Ex-CBI Roundup
November 1987 Issue


From Impact, Oct. 1945

Courtesy Robert L. Cowan

America's aerial effort in Asia was long an undernourished child, forced by circumstances to fend for itself; to improvise and, at first, to cling to its slender thread of life by whatever means it could. It developed into an unorthodox, vigorous air force. Its main achievements in Burma were in making it possible for Allied troops to exist in the jungle by supplying, evacuating and transporting them on an unprecedented scale and in making the Japanese position untenable, literally through starvation, by destruction of their supply bases which disappeared in a welter of bombed bridges, river boats, railroad trackage and freight junctions. In China, it achieved command of the skies over Chinese troops, and tore gaping holes in the enemy supply routes on land and sea. Between India and China it flew the Hump in the greatest sustained transportation achievement of the war. And, it did all this in weather which for more than half each year was so bad one pilot was moved to remark, "Flying, hell! This is an amphibious operation; we need gills more than wings."

The aerial infant from which this grew was born by Tenth Air Force activation 12 February 1942. Before that, American air power in Asia consisted exclusively of the American Volunteer Group. Claire L. Chennault, master tactician to China's air force had obtained 100 obsolescent P-40s, and 100 American pilots to man them, and some 200 ground personnel to keep them in the air. When this group of Flying Tigers met their first Jap over Rangoon on 20 December 1941, they were a single bright light in an otherwise dismal sky. China was isolated except for the Burma Road and Hong Kong, with the latter about to fall. Japanese forces were firmly entrenched in French Indo-China, had moved through Thailand, had swung one spearhead down the Malay peninsula and another into South Burma. Rangoon fell on 10 March, then came the "walk-out" of a motley array of British, Indian and Chinese troops, led by Gen. Joseph W. ("We-took-a-hell-of-a-beating") Stilwell. By May most of Burma was gone, the Burma Road cut and China isolated. Western prestige had hit a new low in the Orient.

During this period of unrelieved Allied military disaster, the AVG and a handful of RAF planes performed brilliantly in local engagements, but could do no more than impede the enemy advance. Bases were bombed out by the Japs and the Flying Tigers were pressed back into China. Always outnumbered, and flying relatively slow aircraft, the AVG nevertheless hung up a phenomenal record durng the seven months of its operational life: 298 enemy planes destroyed in combat for a loss of 12. This proved the soundness of Chennault's precepts, which were to fly in pairs, take one swipe at the enemy and get gone. It also punctured the balloon of invincibility growing up around the speedy, highly maneuverable Zero, and proved that ruggedness, speed in dives, and fire power could be made to beat an enemy who, although a fancy dogfighter, was not so rugged.

The Tenth Air Force got a handful of planes in March, 1942. It had the B-17 and the LB-30 (early B-24) with which Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton and his party had flown from the Netherlands East Indies. It added six B-17s and ten P-40s which had been scheduled for Java but which were diverted. With this tiny force, it expected daily to have to help repel an invasion of India. But by May, 1942, this no longer appeared imminent so the primary mission of air in Asia then shifted from defense of India to aid to China. This meant ferrying operations over the Himalaya mountains - the famed Hump route. A few planes from China National Airways and some DC-3s obtained via Africa and flown by commercial airline pilots started the operations. The first transport assignment was delivery of 30,000 gallons of gasoline and 500 gallons of oil, intended for Doolittle's 18 April raiders. By August, 1942, they had become the India China Ferry Command, and on 1 December, the Air Transport Command took over.

On the first anniversary of the war, ATC had only 29 transport planes to fuel and supply the war in China. In all India, the Tenth had only 16 heavy bombers, 15 mediums and 50 fighters operational. U.S. planes in China that day totaled 10 mediums and 50 fighters. These pathetic numbers were due partly to a diversion of reinforcements, partly to an actual withdrawal of planes to the Middle East, both in an effort to repel Rommel's drive on Egypt. The Tenth lost all of its heavy bombers in this way and had none at all for some time. ATF grew the fastest. At first it carried gasoline, oil, and replacement parts to China-based aircraft. Gradually it started carrying heavy equipment. By October, 1943, a schedule of night flights over the stormy barrier peaks was added. By 1 August 1945, ATC was able to tally up a month's delivery of 71,000 tons - over four times the capacity of the old Burma Road - and it had stepped that up to a rate of more than 85,000 tons monthly in the final days of the war. Before it could begin to expand, however, it had to have bases. It had to get its own supplies, as well as those it was transporting to China, from harbors to the take-off point via air or inadequate rail, highway, and river transportation. Its planes in late spring, summer, and early fall flew in monsoon weather of rain, hail, wind, and turbulence. In winter, they flew through ice-laden clouds, piled high above the 18,000-foot Himalayan peaks. But they flew in ever-increasing numbers.

