American Air Logistics in the China-Burma-India Theater
By Roger G. Miller, PhD.
During World War II, 1942-1945
Air Force History and Museums Program
(Delivered to the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo Spring 2000)
Source: CBIVA Sound-off, Summer 2000 Issue
During World War II, the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater played a significant role in the evolution of air transport and in the development of global airlift capability. At the outbreak of the war, leaders of the U.S. Army Air Forces had a limited view of the potential of aviation to provide logistic support. Under the demands of war, however, air logistical capability expanded dramatically. Because of the lack of a coherent prewar doctrine, however, this expansion took different directions, fragmenting air transport between strategic and tactical missions and competing organizations. Experience in the CBI validated both roles, and in the new U.S. Air Force, air transport remained divided long after the war had ended.
It is clear, as historian Mark Parillo has pointed out, that for Japan the Pacific war was about Asia and control of the raw materials necessary for Japanese industrial progress. In 1931, Japanese military forces seized Manchuria. Open conflict with the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek broke out in 1937, and by 1939, the Japanese army had occupied China's main seaports and key cities. Only two routes - the Yunnan-Indochina Railway and the Burma Road - remained open to outside military assistance. In September 1940, Vichy France allowed the Japanese army to occupy Indochina, leaving China dependent upon the Burma route as the last supply link with the outside world.
The British had done little to develop Burma's internal communications, and the route from Rangoon to the terminus of the Burma Road was poorly administered and poorly maintained. The Burma Road itself posed significant hazards, and a chronic shortage of trucks limited its usefulness. Further, Japanese forces in Indochina posed a serious threat. British officials, in fact, closed the terminal at Lashio for three months in late 1940 in an effort to placate Japanese demands. In January 1942, the Japanese army attacked Burma with the goal of severing the last supply line between Kunming and the outside world. Rangoon fell on 6 March, and by May the Japanese army had driven Allied forces out of Burma. China could now be reached only by air over the Himalayan Mountains. This route became known as the "Hump."
The loss of Burma presented a tremendous logistical problem. India, like Burma, was a comparatively underdeveloped colony. Just getting supplies to Assam in eastern India was a major endeavor. At first, logistical lines ran by sea to Karachi, 12,000 miles from the United States. Karachi remained the major base until the Allies gained control of the Bay of Bengal, allowing a shift of base to Calcutta in early 1943. A broad-gauge railroad ran 235 miles from Calcutta to Parbipur, where supplies had to be unloaded and transferred by hand to a meter-gauge railroad that wound through the Brahmaputra Valley to the ferry at Pandu. The cars were then uncoupled, loaded on barges, ferried across the river, and reassembled on the other side. Apathetic administrators, untrained workers, and anti-British unrest complicated the physical obstacles. Before the war, the route's capacity was about 600 tons per day. By late 1943, this had risen to 2,800 tons. American army engineers went to work in 1944, increasing the capacity to 4,400 tons by October 1944 and 7,300 tons by 1 January 1946.
India was merely the beginning, however. Getting supplies from Assam to China was a major challenge. The Hump posed a terrible obstacle. It was 500 miles from the bases in Assam to the bases near Kunming. Aircraft had to climb quickly from about 90 feet above sea level to over 10,000 feet just to clear the first wall of mountains. Beyond these, they traversed a series of river valleys separated by ranges that extended from 14,000 to 16,000 feet that gave the Hump its name. The route then descended to Kunming, where the main airfield was 6,200 feet above sea level. The Hump could be a frightening place. At low altitudes high winds and violent turbulence were common. Aircraft flying at higher altitudes faced severe icing problems. May brought the monsoon season, five months of intense rain and mud. Japanese aircraft were active on the route, too, adding to the natural hazards. A short run by most standards, the Hump, according to the Air Force's official historians, was "an air transport route of surpassing danger and difficulty." It was absolutely critical. American aircraft flew over the Hump every gallon of gasoline, every weapon, every round of ammunition, every piece of equipment, and every pound of supplies required to keep China free for almost three years.
The most important thing to note about air logistics is that it was probably the least anticipated concepts prior to World War II. No one really anticipated doing much more with air logistics than to transport extremely delicate and high-value cargos like aircraft instruments, mail, blood plasma, and staff officers. One of the most significant developments in the history of U.S. military air power was the advent of global military air transport, which continued as one of the most important missions of today's U.S. Air Force. This development began modestly before World War II and followed several paths.
First, from the beginnings of U.S. Army aviation, air leaders sought to extend the effective range of the airplane, devoting much effort to making air squadrons and groups mobile. As a result, by the late 1930s, Army Air Corps squadrons demonstrated the ability to deploy quickly using a combination of trucks, their own combat aircraft, and transport airplanes, and to operate under field conditions far from their home bases supplied by aircraft.
This process began with the first airplane. It is not generally known, for example, that the original contract with the Wright Brothers, signed on February 10, 1908, contained a requirement for aircraft "assembly in about one hour and quick demountability for transport in Army wagons." This capability, demonstrated at the acceptance trials at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908, enabled the aircraft, in theory, to accompany ground forces into the field during a campaign. The real search for mobility, however, began with the effort to make the basic combat unit mobile by adapting the motor truck to military use. In 1914, when Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois took command of the Army's first operational air unit, the 1st Aero Squadron, he equipped it with eight standard Curtiss aircraft and a support train of 11 four-wheel-drive motor trucks, creating a self-contained, mobile aviation unit. Subsequently, the 1st Aero Squadron displayed impressive mobility by operating over 200 miles into Mexico as part of John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition in early 1916.
