's, A-36's and P-51's were constantly over the town, dive-bombing targets selected by Allied ground troops. On July 23, for instance, a single squadron of P-40's dropped 105 bombs and land mines, totalling 27,750 pounds, on the town. There were two other outstanding achievements by Eastern Air Command in the first half of 1944. Colonels Philip G. Cochran and John R. Alison were associated with both. To India they brought their Air Commandos. It was they who, in gliders and C-47's, with the help of Troop Carrier Command, flew into battle the forces under the late Major General Orde Charles Wingate that landed 150 miles behind the Japanese lines inside Burma to disrupt the entire rear of the armies operating against General Stilwell's American-trained Chinese divisions. In the moonlight of March 5, the gliders headed for the target beyond the 9,000-feet mountains. The American Airborne Engineers in them cut out the airstrip at "Broadway" and the brigades were flown in. For months those British and Indian guerrilla troops were sustained entirely by air supply. Jeeps, mules, guns, ponies, ammunition and rations were flown in. In the weeks that preceded the Wingate fly-in and in the weeks following it, Cochran's P-51's struck the second blow of 1944 at the Japanese aircraft. He had in the P-51 an aircraft of longer range than any other Allied fighter in the theater at that time, a plane with which to develop a new technique of attack. Cochran went out hunting his prey. He did not wait for the Jap fighters to stick their noses into Allied territory. He flew to their bases deep in Burma and shot them on the ground or clawed out of the sky those who had managed to become airborne when the local warning system used by the Japanese frantically announced the approach of Cochran's flyers. The Commandos - Cochran used his B-25's too, and, what is more, used to handle them like fighters - cashed in on the Japs' inadequate warning system. Onbauk, Shwebo, Meiktila, Ye-U, Hsum Hsai, Thabutkon have been in Allied hands for months now. When Cochran and Alison left they were the graveyards of shattered Japanese bombers and fighters. Cochran's Commandos destroyed 100 aircraft in a few months. BASED IN Arakan, the 459th Squadron P-38 Lightnings cooperated in these death-dealing strikes and scored up 100 aircraft also. This was something new in Burma's air war, these long-range fighters who came right in at you and left your aircraft flaming skeletons. It wasn't in the book. It certainly wasn't in the Jap book. As the months rolled by the Japanese Air Force faded clean out of Burma. It then became crystal clear that the 1st Air Commandos and the 459th Fighter Squadron strikes in the spring and early summer of 1944 had broken not only its spirit but its back. The new Spitfires, whose primary role was defense, were a major factor in this Jap debacle also. Cochran was given the aircraft to do it, but it was his imagination in using them in this new way that was decisive. What Cochran began, the long-range P-47's and P-51's continued in the late months of the year. Then the vital Rangoon ring of airfields was the target. The Japs fell back to Don Muang at Bangkok and other airfields in Siam. At last that magic figure was chalked up: "Number of Jap aircraft in Burma: Nil." Eastern Air Command had completed another part of the task Mountbatten had set. There was one other striking achievement developed under Eastern Air Command - cooperation between ground troops and aircrews on a scale known in few other theaters. Thus came the "cab-rank" which, as its name implies, was a perpetual rank of aircraft over the forward troops under the control of air officers in jeeps. These men, working in the closest liaison with ground force commanders, would call in the aircraft for immediate strikes with bombs, cannon or machine gun nest holding up our advance. The officer in the jeep would call up the cab-rank pilots on the radio-telephone and bring them in smack on to a pin-pointed target. There was no preliminary briefing about the target. The order often was: "200 yards due east of that pagoda in that bunch of trees. Got it? Well, get in and prang those bunkers!" The bunkers would be pranged. The "cab-rank" was seen at its best in the drive by armored columns of the 4th (Indian) Corps from the Irrawaddy to Meiktila in March, 1945, when the Jap was caught napping. The 1st and 2nd Air Commando fighters were on constant patrol overhead, striking at all points the ground forces called for, while Combat Cargo Task Force transport planes flew in hundreds of troops to the Meiktila airfields which the armored columns had seized. In Burma itself, the Japanese had all the lines of communication. They were over the whole period of Eastern Air Command's history a primary target. The veteran of all aircraft in this work was the RAF Beaufighter. Down the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin rivers the Beaufighters flew, sinking barges, sampans and steamers. They often started spurts of flame and black smoke when their cannon fire tore into the 325-mile Irrawaddy oil pipeline. They hit the Rangoon-Mandalay railway so hard that for a year the Jap could move his supply trains only by night. Two of them in the spring of 1945 set up a world record for this type of aircraft by flying a round trip of 1350 miles to attack shipping south of Rangoon.