The AVG was absorbed into the Tenth Air Force on 4 July 1942, and redesignated the China Air Task Force. Chennault, recalled to active duty as a brigadier general, was named its commander. In March, 1943, the China Air Task Force became the independent U.S. Fourteenth. Meanwhile, two British land campaigns were set in motion in Burma to combat the growing Japanese forces there which were threatening to drive across the Indian border and cut off the ATC bases now being built in Northeast India. Both these ground operations were on a limited scale. On the central front, Britain's Gen. Orde Wingate infiltrated a brigade of jungle troops through the Japanese and for three months harried the rear areas while depending wholly on air supply. Farther south, in the Arakan, the British engaged in an orthodox, unsuccessful campaign.

14th AF CONTROL TOWER at Kunming. New tower at right before it was opened.
Old tower built out of old lumber and packing crates is at left.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

Basing its decision on the experience of these two operations, the Quebec conference in August, 1943, approved plans for a determined drive the following year - a drive which was to utilize the lessons of 1943, and profit from a unified command, coordinating efforts of the Tenth Air Force and the RAF Bengal Air Command under the Eastern Air Command, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Stratemeyer. As the Indian forces were depleted in 1942 to support the Middle East, they were reinforced from the Middle East once the African campaign was won. The 7th Bomb Group (H) was the one which was called out of India and it was sent back. The 12th Bomb Group (M), whose B-25s had fought across North Africa, also was assigned to the Tenth Air Force.

The push began in late 1943 with a limited British-Indian offensive into the Arakan. As it moved ahead, Japanese infiltration units struck the rear lines and cut communications. But unlike the previous year, the troops now were supplied by aerial drops from planes of Brig. Gen. William D. Old's Troop Carrier Command. They held, strengthened, and broke out of the trap.

Northward on the central front, a similar situation developed. Two British-Indian columns, moving out of Imphal, had been hit on the north and the south flanks by a major Japanese drive. The enemy pressed on, entrapping the British on the Imphal plain, and posing a critical threat to the Assam-Bengal railway over which supplies were moved to Chinese-American forces building the Ledo Road.

For the second time, Gen. Old's Troop Carrier Command came to the rescue. The 5th Indian Division, with all its mountain batteries and mules, was lifted into the Imphal area in 60 hours. Two brigade groups were flown to Kohima. Two hospitals and thousands of wounded and non-essential personnel were flown out. And, most important of all, food and ammunition were flown in.

The result was inevitable. The British troops had a secure air supply route while the Japanese had a land supply route which was under constant harrassment by combat planes. The threat to India was ended and these operations became the pattern for the ensuing campaign for all Burma.

Japan's forces in Burma were supplied by a long, slender rail-highway-river system, with only a few lines running north and south. The interdiction campaign in Burma was based on the fact that with Rangoon and other south Burma ports under sustained air attack, the enemy was forced to use Bangkok as his principal port. This meant carrying supplies on an additional stretch of rickety railroad running through miles of coastal country before they could be moved north. There were hundreds of bridges on this line. The solution, then, to denial of supplies to the enemy was to knock out the bridges and railroad trackage. This was done with regularity. The Japs were skillful at repair but our aircraft were able to keep ahead of the repair crews. Radio-guided (AZON) bombs were used with excellent results, and B-24s even worked out a 25-degree dive angle technique which increased accuracy. The Japanese supply problem became critical, and troops at the north end of the line eventually became starved and disease-ridden. These were the troops facing Gen. Stilwell's Chinese-American forces who were working their way ahead of the engineers building the Ledo Road.

DUMMY DECOY P-40 built of bamboo and paper by Chinese people. Kunming, China, 1943.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

Air supply was vital to Stilwell's drive. A picked group of 3,000 volunteers - Merrill's Marauders - following the technique of Gen. Wingate, struck off into the jungle as an advance spearhead probing toward Myitkyina. From 23 February until 17 May - when Myitkyina airfield was taken - the Marauders were entirely supplied by air. Nearly 8,000 Chinese troops were nown over the Hump from Yunnanyi, China, in one operation, as frontline reinforcements for Stilwell's forces. By the end of October, 1944, 75,527 personnel had been flown into North Burma, 7,693 had been shifted within the area, and 28,181 had been flown out.

In yet another 1944 operation, an army was able to make a deliberate choice of entrapment through reliance on air. The First Air Commando Group, under Colonel Philip G. Cochran, was organized to put Gen. Wingate's troops inside Burma between Myitkyina and Katha, to supply them, to evacuate the casualties, and to sweep in front of the columns with the bombers and fighters. The objective of Wingate's men was to cut supply lines in the rear of Japanese troops opposing Stilwell and Merrill.

March 5 was D-Day for Wingate and Cochran. Take-off time was set to put the gliders, with their cargoes of troops, airborne engineers, bulldozers and mules, over the secret jungle clearings of "Broadway" and "Piccadilly" just after dusk. So secret was the operation, that the clearings were not reconnoitered for fear the Japanese would divine the intention and obstruct them.

