March 1982 Issue
By Lewis C. Burwell, Jr.
American Answers FDR's Call
When President Roosevelt called for help during WW2, American Airlines answered. This is the story of AA personnel's cooperation in improving the Hump airlift in 1143. It is reprinted from Flight Deck, a publication for employees of the airline.
At the GSW Flight Academy, located along the long corridor that runs from the Classroom Building to the Health Maintenance area, is a short stretch of abbreviated AA history. On the west wall, adjacent to the Student Service Center lobby, you'll see such things as the President's Trophy, the Flight Academy dedication plaque, the Wright Brother's Memorial Trophy, the Air Mail Flyer's Medal of Honor display and the Distinguished Service Award plaques. On the east wall hangs one single plaque, approximately 9" x 18", upon which is inscribed the names of six men. Preceding these names is this brief note: "This plaque has been dedicated by the members of Project 7-A to those men who paid the supreme sacrifice in service to their country." If that seems an unusual statement to be made concerning employees of a civil airline it's because circumstances surrounding Project 7-A were, themselves, highly unusual. That relatively small plaque, with its reference to a project that occupied only a four-month period in America Airlines' history, nevertheless represents an intense dedication of energy and skills under very difficult circumstances. It further represents a significant contribution to the success of the allied effort in the China-Burma-India Theatre during WW2.
For the benefit of our new crewmembers, let it be noted that during WW2 American Airlines turned over nearly half its fleet, along with appropriate support personnel, to the Air Transport Command. ATC was, in effect, a worldwide military airline, and was operated primarily by specially assigned airline personnel mobilized for the purpose of supporting the total war effort.
We'll leave the precise details leading up to Project 7-A to the historians. For our purposes it should be sufficient to note that the year was 1943, and it was a time when Japanese forces had cut off the Burma Road supply line, drastically affecting Chinese military operations in the area east of Burma. While the U.S. had promised to bring in essential material by military airlift, this operation was being handled by inexperienced people and was not going well. General Claire Chennault's 14th Air Force, which had been providing invaluable tactical support to Chinese and American forces, was spending too much time on the ground for lack of fuel and munitions. Madame Chiang Kai-shek came to this country to address the Senate, making it clear that unless the airlift could be improved, China would fall to the enemy.
Not about to let this happen, President Roosevelt called in his advisors to seek a way to assure the needed improvements. When it was suggested that the expertise of the airlines be brought in to solve the problem, the reaction was quick, was affirmative, and was followed by only one qualifying thought. FDR, so the story goes, asked for the call to go specifically to American Airlines. That call went out almost immediately.
On July 18, 1943, American Airlines was informed that the President of the United States, together with General H. H. Arnold of the Army Air Force, was ordering the diversion of 10 four-engined C-87 transports (converted B-24s) and approximately 150 men from our Air Transport Command South Atlantic operation, and that these aircraft and personnel were to proceed with all haste to an undisclosed base in northeast India. For this special assignment, this contingent was to obtain sufficient equipment, supplies and spare parts to support a 90-day operation. The necessity for secrecy allowed only limited initial information as a basis for planning. The operation was to be known only as Project 7-A. Arrival time in India was to be as close to yesterday as possible.
On July 19, plans went into high gear. Coincidentally a group of AA people had just concluded a series of meetings in New York for the purpose of increasing the ATC operations in Brazil. Pressed into duty on Project 7-A, these men went immediately into the process of acquiring essential supplies in Miami and then went on to Natal, Brazil, to select personnel. It was in Natal that they opened sealed orders and got down to the business of making final decisions.
By this stage of the war our people in the Air Transport Command had gathered considerable experience on the military way of doing business - experience which was about to pay dividends. When told that spare engines were no problem because India was "full of them," the 7-A leaders instantly had all new engines hung on the assigned aircraft. Though they were scheduled to operate for only 90 days, from a base with "existing facilities," they planned beyond that, amassing equipment and supplies drawn from all directions. On the basis of much needed foresight, they begged, borrowed and otherwise obtained nearly every spare C-87 part from Brazil and arranged to gather more enroute to their assigned destination.
The Project 7-A orders disclosed that the mission ahead would involve flying supplies from India into China across the Himalayas, that formidable barrier affectionately called the "Hump." Flying over this obstacle would have to be done at 20,000 to 25,000 feet which is why the C-87 was selected. Its 14 cylinder P&W 1830 engines were equipped with turbosuperchargers which could significantly boost their 1200 horsepower for high altitude work and heavy gross weight take-offs.