INTERIOR OF C-47 Ambulance Plane, with wounded patients
from Burma. Photo by Morris Kaplan, M. D.
The role of the B-25 of the 12th Bombardment Group was also to concentrate on lines of supply. Their strikes against airfields in central and southern Burma were a major factor in their immobilization. One 10th Air Force B-25 squadron, the 490th, achieved fame in their destruction of bridges, particularly in North Burma. They knocked out as many as ten in one day. Their total "bag" was around 150. Their technique was to smash the foundation rather than the superstructure. The Air Commando B-25's late in 1944 adopted a new role - night attacks on railway. Functioned locomotives, boilers and flaming trains were left in their wake. Other B-25's aimed at supply dumps and pounded battle area targets.
The Mosquito was the adaptable aircraft that could turn its wings to any job. The Mosquitoes maintained with RAF Beaufighters, standing patrols over Jap airfields as the 14th Army drove south. River-craft, also, were their objectives. We have told of the Spitfire's part in defense. Offensive, too, they played havoc with river lines of supply.
The P-38, veteran of American fighters and fighter-bombers in Burma now that the P-40 had had its day, attacked every conceivable type of target, in addition to administering shattering blows to the Japanese Air Force in the spring of 1944, when the 459th Squadron hit the headlines. We have told, too, how the long-range P-47 flown by British and American pilots, and the P-51's flown by American pilots, struck deeper and deeper into Burma, shooting up airfields. The climax was on March 15, 1945, when 2nd Air Commando P-51's led by Lt. Col. Levi R. Chase flew a 1569-mile round trip flight to shoot up Don Muang airfield, Bangkok, to which the battered Jap Air Force had retired. They got 31 aircraft destroyed that day, which shook the Japs badly. That Bangkok strike was a world record long range offensive sortie. It was repeated a month later.
The RAF used their P-47's with 500-pound bombs for battle area strikes. They became the artillery of the air, the planes that blasted foxholes and dug-in positions before the 14th Army went in to complete the job with the bayonet or grenade. In this work, too, the Hurribomber came into its own. The old Hurricane, operating over Burma in greater numbers than any other type of Allied aircraft, did a sterling job, in monsoon and out of it. Like Topsy, the Hurricanes just "growed and growed" in the increasing variety of their targets and the fire-punch they carried.