But, on a hunch, Col. Cochran sent a photo reconnaissance plane out the afternoon of D-Day. Its wet prints were handed to him 15 minutes before take-off and he found that Piccadilly was a death trap. The Japs had covered it with logs.

Plans were changed swiftly to put the force down on Broadway alone and, with a postponement of only 30 minutes, the first wave of 26 transports, each towing two gliders, headed east. A second wave was dispatched, but all planes except one were called back because the landing field had become littered with gliders that had smashed up in landing due to overloading. Of the 54 gliders in the first wave, 17 did not reach Piccadilly because tow lines snapped.

1st JEEP in 1st convoy over the Ledo Road crosses log-bridge near Burma border.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

Despite the losses and confusion, 539 personnel, three mules and 29,972 pounds of supplies and equipment were landed that first night. Airborne engineers went to work and by the next afternoon Broadway was ready for C-47s. Complete surprise had been achieved. A second field was set up the night after the first. Men and supplies poured in. By D-Day plus 6, the total was 9,052 men, 175 ponies, 1,183 mules and 509,083 pounds of stores. During the entire operation, our bombers and fighters were masters of the air over Wingate's troops.

More troops and supplies were ferried to the fighting area. Light planes landed beside the advancing columns on hastily scratched-out clearings, to pick up casualties. The exact statistics on the "grasshoppers" will never be available because the commandos took literally General Arnold's injunction: "To hell with paper work; go out and fight." A reasonable guess is that they flew more than 8,000 sorties.

When the XX Bomber Command's B-29s ended operations in China in late 1944, they turned their heavy loads loose in aid of the Burma campaign while awaiting a final shift to the Marianas. Singapore and Palembang were hit but blows against Rangoon and Bangkok were their principal assignments. In their first maximum-load attack, each plane dropped 40 500-lb. bombs, wiping out a Rangoon rail yard.

MARS TASK FORCE fights bitter battle for Burma Road.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

While the North Burma forces were advancing, British-Indian troops which had withstood the Jap attack at Imphal also took the offensive. Their advance was speeded by air leaps to airheads (airfields captured or built to keep supply bases near the advancing front). When on 8 March 1945, Mandalay and Lashio fell, the route to China was clear.

Rangoon remained. By 1945, it was almost useless to Japan, but not until it was in Allied hands would the Burma campaign be ended. The British, with air lashing out in front of them, continued southward. Lt. Gen. Sir William Slim, commanding the troops, radioed the 12th Bomb Group: "You have been a powerful factor in helping us give the little bastards a thorough thrashing."

By March, 1945, the southward-moving troops of Burma wholly dependent on air supply totaled 356,000. With the monsoon season near, it was decided to bridge the distance to Rangoon by a seaborne invasion aided by the whole weight of Allied aircraft. On 1 May, Gurkha paratroopers jumped from C-47s, swept meager resistance aside, and the next day the seaborne troops piled ashore to find Rangoon abandoned. The Burma campaign was over.

All this time the Fourteenth Air Force, which eventually included the Chinese-American Composite Wing, made up of U.S.-trained Chinese and AAF airmen, was ranging over China, assisted by a reporting net of thousands of Chinese. Initially, it operated from bases prepared or planned before America's entry into the war. It gradually acquired new bases until there were 63 which the coolies had laboriously fashioned. Because of them, Gen. Chennault was able to shift his forces when enemy air or ground opposition became too threatening - as it often did - and employ them without delay against new targets.

Greatest of the bases was Chengtu. Its nine fields were built in 1944 in nine months by a peak of 365,000 workers who moved two million cubic yards of earth and laid two and a quarter million yards of paving at a total cost of nine billion Chinese dollars! This was the B-29 forward staging base from which the first attack was launched on Japan. It also was the springboard for attacks on North China, Manchuria, and Formosa.

Gen. Chennault's flyers had no connections with the B-29s other than defense of the bases. Their main duties were: Protection of the Hump, close cooperation with China's armies, and attacks on shipping and rail communications.

The Fourteenth made up for its tiny size by reliance on deception, at which Chennault was a past master. He knew the capabilities, numbers and speeds of the enemy and by the judicious employment of feints and bluffs, he used this knowledge to insure that he met the enemy where and when he wanted. Thus, even in the early days when he was greatly outnumbered, he often managed to have local air superiority and almost always managed to be - on top - of the enemy so that the high diving speed of his P-40s would count. In one case, late in 1942, Gen. Chennault saw to it that Japanese agents got wind of an impending strike from a forward base against Hong Kong. The mission got underway on schedule; the Japs got set to defend Hong Kong. At the last minute, the U.S. force of eight bombers and 22 fighters, after apparently being on the way past Canton to Hong Kong, swung sharply into Canton and caught the off-balance Jap defenders coming up below them. Result: 22-23 Nip planes destroyed in the air and more on the ground; no American planes lost. Gen. Chennault's bombers ranged over the South and East China seas in quest of Jap shipping. Staging at East China bases for their missions, until these bases were lost early in 1945, they utilized to the fullest - low-altitude-bombers with radar - for night and low-ceiling attacks. They became the scourge of ships following the coast, gradually forcing them farther out where they became prey to U.S. submarines.