During the early 1920s, inspired by progress in commercial aviation, Air Service leaders began to recognize the possibilities inherent in air transport and turned its attention to increasing unit mobility with an emphasis on the use of aircraft. Of special significance were the maneuvers held in 1928 by the 2nd Bombardment Group from Langley Field, Virginia. The 2nd's commander, Major Hugh Knerr, established a temporary flying field at Virginia Beach and used the group's bombers to support the detachment, demonstrating, Knerr reported, the effectiveness of aircraft in sustaining tactical mobility.
Field exercises in California in 1930 reinforced the lessons Major Kneer had drawn. Directed by Major Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, four transports and one bomber carried over 30 loads of equipment and supplies from Rockwell Field to Mather Field during the two weeks of the exercise. Subsequently, clamor within the Air Corps and in Congress for an independent air force, and the public outcry over the air mail fiasco in 1934 led to a series of examinations of Army aviation.
In July 1934, the most important of these, the Baker Board, endorsed the U.S. Army's recommendation for the creation of a General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, separate from the Air Corps that would function as the mobile air strike arm of the U.S. Army. Established on March 1, 1935, GHQ Air Force, commanded by Major Gen. Frank Andrews, included mobile combat units consisting of the minimum "personnel and equipment essential for their self-sustained operation in the field for short periods of time" and "mobile service squadrons capable of servicing and maintaining the combat units" both at their home stations and at temporary posts in the field. GHQ Air Force's goal of "high mobility" made air transport an absolute necessity, and all maneuvers and field exercises were tests of air logistics.
Second, while the search for mobility underlay the concept of air transport, air transport itself was a result of experinjients with the distribution of supplies, parts, and spares that led during the 1930s to the formation of a centrally managed, depot-based, air-cargo delivery organization. Established on January 11, 1932, the provisional 1st Transport Group comprised squadrons at each of the regional materiel depots, the 1st squadron at Fairfield, 2nd at Middletown, 3rd at San Antonio, and 4th at Rockwell Field. This system paid off in improved maintenance and higher in-commission rates and proved cost effective. In 1937, the Air Corps organized the provisional system as the 10th Transport Group and in January 1941 created the 50th Transport Wing under the Air Corps Maintenance Command, which subsequently became Air Service Command. The 50th Transport Wing continued to deliver high priority cargo between air depots and air fields in the United States, but it also furnished aircraft to help train parachute troops for the U.S. Army's new airborne forces. On April 30, 1942, the Army Air Forces transferred the SOth's tactical activities in support of the airborne forces to another organization later called Troop Carrier Command (TCC).
In the meantime, in May 1941, the Army Air Forces established Ferrying Command to deliver lend-lease aircraft from factories - especially those in California - to transfer points in the eastern United States where they were delivered to British authorities.
After Pearl Harbor, Ferrying Command extended its operations beyond the continental United States and began to deliver supplies and personnel in addition to aircraft and to pioneer air routes around the world. In June 1942, the Army Air Forces united the worldwide air transport missions performed by Air Service Command (including 50th Transport Wing) and those of Ferrying Command under a new organization, Air Transport Command (ATC).
The result then was two basic transport organizations, and this was hallowed by prewar planning. In mid-1941, the newly formed Air War Plans Division of the Army Air Forces produced AWPD-1, setting forth the Air Forces concept of precision, daylight, strategic bombardment. AWPD-1 proposed the use of air transport in two roles. First, the plan called for 1,500 twin-engine transport aircraft for use as troop carriers in direct support of combat operations. Second, AWPD-1 envisioned that 160 four-engine and 880 twin-engine transports would deliver essential aircraft and engine parts, equipment, and supplies worldwide.
AWPD-1 fell well short of what would be required. Where the planners called for 2,380 twin-engine aircraft, the Army Air Forces would ultimately have over 12,000 and AWPD-l's proposal for 160 four-engine transports fell grossly short of the more 1,000 ultimately acquired. The planners simply failed to anticipate the dimension and shape air transport would take. And this was not surprising. There were no precedents - no model for planners to follow -except the limited experiences of the prewar U.S. Army. Based upon prewar experience, the Air War Plans Division staff thus anticipated serving the U.S. Army Air Forces itself. What actually took place was a phenomenon. Air logistics became a universal requirement. Air Transport Command "quickly developed into an agency of the War Department serving the whole war effort," historians Wesley Craven and James Cate later wrote.
"Its planes carried out from the United States almost everything -from bulldozers to blood plasma, from college professors to Hollywood entertainers, from high-explosive ammunition to the most delicate signal equipment, from eminent scientists to the most obscure technicians, from heads of state to the ordinary G.I. - and they brought back hog bristles and tungsten from China, cobalt and tin from Africa, rubber and quinine from Latin America, and from all over the globe the wounded G.I. who could not expect to find a New Guinea, Luzon, Burma, North Africa, or even western Europe the medical attention he could have in the United States. And when the war ended in Europe, ATC had the capacity to bring home as many as 50,000 veterans per month."