It started with machine-guns, then came 20mm cannon, then rockets. And all the time 250-pound bombs. There was no glamour about the old Hurricane, like the Thunderbolt, the Mustang and the Mosquito. But they were both the small artillery of the air for the 14th Army and the tactical reconnaissance aircraft that spotted the target in the jungle, creek and scrub. The eyes of the Photographic Reconnaissance Force of Eastern Air Command were the P-38's, B-25's, B-24's, Mosquitoes and Spitfires. It was a Mosquito that in the spring of 1945 did a round-trip flight of nearly 2,500 miles in under nine hours to get invaluable cover - another Eastern Air Command world record. WE TURN TO the work of the heavy bombers, the USAAF and RAF B-24's of Strategic Air Force, commanded by Air Commodore F. J. W. Mellersh. It was the American-built B-24 Liberator that did all the strategic work in Burma and Siam. The Japs took thousands of British, Dominion and Indian prisoners of war and by December, 1943, had completed a single-track railway linking the port of Bangkok. Siam's capital, with Moulmein in South Burma. This route was to take the strain off the coastal supply route of South Burma, ravaged by long-range aircraft with its terminal, Rangoon, mined and bombed by Strategic heavies. Having denied Rangoon to Japanese shipping the B-24's turned their fire-power against the Burma-Siam railway, which they cut again and again, smashing scores of bridges. Press-ganged local labor and mobile repair units could not make the shattered links of this enemy artery serviceable quickly enough. Supplies drained to half, to a trickle. Farther south struck the heavies, well into the southernmost part of Burma and the Kra Ishmus, smashing railyards, supply centers and ports in flights of 2,500 miles. Here again came another world record. RAF Liberator crews on an offensive mission completed a flight of 3,700 miles - a record for a B-24. Sometimes units of the Strategic Air Force were flung into battle area strikes. In the immediate battle for Mandalay, they dropped 3,000 tons of bombs in a month on dumps, troops, headquarters areas and supply bases. The scorched, futilely-camouflaged dumps of Rangoon, most important in all Burma, were another score to Strategic Air Force. As 1945 dawned, Eastern Air Command stepped up its number of daily sorties. Four hundred and fifty a day was a record in March, 1944. Twelve months later more than 3,000 daily sorties were being constantly flown. The RAF combat aircraft in all these operations were from 221 Group and 224. It should be noted that the RAF group is the equivalent of the USAAF wing. The USAAF group is the counterpart of the RAF wing. The British 221 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal S. F. Vincent, worked in cooperation with the 14th Army on the drive from Imphal to Rangoon. Their territory was to the east of the mountain ranges. The 224 Group, commanded first by Air Vice-Marshal Alec Gray and later by Air Vice-Marshal the Earl of Bandon, covered 15th (Indian) Army Corps, whose operations were in Arakan and who occupied Rangoon. The 224 territory was west of the mountains. As land operations demanded them, there were switch-overs. The B-25's of the 12th Bombardment Group, for example, operated at various times under 221 and 224. If business was brisk east of the mountains, squadrons from 224 group were switched to that territory. Beaufighters of 224 made strikes in support of the 14th Army. It was all very flexible.
GROUP OF Enlisted Men and officers rest in a field after
moving gasoline over The Hump for four days steadily.
U.S. Army photo.
Aircraft built for more temperate climes they flew and kept flying over mountains, shaken with electric storms, and at tree-top level over the steaming jungle, down and up valleys where the wing tips seemed every moment to be scraping the cliffs. They'd take off in 130 degrees heat in the shade, when a touch of the white-hot fuselage would sear your palm, and they'd soar to 20,000 feet where torrential rain made all around one as black as pitch. They'd leave those hills behind, come down to the deck and the condensation would pour out in streams of water from their cameras. They did not always hit the headlines when 3,000-ton raids on Berlin were becoming commonplace. But they hit the heights in inter-nation comradeship, in imaginative and resourceful use of their planes, in guts and devotion to duty. The Victory of Burma, the completely shattered Japanese Air Force, the mauled and bloody Jap armies, the smashed bridges and dumps and gun positions and docks and railways and roads - all these are at one and the same time an epitaph to those many flying boys of many nations who did not come back, and a scorching granite and marble inscription to those who kept flying day and night, in monsoon and blistering sun, so that the objective of Eastern Air Command was obtained. And the greatest tribute of all is enshrined in the hearts of those troops on the ground - the men of the English shires and grimy cities, the Gurkhas, the North west Frontier Pathans, the centuries-old fighting stock of the Punjab and Rajputana, the bearded Sikhs, the American Marauders and Mars Task Force, the Chinese, the men of the West Africans and the men of the East Africans - these men who daily lifted their heads when the Eastern Air Command flew over them and said in their various tongues, "Thank God for the Air Forces." -THE END.
TRANSFERRING GASOLINE from Hump-flown drums to tank truck,
for refueling of B-25's. Photo by Neil L. Maurer.