To be a self-sufficent operation, Project 7-A's manning requirements had to include pilots, flight engineers, navigators, flight radio officers, ground mechanics and station personnel. The process of selecting those who would go needed to consider both experience and youth. In selecting Captains, for example, the process began at the bottom of the seniority list because it was felt that the younger men would be better able to endure the anticipated hardships. Additionally, a large group of more senior Captains volunteered their services, thereby providing invaluable experience and a recognized element of stability. With regard to choosing maintenance personnel, most of our people had only minimal experience on C-87s, and no formal training. But they were pro's led by pro's and, as time was to tell, they and all other members of Project 7-A would perform expertly and exceptionally under very adverse conditions. All knew they were being confronted with a challenge that had to be met. All went with the sole purpose of meeting it.
On the afternoon of July 24, just six days after receiving the initial order, the final pieces fell into place and the 7-A group was ready to launch. By nightfall the first aircraft departed Natal, its ultimate destination an obscure point in the Assam Valley of northeast India called Tezpur. Its scheduled arrival date was August 1, 1943. In command was Captain E. S. "Toby" Hunt.
As scheduled, the first aircraft arrived on August 1, only to find that their "facilities" were as yet unprepared. An Army unit based at Tezpur was to have done the job. Having not expected the new residents to arrive so soon, nothing was yet accomplished. So Project 7-A's first contingent, tired from flying half way around the world, hungry, afflicted with dysentery and suddenly soaked by the enveloping monsoons, found themselves without usable living quarters, mess capabilities, and any form of sanitary facilities. An inauspicious beginning.
Along with the Army personnel they went right to work. The first order of business was the unceremonious eviction of the present occupants of their prospective quarters - numerous goats, cows and associated "litter." While the necessities were quickly established it would be some time before any semblance of amenities would exist. Yet in spite of these initial developments, the next day, August 2, saw the operation of 7-A's first "Hump" crossing - Captain Toby Hunt at the controls. Thereafter, each day saw the arrival of additional aircraft, personnel and equipment, all pressed into immediate service. The essential tonnage moving into China increased rapidly. The primary cargo: gasoline and bombs.
These C-87s were, in effect, flying bombs - operating in conditions that at best were described as terrible. The monsoons kept the countryside around the airport in a state that looked "like the Mississsippi Delta in flood."
Over the "Hump" weather conditions were the worst in the world. On "normal" days there was severe turbulence and severe icing, spiced generously by severe updrafts and downdrafts. There was nothing like the Trans-Atlantic operation our crews had come from.
The "Hump" routes flown were across a secondary chain of the Himalayas' In clear weather it was possible to fly a short southerly route at 11,000 to 12,000 feet. More often, due either to weather or Japanese aircraft, it was necessary to fly a longer northerly route operating at 20,000 to 25,000 foot altitudes - on instruments. The wreckage of numerous Air Force C-47s on the peaks below were often visible reminders that the territory could be very unforgiving.
For the ground operations, weather was hardly any better. Maintenance was carried out with little protection from the elements, crude workstands, and little or no lighting for night work. Rain was everpresent, temperatures always well over a hundred. Mildew everywhere. Food spoiled before one's eye. Men slept naked under mosquito netting, waking up as tired as when they went to bed. But the work went on.
When morale suffered there were always those who could lift it up. There were visits by Brig. Gen. C. R. Smith, and on a few occasions visits by old friend "Red" Clark, then an Army Colonel at a nearby base. And there was excellent organization among the men to keep the social processes going. Exercise programs benefited the body. Competitive sports with Army personnel produced comradery, shared beer rations, and vastly benefited spirits. And though food was a major problem, trips returning from China eventually began bringing back fresh vegetables and eggs, bringing incalcuable benefits to the total being. Excellent leadership and sound discipline prevailed.
While no day was routine, there were some typical patterns. J. D. "Ted" Lewis, a major figure in the operation documented this "typical day:"
"Call assigned crews at 5 a.m., get them in a truck, haul them through the mud to breakfast, then to the airport. Mechanics are getting the engines warmed up ...
"It's raining! It's dark! It's hot! The clouds are 500 feet or lower, the visibility not too good ...
"Someone in a jeep drives up and down the runway. They chase the cattle off the runway proper and make sure that water in the low spots on the steel mat is not over 9" deep.
"Meantime, the pilot gets his clearance which consists of permission to fly to China. No up-to-date weather information. No forecast.
"A manifest is provided to show that the plane has no passengers. The load consists of 1,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in drums, six 500-lb. bombs and several cases of bomb-detonating fuses. The manifest also shows that there is sufficient gasoline in the tanks to go to China and back without refueling and that the take-off will be made at maximum allowable gross weight - 65,000 lbs.
"The crews are soaking wet. They get aboard, taxi out, run up their engines and then take off down the runway, which is lighted with gasoline burning smudge pots. Within a couple of minutes, they are on instruments and climbing to get on top or up to 20,000 feet to make a crossing on instruments. Soon it gets cold - wet clothes don't help - Arctic flying suits are put on - oxygen masks are worn. An occasional glimpse through the clouds shows the "Hump" not too far below.