One of the Fourteenth's most heartbreaking tasks was aid to China's armies. The Japanese always had enough - more than enough - land power to go where they would against the stubbornly contesting but ill-equipped Chinese. The Fourteenth could, and did, impede the advances and make them costly. It could do little more, but in the final analysis that was enough. Japan's unwillingness to pay the price always saved China.

The first direct air aid to troops was in the late spring of 1943 when the enemy launched a limited offensive south and southwest of the Yangtze River in the Tung-Ting lake area. Only a few planes were available. About all that could be placed on the credit side of the ledger was experience for the pilots and bolstered morale for the overpowered Chinese. Later in 1943, seven Jap divisions struck at Changteh, southeast of Tungting lake. This time they met stiffer ground resistance, heavier air attack from a stronger Fourteenth Air Force. The Japanese had sufficient power to move ahead but they were looking for a cheap victory and this was not the place. They withdrew . . .

The high tide of the Japanese advance in China came in 1944. Between May and the end of the year the invaders, driving west from Canton and southwest toward Indo-China, severed East China from West China with consequent isolation of East-China air bases, captured the air bases at Hengyang, Lingling, Kweilin, Luichow and Nanning, and established a continuous line of communication from French Indo-China to North China. In early 1945, the Japanese seized all of the north-south rail line from Hankow to Canton, then pushed eastward and took the Fourteenth's East China airfields at Suichwan and Kanchow. Loss of territory was nothing new to the Chinese; they had been giving ground since 1937. But evacuation and demolition of the laboriously constructed airfields and the necessary destruction of precious supplies was a bitter blow to them as well as to the Fourteenth.

TROOPS CROSSING Salween River by the Hwitung footbridge.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

Although Chennault's men were driven from one base to another, operations against rail lines and freight yards, supply depots, airfields, moving troops and river shipping were carried on remorselessly. Throughout this period, as earlier, the incredibly vast Chinese information net was invaluable.

When river craft assembled - and river shipping was an integral part of the transportation system - the Fourteenth was advised. Its total tally of 24,299 miscellaneous river craft claimed sunk or damaged was the result. So effective were its rail attacks that Japan could neither fully use the lines she had nor extend lines which would have exploited the Indo-China link. From the days of the AVG, qualitative superiority in the air was always on the side of China. The 2,353 Jap aircraft destroyed and the 780 probably destroyed in China were never replaced in sufficient numbers to overcome the more effective fighter pilots, bomber crews, tactics and planes of the United States.

So complete was aerial mastery that Japan dared not attack by day and its last - inland - night bombing was against Kunming in December 1944. By April 1945, all air attacks against American or Chinese installations had ended and the Japanese air force in China was an all but forgotten foe.

INDIAN-GURKHA troops landing on beach near Rangoon, Burma.
Photo courtesy Robert L. Cowan.

When Jap reverses in Southwest China and in North Burma finally led to reopening of the land route to China in the early spring of 1945, one of the tasks which had been set before our air power in Asia in 1942 had been accomplished. But the picture was no longer the same. ATC was flying into China a greater tonnage than the road could ever carry and the triumphant Pacific forces of the United States were pounding Japan from island and carrier bases. Japan, now, began to withdraw her forces from their points of deep penetration. As they moved back, they were pushed by the revitalized Chinese and hit by everything which could be thrown at them from the air. However, it was a planned withdrawal. Japan was through as an occupant of interior China. Her position in the war had deteriorated to a point where the occupation brought diminishing returns.

The Japanese warlords' proud plans for Asia had been crushed when air power and land power were linked to turn back the thrust toward India and reopen the Burma Road. Their hope of substituting a land route for the effectively shattered sea route to the riches of the south faded when the Fourteenth blasted their highways, railroads and river craft into uselessness. The value of China as a granary for them lessened as their cargo carriers, in ever-increasing numbers, splintered from bombs and bullets. They were opposed by armies strengthened by airborne equipment and supplies. And, finally, having lost the air, their own armies were wide open to the most-feared fate of any ground force - constant unchallenged attack by the opposing air force.

So, the Japanese withdrew, moving north under pressure of ground and air forces. And the Fourteenth in the final days of the war, shifted its attack to the targets far to the north which stood before the Soviet armies; targets on a road to Tokyo that never was needed.

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