"At the China terminal, an instrument descent is normal. A drop down from say 18,000 feet to the airport level of over 6,000 feet, bearing in mind that the descent is in a valley so fly it on straight courses and with careful timing. At Kunming, a truck loaded with coolies gets the plane unloaded. The pilot and crew get coffee and another clearance to return to India - one hour on the ground!
"The manifest shows passengers now. An army truck drives up to the plane. In it are 40 small, thinly clad conscript Chinese who carry a couple cups of rice and chopsticks as baggage. They are herded aboard - no seats - no warm clothes - no oxygen in the cabin. On the trip back, they sit huddled on the cold metal floor and seem to pass out because of altitude. They look dead. Upon arrival in India, they are awake again, half frozen, only saying a word or two. They realize they are back on earth. Their talk speeds up to a rattling chatter as they are again herded into a truck which will take them to a training camp where they will learn to fight the Jap."
From three to six such trips were made each day while maintenance was performed on the remaining aircraft. The only factors limiting the availability of aircraft were lack of engine replacements, spare parts and the fact that too little maintenance equipment and personnel precluded round the clock activities.
Every able hand gave unstintingly of themselves and many among them dedicated much spare time to the training of Army personnel who would sustain the airlift operation once Project 7-A was terminated. A number of Captains undertook a program of training for Army pilots in which they instructed on C-87 transistion, route familiarization and other work that was of great benefit to the Army in extending their operations on the India-China route. All this work was done because each officer felt that if they could impart even a small part of their own experience to the younger Army pilots, many lives could be saved as well as many valuable airplanes and cargoes. All time devoted to this was over and above the time required to carry out the normal duties of Project 7-A, which meant that many of the Captains sacrificed rest periods in order to help out.
As indicated by the Flight Academy plaque, Project 7-A was twice struck by tragedy, the first occurring in the rainy pre-dawn hours of August 23. That morning three planes taxied out for take-off. Number 1 took off and flew away. Number 2 took off and Number 3 was just ready to leave when a burst of flame was seen through the rain. It was straight down the runway and looked like gasoline burning. A jeep rushed to the end of the runway and on through mud to a half mile beyond. Number 2 plane lay scattered through the cane-brakes all afire. An engine had failed on take-off.
Dead were: Harry T. Charleton, Captain; Robert H. Dietze, First Officer; Joseph Smith, Flight Engineer; John E. Keating, Navigator; Robert E. Da vis, Radio Operator.
Tragedy's second blow was struck on November 18, days before the 90-day operation (which had then been extended for a month) was to have wound down. Aircraft 111675 under the command of Captain Toby Hunt departed at 0830 local time, bound for Kunming, China, with a heavy load of small arms amuntion. Captain Hunt's return trip was to be his 66th, a Project 7-A record. As it turned out, no landing was possible in Kunming due to weather. Two attempts were made without breaking out at minimum altitude. The decision to return to India was thwarted by one engine failing, a second unable to develop full power, and a cargo that the crew was unable to jettison. All but the Captain bailed out. He rode on in an effort to save the aircraft, losing his life in the process. He made his 66th "Hump" crossing in a magnificent hand-hewn, pagoda-like coffin, and was buried in India beside his five AA compatriots and members of General Chen-nault's "Flying Tigers" group.
There were other close calls. Weather played a part. Increased Japanese action at the end of the monsoons played a part. One aircraft was destroyed on the ground due to suspected sabotage. There were numerous displays of extreme courage and skills, but no further loss of life.
The operation began winding down in late November, its mission well accomplished. Air Force crews were ably prepared to continue the work and would, in fact, go on to perform remarkably. A major Allied offensive begun in 1944, (one which would eventually return Burma to British forces) would be supplied entirely by RAF and U.S. Air Force transports. Chennault's 14th Air Force, supplied entirely by air, would go on to compile a brilliant record. Not only had our people participated in the launching of an operation, they had been instrumental in proving a military technique.
After the final Project 7-A "Hump" crossing was logged on November 28, the records credited American Airlines personnel with having flown 1,075 trips and carrying over 5,000,000 Ibs. of cargo under tremendously adverse conditions. In reverence, we've mentioned the names of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the effort. As appropriate as it would be to mention all other participants, space will not permit it. Let it be noted, however, that all contributed to a very proud moment in American Airlines history. Their brief narrative scarcely begins to tell their complete story.
But let this final point be made: WWII, it is said, revealed the real potential of the transport plane. It might therefore be concluded that Project 7-A also served to establish an important standard for an industry.